Event ReportsPublished on Mar 09, 2020
Book discussion report | VP Menon: The unsung architect of Modern India

A book discussion on the book ‘V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India,’ authored by Ms Narayani Basu was held at the Observer Research Foundation, on 26th of February. The discussants were Dr Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Author Ms Narayani Basu and Dr Pallavi Raghvan, Assistant Professor, Ashoka University.

The book is a biography of V.P. Menon, who became the secretary of the Ministry of States in independent India and who was extremely dear to the ‘iron man’ of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, along with whom he envisioned the geographical and political integration of  India as we see it today. The book tries to “bring a bureaucrat out from behind the scenes of power” says the author - Narayani Basu who is also the great-granddaughter of V.P. Menon. The book speaks of a classic ‘rags to riches’ journey of this man whose life was never defined by convention. It is also an important  archive of the political changes in the pre- and post-independence era.

The moderator Dr. Manoj Joshi introduced the speakers along with throwing light on the life of V.P. Menon and his role in integration of India along with Sardar Patel. He said there was a general  lack of awareness about the time between when Motilal Nehru was active in politics in 1920s till 1947. This boo, he said, shed light on the politics of this era which led to the  birth of the  Republic India.

Moral dilemma of bureaucrats

Acccording to the author, Menon experienced a  moral dilemma as a clerk under the British Administration in the backdrop of the independence movements. She said that  Menon wasn’t the only bureaucrat under the British government facing this moral dilemma. H.V. Iyengar, working in the Indian Civil Services (ICS) under the British Empire, wrote that the he and other bureaucrats sought  advice from Sardar Patel, to which he replied that they were doing the ‘right thing’ serving the Britishers as after the independence India would need well experienced and trained bureaucrats in administration and governance.

The Partition Phase

In response to a question by Dr Raghavan, the author  Ms  Basu described Jinnah of the 1920s as a different man from what he became in the late 1940’s.    Jinnah was very approachable and liked to take young men under his wing and chat with them citing Menon’s  recollection of his first interaction when Jinnah asked Menon out for lunch. Another interaction happens in 1930’s when both meet in Cairo and discuss politics. Thereafter they wouldn’t meet until 1946 when Jinnah, as Menon noted, had become  a very changed man, who was hellbent on partition and Pakistan. According to Basu, Menon always thought of partition of India as just a theory which could never become a reality, until Jinnah proved it otherwise. Menon kept on pushing for Shimla Conference thinking that Jinnah was just hurt and would come to terms and the partition won’t happen, but we know how it turned out.

The Idea of Integration

In the discussion, Dr Raghavan posed the issue of  integration and the way it was conceptualized. She found a similarity between the British ideas on the integration of  India and what Menon thought.  The author disagreed saying that Menon had already realized that Pakistan was inevitable and that the small and large Princely states were strategically important and vital for the ‘map’ that he himself had presented to Lord Mountbatten which had been driven by thought of presenting a ‘United India’ to the world. This came from a  nationalistic perspective that Menon had developed by that time.

Political Vs Personal Life

Ms Basu said that in her book  she has not sought to glorify the man but  present him along with his imperfections: For example Menon was a dispassionate husband who couldn’t achieve much when it came to being a family man. This started a brief yet an important discussion which concluded that political and national responsibilities often outweigh the social or personal responsibilities and it’s not an easy job to handle the two together.

V.P. Menon’s relationship with Sardar Patel, his role in the integration of India, his dealings with Pt. Nehru and the scale of his contribution in shaping what India is today has been brought out very well in the book. The book, said, Dr Joshi, was no hagiography, but brought out the man warts and all. Most of the book, insisted the author was  a simple reporting and recollection of the facts. The book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the emergence of modern India.

The author Abhiuday Verma is a Research Intern, ORF Delhi
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