July 05, 2020
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'Nehru's Evil Genius'

That's how the British saw Krishna Menon. The release of MI5's top secret files reveal how powerfully India's high commissioner agitated the West.

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'Nehru's Evil Genius'
'Nehru's Evil Genius'
A "wary creature", one British secret agent noted of V.K. Krishna Menon—and he was furtive too, surrounding himself in an air of sinister mystery. He darted off on undisclosed missions to Moscow or Peking, talked far into the nights with his prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, cut defence deals and contracts that provoked parliamentary debates, careened through turbulent love affairs. One of the most important figures of the Nehru era, he was also one of the most detested abroad: Time magazine described him as a "crotchety, Mephistophelean" figure, and when it put him on the cover in 1962, inserted a drawing of a snake charmer into the background. Since his death in 1974, the mysteries have only thickened. Reliable archival material on Menon remains patchy, because his own papers, a major source for 20th century Indian history, are for the most part inaccessible to scholars.

The nonsensical obstructions to historical research that Indian governments prefer to maintain lend real importance to the new release of Top Secret files that the British Security Services, MI5, kept on Krishna Menon. These documents do more than provide insight into his personal and political activities; they show how powerfully he agitated the Western powers. Krishna Menon was one of several nationalists with suspected Communist connections—others included the Africans Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, whom the British Security Services placed under close surveillance—and the Menon files so far released cover a crucial period that stretches from the early 1930s to the mid-1950s. Krishna Menon’s letters were intercepted, his phone was subject to checks, and information was gleaned from a variety of intelligence sources—including some located in the Indian high commission. The details gathered in these files lay to rest some suspicions that have hovered around Krishna Menon for decades, while they confirm his psychological flaws, controversial financial dealings, and leftist associations.

MI5 kept Krishna Menon under surveillance primarily because they feared his Communist links, both before and after Independence. The files show that in the decade before 1947 he was a frequent visitor to the offices of the Communist Party in London’s King Street and he was often on the phone to Communist leaders like Harry Pollitt and Ted Bramley. However, MI5 was satisfied that Menon was never a Party member. But his nationalist political activities sufficiently unsettled the security services that they tried, unsuccessfully, to get Krishna Menon called up for National Service—as a way of stopping his nationalist political activities. After the war, and even after Independence, Menon remained an object of close scrutiny, and MI5 widened its surveillance to Menon’s commercial dealings, and the contracts he placed for Indian military supplies.

Krishna Menon cast a spell over those who got close to him. He had a succession of disastrous love affairs, usually with women who worked with him. To one such lover, Marie Seton, he was "strikingly unlike any Indian" she had seen: "thinner by far and extraordinarily angular. It was hard to decide if he was a very handsome man in a hacked out sculptural manner, or if he was distinctly devilish to look at.... When focused, his almond-shaped eyes resembled those of a hawk." In the view of Western officials, he was distinctly frightening. The US State Department long regarded Menon "not only as an unpleasant mischief-maker, but also, because he is such a smooth operator, dangerously persuasive", and from the early 1950s, the Americans wanted actively to force him out of office—"they are scared of Indian intentions and even more afraid of Menon in particular," the British observed.

Soon after Indian independence, MI5 discovered what it considered a particular security risk in London: the "continued employment of several Communists, fellow-travellers and sympathisers" by Menon in the Indian high commission. MI5 believed some workers were copying and passing on documents to the Communist Party—discovering the names through room taps of the Party offices. A young officer, P.N. Haksar, was one of those the security service considered worrisome, and was discussed with Sanjeevi, the director of Intelligence Bureau when he visited London in 1948 and 1949. Eventually, a list of 22 staff members at India House who had Communist links would be passed on to Nehru through the Indian Intelligence Bureau.

Although the Indian government issued instructions that Communists should not be employed in the high commissioner’s office, by 1951, MI5 concluded that "no serious action appears to have been taken so far". Weighing up the complexities of the situation, the British Security Service noted: "Menon is an intriguer. His own wants are few, but he entertains liberally; he is pro-Russian, but not a Communist; he is no lover of the British, but he did all he could to keep India in the Commonwealth; he is unpopular with members of the Indian Cabinet and with Indians whom he represents in the United Kingdom; but he retains the confidence of his Prime Minister. Taking everything into account," the report concluded, "Menon and the office of the Indian HC represent a security risk." The decision was taken to continue to withhold virtually all ‘Top Secret’ category materials from him and his office.

Meanwhile, the British were sending hints to Nehru that Menon had to be removed from the high commission. In 1951, the head of MI5, Sir Percy Sillitoe, briefed the British PM, Clement Attlee, "who was very interested" by what he heard "especially in regard to the Communists and fellow travellers on Menon’s staff", and later that year Attlee told one of Nehru’s ministers, Amrit Kaur, that he often found Menon too ill and incoherent to meet or talk with.

By the beginning of 1951, Nehru had his own anxieties, as Krishna Menon had plunged into emotional and psychological turmoil. Nehru described an encounter with Krishna Menon in Paris: he "staggered into the room, obviously very far from well...his appearance and general behaviour was so odd that he attracted the attention of others.... Malik, our ambassador here, asked Nan if Krishna was drunk. Nan was herself alarmed and came to me to say that Krishna was very ill and something should be done about him. He had the appearance of a person on the verge of going off his head...".

Some months later, seeing that Menon’s erratic behaviour was affecting relations with London, Nehru despatched his personal secretary, M.O. Mathai, to investigate. In a long report, Mathai chronicled the lurid details: Menon’s threat of suicide if dismissed or forced to resign, his downing of large doses of Luminal, a barbiturate, and his offensive manners and administrative incompetence. Still, Nehru kept Menon on.

Their relationship was intricate. Sir Isaiah Berlin surmised that Menon served Nehru as a kind of "alibi against ever doing a Ramsay MacDonald: it is his only reliable gadfly who can, by making himself personally obnoxious, stir up enough jealousy, hatred, anti-European and anti-right-wing passion to keep the party on the move and prevent it from ossifying in a right-wing direction...." Yet the relationship was an intense mixture of political and personal compulsions—and Berlin noticed too the sense in which Menon served Nehru as a kind of alter-ego. Nehru’s relation to Krishna Menon, Berlin believed, was like "T.S. Eliot’s to Ezra Pound, the same beliefs at much lower tension, milder, more compatible with respectable life, but deriving from the same constellation of values; gently, firmly, tolerant, decently anti-Western".

MI5 was also interested in dealings by Menon that had no direct bearing on security, but were "relevant to an assessment of character". After identifying his Communist Party associates, MI5 began extensive surveillance of Menon’s commercial transactions, especially the defence contracts he was placing. The MI5 records give a picture of how money from those contracts wound up in accounts that he controlled.

Menon was dealing with a firm known as S.C.K. Agencies—in which, as N.R. Pillai reported to Nehru, he "has shown unusual personal interest". Pillai concluded that India had over-paid (by a maximum of some £140,000) for certain ammunitions contracts, and the defence ministry "has been content to eat out of the high commissioner’s hand and has not exercised due vigilance".

Menon’s chief associate in striking these deals was a murky character called Bob Cleminson, son of a humble Methodist preacher. According to Security Services notes on him, he and Krishna Menon had become friends during the war: Cleminson helped Menon out financially for "bare necessities". After the war, the MI5 reports say, Cleminson mixed with "crooks or near crooks", had many friendships with Indians, and after 1949, decided to put these Indian links to "profitable purpose". Cleminson saw Menon "at least once daily", and his London apartment was a refuge for the high commissioner—Cleminson told Mathai that Menon would occasionally take there his current infatuation, who worked at the high commission. (On one occasion, she was supposed to have shed her clothes and danced naked, Mathai informed Nehru.) Cleminson also claimed that Menon showed him all the letters he received from Nehru.

It is clear that the money gathered from these contracts was not used for his personal benefit. It was dispersed instead for India League activities, to decorate the India Club offices, for his bookshop and his publishing venture, Meridian Books, which published several of Nehru’s books, including in 1951, The Discovery of India. Interestingly, it appears from transcripts of telephone conversations that small amounts of this money (on one occasion £470) was used—unbeknownst to Nehru—to subsidise a portion of the royalties paid by Meridian Books to Nehru. Menon, it appears, wanted Nehru to believe he was selling more copies than he actually was.

Finally, in 1952, Nehru replaced Menon with a new high commissioner—upon which the British began to worry that Nehru would induct Menon into his cabinet. From Delhi, the British high commissioner, Sir Alec Clutterbuck, wrote to London in 1954 with trepidation at the prospect that Menon might be given a senior portfolio: he rated Menon "Nehru’s evil genius...impairing the whole conduct of India’s foreign relations". But before long, the British came round to Krishna Menon. Despite his personal oddities and left-wing sympathies, Krishna Menon was still more favourable to the British than he was to the Americans. Ultimately, it was not British but rather American manoeuvring, orchestrated by J.K. Galbraith during the crisis days of the China war in 1962, that ended Krishna Menon’s career.

Generally speaking, these files reveal an interesting three-way relationship between the British, the Indians and the Americans. We see here a 1946 request from the US State Department in Washington to MI5 for information on Krishna Menon—of whom they seemed to know nothing. Such American requests were part of a larger pattern: during the Cold War, the British security services, with their extensive networks of imperial intelligence gathering, came effectively to serve as sub-contractors to the Americans in the field of intelligence in Asia and Africa—the Americans exercising this payback from the British in return for giving them nuclear assistance.

While the material in the Menon file will be a boon to historians, it also makes his role more complicated to explain. The question that continually exercised the British, as well as Americans, is one that still remains ours: how and why was he able to maintain his proximity and influence with Nehru? And the contents of the Menon file also press, above all, the question of how a man so flawed could have achieved as much as he did in India’s cause.

(Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India.)

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