Date:05/06/2007 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/br/2007/06/05/stories/2007060501441500.htm
Back Book Review



Champion of freedom

SURANJAN DAS

Krishna Menon's role during a crucial period of the freedom struggle


CRUSADER EXTRAORDINARY — Krishna Menon and the India League 1932-1936: Suhash Chakravarty, India Research Press, B-4/22, Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi-110029.

The author has in earlier publications unfolded how Krishna Menon through the India League promoted the cause of India's Independence in the heartland of the colonial metropolis itself. In this book, Suhas Chakravarty effectively reconstructs this political role of the "crusader extraordinary" in a specific period when India stood at a political crossroads — maturing of mainstream nationalism juxtaposed by increasing colonial repression and instigation of communal discord by a beleaguered Raj. He succinctly identifies the strands in Menon's ideological world: an "unambiguous" anti-imperialism, a belief in Gandhian nationalism's "efficacy", an unmistakable faith in socialism, and yet an unmitigated appreciation of British liberal tradition. Menon, accordingly, addressed the British liberal conscience to advocate India's freedom from the Raj. In fact, while Gandhiji emerged as India's "incarnate spirit", a pro-Indian political voice simultaneously developed within Britain. The latter process is yet to be adequately documented. This work contributes to the rectification of the imbalance.

Dichotomy

The volume opens with the 1932 visit of the India League's delegation to India consisting of Krishna Menon, Monica Whatley and Leonard Matters to study the authoritarian regime, initiated there at the instance of Benn, Hoare and Willingdon. By 1930, as the author shows, Krishna Menon had exposed, through his fiery oratory skill in the League's public meetings, the dichotomy "between British profession of liberalism at home and imperialism in India." With Menon as its Secretary, the India League won immense popularity with "democratic" British public opinion that included Fabian socialists, progressives within the Labour party and the Communists. Thanks to Menon's organisational expertise, the League became "an uncomfortable organisation" for the London establishment, which subjected it to strict intelligence surveillance. Chakravarty shows how Menon succeeded in tiding over the League's constant financial stress, especially by securing donations from leading Indians like Malaviya and Birla.

Report

The India League delegation's Report entitled Condition in India (1934) unravelled "the mystiques of the Raj and its grandiloquent assertion." It uncovered the degraded conditions of the Indians under an "ordnance Raj" administered by civil servants, "entirely out of touch with the sentiments and feelings of the people." Contesting the imperial logic of a permanent communal divide in Indian society, it noted how Hindu and Muslim communities were coming "to terms". Explaining the Report, Menon deplored that while "atrocities" in other parts of the world provoked condemnation from British press, similar "condition in India for which England had a direct responsibility, did not appear to attract even marginal attention." Supporting the Report, Bertrand Russell drew parallels between "the misdeeds" in British India and "Nazi operations in Germany". Not unnaturally, the Report received scant attention from the established British press and its circulation was also contained.

Socialist orientation

Menon gave a calculated support to the proposal of Dominion status for India, but steadfastly supported the idea of a Constituent Assembly for India. He also stressed the contextualisation of Indian freedom movement in the broader world perspective of anti-imperialism and the establishment of a better world order. He celebrated the growing link between mainstream Indian nationalism and the country's strengthening labour and peasant protest politics. The present volume draws attention to a relatively unknown fact — how Menon turned critical of Edward Thompson, whom he dubbed as "enthusiastic spokesman of the young Conservative wing."

By 1934 Menon was firmly committed to the Congress Socialists and became close to Jawaharlal Nehru. The new socialist orientation of Menon-led India League was reflected in its pamphlet "India Speaks", which had an animating foreword by Harold Laski. Many of Menon's Marxist colleagues in Britain like Bradley, Pratt and Dutt, however, found the Congress Socialist programme "a false label for misleading and doping the masses." But Menon had convinced himself that the Congress was not to be viewed as a party but as a secular anti-imperialist movement. He was also confident that under Nehru there would be an "India ... where all the benefits of science and technology would be harnessed for the common weal."

Krishna Menon was an enigmatic personality and a legend in his lifetime. While recapturing his contribution in fighting British imperialism in its home ground, Menon's attainments as a parliamentarian, diplomat and a cabinet minister in independent India also require an assessment with a proper historical hindsight. Suhas Chakravarty will hopefully take up this challenge. This has become particularly necessary in view of the recently released and widely publicised MI5 documents which portray Menon as a "well-known Indian extremist ... Nehru's evil genius ... dishonest, opportunist, immoral and an intriguer" (Times of India March 3, 2007). Menon's communist sympathies and consistent anti-U.S. stand in international affairs have tended to make the pro-establishment western scholars and the conservatives in India present a prejudiced assessment of him. The time has come to challenge such portrayals.

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