The forgotten bureaucrat who shaped modern India

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The forgotten bureaucrat who shaped modern India

Thursday, 16 November 2017 | BISWARAJ PATNAIK

Very few top administrative officers have left behind such footprints as can never be wiped out. But most of the honest and capable bureaucrats have been forgotten. To settle a personal score with one Vappala Pangunni (VP) Menon, who made Patel immensely popular, Nehru wanted to disband the ICS cadre. But Sardar Patel had explained that governments cannot function without some brilliant brains. Intelligent civil servants are necessary to guide political leaders. Without this cadre, governments would collapse. He did this only because the incredible VP Menon was instrumental in liberating and shaping modern India. VP had served as the constitutional advisor to three successive Viceroys in India. He was the Secretary of States after independence.

One fine morning, as a young boy, Menon overheard his school teacher-father cursing fate for giving him one dozen children and no resources to bring them up decently. The same moment he left home in search of a job so as to lighten the financial burden on his father. He was only a matriculate. But he did not know what an incredible destiny was waiting for him. He got a job of a coolie-grade railway stoker. A highly ambitious guy, he left the railways to work in a coalmine as a field supervisor, and after some time as a clerk-typist in a Bangalore tobacco company.

VP had a robust commonsense and flair for the English language. He was superbly fast in analysing ground-level situations to solve any human problem. His only aim was to get a government job. So, he travelled to Delhi to reach Shimla, the British summer capital. At the Delhi rail station, all his belongings got stolen. He did not break down, found a passing-by Sikh gentleman genial and begged for a loan of Rs 25.

The Sardar, without thinking once, dished out the money not even seeking an explanation. VP wanted his address. “This is your due. The first person who asks for money on any day is the one I owe the amount to,” the Sardar responded smilingly. Before he could make sense, the benevolent Sardar had disappeared. The year was 1914.

VP arrived in Shimla, and managed to get a job as a clerk-cum-typist in the home department. His high-speed, error-free typing made him so popular among the British officials that he became marked as a unique asset.  He was drafted to the sensitive Reforms Department. longest serving Viceroy of India lord linlithgow found VP so trusted that all classified information was shared and decisions made in consultation with him. In good time, he became the deputy to Sir Hawthorne lewis, the Reforms Commissioner. linlithgow took him to England on all his official trips when expected to explain situations to the masters. VP was the only native civil servant to attend the Roundtable Conference in England.

lord Wavell as Viceroy was stunned by VP’s encyclopaedic knowledge of all Indian situations. So, VP attended all important meetings to make critical observations.

Freedom struggle was at its peak and the British were certain to grant independence when VP was made the Political Reforms Commissioner to the Viceroy to devise key strategies for transfer of power. lord Wavell did not favour Partition. Mountbatten landed in 1947 with his own British team, lord Ismay, the chief of staff, Sir Eric Mieville, private secretary and Allen Campbell Johnson, the press attaché. VP had become the secretary to the Cabinet. Mountbatten recognised VP as a matchless genius. No British blood could beat him in resolving issues. Mountbatten made VP the chief advisor when the interim government was collapsing due to intense rivalry between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim league.

VP was the first person to decide that British India be divided only to prevent the uncontrollable communal riots. Mountbatten accepted what was called the ‘Menon Plan’, to which both parties agreed. VP also determined the border.

He chose Gurdaspur instead of lahore district on the basis of Hindu-Muslim density. He knew the border would make it difficult for Pakistanis to infiltrate because of mountain terrains in the northwest. The ‘Mountbatten Plan’ would make Union of India independent and the 564 princely states free to merge with the Union or carry on as princely states. VP did everything to force the princely states to integrate with the Union before Partition. But Nehru et al were too much in a hurry to have the Union to rule.

Just after independence, Pakistani troops invaded Kashmir in October 1947 to annex the territory. VP advised Patel to retaliate and force Hari Singh to sign the ‘Instrument of Accession’ but keep the move hidden from Gandhiji, who was likely to condemn the action as ‘an act of violence’.

All this time, Nehru was sore that Patel was stealing all the praise only because of VP’s ingenuity. Nehru had even wanted to scuttle Patel’s ‘Hyderabad Plan’ only to have the latter’s fame diminished. The Indian National Congress had chosen Patel as Prime Minister. But Gandhi chose Nehru, who hated VP and the bureaucracy.

At a Cabinet meeting in 1950, Nehru was very mean to Patel. “You are a communalist. I refuse to subscribe to your mad ideas.” Shocked, Patel rose to feet, collected his papers and walked out, never to come back to a Cabinet meeting.

He suffered a heart attack, recovered and stayed away to die on December 15, 1950. Nehru was unmoved. He sent two letters to Menon: One told him to have the Cadillac car Patel used to be returned immediately to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The second was very shocking; it said no senior official including secretaries could claim travel expenses if they went to attend the last rites of Patel in Bombay. If keen, they could spend own money. Menon called a meeting of secretaries immediately and asked them to furnish names of those who desired to go to Bombay. Almost all names came up. Menon bought the flight tickets from his own pocket and took them all. He knew the ‘Patron Saint of Civil Servants’ was gone forever. Patel had told him to stay on when he had wanted to take voluntary retirement after the integration of the states, only because Nehru was a hostile master.

Mountbatten had categorically told Nehru to reward VP with Governorship in an important province. On May 6, 1951, Nehru reluctantly placed Menon as the ‘acting’ Governor of Orissa, then poor, tribal State.

He never made him a regular Governor and withdrew him from Odisha on July 17, 1951. Asif Ali became the official Governor the next day. VP was crushed to dust by Nehru.

Two VP-related incidents were rave for quite some time: Mountbatten and Maharaja of Jodhpur Hanamant Singh were brought together to persuade the Rajah to accede to India. Hanamant was cornered to sign the papers with VP moderating the exercise. After the Sahib left the room, Hanamant pulled out a .22 pistol and dug into VP’s neck. “I refuse to take your dictation,” he thundered, “I will kill you for what you have done to my empire.” VP told him to cool down. Killing an ordinary government servant would not save his kingdom. Patel would destroy him if he committed one silly mistake. The Maharajah was reduced to a gaping lump of flesh and bones.

Nesamani Nadar, Congress MP from Kanyakumari, stormed into VP’s guesthouse in Trivandrum and threatened him with dire consequences when the bureaucrat was enjoying his sundowner (drink after hard work).

VP told him to get the hell out of his room. Nadar wrote a six-page complaint note to Patel, saying VP used the filthiest language in a drunken state. Patel asked young ICS officer V Shankar if VP drank alcohol.

The embarrassed bureaucrat had to spill the beans. “Yes sir, VP occasionally enjoys a couple of drinks in the evening.” Patel wanted to know what kind of drink. Shankar said, “VP prefers only Scotch.” “Then Shankar, you must instruct all the top government officials to take scotch every evening. We can have more VPs to save our nation,” Patel said to him.

VP lived with daughter in Bangalore until death on December 31, 1965. One day while completely bedridden, he heard someone at the door begging for a little money to buy footwear to protect his sore feet. He called out to daughter feebly, “Give my friend at the door 25 rupees. I owe the money since long”, remembering the loan from the Sardar donor long time ago at Delhi. That was the last conscious act of the architect of independent India.

(The writer is a core member of Transparency International, Odisha) 

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