With his initial plans for an independent India in tatters, a desperate Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, turned to his senior-most Indian civil servant, Vappala Pangunni Menon— or ‘VP’—giving him a single night to devise an alternative, coherent and workable plan for independence. Menon met his stringent deadline, presenting the Menon Plan, which would play midwife to India’s birth as a free nation.
When I Got to Viceregal Lodge, Lady Mountbatten was there, in
the study, holding her husband’s hand. I could see from their faces that this
was disaster.” Still, Mountbatten tried to brazen it out. He wasn’t sorry he
had shown the plan to Jawaharlal, he said. Imagine what would have happened had
he gone ahead with the conference of 17 May anyway! The question was, how did
one now retrieve this situation? “I told him, ‘Sir, you have never listened to
me before, but I beg of you to please listen to me now.’” VP repeated his Plan,
modifying it according to what he had heard from both Mountbatten and Nehru. He
now urged the Viceroy to think about Partition seriously, because it was the
only way to ensure both the early demission of power, and as a result, obtain
Congress approval. The only obstacle, as always, was Jinnah. Would he accept a
mutilated version of his dream?
“I reminded Lord Mountbatten that he himself had gained the impression that Jinnah was reconciled to the idea of partition of the Punjab and Bengal. Whereas the Plan approved by His Majesty’s Government would break up the country into several units, my Plan would retain the essential unity of India, while allowing those areas to secede which did not choose to remain part of it.” There was nothing else Mountbatten could do, at least not in the face of the stingingly eloquent letter Nehru had just sent him. Nehru was summoned for a mid-morning meeting, to which he arrived, still protesting violently. Mountbatten heard him out patiently, then signalled to VP.
“We explained to him how our new Plan would meet his objections,” VP remembered. “But I could not tell him that Sardar approved of the bulk of it—especially Partition—because Panditji might have thought that I was hiding things from him.” Nehru listened suspiciously, but at last commented that though it sounded fine to him, he couldn’t commit his colleagues to the Plan without their approval. However, he said, he wanted to see it in writing. All right, Mountbatten said, a draft would be ready for him to see by 6 pm. It was at this point that a qualm struck VP. It was already lunchtime—1.30 pm or thereabouts, he would recall. Nehru was leaving for Delhi at 7 pm that very evening. That left VP with precisely four hours in which to produce a draft compelling and comprehensive enough to determine the future of India, and to change the history of South Asia forever.
“I know people have said of me that VP always had the Plan ready,” he told Hodson, years later. “But at that time, what did I have? I had nothing. I had a few notes and some essential points scribbled on some sheets of paper.” VP had worked under immense pressure before, but this was something else. India’s political future had been decided in a matter of three hectic hours, between 7 am and 10.30 am that morning. “But to put it in writing, Harry—that is another task all together!”
By 6 o’clock that evening, he had chain-smoked his way through nearly every packet of cigarettes he had bought, he had a splitting migraine and he was nearly faint with hunger and exhaustion. However, in his hand, VP held a draft—the first official draft of the terms of India’s independence, and of the future of South Asia: the Menon Plan.
There was no time to think of the enormity of what he had done. All he could think, as he stood there, was that “it read passably well, except for the grammar.”
Later that evening, an exhausted VP took himself and his wife Kanakam up to Viceregal Lodge to dine with the Mountbattens. The viceregal couple were in an ebullient mood—Mountbatten was laughing and had regained his buoyancy and Edwina swept in and kissed the reticent Kanakam on both cheeks. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘VP, Nehru has accepted this plan, subject of course, to the acceptance of the Working Committee, his colleagues and so on.’”
This was excellent news, but VP needed, as he always did, the Sardar to sign off on it. He held Mountbatten back a little before going in to dinner. “I asked him if I could excuse myself. I wanted to send a messenger to Delhi, with a letter for Sardar.” Mountbatten nodded understandingly and VP was left to send for his assistant and put him in a car, with a hastily written letter explaining the whole position and what had happened so far in Simla. After dinner, Mountbatten cabled Ismay in London. The Plan was set.
The next morning, after Alan Campbell-Johnson had issued the statement which “caused me more anxiety than any press statement I have issued in the past or am likely to issue in the future,” Sardar telephoned Government House to speak to VP. He was delighted with events, he told VP. “He told me, ‘Now do not worry about anything at all, Menon. You need not be anxious. Now it is my business, and if there is any further development, or if any further commitment is required, you must let me know beforehand, so that I can work on people on my side.’”
Whitehall was not happy. They had considered one plan only a matter of weeks ago; they had returned it even earlier than the deadline set for it. Now they were suddenly presented, at blinding speed, with a wholly different Plan, authored not by Mountbatten but by his Constitutional Advisor. What was more, they were being given a fait accompli. Not surprisingly, they protested. If the situation was so confused, then either a ministerial mission—predictably led by Sir Stafford Cripps—would fly out to Delhi, or Mountbatten must return to explain himself. Ismay, knowing that Mountbatten would be enraged at the prospect of Cripps descending yet again on New Delhi, rejected the first proposal but suggested that the Viceroy fly back to London as soon as possible. Mountbatten’s first reaction was—equally typically—to throw a tantrum. He had endorsed the proposals. Now, the Cabinet must show they trusted V. P. Menon’s recommendations or he would resign.
It was proof of how far in the opposite direction the weather vane had swung. In the space of a couple of months, Mountbatten had gone from sidelining VP to practically setting him upon a pedestal—with good reason, considering that VP had, in effect, saved his job; won him the renewed confidence of Nehru and the hard-earned support of Sardar Patel. He had also, by default, saved Mountbatten’s reputation. “By now, he was supporting me, a hundred per cent.”
VP is not very well at the moment. He has a sore throat and
fever and is hopelessly overworked,” wrote Sir Penderel Moon to Major John
“Billy” McLoughlin-Short, “They are doing far too much.” The letter was written
in the summer of 1948, but as a description of the task that would confront VP
and Sardar Patel from late 1947 to early 1951, it was an understatement. The
fall of Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir (even though their individual stories
had not yet ended in 1948) had shown the rest of the princes that their time
was up. However, for Sardar Patel and V. P. Menon, the integration of India was
only just beginning.
The choice of Orissa and Chhattisgarh as a starting point was driven by the insurgency in Hyderabad. Rulers across Orissa and Chhattisgarh had met on 1 August 1947, a fortnight before the transfer of power and decided that they would form an Eastern States Union. It didn’t stop trouble breaking out however—there were state-wide intrigues in Dhenkanal, Nilgiri and Bastar. Hyderabad was particularly interested in Bastar. It was barely a hundred miles from Hyderabad’s borders to the iron-rich, sparsely populated areas of Bailadila in Bastar. Local officials had warned that it was “not inconceivable” that Hyderabad should plan a localised infiltration and carve out a slice of Bastar for itself. Worryingly, there were also rumours that the Nizam’s spies in Chhattisgarh were scheming to entrap the young boy-king of Bastar and convince him to merge with Hyderabad.
The Maharaja of Patna was also involved in several political intrigues, making the entire province one very large hot potato. With the fallout of Partition still reverberating across the north of the country, and the bulk of the Indian Army already in Kashmir, Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon were worried men in the winter of 1947. Patel insisted that the first step should be to disband the Eastern States Union, arguing that it had no justifiable basis—linguistic, ethnic or geographic. The only problem VP found with this was that there seemed to be no way forward after that—Orissa would end up cleaved into three and Chhattisgarh would be divided into pockets across the Central Provinces. It was then that VP hit upon the idea of studying the history of the Orissa administration in case a precedent had previously been set. It turned out that in 1929, several Committees and Governors—including Sir Hawthorne Lewis—had suggested that the only way to end the trouble between the province of Orissa and its feudatory States was to merge the lot. Would this not, though, be against the assurances that had been given to the States during the Chamber of Princes on 25 July and Patel’s own promise on 5 July? To Patel’s mind, the loophole lay in the fact that India, in this case, would only be “saving the rulers from the fury of their subjects, newly awakened to a consciousness of their rights.” VP was in full agreement, but he felt that the deal would have to be sweetened with a great deal of sugar, “otherwise we would be taking away with our left hand, what we were giving with our right.”
The Privy Purses, after calculation, were made tax-free. The States Ministry conceded further rights—the rights to private properties and personal privileges of the ruler, his wife, his mother, his heir-apparent and his daughter-in-law. Succession to the gaddi was left untouched. The purse-strings would, however, be loosely controlled by the Government of India. This would become the final model for the technicalities behind the process of accession across the country. If Orissa proved to be a successful case-study, the blueprint would be applied across the rest of the States of India. However, at the last moment this plan threatened to be overturned.
Rumours soon reached Delhi that the rulers had begun squabbling amongst themselves. They had heard of the whispers of mergers and had begun pulling in different directions. VP received a sudden visit from an excitable delegation, consisting of the Raja of Khairagarh and the rulers of Korea and Patna. Khairagarh favoured a merger, while Korea and Patna were opposed to it. Patel squashed their indignant representations immediately. Oriya-speaking States would have to be merged with Orissa Province, he said firmly, and Hindi-speaking states with the Central Provinces. The rulers went away but the numerous administrative difficulties that merging Orissa presented convinced the Sardar that he should accompany VP to Cuttack. This took VP considerably aback. “In my mind, I had thought that he should be my trump card. If I failed, then he could have tried his hand as the higher authority. But if we both went and we failed to accomplish anything, it would be disaster.”
VP left for Cuttack on 13 December 1947. The rulers were tackled in two batches. At 10 am on 14 December 1947, Athgarh, Baramba, Daspala, Hindol, Khandpara, Kharsawan, Nilgiri, Narsinghpur, Pal-Lahara, Rairakhol, the boy-king of Ranpur (and his mother, the Rajmata) and Talcher arrived to meet Patel and VP. Patel spoke to them persuasively outlining the future of the States should they—without resources or manpower—try and stay independent of India. He was speaking, he said, not as a representative of the Government but as a family member who had come to try and solve a dispute. Underneath the friendliness was an unmistakable warning: if his advice was not listened to, the rulers would be ousted by their own people and when they came to Delhi to ask for help, he would no longer be able to help them. VP spoke next, his tone businesslike as he detailed the way the Privy Purses worked and how they had been calculated. Both men had expected the storm of protest that followed and both held their ground—the princes would have to be happy with what they were getting, but the Government of India would ensure their protection. The rulers asked for time to think it over, but in their expressions, VP sensed victory. That evening, twelve rulers signed. The meeting after lunch, on the same day, went a little differently. This was attended by the bigger “A Class” States: Bamra, Baudh, Dhenkanal, Gangpur, Kalahandi, Keonjhar, Mayurbhanj, Nayagarh, Patna, Saraikela and Sonepur.
These States were, as VP noticed from the start of the meeting, going to give them trouble. Mayurbhanj was openly belligerent and Patna was worse. Several penetrating questions were asked about territory, properties and privileges. At the end of this, Patna sat back. He wanted more time to think. Patel who had barely been restraining his temper, nearly lost his patience but VP hurriedly jumped into the breach. “I asked them to take some time and think it over, and then come and see me again at ten o’clock that night.”
At 10 pm, the rulers arrived yet again. This time, only VP was present. Patel was resting, since he had a train to catch to Nagpur the next morning. “They (the rulers) told me that their spokesman was the Maharaja of Patna and they insisted that they could have responsible government. They said that if I was not willing to listen, they would come to Delhi later, because they now wanted time to think it over.” From this position, they refused to budge. By midnight, everyone was irritable and weary and VP decided that it was best to postpone the meeting yet again, but time was fast running out. Desperate, VP took the Raja of Dhenkanal aside. Dhenkanal was a thoroughly unpopular ruler, with the dismal distinction of having already once been thrown out of his State by his subjects. “I told him if you join Orissa, I will give you special terms. I will keep you there, but if you do not listen, and you are again driven out by your people, then you won’t get a single rupee. I think it’s in your best interests to do what we are telling you to do.” Dhenkanal was suitably cowed, “Menon sahib,” he said, “I’ll do anything.” “All right,” said VP, “in that case, you go and tell Patna and the others that you are joining the Indian Union. Tell them that I am going to occupy all the A Class States by tomorrow morning.” Dhenkanal dutifully departed.
At 3 o’clock that morning, VP was woken up by the rulers of Patna, Kalahandi and the rest. Patna was agitated, “Mr. Menon, I have received a message from Dhenkanal.” He read out the message and looked at VP. “Is there any truth to this?” “Yes, there is,” VP said, “I am V.P. Menon, now going to issue orders that you remain in Cuttack until further orders. I am waiting for sufficient Reserve Police so that I can occupy your State. And what we do after that is our business and not yours. We cannot allow a situation to develop here that we have to have troops to maintain law and order.” He paused, to allow his words to sink in. Then he continued, “These terms will be off the table by tomorrow morning. So make up your minds.” The Maharaja of Patna stood up, “Will you give it to me in writing that if we do not accede, you will occupy our states?” “Certainly,” said VP, writing a letter which read, “I am glad that you have signed the agreement. I mentioned to you the peculiar position which your State occupies among the Orissa States. The Government of India is most anxious to maintain law and order. We cannot allow your State to create problems for the Government of Orissa and if you had not signed the agreement, we would have been compelled to take over the administration of your State.”
“Now,” said VP, laying down his pen, “Sign the agreement.”
From 3 am to 9.30 am the next morning, the rulers and VP worked non-stop, pausing only to sip at some tepid tea. They went through the Instrument of Accession and merger agreement, clause by clause. “Sardar was waiting for me at the railway station. Our plan had been to leave for Nagpur at seven o’clock. But since he never saw me either at seven or eight or even by nine, he knew something was going on. But no one knew, not even the press that I was negotiating.” By ten o’clock on the morning of 15 December 1947, Orissa’s feudal states had been merged with the rest of the Province. “From there,” recalled VP, “it was a walkover.”
It was hardly a walkover, of course, but the success of Orissa became the blueprint VP would often refer to, as he handled mergers across the country. It was also the State from whence the issue of the Privy Purses arose, in what VP called “elementary justice”: that the rulers should be assured of some kind of monetary recompense in return for having signed away their lives and their kingdoms. However, from integration onwards, the Privy Purses— their size and their weight—would cause murmurs of dissent from within Congress ranks and rankle pride and egos within the princely order. The Privy Purses would continue until, in an ironic twist Indira Gandhi—Nehru’s daughter—did away with them and the princes themselves in 1971.
There have long been charges that Patel and VP short-changed the princes, promising them liberal allowances and pensions, and slowly tightening their fists. This is completely untrue. Sardar Patel was a great champion of protecting the Privy Purse, and of the payment to civil servants who had worked in the charges of the rulers for a long time. H.V.R. Iyengar alleges that contrary to popular belief, it was actually Nehru who disliked the thought of paying extra from India’s pockets, to satisfy a dying order. The upshot of this was that there was a movement within the Constituent Assembly to remove clauses guaranteeing the monetary and property rights of princes and the services.
“I remember going to Bombay where the Sardar was convalescing and telling him about these things.” Iyengar remembered, “I said, Sir, there is a group of the members of the Constituent Assembly belonging to the Congress Party who are unhappy about these clauses and I think an attempt is going to be made to suggest amendments so that these guarantees can be removed from the constitution.” Furious, Patel returned to Delhi and called an immediate meeting of the members he knew to be behind the move. He was direct. Demanding to know what their reservations were, he asked “I could see that these people were shaken. They got the impression that he was very upset and very angry about the whole situation … The result of that was that they hemmed and hawed. He said, ‘Come out with it. Come out with it. Tell me frankly what is bothering you?’” Patel was silent when he heard their grievances and when he finally spoke, his voice was low, “I do not think that India should begin its existence as an independent country by going back on its promises,” he said. “If that is the case, you can choose another person. I am going to resign.”
Iyengar recalled that there was a deathly hush in the room after he had spoken. “Then person after person came and touched his feet and said that they would accept whatever he said.” Iyengar had heard that before coming to see Patel, this particular group had gone to see Nehru, “… and Panditji had spoken to them in such a way that they got the impression that they could go ahead with this. So the difference between Sardar and Panditji in these matters was that the Sardar felt that any promise that was given should be fully and honestly implemented, whereas Panditji, although he was practically a party to the same covenants and promises, had very strong prejudices and wanted to get out of these promises. So, he took the earliest possible opportunity to back out from them.”
Iyengar’s recollections are given credence by a letter from Sardar to Nehru, written on 9 August 1949, in which Patel registered a strongly worded protest at the first signs that independent India was about to renege on the promises it had made to its princes. “I am rather upset by the decision relating the Privy Purse payments, guarantees in respect of rights and privileges (given to rulers and regarding entries in the legislative list, in so far as this matter relates to the States Forces) …” He wrote to Nehru, “… The total expenditure on Privy Purses, running to about 2 or 3 crores, is comparatively an insignificant price to pay for the consolidation and unity of India which we have achieved. We have entered into solemn undertakings and agreements with the Princes about the Privy Purses … These are commitments which have been consecrated by the signature of the head of state on behalf of the people of India with the full approval of the Cabinet and it is our moral duty to ensure that these commitments are fully honoured both now and in future.”
Nehru made haste to reassure his deputy, though he warned that the Privy Purses would continue to be a source of “irritation and friction” in the future. Nehru was right, as it turned out, but during his lifetime, and despite his constant annoyance against the spoilt princes of India, Sardar Patel strove valiantly to protect what little rights they had left. “I think it would be correct to say that the princes attach a considerable significant to these rights and privileges. It is a question of self-respect and honour for them and I do not think that, having taken from them everything else that mattered, we should show a niggardly attitude in these matters.”
Excerpted with permission from V.P. Menon: The unsung architect of modern India
by Narayani Basu, published by S&S India, 2020. pp 432, ₹799