Indian Defence Industry Founder Krishna Menon’s Flawed Brilliance
Not many people passing by the side of the Sena Bhavan in New Delhi pay attention to the brooding statue just off the road of V K Krishna Menon, freedom fighter, diplomat and defence minister of the country between 1957-1962.
The location is, perhaps, symbolic. His stewardship of the Ministry ended in a flaming crash of the disaster of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. But the issues that emerged at the time, have not quite gone away.
History never gets stale because contemporary concerns light up newer areas of the past and what look like known facts, reveal facets that were earlier unseen. So it is not surprising that a look back at Krishna Menon on his 45th death anniversary gives us new perspectives on our contemporary dilemmas.
Krishna Menon’s Flawed Brilliance
Menon’s imprint in the immediate post-independence history of India is unforgettable. As an Indian freedom fighter living in the UK, who became the top-most diplomat to the country that had ruled India, as India’s representative to the United Nations, and eventually as Defence Minister, Menon was a brilliant and flawed personality whose list of enemies and critics read off from Dwight D Eisenhower, President of the United States.
Menon’s attitude was, in some ways, a natural outcome of his years in the UK where he got his higher education and––among his other accomplishments––helped establish the highly popular Pelican imprint of Penguin Books.
Given his education, the times and the circumstances, it was not surprising that he came under the influence of the left-wing intellectuals and politicians. Combined with the fact that he was a passionate advocate of India’s freedom, he came under the scrutiny of the British intelligence who monitored him closely.
Under him, the India League became a formidable lobby on behalf of the independence movement and Menon emerged as the foremost spokesperson of the movement in UK.
His life there added a touch of bitterness against imperialism and the West, something that became manifest when he shaped Indian foreign policy as India’s representative to the UN. In this position he was involved in issues relating to peace making in Korea, the fighting in Indo-China, disarmament and decolonization. From 1949 onwards, the world had split into two camps—the American and the Soviet.
Menon’s Criticism of the Global West
The fact that democratic India with its western educated elite chose not to automatically side with the US rankled in the West. India paid for it when the UK skewed the Kashmir issue in the UN against India. Western resentment against India made it appear as though Nehru had virtually taken India into the Soviet camp. But this was not true.
Menon’s acerbic criticism of the US got under the skin of its leaders, who were simply not used to the idea that the poor Third World could have independent positions of their own. Some of this came from India’s stand in the Korean war, the Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
Mind you, all this was at a time when the United States had taken Pakistan into the fold of its military alliance system and began a process that completely altered India’s strategic paradigm. Where Pakistan, much smaller than India, would have adopted a cooperative policy, it began to take a belligerent stance, encouraged by the fact that equipment assistance from the US had given its military an edge against India.
Menon, the Founder of India’s Defence Industry
In his book “The Guilty Men of 1962” the former editor of Indian Express D R Mankekar, entitled the Chapter on Menon as “A Dynamic Minister.” He describes how Menon’s entry into the ministry was like a breath of fresh air “that blew away the cobwebs and layers of dust accumulated on the portfolio over the years.”
While Menon’s leadership of the ministry was to end in disaster, it was not foreordained that it would be so. Under him, the Ministry which had all been sidelined in the heady post-Independence decade, came to life again with a Minister who had clout with the Prime Minister. As Mankekar put it, he enhanced the pensions of the personnel, restored their ration allowance, revised the salary scales upward, and took up issues related to housing and welfare.
It was Menon who laid the foundations of a modern Indian defence industry. He did not let an alleged jeep scandal distract him from giving the Army better wheels. In 1959, the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur started manufacturing the Shaktiman truck, built under a license from Germany. They served as the Army’s basic truck till 1996.
He initiated the plan to re-equip the Army with a basic semi-automatic rifle, the 7.62 SLR, which India simply copied from a Belgian gun. The SLR is still in service in India.
Likewise, there were several projects such as that of the Jonga jeep, Nissan light truck, and 120mm Brandt mortars that fructified in the mid 1960s. It was under Menon that the MOD obtained a license to manufacture the Alouette helicopter in India beginning 1962. As the Chetak, it has provided yeoman service to all three wings of the armed forces since.
Perhaps the most consequential deal in his period was that for the supply and manufacture of the MiG21 for the Indian Air Force. When western countries balked in providing India with a supersonic interceptor, in 1961, Menon negotiated with the Soviet Union and got an agreement not only for acquiring the aircraft, but a full technology transfer to manufacture it in India. Variants of this aircraft still fly with the IAF.
The Many Weaknesses of Krishna Menon
Curiously enough, Menon failed in an area where he should have known better—international politics. He simply did not give credence to the threat posed by the Chinese. This is something for which, of course, his boss and mentor Jawaharlal Nehru was primarily responsible.
The other problem was his arrogance and inability to get along with the Army brass for which we must blame his circumstances. He was a freedom fighter who had lived and worked in the UK while the Army brass––having served the British––affected British upper-class mannerisms. A less arrogant person may have done things differently. But, Menon was Menon. However, it would be fair to say that the 1962 failure was as much that of the military leadership as the civilian.
Today, 45 years after his death, the ghost of Menon has not quite been exorcised from the Indian defence system. The foundations of the Indian defence industry he had laid have yet to be built upon. For one reason or the other, India remains dependent on imported equipment.
A second issue is the relationship between the military and the civilians. After Menon’s tenure, governments have run the MOD through civilian bureaucrats and not involved themselves in providing the armed forces strategic guidance. This has led to a civil-military dissonance which makes India’s defence system sub-optimal. Today, more so than ever before, war is total––involving the land, sea, air, under-sea, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This requires a united and sophisticated leadership which can cope with the hybrid nature of modern warfare. We did not have that leadership in 1962, we don’t have it today.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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