Did British intelligence try to 'get rid' of Krishna Menon?

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By Book extract
  • Published 8.11.09
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The transfer of power in India and Pakistan in 1947, despite the horrendous inter-communal carnage which accompanied it, happened in time to preserve a degree of official goodwill for post-imperial Britain. The last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was asked to stay on as governor general and the framework of the civil service of the civil service of the British Raj was largely preserved in independent India. What was not made public, however was that, during a visit to India in March 1947, the DDG (deputy director-general of MI5), Guy Liddell, obtained the agreement of the government of Jawaharlal Nehru for an MI5 security liaison officer (SLO) to be stationed in New Delhi after the end of British rule. Though the first SLO, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Bourn, who had served in India with the Intelligence Corps during the war, stayed for only six months, he set an important precedent for the subsequent history of British decolonization. In all other newly independent Commonwealth countries, as in India, the continued presence of an SLO became a significant, though usually undisclosed, part of the transfer of power. For almost a quarter of a century, relations between the Security Service and its Indian counterpart, the Delhi Intelligence Branch (DIB or IB), were closer and more confident than those between any other departments of the British and Indian governments.

(From left) V.K. Krishna Menon, who was India’s high commissioner to the UK and later defence minister with Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru

In June 1950 U’ren’s (Bill U’ren the second SLO) successor as SLO, Eric Kitchin, another old India hand, reported that the first head of the independent DIB, T. G. Sanjevi, lost ‘no opportunity of stressing the value which he places on maintaining our relationship on a professional and personal basis’. Liddell and Sanjevi were united in their deep distrust of the first Indian high commissioner in London, V. K. Krishna Menon, the Congress Party’s leading left-wing firebrand who had spent most of his previous political career in Britain, founding the India League in 1932 to campaign for Indian independence and serving as a Labour councilor in London. In 1933 the Security Service had obtained an HOW on Menon on the grounds that he was an ‘important worker in the Indian Revolutionary Movement’ with links to the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain). To outward appearance, Menon seemed an Anglicized figure. The only language he spoke by the time he became high commissioner in 1947 was English, he disliked curry and much preferred a tweed jacket and flannel trousers to Indian dress. But Menon also had a passionate loathing for the British Raj which independence did little to abate.

Though the JIC (joint intelligence committee) discussed the question of Communist influence at the Indian high commission, the discussion was considered so sensitive that no record was made of it. Liddell, however noted in his diary that he told the JIC, ‘We were doing what we could to get rid of Krishna Menon.’ The attempt failed. Though Menon was reported to be threatening to resign after press attacks in India, he was able to count on Nehru’s support and did not do so. Fears of Menon’s pro-Soviet sympathies were well founded. On at least one occasion during his later political career in India, the KGB paid his election expenses.

Sanjevi’s successor as head of the DIB, B.N. Mullik, was also an enthusiastic supporter of close liaison with the Security Service. In 1951, despite South African opposition, India (represented by Mullik), Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were invited to the Second Commonwealth Security conference in London along with the white dominions. Since the election victory in 1948 of Dr Daniel Malan’s white-supremacist Nationalist Party it had proved more difficult to maintain intelligence liaison with South African than with India. The Security Service had no SLO in Pretoria. Sir Percy Sillitoe, who had spent his early career in the British South African and Northern Rhodesian police forces, visited South African in I949 and told Atlee afterwards that he was strongly opposed to the creation of a local security service.

The improper uses to which a Security Service might be put by the Nationalists might well include its employment against the Parliamentary Opposition and against those members of the British community out of sympathy with the Nationalist political programme. It would certainly be used to keep down the black races.

An MI5 Christmas card designed by its deputy head in 1917. It shows MI5, in the guise of a masked Britannia, impaling Subversion with her monogrammed trident before he can stab the British fighting man in the back and prevent him achieving ‘Mankind’s Immortal Victory’

There were no such sensitivities in sharing Security Service intelligence on Communist ‘subversion’ with Mullik and the DIB. When Walter Bell became SLO in New Delhi in 1952, he was encouraged by Mullik to visit DIB outstations as well as its headquarters. Bell found Mullik ‘such an exceptional man, both personally and in the position which he held, that he was the fount of all knowledge that I wanted’. When Mullik visited London for the Third Security Conference in 1953, he told Hollis (Sir Roger Hollis, then DDG) ‘that he thought the Intelligence Bureau was reasonably well informed about subversive activities within India, but he was not so well satisfied about his position on the counter-espionage side’. Mullik asked for an experienced counter-espionage officer to visit DIB headquarters and for help in training transcribers. During 1955, probably to Mullik’s dismay, an exchange of state visits by Nehru and Nikita Khrushchev opened a new era in Indo-Soviet relations. American reliance on Pakistan as a strategic counterweight to Soviet influence in Asia encouraged India to turn to the USSR. The newly appointed SLO, John Allen, was understandably concerned about the possible impact on his relations with the DIB. He reported to Hollis in December:

As you know, Mullik has always been anxious not to draw the attention of the Ministry of External Affairs (excluding {N.R}. Pillai, the Secretary-General, who, I suppose, is more in our confidence than any other Indian civil servant) to the existence of an SLO here, Mullik’s opinion is that there are too many people in this Department who would be happy to break up the liaison. The fact that neither Mullik nor Pillai have sufficient confidence in the Prime Minister’s continuing approval of the liaison willingly to draw his attention to it is a fair indication of the delicate path we tread.

In 1956 Nehru declared that he had never encountered a ‘grosser case of naked aggression’ than the Anglo-French invasion of Suez, but failed to condemn the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in the same year. The chill in Indo-British diplomatic relations, however, had little impact on collaboration between the DIB and MI5. A steady stream of DIB officers attended Security Service training courses in London. At Mullik’s request, a D Branch officer was sent to India in 1957 to undertake a detailed review of the DIB’s counter-espionage operations against the Soviet Union and propose improvements. Arrangements were also made for a Service expert on the CPGB to visit New Delhi to study DIB records on the finances of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which received regular secret subsidies from Moscow. After returning to London for the 1957 Commonwealth Security Conference, Mullik wrote to Hollis, who had succeeded White as DG: “In my talks and discussions, I never felt that I was dealing with any organisation which was not my own. Besides, this, the hospitality and kindness which all of you showed me was also quite overwhelming.’ Hollis visited the DIB in 1958 and noted afterwards that Mullik’s views on Communist penetration were closer to his own than to those of the Indian government. But the SLO, John Allen, feared that, with ‘so many unfavourable political winds blowing’ between India and Britain, if Nehru realised how close collaboration between the DIB and MI5 was, he would probably forbid much of it. Nehru, however, either never discovered how close the relationship was or – less probably – did discover and took no action.

The Security Service’s all-seeing eye with a Latin motto intended to mean ‘Security is the reward of unceasing vigilance’

In the view of the Security Service, the DIB was increasingly unequal to coping with the growing Soviet intelligence presence in India, greater than in any other country in the developing world. In February 1964, three months before Nehru’s death, Director E (then responsible for overseas counter-subversion, intelligence organisation and liaison, a veteran of the Indian police under the British Raj, visited New Delhi to discuss training and counter-espionage with the DIB:

Despite minor successes, the overall impression of the Bureau’s work against the huge Soviet Embassy staff is depressing indeed. Politicians and many officials do not even recognise that there is any threat, and there is no attempt to limit the movements of the Russians. In effect they are having an almost free run for their money both in the espionage and subversive fields.

KGB records reveal that this assessment was well founded. Its residency in New Delhi was rewarded for its operational successes by being upgraded to the status of ‘main residency’. Oleg Kalugin, who became head of counter-intelligence in KGB foreign intelligence (and its youngest general) in 1973, remembers India as ‘a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government’. India under Nehru’s daughter and successor, Indira Gandhi, was probably also the arena for more KGB ‘active measures’ than anywhere else in the world. Successive SLOs’ close relations with the DIB made their inside information on Indian politics and government polity of increasing value to the British high commission at a time when the Soviet Union, through KGB and well as overt channels, was attempting to establish a special relationship with India. In 1965, a year after Nehru’s death, the high commissioner, John Freeman, wrote to Hollis to say how much he valued the SLO’s information: ‘his liaison is one which continues unaffected by changed in Indo-British relations. In 1967 the SLO recruited as his clerical assistant the future DG, Stella Rimington, whose husband was a first secretary at the high commission. The SLO lived in some style. ‘He was, Rimington recalls, ‘best known for his excellent Sunday curry lunches, which usually went on well into the evening, and for driving round Delhi in a snazzy old Jaguar.’