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  • Published 30.06.06

Crusader extraordinary: Krishna Menon and the India league, 1932-36 By Suhash Chakravarty, India Research Press, Rs 995

The shadow of Krishna Menon?s career as India?s defence minister falls inevitably on his life. This distorts perspective and judgment. His early political career in London, where he was a key figure in the India League, was nothing short of remarkable. Suhash Chakravarty must be congratulated for retrieving this phase of Menon?s life and for doing so in great detail. Menon always saw himself as being larger than life, and it is perhaps apt that a really huge book, running into over 800 pages, has been devoted to only four years of his life. The book, like the man, is a trifle overblown.

One reason for the size of the book is the range of Chakravarty?s research. He has really mined the archives, and has looked at the official documentation as well as the relevant private papers. The research is staggering and this book could not have been an easy one to write on the basis of that voluminous research material. Too much material, as any historian knows, is an embarrassment of riches, which leads to an embarrassment of size.

The volume begins when Menon, along with others, was asked by the India League to proceed to India, and ends with his coming under the influence of Jawaharlal Nehru when Europe is poised to be overrun by fascism. The history of the India League and the sterling role that Menon played in it is a part not only of India?s struggle for freedom but also of the left movement in Britain. Menon?s work in the India League helped focus attention on Indian issues and on the impact of British rule on the Indian economy and society. That Britain?s work in India began to be questioned at all within Britain was largely the result of the work of the India League.

There is one question that the author does not address at all. The question is: how important was the work of the India League in the overall context of the Indian freedom movement? A band of very dedicated and passionate men and women worked in Britain and in Europe to campaign for India?s freedom and to expose the grievous harm that British rule was inflicting on India and the Indian people. They worked to rouse the conscience of the Western world. But they worked most of the time outside India. What impact did their campaign and their propaganda have? Did it, in any fundamental way, further the cause of India?s freedom from British rule?

The impact was marginal and the contribution of the India League to India?s freedom movement was negligible. Chakravarty accepts the India League on its own terms and refuses to question its assumptions. One consequence of this shortcoming is that the book lacks a conclusion. It is a narrative, a very detailed one, that stops some time in 1936 on the note that Krishna Menon was more attracted by Nehru?s ideas and personality than he was by those of Mahatma Gandhi. This is neither a new nor a profound point. In fact, the point is so obvious as to border on the banal.

One other question does not seem to bother the author. As a patriot and as a socialist, why did Menon believe that he could best serve these causes by working out of Britain? Menon was a thinking man and it is reasonable to expect that he had made the choice after some consideration. It is difficult to accept that he had deliberately taken the soft option. Menon, like many of his generation, was attracted by what was happening in the Soviet Union in the Thirties. How did he reconcile his values with the tyranny of Josef Stalin? Did he, like so many left-minded persons of that time, will himself to be duped?

These are all complex and vexed questions that Chakravarty chooses to ignore. Consequently, his book is heavily tilted towards paraphrasing and narrative at the expense of analysis. Despite this, the narrative is rich. This is a competent book, not a great one; a solid book but not one that radiates light. It is a book that all institutional libraries should have on their shelves. Only the genuine Menon acolyte (if there are any!) will venture to buy it.