VP Menon, the Civil Servant who Held India TogetherHistorians in the News
tags: India, Indian history
India was on the cusp of freedom from British rule in 1947 and Vappala Pangunni Menon was completely worn out.
Three decades of working in the grinding imperial bureaucracy had taken its toll on the tenacious 54-year-old civil servant.
Menon was "exhausted, overworked, already coughing ominously", his biographer Narayani Basu recorded. He had worked as a key official on political and constitutional reforms to successive viceroys and helped in drafting a crucial transfer of power plan. He had not taken leave from work in years.
Menon was looking forward to a quiet retirement once the transfer of power celebrations ended on 15 August, the day India gained independence.
By nature a conservative, he was an ally of the independence hero and Congress party leader Vallabhbhai Patel. Now Patel summoned him again. The doughty leader was the minister in charge of the newly formed States Department to handle the matter of the princely states - and he wanted Menon - or VP, as he was popularly known - as his secretary.
It was another daunting job for the "small, alert and ferociously intelligent" civil servant, as historian Ramachandra Guha described Menon.
The 565-odd princely states covered a third of the land mass of British India and contained two-fifths of the population. Many of them had their own armies, railway, currency and stamps.
Most of the rulers were seen as inept and profligate potentates. Others like the Nizam (king) of Hyderabad ruled over a kingdom whose income and expenditure rivalled Belgium's and exceeded that of 20 founder-member states of the UN, according to one assessment.
Menon's task was cut out. He had to get this motley bunch of eccentric rulers to fall in line and integrate with India. This had to be achieved in a climate of deepening distrust and spiralling violence, marked by religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims over the division of the subcontinent. Jawaharlal Nehru, Congress leader - and later India's first prime minister - told a colleague that it was an administrative situation of "appalling intensity".
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