Author : Anna Mathews
The Indian struggle for Independence has continually thrown up, over the course of nearly two-centuries starting from 1847, several exciting heroes, unflinching in their cause, fighting with the weapons of ideology, people’s participation and selfless fervour. They are an inspiration not only to their countrymen, but are globally celebrated figures.
One towering story and personality in this struggle is that of V K Krishna Menon, who waged the battle for Indian Independence from within the heart of the British Empire, by mobilising the support of the British political and middle class, and its students for India’s freedom struggle. His lobbying with the British Labour Party is believed to have been a major influence in finally winning India’s Independence.
The academically brilliant, young native of Kozhikode, first courted trouble for the cause of independence, when as a student at the Madras Presidency College he hoisted the red and green Home Rule flag on the college dome. He was let off with a warning; but for Krishna Menon, it was more of an initiation.
He graduated in 1917 and joined the Madras Law College a year later as his lawyer father wanted, but more importantly, this was when he had joined Dr Annie Beasant’s Theosophical Society. Dr Beasant started the Home Rule Movement in India similar to the Home Rule Movement in Ireland, and joined the Indian National Congress (INC), adding political heft to the Theosophical Society.
Influenced by her, he openly flouted the Law College rules by donning the dhoti and kurta, which would continue to be his mode of dress in India till the end of his days. The college authorities threatened him with dismissal, but he refused to yield.
While a fiery speaker even as a college student, Krishna Menon’s talents as an orator was honed by Dr Beasant. It was one of the many distinguishing skills of his political career. Dr Beasant felt an English educational experience would further develop his skills and send him to England in 1924. Here, he got a teacher’s degree, and joined the Commonwealth Rule for India League, founded by Dr Beasant in 1916.
The Commonwealth Rule for India League held meetings, issued newsletters and lobbied various bodies, editors, eminent personalities and Members of Parliament, spreading the demands of Indian nationalism.
For the next two decades, Krishna Menon campaigned tirelessly alongside key British political figures such as philosopher Bertrand Russell, and Harold Laski, who was his London School of Economics tutor and later Labour Party chairman, as well as other Indians in Britain. Financing most of the activities himself, he held meetings, organised events, addressed groups, produced articles and pamphlets, and lobbied relentlessly.
Meanwhile, he got first class degrees in Political Science under Professor Harold J. Laski, who considered Menon his most brilliant student, from the London School of Economics and a Master’s Degree in Psychology from the University College.
Beasant’s Commonwealth of India League closed down to gave way to India League, with the ‘complete Independence’ demand by the Indian National Congress (INC). While the older members were not willing to think beyond Dominion Status, Menon wholeheartedly supported famous ‘Pooma Swaraj’ resolution taken at the Lahore Session (1930) of the Congress presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Menon also enjoyed a close working relationship and friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, helping to put forward the INC’s position in Britain and coordinating Nehru’s visit to England in 1935 and to Europe in 1938, which grew the future Prime Minister’s status as an leader of international stature, explaining India’s stand to the world.
The newly formed India League, with Krishna Menon as its honorary secretary, called for self-governance and an Indian constitution drawn up by the Indian people. It brought to the attention of the British people atrocities such as lathi charges, imprisonments without trial, the deportations and confiscation of property. Though not formally affiliated to the INC, the India League became the limb of the Congress in England and Krishna Menon its unofficial representative.
Menon arranged skits, shadow plays and film shows on India. Indian dancers and singers were invited to perform. There were readings of Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. Birthdays of leaders like Gandhiji, Nehru and Tagore were celebrated.
One of its highlights was perhaps the National Independence Demonstration in Trafalgar Square on January 3, 1938, to encourage solidarity for the Indian situation. People belonging to different nations joined the demonstration. Other organisations representing the peoples of China, Africa and Abyssinia had also participated in the first of its kind demonstration.
The INC sent Krishna Menon as its representative to the World Peace Conference at Geneva and also to the International Peace Conference at Brussels next year in 1935, to convey India’s demand for sovereignty.
Eventually, the Labour Party’s stand on India’s participation in the war resulted in Menon having to withdraw from the party, even sacrificing a safe parliamentary seat in Dundee in 1939. But nothing deflated Menon and he continued to seize every opportunity to lobby towards the Indian cause, even trying to influence the Allied Powers to pressurise Britain to make a favourable decision on India.
With the induction of Harold Laski as the chairman of the Labour Party, Krishna Menon could influence it to a greater degree and a couple of years after the Clement Attlee Labour government came to power in 1945, India gained her independence.
*Anna Mathews is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram. She has been contributing regularly to prominent Newspapers and magazines.