A Malayali Woman in Delhi : Lakshmi N Menon in Politics

[Below are some translated excerpts from G Kumara Pillai’s biography of Lakshmi N Menon, and the obituary published by the Mathrubhumi newspaper at her death in 1994. These excerpts through much light on the induction of women into politics during the Nehruvian era. Kumara Pillai’s account projects her as a paragon of virtue in public life, endowed with all the qualities valued in Gandhian politics — simplicity, honesty, diligence, efficiency, humility, forthrightness. More importantly, it reveals the manner in which women who were not active in political parties, but pursued politics otherwise – as champions of women’s rights – could be inducted into politics in the Nehruvian era, unlike later times.

These two accounts also make an interesting contrast. Kumara Pillai’s account of her life mentions her life’s work for women’s rights in India which, in his view, qualified her for high office; Mathrubhumi‘s obituary denies it outright! The times of the 1990s, despite all the talk in the air then about women’s representation in the panchayati raj, were clearly less favourable to women who engaged in anti-patriarchal politics outside the framework of formal party politics.]

[G Kumara Pillai, Lakshmi N Menon, Kochi: Poornodaya Books, pp. 104- 9]

Our Heroine and Politics

Lakshmi N Menon did not take part in political agitations. Basically, she was a social worker and teacher. She preferred the work of a teacher. But she has argued in an essay titled ‘Why Is There A Second String to My Bow?’ that there was nothing improper in her entry into politics and high office. She says that politics was a challenge to a trained teacher like her. She believes that it may be possible for teachers to raise the ethical standards of politics. Were not those who led this country to freedom teachers? Firoz Shah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, Gopalakrishna Gokhale, Balagangadhara Tilak, Anne Besant, Gandhiji – were they all not teachers? Who could have been a greater guru than Gandhiji? The word teacher or guru is not being used here in a formal and technical sense. On the contrary, it is used in the manner in which Vallathol [the nationalist poet Vallathol Narayana Menon] used it in the title of is famous poem ‘Ente Gurunadhan’ [on Gandhi]. The true politician must be he who offers social education to his people; he must teach them social values. It is perhaps in this sense that Plato suggested that rulers must be philosophers. Life is an endless process of education and change. It is a series. The teacher and the political worker join it. Great political leaders are also great pedagogues. Therefore, she argued, she could work in politics without abandoning her commitment to pedagogy. And hence she did not believe that her entry into politics was under pressure from others.

This justification, this consciousness, however, was shaped in hindsight. In truth her entry into politics was purely coincidental. It was during her tour in the US, in 1952, that she received Nehru’s message. ‘You must return immediately to India; you have been nominated as a candidate to the Rajya Sabha’. She was initially not interested. She agreed to Nehru’s suggestion and was elected member of the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. At that time she had been the Principal of the Women’s Training College at Patna. Initially, she thought that she could handle both responsibilities side by side. Later, Nehru offered her the position of Deputy Minister; she refused. Then he offered her the post of Parliamentary Secretary. She tried to opt out, telling him, “I know nothing about it.” Nehru just smiled. Since the Parliamentary Secretary’s responsibility was not generally a full-time one, she thought that she could manage both together. But this did not happen.

In those days, those interested in politics would at least attend the Indian National Conference’s annual conferences. Our heroine does not seem to have done it. She had participated in the 1921 Kakkinada Conference presided over by Maulana Mohammed Ali. From the report of an interview, it seems that she had attended the Calcutta Conference of 1930 as the sole woman representative from South India, made a speech which caught the attention of national leaders, and sang nationalist songs and the national anthem. But the Calcutta Congress was in 1928, and presided by Motilal Nehru. She also seems to have participated in the Lucknow Congress of 1936 April. It also appears that Nehru had praised her work at a Women’s Conference at Allahabad in 1938. This must have been the 1940 Women’s Conference. In any case, Nehru probably could not avoid noticing her keenly, who had become a leading figure in the capital city, Lucknow, of Nehru’s home state, UP. V K Madhavankutty says that when Nehru visited Patna, he was struck by her energetic manner and articulation. Anyway, once she entered politics and government, she was absorbed in it.

The Minister’s Duty

It seems as though Nehru assigned her responsibilities like a karanavar of a matrilineal family who, absorbed in external matters, would place the work of running matters in the homestead to a sister. That is, running the internal matters of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The suggestion is not that her responsibilities were limited to this. [This is followed by a fairly detailed account of the many responsibilities she undertook, both as manager and as independent decision-maker].

… On a matter in which she was convinced, she was willing to argue even with Nehru. Though this story was known earlier, I have seen it in writing only in an article written by P K Harikumar (Mathrubhumi, 23.3.1989) on her ninetieth birthday. P Viswambaharan has asked her about this and she admitted to this too – he mentions this in his writing. But she mentioned it not as her bravado but as Nehru’s generosity. It was about appointing an ambassador to a West Asian country. Nehru appointed someone from the UP civil service, contrary to the advice of the Deputy Minister. It was apparently because another officer has exerted his influence in the Prime Minister’s Office. Lakshmi N Menon felt that this was unfair when so many in the foreign service were ignored. She pointed out the impropriety of the PM’s order and requested that her suggestion be considered, stating her reasons in a letter. Nehru called up the Foreign Affairs Secretary and gave him a piece of his mind. He said to her, “Madam, your turn is coming!” And it happened that way. When the Lok Sabha was in session, Nehru called her aside, “Lakshmi, please come with me.” When they were in his room, he burst out in anger. “You have been accusing me of nepotism, is it not?” “I have not,” she replied. “Then who are the complainants? Bring them here? I will throw them out through the window!” Nehru was in a rage. “That will not help,” she retorted. “So should I appoint a committee for this?” “That is up to you; if you read the whole file calmly you will understand the facts of the case fully.” She made her stand clear. In the end, they parted after tea. And the Prime Minister accepted the Deputy Minister’s suggestion and passed the order. (pp. 104-09)

The Editorial, Mathrubhumi, December 1, 1994.

Lakshmi N Menon

Lakshmi N Menon is no more. No other woman was taller than her in Indian public life in the earlier half of this century. She, who had not argued or worked for gender equality became through her life the equal of any great man. By being the better half of a man like V K Nandana Menon, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kerala and a famous educationist, by leading domestic and public lives with the approval of her husband who believed in equality, she did not need to lecture on gender equality. Her life provided the practical, living, lesson of how a woman endowed with will power, productive energy, and the ability to be loving and affectionate could achieve equality with no particular request.

Though the daughter of the ‘Raja’ of rationalists, Ramavarma Thampaan, Lakshmi was a believer, but her belief was always a strength to her. And never a shackle. She had a firm opinion on every matter. She secured higher education and was a teacher and principal in colleges, and also practiced as an advocate for a short while. It was probably that internal strength which made it possible for her to think rationally about any matter, build a firm opinion about it, and proclaim it in the firm belief of its rightness from any platform. If she could deliver a blistering critique of the Education Minister Abulkalam Azad’s education policy even as she was working as Prime Minister Nehru’s Parliamentary Secretary, the self-confidence born out of her own efforts must have been remarkable indeed. That she served long as Nehru’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-Minister, and India’s representative at the UN was the acknowledgement of her abilities.

Not bearing a child is painful indeed to any domestic woman. There is no fault in considering that Lakshmi N Menon too was no different. She deployed the boundless love of a maternal heart not just for the small family that included herself and her husband, but also, in later times, for all those who suffered in society and those who fell on the wrong paths, like alcoholics. When she, who lived nearly a hundred years without much pain, was awarded the Padmabhushan, it was not a woman’s richness of dutiful work that was rewarded but also the unique ability of the heart of Bharatheeya womanhood to attain fulfilment of birth and lifetime even without giving birth. Like the Goddess of Kanyakumari, she remained in the south as adornment to all the land. She will remain with us, as an auspicious memory, Lakshmeekam.

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