How Highgate residents helped India to independence

Rajni and Yudister Kumar in London – from Rajni Kumar, Against the Wind: a life’s journey

Rajni and Yudister Kumar in London – from Rajni Kumar, Against the Wind: a life’s journey - Credit: Rajni Kumar

On the southern slopes of Highgate, tucked behind what is now the Murugan Hindu temple, a blue plaque commemorates one of the area’s most distinguished residents.

He established the Pelican imprint of Penguin Books, as a borough councillor helped develop our marvellous network of local libraries and topped off his career with five years as defence minister. Defence minister of India, that is.

We’re talking about VK Krishna Menon, who was born in Kerala in 1896 and lived for several years at 30 Langdon Park Road, where the blue plaque was placed by English Heritage in 2013. His biggest achievement was helping his country to independence, and then to build what is now the world’s biggest democracy.

Krishna Menon in the 1950s

Krishna Menon in the 1950s - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Krishna Menon studied at the London School of Economics, where he was apparently described by the eminent political scientist Harold Laski as the best student he ever had.

He moved to Langdon Park Road in 1929 and spent about two-and-a-half years here, later living in Camden Square where there’s another plaque to his memory.

He worked for the publisher Bodley Head and was the founding editor of the hugely influential Pelican Books.

He was also elected to St Pancras Borough Council in 1934 and remained on the council for fourteen years. As chair of the Library Committee, he helped introduce travelling libraries, children’s corners and the loan of gramophone records. He never quite achieved his goal of ensuring that St Pancras had as many libraries as pubs, but it was good target to have in mind.

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There was talk that Krishna Menon would contest a winnable Parliamentary seat for the Labour Party but that never happened, in part because of his perceived closeness to the Communist Party.

He did, however, become a freeman of St Pancras – only the second person to be awarded that honour, the first being another former St Pancras councillor, the dramatist, George Bernard Shaw.

The Krishna Menon blue plaque

The Krishna Menon blue plaque - Credit: English Heritage

Krishna Menon was a brilliant polemicist, propagandist and orator who lived in frugal fashion – surviving on dozens of cups of tea a day, a bit like another charismatic left-wing luminary, Tony Benn. 

In 1928, during Krishna Menon’s Highgate years, he took charge of the India League, and turned it into one of the most effective lobby groups of the inter-war era. It highlighted Britain’s repressive measures in India and created a groundswell of public opinion in Britain, particularly among those on the left, in support of Indian independence.

In 1945, a newly elected Labour government set in motion the steps by which India and Pakistan gained independence in August 1947. Krishna Menon became India’s first high commissioner in London and was seen as a close ally of India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Krishna Menon became a member of India’s Parliament in 1953 and four years later, Nehru appointed him to the key role of minister of defence.

His career was tarnished by India’s defeat in a border war with China in 1962. Krishna Menon resigned as a minister and died in 1974, but he is widely seen a political giant of India’s independence era.

Rajni Kumar

Rajni Kumar - Credit: Andrew Whitehead

There’s another connection between Highgate and newly independent India. One of the local activists in the India League in London in the late 1930s was a teenager, Nancie Jones.

Her father was a carpenter and a trade unionist. She was brought up at 102 Milton Park, a stone’s throw from Krishna Menon’s old Highgate home, and attended meetings at Krishna Menon’s new base at Camden Square. She was a keen supporter of India’s independence and her association with India became personal as well as political.

Nancie Jones was a student at the LSE during the Second World War, when the college was evacuated to Cambridge. There she met a left-wing Indian student, Yudister Kumar, and after the war she sailed out to India and they married. She took an Indian name, Rajni Kumar, and became a widely respected educationalist, setting up the Springdale group of schools. In 2005, Rajni Kumar was awarded an honorary doctorate by Middlesex University. She lives in Delhi and next March she will celebrate her hundredth birthday. 

Both these former Highgate residents, in their different ways, championed India’s independence movement and helped build the new nation. Perhaps it’s time that Rajni Kumar joins VK Krishna Menon in being commemorated on her old Highgate home.

On Friday, June 17, Andrew Whitehead is leading a walk, India in Highgate, as part of the Highgate Festival. The Festival also includes a Highgate New Town Tour with Fabian Watkinson, a Pink Plaques Walk with Catharine Wells and Peter Walton’s Historic Jewish Highgate Walk.