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Updated: May 16, 2010 15:26 IST

Madras Miscellany: The Scottish ‘Servant of India’

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Sir William Wedderburn Bart and Annie Besant
Sir William Wedderburn Bart and Annie Besant

That after the reprieve Bharat Insurance Building recently got, Gokhale Hall may be the next to get the opportunity of resurrection had reader V. Prabhakar paying a visit to the Hall — now a stark shell — and to a neighbouring building, at 49 Moore Street (Second Line Beach), which calls itself the YMIA Building. And at the latter, he found a statue of Annie Besant and a bust of ‘Sir William Wedderburn Bart”, both, he was led to believe, moved from Gokhale Hall. Sending me a picture of his find, he wondered who the man was and why he was a presence in the YMIA building.

It took me a few days to find out who Wedderburn was, but I still haven't discovered his connection with the YMIA. Perhaps I'll get an answer to that after the following facts strike a chord with someone.

Born into a Scottish Border family in 1838, Wedderburn arrived in India in 1860 as a member of the Indian Civil Service. He started his career as Assistant Collector, Dharwar, and retired in 1887 as Chief Secretary, Bombay Presidency. In the meantime, he succeeded to his brother's baronetcy in 1879, adding that rather confusing Bart to his name. His years in rural India led him to a sympathetic understanding of the problems of the Indian villager. It was a concern that drew him to the Indian National Congress. And after his retirement he became virtually a Congressman. His crusade against a bureaucracy indifferent to the peasant, had him being described as a ‘traitor' by many in officialdom.

In 1893, Sir William became a Liberal Member of Parliament. Taking off from where he had left off when he chaired the Fourth Sessions of the Indian National Congress, held in Bombay in 1889, he formed, no sooner than he'd entered Parliament, the Indian Parliamentary Committee, which he chaired from 1893 to 1900. An active member of several Royal Commissions and Committees concerned with Indian affairs, he was also Chairman of the British Committee of the Congress from 1889 until his death in 1918.

This chairmanship led him to being invited to the 20th Sessions of the Congress, held in Bombay and chaired by another from Britain, Sir Henry Cotton. Five years later, Sir William presided over the Silver Jubilee Sessions of the Congress held in Allahabad.

Self-Government for India is something he firmly believed in, but as a Moderate — as those who held such views were termed at the time — he supported the view of the British Government when it in 1917 promised India “progressive establishment of self-government.” The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, he saw, as the culmination of his nearly 50 years of advocacy on behalf of India and its people. This was certainly a feeling he shared with Annie Besant. But why should he have been remembered with a bust in Madras? Did he ever address the YMIA on this subject at Gokhale Hall? Or was it to remember his advocacy of the Reforms?

When G. Subramania Aiyer got his daughter, a child-widow, married to a boy in Bombay during the Congress Sessions in 1889, Sir William was a witness — and did not win any Brownie points from the orthodoxy.

But in the view of The Hindu, Sir William, after following in the footsteps of Allan Octavian Hume, ‘the Father of the Indian Congress', by presiding over a Congress Session, had “won an everlasting place in the hearts and affections of the people of the Indian empire. When the bitterness of the hour passes away, the historian of the future will include him among the Englishmen that disinterestedly laboured hard to introduce such improvements as would make Indians accept British rule as the national Government of the Indian people and to ensure its eternal permanence by consolidating it on the basis of righteousness, equality, mutual trust and goodwill.” He was in later years to be described by Indian admirers as “the hereditary servant of India.”

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