Unsung hero of Madras

Of the administrators of the colonial era in Tamil Nadu, Sir Thomas Munro stands out for his deep love of the land and people. Is the recent decision to remove his statue in Chennai justified?

Updated - July 26, 2010 02:27 pm IST

Published - July 26, 2010 11:57 am IST

Worthy of preservation: The statue of Thomas Munro near the Gymkhana in Chennai. Photo: R.Ravindran

Worthy of preservation: The statue of Thomas Munro near the Gymkhana in Chennai. Photo: R.Ravindran

The weeks leading to the Tamil Conference and those immediately after it have seen a number of changes in Chennai, most noticeable of which have been the order asking for signboards in Tamil and the decision to rename 52 streets in the city after Tamil scholars. There can be no dispute on these save for a request that those who contributed to the city ought to be remembered.

They loved the city

This lot includes a few names such as Jones, Coats, Molony, Fraser, Madeley and Anderson, all men who loved Madras and left lasting legacies by way of infrastructure. What is most distressing however is the demand by certain elements that the statue of Sir Thomas Munro be removed from its present position on The Island, close to the Gymkhana Club. Perhaps to them Munro is no more than a foreigner, a colonial master whose memory we could do without. But a look at some records would show why Munro's statue has remained untouched in the years after independence.

Thomas Munro was, like so many other administrators of Madras Presidency, a Scot. Born in 1761, he had studied at the University of Glasgow and come to Madras in 1789 having secured an Infantry cadetship here. He was to see action in the war against Tipu Sultan that ended in 1792 with the latter having to cede districts of South India to the British. Cornwallis, the Governor-General and the man who had led the war from the British side, gave the responsibility of administering the new territory of Baramahal (present day Salem and its environs) to Captain Alexander Read and his lieutenant, Thomas Munro. Both men embarked on the task of assessing the revenue of the area and Munro was to write, “this is so teazing (sic) a business that it leaves room for nothing else. One man had a long story of a debt of thirty years' standing contracted by his father. Another tells me that his brother made away with his property when he was absent during the war; and a third tells me that he cannot afford to pay his usual rent because his wife is dead, she used to do more work than his best bullock.”

Having surveyed the territory completely, Munro came to the conclusion that the ‘King's share of revenue' from the land was too high, an assessment that was to shock his masters. He demanded a reduction in the rents to be fixed, arguing that what was lost that way would be more than compensated by better collection methods and ‘more exactness in accounting' (read less corruption).

At the end of his seven years tenure at the Baramahal, Munro had to reluctantly leave the area he loved, to assist in the final war against Tipu. By then the people there had come to love him too, and it was not common to find children named Munrolappa! Following Tipu's defeat and death in 1799, Munro was put in charge of West Kanara. From here he was moved to the Northern Circars, areas ceded by the Nizam in 1801. Here he was to work for seven years, bringing to subjugation the poligars, the hereditary estate-holders under the Nizam. Munro could not help contrasting his experiences between Baramahal where there was none between the collector and the cultivator, and his days at the Northern Circars where the landlords fleeced the tenants. Thus when Cornwallis decided that the Zamindari system (Permanent Settlement) that was being followed in Bengal ought to be replicated all over India, Munro was among the first to protest. He argued that there were no zamindars in the South and the new system would need to create this new class by simply auctioning lands to the best bidders. He argued forcefully for a contract between the cultivator and the Government without the interference of the landlord. During the years that the merits of the two systems were being debated, Munro was in England, having gone there on leave in 1807. There he impressed the Directors of the East India Company and the members on the Select Committee of the House of Commons before whom he gave evidence. Munro's recommendations were accepted in full and he returned to Madras in 1814, as head of a commission charged with reforming the judicial system the district administration.

In Madras, Munro laid the foundations of a form of district administration that has survived with some changes to this day. The Collector was made head of the district and besides his fundamental responsibility of revenue, was also in charge of managing the police and was vested with magisterial powers. Under him came a large retinue of tahsildars who apart from revenue collection, also had quasi-judicial powers in their sub-districts. In time, Munro's methods became an absolute success and were extended all over South India.

Munro was all for administration in the local language (and this is something that those demanding his statue's removal ought to know). He deplored the practice of appointing to administrative posts and the judiciary those who were not fluent with the local lexicon. He felt that Indians ought to be allowed to dispense justice by themselves. and wrote:

I have never seen any European whom I thought competent, from his knowledge of the language and the people, to ascertain the value of the evidence given before him. The proceedings in our courts of judicature, which in our reports make a grave and respectable appearance, are, I know, frequently the subject of derision among the natives.

Defender of the natives

As to the commonly felt perception that Indians in administration were corrupt, Munro had this to say:

“It is absurd to suppose that they are so corrupt as to be altogether unfit to be entrusted with the discharge if this important duty; if they were so, there would be no remedy for the evil; their place could never be supplied by a few foreigners imperfectly acquainted with their customs and language.”

Munro also strongly deplored any attitudes of racial superiority among the British. He wrote:

“Foreign conquerors have treated the natives with violence and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them with so much scorn as we, none has stigmatised the whole people as unworthy of trust, as incapable of honesty, and as fit to be employed only where we cannot do without them. It seems to be not only ungenerous, but impolitic to debase the character of a people fallen under our dominion.”

And finally, he felt that British rule over India could only be transient. He charted out an exit map stating:

“Your rule is alien and it can never be popular. You have much to give your subjects, but you cannot look for more than passive gratitude. You are not here to turn India into England or Scotland. Work through, not in spite of, native systems and native ways, with a prejudice in their favour rather than against them; and when in the fullness of time your subjects can frame and maintain a worthy Government for themselves, get out and take the glory of achievement and the sense of having done your duty as the chief reward for your exertions.”

Munro became Governor of Madras Presidency in the 1820s. Sometime during his wanderings he heard of the temple to Sri Venkateswara in Tirumala and instituted the offering of pongal each day to the deity in a vessel known as the Munro Gangalam. He assigned the revenues from a village in Chittoor District for the continuance of this offering. The temple authorities have ensured that the tradition is maintained. He is also credited with waiving all taxes from the Raghavendra Swami Mutt in Mantralayam.

It was but a question of time before Munro became the subject of ballads and songs. According to the Tamil scholar U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, the great composer Ghanam Krishna Iyer composed a song which had the refrain “Munro Sahib”. It has now vanished from collective memory.

Munro was made a baronet in 1825, taking on the name of Sir Thomas Munro of Lindertis from then on. He died of cholera in 1827 while touring the Northern Districts. Years later, Rajaji said “Whenever any young Civil Servant came to me for blessings or when I spoke to them in their training school, I advised them to read about Sir Thomas Munro, who was the ideal administrator.”

The statue of Munro on horseback, sans stirrup and saddle, their absence being a mystery till date, was sculpted by Francis Chantrey and has stood since then, looking over the city with his “stern countenance and searching eye” that according to Monstuart Elphinstone contrasted with his “delight in those things that in general have no effect but on a youthful imagination”. Those near Tirupati would vouch for the latter for it was generally believed that Munro had had a vision of the bangaru toranam, a golden garland made by Hanuman for Venkateswara and which was visible to only the purest of souls.

Rather than removing Munro, the state administration could think of translating his statements into Tamil and placing them around his statue. Successive generations can then know of the requisites of good administration and also realise that all colonial masters were not evil.

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