A Keralite who kept the Jallianwala Bagh fight alive

Chettur Sankaran Nair, the sole Indian in the Viceroy’s council, resigned soon after the killings, sparking immediate redressal measures

Published - April 12, 2019 11:21 pm IST

It is well known how in the wake of the horrific actions of the British government in Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most famous literary figure, relinquished his knighthood in anguish.

Virtually ignored is the fact that the sole Indian representative at that time in the Viceroy’s Executive Council — the equivalent of today’s Union Cabinet of Ministers — Chettur Sankaran Nair (1857-1934), resigned from his post in protest. Sankaran Nair writes in his autobiography: “Almost every day I was receiving complaints, personal and by letters, of the most harrowing description of the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh at Amritsar and the martial law administration…At the same time, I found that Lord Chelmsford [the Viceroy] approved of what was being done in Punjab. That, to me, was shocking.”

The effects of his resignation were immediate. Censorship of the press was immediately abolished and martial law in Punjab was terminated. Nationalist hopes were raised by the establishment of a Royal Commission presided over by Lord Hunter and including both Indians and Englishmen to investigate the occurrences in Punjab.

His ‘golden hour’

Sankaran Nair’s biographer, K.P.S. Menon, writes: “That hour was, I think, the most glorious and golden hour of Sankaran Nair’s life. His star was never brighter.” When he made his way back to Madras after his resignation “it was an ovation all the way, the like of which had never been seen before in India. There were feasts and entertainments wherever the train stopped and crackers were fired under the wheels of the railway, so much so that there was one continuous firing for hours.”

Sankaran Nair’s journey to the Viceroy’s Executive Council had been a long and distinguished one. Starting as an advocate in 1880, he became a leading member of the Madras Bar. Appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1890, he initiated the legislation leading to enactment of the Malabar Marriage Act of 1896. Participating in the Indian nationalist movement, he was elected president of the Indian National Congress – the only Malayali ever to hold this position – at its Amaravathi session in 1897. He was the first Indian to be appointed Advocate General of the Madras government in 1907 and later that year was elevated as judge of the Madras High Court.

In Sankaran Nair’s words, his “judicial repose” was an “oasis” before he assumed the office of Member for Education in the Viceroy’s Executive Council in 1915: the highest position in the government of India that an Indian of his day could aspire to. He had the administrative charge of more than 30 departments, all headed by Englishmen.

Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, initially thought of Sankaran Nair as “that impossible man”, but, impressed by his integrity and intellect, later came to regard him as wielding “more influence than any other Indian”. In the light of India’s unstinted support for Britain through the World War, Sankaran Nair saw self-government as a genuine demand. His dissenting note appended to the Montagu-Chelmsford Report significantly influenced the British Parliament in enacting the Government of India Act of 1919. Ushering a ground-breaking degree of self-government, Sankaran Nair saw this as an important milestone on the constitutional road to freedom.

Churchill’s response

After his resignation from the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Sankaran Nair proceeded to London to open the eyes of the British to the ‘un-British’ acts committed in Punjab.

“I was determined”, he says, “that if I could possibly manage it there would be no Jallianwala Bagh again in India”. Partly due to his efforts, what had been made out to be action to quell civic disturbances came to be seen for what it was, a massacre. In a debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill concurred that Jallianwala Bagh “is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.

Gandhi’s entry

Meanwhile, India was experiencing a political churning which would render redundant a patriot in the mould of Sankaran Nair. In K.P.S. Menon’s words, “there now appeared on the scene a man of destiny who was not only a patriot but a prophet and who was to change the course of events not only in India but in Asia and the world”.

That man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, represented a world view that was beyond the grasp of Sankaran Nair, the pedantic constitutionalist.

He expressed his distress with and incomprehension of Gandhi’s methods of civil disobedience in an angrily worded monograph titled ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’, in which he pointed out “the course non-cooperation was bound to take”. “This peculiar doctrine of invitation to non-violence for self-purification was”, he warned, “certain to lead to frightful disorders and riots”.

Not surprisingly, the ideas expressed in his book relegated Sankaran Nair to a mere footnote in independent India’s history books. Ironically, his views found a ringing echo in an address to the Constituent Assembly by B.R. Ambedkar who warned about “the grammar of anarchy” arising from non-cooperation and street protests as opposed to the order of institutions – words that resonate today.

O’Dwyer versus Nair

The book had an unpleasant sequel for Sankaran Nair. In elaborating on the Punjab events, he had made certain observations about the actions of Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer who in turn sued him for libel. The case, O’Dwyer versus Nair, which ensued before the King’s Bench in London created a sensation.

Avidly reported by the press, it drew widespread attention to depredations of O’Dwyer and his henchman General Dyer in Punjab. An openly biased judge and partisan jury, however, saw the case decided against the defendant.

The one dissenting juryman was Harold Laski.

As the jury’s verdict was not unanimous, Sankaran Nair had the option of a fresh trial. He declined the opportunity; not trusting “another twelve English shopkeepers” to give him a different verdict.

Further, he preferred to pay damages and costs amounting to 7,500 pounds – a princely sum then – rather than tender an apology to the plaintiff.

Asked whether the verdict would tarnish his reputation, he replied: “If all the judges of the King’s Bench together were to hold me guilty, still my reputation would not suffer.”

Sankaran Nair’s reputation may be untarnished, but he is himself forgotten and unsung. The country is the poorer for not recognizing the role of this towering personality in placing India squarely on the road to constitutional freedom.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)

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