The ‘Pope’ of Indian politics

A recent article about Allan Octavian Hume of the Indian Civil Service spoke of his enormous contribution to knowledge about Indian birdlife. It spoke of his collected material being the single largest collection presented to the British Natural History Museum despite a portion — as in the case of Francis Whyte Ellis’ material on Tamil studies — being destroyed by a servant. He was called the ‘Pope’ of Indian Ornithology. Hume, however, needs to be remembered for a much greater contribution to India, a contribution he seeded in Madras. It’s a contribution for which he could well deserve being called the ‘Pope’ of Indian politics.

Hume, who arrived in India in 1849, left India a sick man in 1894 after a triumphant tour of Madras and the southern districts in 1893. Writing on the occasion of his departure, this paper said, “There is no other Englishman now living in whom the people have greater confidence and for whom they have a higher regard than the one who will be known for all ages as the founder and father of the Indian National Congress. Mr Hume’s achievement might well be termed a mighty conquest; he conquered the hearts of hundreds and thousands of Indians.” To people today, the Congress is just another political party; forgotten is its role in winning India’s freedom and the role Hume played in its founding. Is there a memorial to him anywhere?

The seed for the founding of the Congress was sown by Hume, a Theosophist, under the banyan tree at the Theosophical Society when his views were endorsed by the ‘Mylapore 17’, other forgotten personages today, who had earlier that year resolved that “a national movement for political ends” should be founded. Hume, continuing the cry, became the founder Secretary of Congress, a post he held till he left for England.

It was on December 12, 1885, that the first session of the Indian National Congress was held in Bombay, W.C. Bonnerjee presiding. Bonnerjee was later to write, “It was Mr Hume who inspired by a general feeling that was appearing in the minds of many Indians after the Ilbert Bill agitation, conceived the idea of an annual assembly of leading Indian politicians in some important common centre for the consideration of Indian questions and making representations to Government. He worked out a practical scheme that included the idea that the Governor of the Province where the assembly was held should preside over its deliberations so that greater cordiality might be established between the official class and non-official Indian politicians.” It was Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy, who took the next step after discussions with Hume. Dufferin suggested that in an assembly as proposed by Hume, the Governor should not be present; in his presence the people might not like to speak their mind. And so the assembly met without a Governor’s presence — and the march to freedom began. I wish greater credit is given — and their contribution remembered — to Hume and the Madras 17.

Following the trail of Hume, I found the trail of another Englishman crossing it — this one a friend of India who wound up being roundly chastised. In the 19th Century, the Government College, Kumbakonam, was a renowned educational institution. In the 1880s, it was headed by William Porter, scholar, educationist and enough of a legend to have a public hall named after him. I’d be delighted to hear if Porter Hall still stands and whether it retains the same name.

But to get back to Porter disappointing his admirers, we need to go back to the opening of the Hall in January 1885. At the meeting, Porter urged “fiery young patriots” of the need for “patience”. “A nation grows slowly and you must try and carry the people with you and not run away too hastily from the old ways of the country.” All that went down well enough, if not with any enthusiasm being demonstrated, but what got political leaders worked up was his accusation that the leaders were “loading the ryots with heavier responsibilities”. Explaining himself, he added, “The truth is that our leaders in the great cities are living in an India of their own imaginations and not the rural India which constitutes nine-tenths of the whole population.” They should move in such a fashion as to take the ryots with them and not think only of the urban elite removed from reality, he appeared to imply.

It was a bit of talking down that caused a furore. After describing him as “a great man in the estimation of a section of the educated community…(who played a considerable role in ) moulding the minds of the rising generation… and as one well known for broad and generous views and looking with sympathy on the political aspirations of the progressive sections of the native population…,” The Hindu brought its heavy guns to bear on Porter’s sentiments.

In the days when letters to The Hindu could get fiery, Porter’s words brought a tart retort from a reader worthy of reproducing in full. The reader wrote, “Some of my educated friends will remember my having protested with them against making an idol of those Europeans who have come out to India to earn a living and have had the tact of patting on the back of natives brought into contact with them during their service… That Mr Porter in the Education Department has won laurels, for which he was paid, I should be the last man to deny. But memorials and pujas are due only to those higher order of Englishmen and native gentlemen who have disinterestedly, voluntarily, and under great opposition upheld the rights and prompted the aspirations of the Indian people — of whom Sir Thomas Munro, Mr Fawcett (who’s he?) and Lord Ripon are the brightest examples. Mr Porter at the Town Hall has unveiled himself more than he has unveiled Mr Gopal Rao’s (who’s he?) portrait. I am sorry I am unable to accord to Mr Porter’s speech at the Town Hall even the weight of a genuine conviction.”

I wonder how many such cultured retorts we can report today.

I’d been waiting for a letter from Dr. N. Sreedharan on the subject of Tamil script reform (Miscellany, October 10) and was delighted when it arrived. He writes that Tamil purists object to ‘Sanskritised’ letters in Tamil “presuming them to be Sanskrit sounds. But no language has monopoly over any sound… Sounds are common property”. He adds, “They object to them, presuming them to be Sanskrit letters. But they do not find a place in Devanagari script in which Sanskrit is written. In shape and appearance, they look exactly like other Tamil letters!” And then, he supplies the clincher: “Mutilation of a person’s name should be deplored. Kalaignar Karunanidhi himself has advised in his preface to A Glossary of Tamil Administrative Terms (Govt of Tamil Nadu, 1996) the following:

That should be the final word on the subject.

* My reference to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital (Miscellany, September 5) has had Dr. M. Krishnan recalling that there is a Gifford Hall there that should be considered a bit of heritage. It is the centre of the main wing of the hospital and has seating similar to that found in the nearby Museum Theatre: A semi-circular hall with ascending rows of seating with a central aisle for access. On either side of it are the G and H operation theatres, initialed after Gifford and Hingston. Also nearby is a room with unique biological specimens preserved.

* Did you know that the Thiru Vi Ka Park in Shenoy Nagar (Miscellany, October 31) was named C. Narasimham Park and was named after J.P.L Shenoy’s successor and that around it is Pulla Avenue, a circular road named after Shenoy’s predecessor, O. Pulla Reddy, asks C. Nagendra Prasad. He also adds that Narasimham bought the land for Gandhi Nagar from the Bishop of Madras-Mylapore; Bishop’s Gardens’ 136 acres were bought for Rs.17 lakh. It enabled Catholic Centre to be built in George Town.

M.N .Mani Chettiar, referring to the recent mention in this paper of Rajeswari Kalyana Mandapam’s origins, says that he had always thought the Nilgiris corner plot on Radhakrishnan Salai was the Al.Ar. Devakottai Zamin’s house and the kalyana mandapam property belonged to someone else. Sriram.V, much closer to modern Madras than me, tells me that it was all one huge property belonging to the Zamindar, from the left wall of the kalyana mandapam to the right wall of what was Nilgiris. The main house, he tells me, was where the wedding hall is and all the rest contained out-houses and stables.

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