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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Explained: The story of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, who took on the British in their own courts

Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair was known for being a passionate advocate for social reforms and a firm believer in the self-determination of India.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 8, 2021 2:18:20 pm
Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Filmmaker Karan Johar recently announced his decision to produce the biopic of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, an acclaimed lawyer and judge in the Madras High Court and one of the early builders of the Indian National Congress who had also served as its president in 1897. Nair was known for being a passionate advocate for social reforms and a firm believer in the self-determination of India. But what really stood out in his long glorious career is a courtroom battle he fought against the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer. Nair had accused O’Dwyer in his book, ‘Gandhi and anarchy’ for being responsible for the atrocities at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Consequently, he was fighting against an Englishman, in an English court that was presided over by an English jury. In all senses, the case was bound to make history.


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Johar announced that his film will “unravel the legendary courtroom battle” that Nair fought. The film is adapted from the book, ‘The case that shook the empire’ written by Nair’s great-grandson Raghu Palat and his wife Pushpa Palat in 2019.

The rebellious lawyer

Nair was born in the year 1857 in Mankara village of Malabar’s Palakkad district. He belonged to an aristocratic family and his great grandfather was employed by the East India Company to enforce peace in the Malabar region. His grandfather was employed as the chief officer under the Civilian Divisional Officer. Nair was drawn towards Law while he was completing his graduation from Presidency College in Madras.

After completing his degree in Law, he was hired by Sir Horatio Shepherd who later became the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Since his early days as a lawyer, Nair was known for his defiant attitude. Raghu and Pushpa in their book noted an instance when he went against a resolution passed by Indian vakils (advocates) of Madras stating that no Indian vakil would work as a junior to an English barrister. Nair firmly opposed this resolution on the principle that no lawyer should be denied the right to choose a senior that his client liked. His stance on the issue made him so unpopular that he was boycotted by the other vakils, but he refused to let that bother him.

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Similar experiences would become a norm throughout his career. If he believed in something, he stood by it, whatever be the opposition he faced. When the 1908 Montague-Chelmsford reforms were being discussed, he wrote an article in the Contemporary Review criticising the English jury for being partial towards Englishmen. This infuriated the Anglo-Indian community who petitioned the Viceroy and the Secretary of State for India objecting to his appointment as high court judge the first time.

He was equally despised by the Brahmins in Madras. “Though once a president of the Congress, Nair took a lukewarm interest initially in the organisation as it was dominated by Brahmins and he found his position not agreeable,” wrote Raghu and Pushpa. Consequently, when he was nominated to the Madras Executive Council, the Brahmin community in Madras wrote to the Viceroy asking him to not appoint him since he was anti-Brahmin.

Nair’s fearlessly brusque and outspoken nature also made him extremely unpopular among his colleagues and peers. He was once described by Edwin Montague, the secretary of state for India as an ‘impossible person’. “He shouts at the top of his voice and refuses to listen to anything when one argues, and is absolutely uncompromising,” he is known to have said (as cited in Raghu and Pushpa’s book).

Despite his many critiques, Nair’s presence as a lawyer and social reformer in Madras was formidable. In 1897 he became the youngest president of the INC in the history of the party till then, and the only Malayali to hold the post ever. By 1908 he was appointed as a permanent judge in the Madras High Court. In 1902 Lord Curzon appointed him a member of the Raleigh University Commission. In 1904 he was appointed as Companion of the Indian Empire by the King-Emperor and in 1912 he was knighted. In 1915 he became part of the Viceroy’s Council, put in charge of the education portfolio.

As a Madras High Court judge, his best-known judgments clearly indicate his commitment to social reforms. In Budasna v Fatima (1914), he passed a radical judgement when he ruled that those who converted to Hinduism cannot be treated as outcastes. In a few other cases, he upheld inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.

As a fervent freedom fighter, he firmly believed in India’s right for self-government. In 1919, he played an important role in the expansion of provisions in the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which introduced a system of dyarchy in the provinces and increased participation of Indians in the administration. In Nair’s biography, written by his son-in-law, the eminent diplomat and the first foreign secretary of India, KPS Menon, the latter noted that the measures in the 1919 reforms were far more liberal than what was originally proposed by the government in 1916. The credit for this, Menon wrote, lay largely with Nair and his uncompromising stance as part of the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

And when the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh happened, he thought nothing about resigning from the Viceroy’s Council in protest. Nair’s resignation shook the British government. In the immediate aftermath, press censorship in Punjab was lifted and martial law terminated. Further, a committee was set up under Lord William Hunter to examine the disturbances in Punjab.

It was during this same period that Nair wrote ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’, which was published in 1922. In the book, Nair spelt out his critique of Gandhi’s methods, especially those of non-violence, civil disobedience and non-cooperation. He believed that any of these movements was destined to lead to riots and bloodshed.

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In the same book, he also accused O’Dwyer for his coercive methods that led to the death of hundreds of innocent men and women at Jallianwala Bagh. Thereafter, O’Dwyer sued Nair for defamation in England, with the expectation that an English court would side with him. As was well known, a large section of the English people did strongly believe that General Dyer’s act at Jallianwala was justified and was in fact responsible for saving Britain’s empire in India.

A historic courtroom battle

The trial before the King’s Bench in London went on for five and a half weeks. It was the longest-running civil case at that time and received extensive press coverage. From the very beginning of the trial, the courtroom remained crowded and distinguished people would come to witness the proceedings, including on one occasion the Maharaja of Bikaner.

The 12-member all-English jury was presided over by Justice Henry McCardie, who from the start of the case, made no attempt to hide his bias towards O’Dwyer. So were the other judges, who were also equally unfamiliar with India and Indians.

O’Dwyer was defended by Ernest B. Charles who defended his client as a paragon of men who had successfully averted a mutiny. “Charles’ words were clearly meant to kindle the sympathy of the English jury for their own people. He exaggerated the perils the English bore to protect the Empire. Indians, of course, were portrayed as rebels, extremists and seditionists,” wrote Ragul and Pushpa.

Nair’s lead counsel was Sir Walter Schwabe who had recently returned to England after having served as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Two days after the trial began, instead of being allowed to call the defendant’s witnesses which was usually the case, he was interrogated by McCardie who asked him if he intended to prove whether General Dyer was right or wrong in opening fire at the crowd at Jallianwala. At this juncture, McCardie pointed out to the jury, “the safety of the Indian empire was the proper issue there and the safety of the wider empire to which we belong. It may be that a man is bound under critical circumstances to what appear to us in London to be repellent steps which are necessary in the wider stages of the world” (as quoted by Nair in his autobiography).

Similar interjections on the part of McCardie was common throughout the trial, much to the surprise of Nair, who having served as a judge himself was aware that the role of the judge was to ensure a fair trial rather than influencing it with his own opinions.

Eventually, O’Dwyer won the case with a majority of 11 against one. The only dissenting judge was Harold Laski.

Nair had lost the case and was held guilty for defaming O’Dwyer. He had to pay £500 and expense of the trial to the plaintiff. O’Dwyer stated that he would be willing to forgo the penalty, provided Nair tendered an apology. But Nair remained undeterred. He would rather pay the damages than apologise for writing what he knew was the truth about Jaliianwala Bagh.

Since the verdict was not a unanimous decision, Nair had the option of another trial. However, he refused to go ahead reasoning: “If there was another trial, who was to know if 12 other English shopkeepers would not reach the same conclusion?”

Though Nair had lost, the trial had a resounding impact on the British empire in India. At a time when the nationalist movement was gaining momentum, Indians saw in the judgement a clear bias of the British government and an effort to shield those who committed atrocities against their own people. The verdict was momentous in that it strengthened the determination of the nationalists to fight for self-government.

Nair passed away in 1934 at the age of 77. His legacy was carried forward by his large family of nine children and grandchildren, most of whom were celebrated names in their own fields. His eldest daughter was K Parvathi Ammal who later became Lady Madhavan Nair upon marrying eminent lawyer and judge of the privy council Sir Madhavan Nair. Her name and also those of her children have been given to several streets in Chennai. Nair’s son R M Palat was also a lawyer and a politician belonging to the Justice Party. His grandson Kunhiraman Palat Candeth was a senior army officer who played a commanding role in the liberation of Goa from Portuguese control in 1961. Nair’s nephew, VMM Nair is currently the oldest surviving Indian civil servant.

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