A new book chronicles the role of the man who ensured atrocities of Jallianwala Bagh massacre are known
Sir C Sankaran Nair's book Gandhi and Anarchy presented an unfiltered view about Jallianwala Bagh, which earned the ire of Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who sued him. Today, we know of the extent of the atrocities because of the subsequent court case, the reportage it received and the light it shed on the Empire’s shoddy handling of the massacre
Gandhi and Anarchy by Sir C Sankaran Nair presented an unfiltered view about Jallianwala Bagh, which earned the ire of the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who sued him
We know of the extent of the atrocities because of the subsequent court case, the reportage it received and the light it shed on the shoddy handling of the massacre
There is a plaque at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial honouring Sir C Sankaran Nair for his role
“….‘And in view of the fact that in the matter of the events of the April 1919 both the said Governments have grossly neglected or failed to protect the innocent people of the Punjab and punish officers guilty of unsoldierly and barbarous behaviour towards them and have exonerated Sir Michael O'Dwyer who proved himself directly or indirectly responsible for the most official crimes and callous to the sufferings of the people placed under his administration, and that the debate in the House of Lords betrayed a woeful lack of sympathy with the people of India and showed virtual support of the systematic terrorism and frightfulness adopted in the Punjab and that the latest Viceregal pronouncement is proof of entire absence of repentance in the matters of the Khilafat and the Punjab’.”
—Gandhi and Anarchy, by Sir C Sankaran Nair, 1922
Almost a 100 years ago, and just three years after the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh, the former President of the Indian National Congress and member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Sir Sankaran Nair wrote his unfiltered views on a range of topics that consumed the India of the time in his searing book Gandhi and Anarchy. Mahatma Gandhi was already a strong presence in the Freedom Movement, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t receptive to critique. Independence from the British was still decades away but freedom for respectful disagreements among fellow Indians was not unheard of.
But the man who took most offence — or rather acted on his objection — to portions of the book was Sir Michael O’Dwyer. As the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, he had endorsed then General Reginald Dyer’s ruthless role in the Amritsar massacre, a tragedy that led to Sir Sankaran Nair’s resignation from the Council in protest. Since the tragedy, commissions were set up to hold the guilty accountable and Sir Sankaran Nair’s resignation brought attention to the fact that the reality at Jallianwala Bagh was not being adequately reported.
Sir Sankaran Nair’s views in the book only reiterated what commissions and authorities were piecing together. But O’Dwyer decided to sue him in the Court of the King’s Bench in England for what he thought was libellous; demanding an apology and £1,000 to charities specified by him. That the Indian refused to apologise and instead chose to defend himself is testimony to Sir Sankaran Nair’s gumption.
Today, we in India and those around the world are even aware of the extent of atrocities in Jallianwala Bagh thanks to this case, the reportage it received and the light it shed on the Empire’s shoddy handling of the massacre’s aftermath.
A century since the atrocities, Sir Sankaran Nair’s great-grandson Raghu Palat and his wife Pushpa authored The Case That Shook the Empire, that was released recently, educating us about a case that changed the course of our history and about which most of us have been unaware — including the authors!
“I think this is a case of ghar ki murgi dal barabar. Over time, his family has spoken about Sir Sankaran Nair, there have been paintings of him in all his regalia but there was only so much interest in pursuing the quest for knowledge on the subject,” Pushpa says with a laugh. A trip to Amritsar and the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in 2017 was the birth of the epiphany.
“I always knew my great-grandfather was an illustrious man. There was the occasional talk of Sir Sankaran Nair and some case he had against the British. But it is also a very Malayali thing to not dwell on one’s legacy but forge their own destiny,” says Raghu with disarming humility; he is also the great-grandson of Sir Rama Varma, Maharaja of Cochin (1914-1932). He adds, “So, I was aware of his greatness and respected it immensely. However, it was a plaque at the memorial honouring Sir Sankaran Nair for his role in fighting the injustice and massacre at Jallianwala Bagh that made my wife and I realise that this was a story that had to be told.”
An “accidental chartered accountant” who nevertheless went on to become an acclaimed authority on investment, finance and banking, and who has authored over 30 books on related subjects, Raghu is a history buff. Point out the irony of his belated realisation of the case that literally shook the Empire, and he says gently, “You know, I only wish I had done this earlier.”
His soft demeanour stands in stark contrast to the firm, sometimes needlessly arrogant persona he has recreated of Sir Sankaran Nair in the book. “We didn’t want this book to be an ode. The facts were available, it was a well-documented case in its time. That it has not travelled to subsequent generations over time is another matter. Sir Sankaran Nair was at the heart of this case and it was important to us that we recreated this as true to life as possible,” he says.
The Palats agree that while Sir Sankaran Nair was not infallible, he was certainly indefatigable — a trait Raghu seems to share with the protagonist of his book. His eye for detail and his unwavering quest for research and referencing has meant that the book is a historical novel that is based on well-documented facts. “I learnt the importance of double-checking, how only facts that we could corroborate should make it to the book and how this entire process is an exercise in patience. We would each write our own versions of the same chapter, then read each other’s before putting together what we thought were the best bits of our respective chapters. This wasn’t without disagreements and arguments, but after 40 years of marriage, this was such a change in conversational topics,” Pushpa adds.
While Raghu is a man of fewer words, Pushpa’s pleasingly chatty personality has translated into deft prose, thus elevating a factually correct book into a dramatic recreation of history. “Her background as a writer of fiction and her personality that makes her get into the mind of the reader, gave the book the life it needed to become accessible to all kinds of readers,” he acknowledges, as Pushpa playfully raises her eyebrows in agreement.
This meant that every dialogue in the book has been placed after family chronicles have been corroborated, scores of books have been researched, following which the scene has been recreated for the reader of today. Take for instance the chapter in which Sir Sankaran Nair went for his final interview to the Viceroy, following his resignation. They write: “…Then, with no real interest in Sir Sankaran Nair’s opinion but with typical British courtesy, the Viceroy enquired whether Sir Sankaran Nair could suggest someone as a successor… He said ‘Yes’ and pointed to the peon standing ramrod straight by the giant doorway. Lord Chelmsford almost shot out of his chair. Nair replied, ‘Why not? He is tall. He is handsome. He wears his livery well and he will say yes to whatever you say. Altogether he will make an ideal Member of Council."
The sheer extent of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre impacted Sir Sankaran Nair greatly and led to the subsequent resignation, the book and the case. It also played a crucial role in the beginning of the end of the British Empire in India. A hundred years have passed since, and the closest to a British apology came only last month when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the principal leader of the Church of England, Justin Welby visited Jallianwala Bagh. “I cannot speak for the British government. I am not the official of the government but can speak in the name of Christ. It is a place for sin and redemption. You have remembered what they have done, and their memory will live. I am ashamed and sorry for the impact of the crime committed. As a religious leader, I mourn the tragedy.”
Heads of State after heads of State from the United Kingdom have visited the memorial, each time acknowledging the atrocity but stopping short of an apology. Why then does it seem like we Indians have forgiven and forgotten the British role in this, but seem determined to pursue our hatred for our younger neighbours? In this climate of FIRs for open letters to the Prime Minister, is our memory short and convenient? Pushpa is candid in her observation, “We don’t just forgive them, we seem to be worshipping them for all the good they’ve done. While the British Raj has had positive contributions to make to India, we cannot forget how they turned the other way or even encouraged abject racism and inhumane treatment of Indians. But we do because sadly, we have been conditioned to put the white man on a pedestal.”
Even as Jallianwala Bagh is widely known, the case that Sir Sankaran Nair fought single-handedly to ensure a tragedy of this magnitude isn’t repeated, with limited support from the party he once helmed, didn’t make it to our history books. If he didn’t have the conviction to write Gandhi and Anarchy, Michael O’Dwyer wouldn’t have taken offence to his representation in the book. That he sued Sir Sankaran Nair, brought the knowledge of the atrocities — hitherto restricted to those directly affected by the massacre either in the administration in India or the families of those who died — into the public domain. Among his great services to the nation, this case was what the world needed: a Ground Zero version of one of the most barbaric acts on Indian soil.
An entire century later, his descendants are giving us a chance to learn of and from our past. You know what they say about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it.