Patriots > Early Nationalist and Moderates > Mehta, Pherozeshah (Sir)
Mehta, Pherozeshah (Sir) (1845-1915)
Sir Pherozeshah Mehta was born in the Bombay city on 4 August 1845, where he spent the greater part of his life and contributed to Indian political life. His father, Merwanji Mehta, belonged to a family of merchants and was a partner in Messers Cama and Co. He had his early education at Ayrton’s School. He passed the Matriculation examination in 1861 and joined the Elphinstone College.

A good student of history and English literature, he impressed the Principal of the Collage, Sir Alexander Grant, who appointed him as a Dakshina Fellow of the College after his graduation in 1864. Sir Alexander recommended Pherozeshah strongly for the award of a scholarship instituted by R. D. Jeejeebhoy; this would finance his education in England. Sir Alexander was instrumental in persuading Pherozeshah’s father to send his son to England for further studies.

Pherozeshah left for England in December 1864, entered the Lincoln’s Inn and spent three years qualifying himself. Called to the Bar in 1868, he left for home in September 1868. He married twice, the second time in 1907 when his first wife passed away.

While in England, he used to frequent the house of Dadabhai Naoraji, and these visits and his meetings with Dadabhai were to remain important influences in moulding his liberal outlook. Several of his close friends were liberals; besides Telang and Badruddin Tyabjee (who along with Pherozeshah were described as “the three bright boys of Bombay”), Ranade, Gokhale, Wacha, W. C. Bonnerjee and Bal Mohan Wagle were close to Pherozeshah.

This made him belong to the Liberal School of Indian politics and his foreign friends, Sir Alexander Grant of the Elphinstone Collage, Allan Octavian Hume and Sir William Wedderburn too were of the Liberal hue. His broadmindedness, his antipathy to violent methods in politics which alienated him from Tilak and Pal, his innate trust in constitutionals, his dislike of regional and communal developments which made him criticise Sir Syed Ahmed Khan were characteristics that distinguished the Liberal School in Indian politics. His admiration for the parliamentary and party system was tempered by his understanding of the slow growth of parliamentary institutions.

A good student of English and French literature, he used to read the French literature of the Revolutionary period with great interest. Besides these, Tennyson, Thackeray and Dickens were his favourites and constant companions even while on travel. Another book that was read through and carried everywhere was the Bible.

Education, both primary and higher, absorbed his interests throughout his life and he remained a warm advocate for educational reform. The very first paper that he read in the East India Association in London was on the system of education in Bombay. He saw in education the means by which India could modernize itself rapidly; he laid great emphasis on the value of English. He was critical of the grant-in-aid systems to schools on the charge that it slowed the pace of education (1869), and of the meagre sums allotted for education by the Government of India (1% of the revenue as against 40% for defence).

Sir Richard Temple was criticised by him for running the Bombay University as he would a Government Department. He was also a warm advocate of the careful husbanding of the nation’s wealth and for developing the country’s economy to the point of self-sufficiency. This made him have an important hand in the establishment of a Swadeshi bank, the Central Bank of India. When the Bank was in a financial crisis, he offered valuable support in maintaining it and helping it financially.

Along with Telang, he took part in an abortive attempt to finance a soap-manufacturing company. Whether it be on the question of free trade (as it was in 1879 when Lord Lytton bartered away Pounds 200,000 to England) or whether it be on India being made to pay 4 million sterling for charges that did not concern her, or on the Cotton Duties Bill (1894), Pherozeshah was always present critically examining the issue, educating public opinion and attempting to influence public policy.

He also was eager for the agricultural interests being fostered by the State; and this made him critical of the Deccan Agriculturists’ Relief Act, 1895, and the passing of the Bombay Land Revenue Code
Amendment Bill, 1901. In the latter bill concern for the right to property too made him criticise the Bill.

In Western India, Pherozeshah is remembered mainly as the maker of the modern Bombay Municipal Corporation which he fostered and served in a distinguished manner for nearly half a century. It was his speech of 1872 that was influential in the introduction of the principle of election in the municipality. The Municipal Act of 1888, too, owed much to Pherozeshah’s and Telang’s endeavours.

Along with the creation of the modern municipal corporation, he was also mainly responsible for the founding of an English newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle (April 1913), which became an important agency for expressing Indian public opinion. Earlier, he and his friends had failed in reviving the Advocate of India.

In the nationalist movement, in the forming and running of political associations and in serving Governmental official institutions, Pherozeshah had a notable record. In the proceedings of the Indian National Congress (in whose founding he had a distinctive hand) he had an important and commanding position. His main endeavor was to keep the Extremists from dominating the Congress, and in this he was largely successful.

He presided over the Congress session held in Calcutta (1890) and was twice President of the Reception Committee when Congress sessions met in Bombay (1889 and 1904). In the different Congress sessions which he attended he either moved or supported resolutions for reforming the administration of the country. Along with Telang, he founded the Bombay Presidency Association (1885) and served as Secretary of the Association.

The Association did a lot in highlighting Indian problems in Britain and was one of the most important of the organizations in Western India for moulding Indian public opinion. Besides these, it also sent memorials to the Local and Imperial Governments. He was also active in the Bombay branch of the East Indian Association.

Simultaneously while participating in these, he occupied important positions in local bodies and had great influence in the legislative councils of India as a moulder of Indian public opinion. In 1884, 1885 and 1905 he was elected as Chairman of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, and 1886 saw him a member of the Bombay Legislative Council. He represented Bombay in the 1894 to 1897. In all these bodies he distinguished himself. In the Bombay Legislative Council, his budget speeches amply illustrate his commitment to education, especially primary education.

In these bodies he was to demonstrate time and again his oratory, his skill in debates and his able presentation of his point of view. Even earlier, when he was in the Bombay Municipality, he was responsible for exposing waste of public money by the then Municipal Commissioner. In that body again, he brought in strict standards of financial probity whenever there was a tendency towards thoughtless expenditure-an instance of this is provided by his masterly management of the Plague Committee appointed by the Government of Bombay.

In 1895, in the Imperial Legislative Council, he created a sensation by his criticism of the official authorities over the amendment of the police Act of 1861. Besides these, he also gave evidence as and when required by the Government, as for instance before the Commission on Indian Education appointed by Lord Curzon.

Sir Pherozeshah was an aristocrat in his temperament and habits. He always had a crowd of admirers surrounding him and among these were quite a few leaders of the later nationalist movement. Though unapproachable by students, yet he kept himself in touch with contemporary problems of youth and education. He tried his pen at writing dramatic criticism, though this was occasional.

One does not know about his religious or philosophical beliefs, though he certainly was a theist. Honours came to him thick and fast. He was made a C.I.E. in 1894 and 1904 saw him Knighted. In 1915 the University of Bombay decided of confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. He was admired by the people and had close and devoted following of some of the best men of his time

Author : R.Srinivasan