Patriots > Early Nationalist and Moderates > Nair , Chettur Sankaran ( Sir )
Nair , Chettur Sankaran ( Sir ) (1857-1934)

Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair was born on 11 July 1857 in the Chettur family near Palghat on the Malabar Coast. His father was Ramunni Panickar, a Tahsildar in the Madras Government Service, And mother Chettur Parvathy Amma. Chettur is a well-known Nair tarwad or matriarchal family, another well-known Nair tarwad in that area. They had one son, R. M. Palat, Bar-at Law, Ex-Minister, Madras, and five daughters.

The eldest daughter Parukutty Amma became the wife of Justice Sir Chettur Madhavan Nair; Madhavi Amma married M. A. Cahdeth, M. A. (Cantab), of the Indian Educational Service; Kallyani Amma married Sri M. Govindan Nair of the Indian Police; Lakshmikutty Amma became the wife of Captn. T. K. Menon, I.M.S.; and Saraswathi Amma of Sri K. P. S. Memon, I. C. S., who became famous as India’s Ambassador to Russia. Lady Sankaran Nair predeceased her husband in 1926 during a pilgrimage to Badrinath.

Sir Sankaran Nair’s early education began in the traditional style at home and continued in schools in Malabar, till he passed the First in Arts examination with a first class from the Provincial School at Calicut. Then he joined the Presidency College, Madras, and while there, won the much coveted Elphinstone Essay Prize. In 1877 he took his Arts degree, and two years later secured. Though he began his studies for the Master’s degree, the death of his mother brought family responsibilities on his uncle and father career he had the guidance of his uncle and father at home.

At school and college he benefited by instruction from devoted teachers like C. M. Barrow, M. A. (Oxon), Edmund Thomson and W. A. Porter. For the legal profession he got himself apprenticed to Mr. H. Shepherd, one of the best Advocates in Madras in those days. He read widely and apart from the academic and professional books, he set much value by the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Narayaneeyam’ and the works of Sri Sankaracharya for the guidance and inspiration which he derived from them. In early life his travels were restricted to Malabar and Madras, but later he had occasions to visit England and Ceylon, besides touring all over India.

Sir Sankaran Nair started as a lawyer, enrolling himself on 24 March 1880 in the High Court of Madras. He soon made his mark. In 1884, while only twenty-seven years old, the Madras Government appointment him as a member of the Committee for an enquiry into the state of Malabar. He was appointed Government Pleader and Public Prosecutor in Madras in 1899. Them, till 1908, he was Advocate Judge in the High Court of Madras and held the post till 1915.

In the meantime, in 1902, Viceroy Curzon appointed him Secretary to the Raleigh University Commission. Subsequently, he was the Madras member of that Commission. In recognition of his services he was awarded the title ‘Commander of the Indian Empire’ by the King-Emperor in 1904, and in 1912 he was Kinghted. He became a member of the Viceroy’s Council in 1915 with the charge of the Education portfolio. In 1917 he was nominated a member of the Indian University Commission led by Sir Michael Sadler and helped to get the report accepted in the face of some difficulties. It recommended substantial changes in the system of University educational in India.

When he was a member of the Viceroy’s Council, he wrote in 1919 two famous Minutes of Dissent in the Despatches on Indian Constitutional Reforms, pointing out the various defects of British rule in India and suggesting reforms. For an Indian to offer such criticism and make such demands was incredible in those days. There was a sensation when they were published. Sir Sankaran Nair’s frankness, courage and patriotism inspired the admiration of all. On the top of these came his resignation from the Viceroy’s Council as a protest against the atrocities of the British authorities in Punjab.

This was further proof of his intense patriotism and courage of conviction. It stands to the credit of the British Government that it recognised the truth and fairness in Sir Sankaran Nair’s minutes and accepted most of his recommendations. Not only that, through he resigned in protest from the Viceroy’s Executive Council, the same year he was appointed a Member of the Council of the Secretary of State for India in England. He held that post almost till the end of 1921.

In the academic field, he was a Fellow of the Madras University in 1889, and also a Member of the University Syndicate for a number of years. In 1908 the University invited

him to deliver the Convocation Address, and in 1932 conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

He played an active part in the Indian National movement which was gathering force in those days. In 1897, when the First Provincial Conference met in Madras, he was invited to preside over it. The same year, when the Indian National Congress assembled at Amraoti, he was chosen President. In a masterly address he referred to the highhandedness of foreign administration, called for reforms and asked for self-government for India with Dominion Status. It was characteristic of Sir Sankaran Nair’s courage that he concluded his great speech with the words “Let nil desperandum be our motto.” During this period his advice was often sought for national work.

In 1900 he was a Member of the Madras Legislative Council. His official life from 1908 to 1921 interrupted his activities as a free political worker. In 1928 he was the President of the Indian Central Committee to co-operate with the Simon Commission. The Committee prepared a well-argued report asking for Dominion Status for Inida. When the Viceregal announcement came granting Dominion Status as the ultimate goal for India, Sir Sankaran Nair retired from active politics.

He was a journalist and an author, he was the Founder-Editor of the Madras Review and Co-Editor of the Madras Law Journal. He wrote articles for these and for the Contemporary Review. He wrote a book, ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’, which raised a keen controversy, because he disagreed with Ganghiji’s opinion.

In other spheres also he was active. Thus he was sometime President of the Madras Cosmopolitan Club, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Depressed Classes Mission Society, and the Madras Social Reform Association. In 1924 he was elected President of the All India Social Conference at Bombay. He was an influential member of the Hindu Mahasabha and in 1931 was chosen to preside over the special Conference of the Sabha in Delhi.

In all these different fields he expressed his ideas with courage and candour. Thus in the matter of social reform he criticised fissiparous orthodoxy and meaningless caste restrictions. He opposed untouchability and child-marriage, championed the uplift of the depressed classes and marriage of windows. He was a true Hindu in the sense that he believed that religious should bring people together in harmony, with the common basic principles of humanity and tolerance.

His enthusiasm for social work made him ask for the improvement of educational in India. He wanted every village to have at least a primary school and more facilities for women’s education. According to him English education would help national integration. But the Indian educational system was to be made more Indian, that is better suited to our needs and culture.

Without doubt he was an ardent nationalist. He was not, however, a fanatic nationalist who was blind to what was good in other people. Thus he admired the British democratic institutions, patriotism and industry. At the same time he courageously pointed out in his speeches and writings the harmful effects of the British rule on Indian economy. The excessive defence expenditure, the heavy taxation, the unfair land revenue, all these he attacked. India could be self-sufficient, but Britain was exploiting her. As a remedy for all these, he demanded Dominion Status for India. In politics he was a liberal and a moderate.

Sir Sankaran Nair’s appearance was impressive, as were his attainments. He was all tall, fair and well-built, his was an unostentatious, well-regulated life. Deeply religious, he was a careful student of the Hindu religious classics and worshipped Lord Subramanya as his personal deity. Very courteous, he was very courageous, frank and independent.

In his epoch he reached the top in all spheres of activity which he entered. In the legal field he emphasised the first principles and the need to interpret law in the spirit of the changing times. Veterans recognised him as one of the best Judges in Madras, specially on the criminal side. He was ahead of his times in social reform and here his contribution was substantial.

He was a great patriot. He sought to improve the conditions of fellow countrymen, championing education, encouraging unity and demanding a just economic policy. He inspired others with the devolution of power into Indian hands. Sir Sankaran Nair was one of the great architects of modern independent India.

Author : T.C. Sankara Menon