Recovering an Indian

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May 30, 2011 10:09 AM IST

C P Ramaswami Aiyar was one of India's finest administrators. It's time we saw beyond his fault and gave him his due, writes Sarath S Pillai.

The life of C P Ramaswami Aiyar (1879-1966) conjures up the image of a goalkeeper remembered only for the goal he missed and not for the many he saved. He was one of the finest administrators and statesmen of his time. But today, he is remembered as the unpopular and autocratic Dewan of Travancore who wanted the state to remain independent and not join the Indian union. His rule transformed Travancore from a ‘progressive’ to a modern state in colonial India. CP’s decision to keep Travancore out of the Indian union was seen as an ‘anti-national’ and seditious stand, which cost him dearly personally and politically.

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CP was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He had a flourishing career in the Madras Bar and in 1920, he was the youngest to occupy the post in India. CP also served as a member of the Madras Governor's Executive Council from 1923 to 1928. During his tenure, he started the electrification of south India and constructed the Mettur dam, the fist concrete dam in India.

Other than the administrative positions what brought CP pelf and glory was his legal practice. He served as the counsel for princely states like Kashmir, Patiala, Cochin, Bikaner and Gwalior. In 1934 he formulated a constitution for Kashmir, which was never implemented. CP had been the constitutional advisor to the Travancore Maharaja 1931 onwards. It was at his instance that Chithira Thirunal was made the de facto Maharaja in 1936. Soon after CP became the Dewan, the revolutionary temple entry proclamation, which opened the doors of temples to one and all irrespective of caste distinctions, was issued. Mahatma Gandhi hailed it as the ‘miracle of modern times’.

The following years saw an unprecedented slew of developmental measures in Travancore. The Travancore University was founded in 1937. The present State Bank of Travancore owes its origin to the Bank of Travancore that CP started. He was also the first one to realise the mineral wealth of Kerala, particularly nuclear minerals. Till then, the state was not involved in the mining of these minerals. CP abolished private participation in minerals trade and monopolised it by state agencies like the Kerala Metals and Minerals Limited. Most of the factories on rare minerals and industrial units in general that one finds in Travancore owe their origin to the dewancy of CP. He nationalised state road transport and had the rare privilege of being one among the first in India to abolish capital punishment and introduce agrarian tax.

CP was a firm believer in federalism. He also believed that the princely states should be reduced to ten or 15 big units from British India, which could together form the federation. Being a theosophist and an ardent follower of Annie Besant, he believed in the Platonian notion of kingship. He abhorred democracy and thought India as immature to have democracy at that time. This brought him in direct conflict with Gandhi and the Congress. CP advocated a responsive government and not a responsible one with an irremovable executive.

With the Government of India Act of 1935, a post-colonial federation for India was a certainty. CP represented the case of princely states in general and not just of Travancore in the federal negotiations. Given his statesmanship, many princely states wanted him to represent their case. CP was an apologist of united India. He opposed the ‘Pakistan’ movement. He stressed the unity of India as one of the important contributions of colonial rule that should not be sacrificed at the altar of Partition. Lord Wavell, the then Viceroy, called him “the wisest man in India”.

CP was disillusioned by the national politics led by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which could not safeguard the unity of India. He had made it clear that Travancore would join the Union only if there was one Union and not two. Thus, we see that from the early days of 1947, CP had taken the belligerent stand of an independent status for Travancore. In October 1946 CP announced his decision to relinquish dewanship. But it's said that he was persuaded by the Maharaja to stay on and argue the case of Travancore for independence.

Having gone through the private papers of CP, I think it would be presumptuous to argue that independent Travancore was a tramp pushed by the Maharaja through his faithful lawyer. Being an avowed believer of enlightened monarchy, what brought CP back to dewancy was the speech delivered by Gopalaswami Aiyangar in the constituent assembly on December 19, 1946, on how real power in states vests with people and not the monarch. Fearing an authoritarian treatment of the princes at the hand of a hostile Nehru and the Congress, CP decided to take up the case of Travancore once again. It is also important to note that CP had actively opposed the demand for a Kerala Union joining Cochin and Malabar with Travancore.

On July 25, 1947, there was an assassination attempt on CP by a leftist worker, which he survived by the skin of his teeth. After the event, the Maharaja promptly decided to accede to India. CP didn’t flee the state after the attempt on his life, as is popularly believed. He stayed back till August 19 and completed the formalities for accession, including the signing of the Standstill Agreement two days before Independence.

There aren’t many works on CP yet. Most of the existing ones follow a leftist paradigm in portraying him as a tyrant and an anti-national ruler. Whatever may have been his flaws, we should salvage CP from the tyranny of popular memory. His only mistake was in demanding an independent Travancore, a mistake for which he was mauled in an assassination attempt and even more badly victimised in post-colonial India. He was sidelined post-Independence and was not given any position of eminence, as was given to many veterans of states like Gopalaswami Aiyangar, KM Panikkar, TT Krishnamachari and others. It is said that if CP had represented India’s case in the |United Nations, we would have had a head start in the Kashmir dispute.

CP was a scholar-statesman par excellence and the finest administrator of his time. Louis Mountbatten called CP “the acme of a statesman”. We should not tyrannise CP for the only mistake he made. The only way to salvage him from the tyranny of public memory shaped by ideologically biased historiography is to portray him according to what’s in the records.

Sarath S Pillai holds a diploma in archives management from the School of Archival Studies, National Archives of India.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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