Date:20/04/2003 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2003/04/20/stories/2003042000160400.htm
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In the name of biography

The involvement of C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar in a variety of political and administrative positions during a decisive era in the history of India makes him not only a challenging subject but also a possible focus to illumine a variety of issues, which shaped modern Indian politics. But the biography under review seems more reminiscent of medieval hagiographies and is unlikely to carry conviction, writes K.N.PANIKKAR.



Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar ... representing a fringe tendency in politics. Left: CPR with Nehru: "little now in common but our nationality," in Nehru's words.

THE public figures who have aroused strong passion by their involvement with political and administrative affairs, though popular subjects of biography, are not easy to treat. Surrounding them are several prejudices and partisanship, which intrude into the quality of their biographies and undermining thereby criticality and objectivity, virtues, which inform the best of the genre. Nevertheless, biographers often tend to identify themselves with their subjects, so much so that they appear as enthusiastic defenders.

The voluminous biography of C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, written by Saroja Sundararajan amply reflects this weakness. Sponsored by C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, it appears to be an effort to resurrect the "myriad minded genius" and to place him on a high pedestal. As stated by the author " this work is an authentic attempt at vindicating him as one who will go down in history as not only as one of the great Dewans of the State (of Travancore) but as one of the outstanding statesmen among the many of international stature of that period." Authentic it is, but whether it is convincing is doubtful. For, the author overstates her case, substituting justification and rationalisation for analysis and argument. A more balanced view would have served the cause better.

The present effort, reminiscent of medieval hagiographies, is unlikely to carry conviction even to Sir C.P's sympathisers and admirers. As a biography it is a missed opportunity, as the involvement of C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar in a variety of political and administrative positions during a decisive era in the history of India makes him not only a challenging subject but also a possible focus to illumine a variety of issues, which shaped modern Indian politics. More so because the author had access to sources in the holdings of repositories in India and abroad. Unfortunately the author, possibly blinded by her mission of proving that C.P could do no wrong, fails to draw upon them with the insight of a historian. In a way C.P. represented a fringe tendency in political life, which was out of synch with reality. His loyalty to the British Government at a time when the National movement was raging and his efforts to shore up a tottering feudal institution were not pure personal predilections or momentary aberrations. They emerged out of deeper political and ideological convictions, influenced by anti-democratic and authoritarian perspectives. C.P's life and work can be understood and assessed only in the context of such currents.


The author bemoans the fact that independent India did not make use of his talents adequately, even though he lived for about 20 years after 1947. This is possibly because his political outlook militated against the anti-feudal and anti-colonial principles, which formed the guiding spirit of the Republic. Jawaharlal Nehru had said: "There is little now in common between us except our common nationality. He is today a full- blooded apologist of British rule in India, especially during the last few years; an admirer of dictatorship in India and elsewhere, and himself a shinning ornament of autocracy in an Indian state." It would have been quite uncharacteristic, if a person of C.P's ideas and perspectives were allowed to shape the destiny of the nation. That is possibly the reason why Nehru despite repeated requests by many refused to associate him in the running of the nascent Indian state.

C.P. had undoubted intellectual ability and administrative acumen, which he used against the current of history: to collaborate with the British colonial rule and to prop up the native states. He served the British government with `distinction' as the Advocate General, Member of the Governor's Council and as the Member of the Viceroy's Executive Council at a time when the people of India were engaged in a struggle against colonial domination. The only connection he had with the national movement was the brief association with the Home Rule League. After that he was always in the opposite camp, lending his mite to the suppression of all democratic aspirations of the people. In assessing his contribution to the nation and his qualities of statesmanship, the author understandably overlooks this important strand in his public life. This strain of his character and ideas was most forcefully manifest during his controversial tenure as the Dewan of Travancore when he exercised complete control over the administration of the State. That the Dewan acted on behalf of the ruler is undisputable, but whether he acted at the behest of the ruler, as suggested by the author and some historians, is doubtful, despite the claims of his loyalty to the ruling house and its interests. In a way, the initiative rested with the Dewan in almost everything, which he seized in a manner that aroused near universal indignation in the State. He spared no method to impede the activities of the State Congress, both of suppression and manipulation. He even used the communities against each other. The worst, however, was reserved against the Communists whose heroic struggle in Punnapra and Vayalar were most brutally dealt with. The anger against the Dewan was so intense that an attempt was made on his life. There is an argument, which the author seems to share, that this incident had nothing to do with his decision to give up his scheme of independent Travancore and to leave the State. Given the public opinion and the direction of national politics, CP would have realised the futility of his pet project and the attempt on his life only hastened his resolve to call it a day. Dealing with these matters, the author is evidently ill at ease, as the data she herself has marshalled do not square up to the mission of defending CP that she has chosen to perform.


The weakest link in the author's scheme is the effort to absolve C.P. of any role in the collapse of the Travancore National and Quilon Bank in 1938. The run on the Bank with 55,000 small investors and 4,000 shareholders was itself inexplicable as it was apparently induced by a rumour about its solvency. The Government of Travancore, when approached by the Chairman Mammen Mappilai, refused to give any assistance to the Bank to tide over the difficult times. Instead, the Government only deepened the crisis by warning the public against the "danger involved in having pecuniary transaction" with the bank. Rather than helpful the Government's attitude was vindictive which is born out by the arrest of Mammen Mappilai and C.P. Mathen. That the collapse of the Bank owes much to the `interest' of the Dewan due to political reasons was an open secret. It was, in fact, held out as a threat to the Christians who were supporting the State Congress. The author does not advance any argument or evidence to prove that C.P. had no role in the incident, except making an unconvincing distinction between the Maharajah and the Dewan. Her pious conviction, however, is reassuring: "C.P. could never have been behind any manoeuvre to destabilise a financial organisation. It was a trashy charge against a man who was well known for his abiding interest in setting up financial institutions." That indeed is well said! Arguably the authoritarian, undemocratic and retrogressive role of C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar in Travancore is indefensible.

Yet it goes to the credit of the author that she has tried to vindicate him with rare conviction and commitment. That the discipline of history has suffered in the bargain is a different matter.

Whether such efforts are part of an emerging revisionist history deserves some attention.

Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar: A Biography, Saroja Sundararajan, Allied Publishers, pp.778, Rs.490

The writer is the Vice-Chancellor, Sri Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kochi.

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