Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.
Who, rowing hard against the stream
WHAT Keith Feiling wrote on the title page of his biography of the first British Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, is far truer of Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, the Dewan of Travancore, and its ruler, Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma. Hastings' dream lasted well nigh two centuries, thanks to the frailties of Indian character. C.P. and Varma's did not have even two seconds' fulfilment.
The Congress and the Muslim League accepted the British government's proposals for transfer of power to India and Pakistan on the very day it was made public, June 3, 1947, as for princely India the British simply declared that the Crown's Paramountcy over it would lapse. They would become sovereign. So, C.P. announced on June 11, Travancore's decision to declare itself independent state no sooner power was transferred to the two parts of erstwhile British India. On July 18, the ruler read out to the people, on Trivandrum Radio Station at 8-45 p.m., his Declaration of Independence: "On and from 15th August, 1947... Travancore will reassume its independence and sovereignty in full measure" (emphasis added throughout). But on July 30, he wrote to the last British Governor-General and Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, a letter intimating his decision to sign the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union, "though not without hesitation".
A dastardly attempt had been made on C.P.'s life on July 25. It was a narrow escape. Only the angavastaram round his neck and his trained breath control saved his life. It is a matter of opinion whether a different decision would have been made but for that crime. Suffice it to say that while the ruler signed the instrument, C.P. signed the Standstill Agreement with the Government of India, to continue existing arrangements, on August 12. Two days later he resigned as Dewan, and left the State on August 19.
Friend and foe alike spoke of his gifts and abilities in the superlative. An erudite lawyer, gifted advocate and born administrator, this consummate politician was also deeply interested in the arts, especially Carnatic music, and in literature. Clarity of thought and precision in expression were matched by a sense of humour and gift of repartee. Add to these an impressive personality and you get the measure of a forceful personality admired by most, respected by many, feared by some but distrusted by a significant number.
One can ignore the comments of K.M. Panikkar, a born intriguer and careerist. Nehru poured scorn on Panikkar, when he was Ambassador to China, in his first major meeting with U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles on November 6, 1951 (vide the writer's article "Nehru's China Policy", Frontline, August 4, 2000). The scholar Guy Pauker wrote an objective analysis in World Politics (1954-55) entitled "Panikkarism - the Highest Stage of Opportunism". Each book was written to promote an interest or job.
But C.P. had come to be hated by leading politicians and most people in the State. He revelled in ridiculing opponents, and was utterly repressive. To use a phrase coined by Frank Moraes, his brains had gone to his head. None could have described him more accurately than he himself did in a letter he wrote to the ruler from his sick bed on July 28 offering to resign. "It is impossible for me to function here as one of several Ministers or what is inevitable under the new Constitution, as a kind of Secretary to H.H... .. By temperament and training, I am unfit for compromises, being autocratic and over decisive. I don't fit into the present environment."
These words reveal a lot. It is inconceivable that any of the other eminent Dewans - A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar, Mirza Ismail or B.L. Mitter would have used them while addressing the ruler. C.P. could. He was an overbearing understudy. Mountbatten wrote in a Personal Report to London on July 25: "I gather the Maharaja is completely under Sir C.P.'s thumb." C.P. observed the forms carefully, keeping his boss informed. But he called the shots. It is, however, only fair to say that the boss fully shared the dream of entering "the gates of Eden" in his company. Else, C.P. could not have gone as far as he did.
The truth about the retreat can be gleaned from the record of C.P.'s last meetings with the Viceroy of July 21 and 22, which he properly submitted to the ruler on his return, his own letter to the ruler on July 28 and related records. Like Cardinal Wolsey, C.P. left power a bitter man. His letter to the ruler dated March 17, 1949, reflected that. He renounced his titles because of the ruler's "acquiescence (in) or approval of the removal of the bust in the Legislative Chamber and Your Highness' silence or inaction in respect of Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai's declaration that he knew my assailant and was prepared to produce him".
"It has since been established that the attack on Sir C.P. was made by K.C.S. Mony, an activist of Kerala Socialist Party (K.S.P.) who was closely associated with its leader N. Sreekantan Nair. The plot that was hatched to assassinate Sir C.P. was known only to a few extremist leaders in the State Congress. Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai was the real brain behind it and he had the active support of N. Sreekantan Nair. Mony had earlier mutilated the bust of Sir C.P. kept in the Sacvhivothama Satram (choultry) at Thampanoor, Thiruvananthapuram, and established his credentials to undertake the job successfully. In his autobiography `Ente Jeevitham' serialised in the `Malayalam Varika' G. Janardana Kurup gives the details of the conspiracy to kill Sir C.P. (Issue dated October 27, 2000). He mentions Kumbalathu Sanku Pillai, N. Sreekantan Nair, K.C.S. Mony and himself as being actively involved in its planning and makes the revelation that two activists of the K.S.P., viz, K. Pankajakshan (a later Minister and currently National Secretary of the RSP) and Jayanthan Nair of Thiruvananthapuram were also taken into confidence in regard to the details and their help sought in working out the plan. However, the identity of none of these persons was known at the time" (S. Menon; page 251). Even when he left the State he had the feeling that the ruler and his family had "shown a conspicuous lack of courage and spirit" and let him down at the last minute.
Recently, a simmering debate opened between the heirs and admirers of the ruler and his adviser; each side blaming the other in the posthumous proxy war. C.P. went to London to collect material for his memoirs. He died there at the Liberal Club, where he stayed, on September 26, 1966. He was a healthy 87. Defeat is an orphan. Victory has many fathers. Unfortunately, we do not have any account of the episode in defence of the Maharaja. These two books, written in C.P.'s defence, do him little justice.
Both Dr. Saroja Sundararajan and Professor A. Sreedhara Menon are distinguished academics and teachers of note with impressive books to their credit. Saroja Sundararajan extensively consulted the archives in India and the United Kingdom. There is a priceless treasure trove held by the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai comprising C.P. Papers and Palace Documents. The Foundation, which has done excellent work, commissioned this biography. But the biographer misunderstood her remit and produced hagiography, which is unjust to C.P. precisely for that reason. It is neither "a critical-historical account" of his life nor a "candid" one as she claims. Bar a few criticisms, not only is she crudely apologetic but on a vital point she misrepresents a document of crucial, decisive importance.
Fortunately, Sreedhara Menon reproduces it in full, besides some other important documents. Sundararajan's book covers the entire life of her subject unearthing material hard to come by. It makes fascinating reading, especially on the earlier phase of C.P.'s life. S. Menon's book is limited to the period 1931-47. He has also drawn from the archives in India, especially those in Kerala, and, of course, the Foundation's records. Though a little more critical, he is as apologetic. It makes no sense to draw on C.P.'s belated apologia to K.M. Munshi in 1958, as both the writers do, to argue that he meant "autonomy" not "independence" and ignore a mass of documents to the contrary. It is unjust to C.P. He knew the distinction between the two concepts. Both argue that independence was the ruler's idea; not C.P.'s.
Sundararajan adopts C.P.'s dislikes as her own. Some taluks were "infested (sic.) with Communists". She writes of "Nehru and his cohorts" who had "no use for the Princes and the States". Thank heavens for that. C.P.'s role as Dewan was "purely advisory". Dare one hope for a more objective work, written more felicitously, than these books, useful as they are?
C.P. was strongly opposed to Mohammed Ali Jinnah's demand for Pakistan and was for Travancore's accession if a single Union was established. Partition inspired dreams of independence. The British doctrine of Paramountcy helped him. Worse, it poisoned relations between India and Pakistan from their birth to this day. Rooted in false history, it created bad law which few Indian scholars cared to refute. Initially, the rulers of Indian states were assured of respect for the treaties they had made with the British and for their internal autonomy. But the British rode rough shod on both. Mooted in the 19th century, the doctrine was fully enunciated in the Report of the Indian States Committee (the Butler Report) in 1929. Paramountcy was not limited to or by the treaties but hovered over and above them. "It must continue to be paramount." The treaties were "made with the Crown" - which was surely a matter of mere form - "and that the relationship between the Paramount Power and the Princes should not be transferred, without the agreements of the latter, to a new government in British India responsible to an Indian legislature" (para 106).
This was a brazen falsehood. The treaties were related to British rule in India. The Report itself admitted: "It is not in accordance with historical fact that when the Indian States came into contact with the British Power they were independent... . In fact none of the States ever held international status. Nearly all of them were subordinate or tributary to the Moghul empire, the Mahratta supremacy or the Sikh Kingdom, and dependent on them. Some were rescued, others were created, by the British" (para 39).
One - Kashmir - was sold by the British to the Dogra ruler Gulab Singh for Rs.75 lakhs by the Treaty of Amritsar (1846). Gandhi referred to it at Wah on August 5 after his visit to Srinagar from August 1-4, 1947. "He had the good fortune to read what was euphemistically called the Treaty of Amritsar, but which was in reality a deed of sale. He supposed that it would be dead on the 15th August. The seller was the then British Governor-General, and Maharaja Gulab Singh was the buyer. The treaty going, would the state revert to the British and, therefore, to England? If to India, to which part? He held that without going into the intricacies of law, which he had no right to dilate upon, the common sense dictated that the will of the Kashmiris should decide the fate of Kashmir and Jammu. The sooner it was done, the better. How the will of the people would be determined was a fair question. He hoped that the question would be decided between the two dominations, the maharaja and the Kashmiris. If the four could come to a joint decision, then much trouble would be avoided. After all, Kashmir was a big State, it had the greatest strategic value, perhaps, in all India" (D.G. Tendulkar; Mahatma (1954), Vol. 8; page 79). It was a far-sighted statesman-like pronouncement. It was legally sound.
Indeed at one point the British even thought of retrieving Kashmir for themselves to make it part of British India. The Secretary of State for India Lord Kimberley wrote to the Viceroy in 1884: "As to the urgent need for reforms in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, there is, unfortunately, no room for doubt. It may, indeed, be a question whether, having regard to the circumstances under which the sovereignty of the country was entrusted to the present Hindoo ruling family, the intervention of the British government on behalf of the Mahommedan population has not already been too long delayed."
Shortly before the transfer of power in 1947, the doctrine was given a dangerous corollary in the Cabinet Mission's Memorandum on States' Treaties and Paramountcy dated May 12, 1946, four days before their proposals for independence for a British India. Britain "could not and will not in any circumstances transfer paramountcy to an Indian government... all the rights surrendered by the States to the paramount power will return to the States". Paramountcy will lapse and the States will become independent - which they never were.
Most of the leading Indian constitutional lawyers held well-paid retainers for one or the other ruler. One lawyer and scholar stood up to speak the truth - B.R. Ambedkar. In a brilliant statement to the press in late 1946, he tore the State's case to the shreds. He recalled Prof. William Holdsworth's defence of the doctrine in the Law Quarterly Review (October 1930) and regretted that "no Indian student of constitutional law has ever bothered to controvert his views with the result that they have remained as the last and final word on the subject". Ambedkar raised a new point, which was fatal to the Princes. Paramountcy was admittedly one of the prerogatives of the Crown. The law says that these prerogatives should be exercised only on the advice of the Ministers of the Dominion concerned; be it the U.K., Canada or India. Since they concerned India alone, "independent India can, therefore, make valid claims for the inheritance of Paramountcy" (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches; edited by Vasant Moon; Vol. 12; pages 197-203).
But which Dominion would advise the Crown in respect of a State like Kashmir which shared borders with both? Nehru propounded a fair democratic principle which was offered to Pakistan twice on November 1 and 8, 1947: "There should be acceptance of the principle that where the ruler of a State does not belong to the community to which the majority of his subjects belong and where the State has not acceded to that Dominion whose majority community is the same as the State's, the question whether the State should finally accede to one or the other of the two Dominions should be ascertained by reference to the will of the people" (White Paper on Kashmir; 1948, page 627). The All India Congress Committee had said in a resolution on June 15, 1947 that "the people of the States must have a dominating voice in any decisions regarding them". But, on July 30, Jinnah supported the States' claim to "independent status". He rejected the Nehru formula because he had an eye on Hyderabad. His stand was based on bad law and bad morality.
To recall this background is to appreciate the enormity of the peril which C.P.'s gamble posed to India, to the royal family and to himself. Nehru would have marched the army into Travancore as he was about to in Junagadh within a fortnight after August 15, 1947. The people would have risen in revolt. Even C.P.'s sons and friends were opposed to his venture. Nehru plainly told the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1952: "It was inevitable that the princes and others, whoever they might be - whether they acknowledged it or not, whether they wanted it or not, it is immaterial - must acknowledge the suzerainty, the sovereign domain of the Republic of India. Now, if that was so, even if Kashmir did not, as it so happened, decide whether to accede to Pakistan or India and we allowed the matter to be postponed for a while, that did not make Kashmir independent for the time being. It was not independent and our responsibility even then continued as the continuing entity if anything happened to Kashmir. I wish to say this because our duty to come to Kashmir's help was there, whether Kashmir acceded to India or not. On account of that continuing entity, India's responsibility to other parts continued, expect to those parts which had definitely and deliberately parted company" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Vol. 19, pages 302-3). Curzonian pretensions are for small men, Nehru was his own man.
He met C.P. on September 25, 1945 and they had a good talk. But C.P.'s mind began to wander as the Congress-Muslim League rift widened. In a note to the ruler (January 11, 1946) he warned that if he declined to join the Union, support of the British army would be necessary. But "English character in general and Englishmen in particular will always swim with the tide. To rely upon British help and assistance would be unwise". Yet, he met Sri Conrad Corfield, Political Adviser to the Viceroy, on February 24, 1946 and claimed an independent status for Travancore (S. Menon, pages 233-4). The Viceroy Lord Wavell enquired of him about the deposits of monazite and thorium in the State (May 12, 1946).
Interestingly, on December 18, 1946, C.P. wrote to the Maharaja: "If Mr. Jinnah stands out of the Constituent Assembly and continues to stand out until and unless Pakistan is created, that is no ground in my opinion for the non-cooperation of the States with the Constituent Assembly." Menon adds this fatuous comment: "Evidently, he changed his stand after having taken up the active advocacy of the cause of independent Travancore in the interests of the Royal Family after his return to the State."
The Cabinet Mission's Plan for an Indian federation collapsed. On February 20, 1947 London declared its intention to transfer power by June 30, 1948 "whether as a whole to some form of Central Government for British India or in some areas to the existing provincial governments... " The Princes would be free. In March the Congress demanded partition of Punjab and Bengal; tacitly accepting the partition of India.
Now, C.P. nailed his colours to the mast. After a visit to Delhi, he wrote to Corfield (March 21, 1947) that unless an all-India Union was formed, his State would become an independent Kingdom. He said publicly on March 16: "We are dealing as an independent State which can remain independent if the people and the sovereign work together and give us room for outside interference." The people were already lost to him, though they were for the Union. Yet, the ruler lauded him for the "impending recovery of a lost page in the history of Travancore" (March 19).
C.P. met Mountbatten on March 26 and on May 2. He, as well as the British Resident in the State, were kept informed of C.P.'s plans till his public announcement of independence on June 11. So was Jinnah. On June 22, C.P. appointed an envoy to Pakistan. The Travancore State Congress opposed the idea tooth and nail. Savarkar supported C.P. (June 20; S. Menon; page 244).
Meanwhile, in July events began to move at a fast pace in Delhi. Mountbatten and Vallabhbhai Patel skilfully persuaded most rulers to accede to India; to C.P.'s dismay. He wrote to his third son C.R. Sundaram on July 14, 1947: "I can say with personal knowledge that Lord Mountbatten was sent to Kashmir for forcing that State to come into the Indian Union, a course, which having regard to the internal condition and character of its population, would be fatal." Sample Menon's apologia: "Whether this is true or not, it cannot be denied that Kashmir has been a running sore in the relations between India and Pakistan ever since Independence."
On July 20, C.P. met V.P. Menon, Secretary to the Ministry of States, who pleaded with him to accede to India. On July 21 and 22, he met Mountbatten. Before he did, V.P. Menon advised George Abell, the Viceroy's private secretary, that "the impression left in my mind was that he was favourably disposed to the approach we are making now" (The Transfer of Power; Vol. XII; page 276). In his book The Story of the Integration of the Indian States, V.P. Menon claimed that "at first he (C.P.) was adamant, but after a further interview with Lord Mountbatten, he agreed that accession was inevitable" (page 111). But, Mountbatten's report (July 25) does not claim that (ibid; pages 335-7).
C.P. left Delhi with the Instrument of Accession and Mountbatten's letter to the ruler and promptly reported to him. Note what Sundararajan writes: "From a letter that C.P. wrote the Maharaja five days later, it was clear that even as he handed him the Viceroy's letter, on 23 July, he (C.P.) deliberately advocated `the case of accession, subject to the conditions and concessions made by the Viceroy'. He told the Maharaja in the clearest possible language that he had to choose between accession and independence as there was no middle course. If he acceded, he would get some advantages; if he did not, he would have to fight a hard battle with some help from Jinnah in the civil war that India would surely face within six months. `I expect the rise of half a dozen principalities in India (as in the 18th century) after the massacre of the Congress leaders (in November or December). Those who can fight out the terrible battle will emerge as rulers but the risk of life and property is 75 to 25. I realised this some months ago and made it clear to Your Highness and you then decided to fight it out'.
"That C.P. had a talk with the Maharaja and his mother soon after he reached Travancore is further confirmed by a scribbled note of the Maharani in lead pencil to C.P. wherein, referring to a certain conversation, she stated, `... our fight as originally contemplated was based on the certainty of an Indian Union Republic. Since it is to be a Dominion, the whole situation has changed as you rightly observed on the day you came back from Delhi'" (pages 602-603).
This account gives the reader a completely false impression that C.P. advocated accession when he met the ruler on July 23. But at the concert on July 25, however, just before he was assaulted, he publicly spoke of "a new era of sovereign independent status for Travancore" (page 604).
Though Menon shares her view, he has published the full text of C.P.'s letter of July 28 to the Maharaja from the sick bed. It bears quotation in extenso: "On my return from Delhi and after reading the narrative, I deliberately advocated the cause of accession subject to the conditions and concessions made by the Viceroy so that you may not hear only one side. The next day, I gave my own point of view. The alternative is either accession, i.e., becoming a part of the Dominion or treaty or alliance or being independent. There is no middle course and no face saving formula. This was clear from my talk with the Viceroy. If you accede you get some advantage but are not different from Baroda, Gwalior and Patiala except as to customs and some financial matters. If you do not accede, you will have to fight a hard battle with some assistance from Jinnah in the forthcoming civil war in India (which is certain within six months). I expect the rise of half a dozen principalities in India (as in the 18th century) after the massacre of the Congress leaders (in November and December). Those who can fight out the terrible battle will emerge as rulers but the risk of life and property is 75 to 25. I realised this some months ago and made it clear to Your Highness and you then decided to fight it out". Accession did not represent C.P.'s "own point of view".
"The events that have happened must have made a great impression on you. They have not changed my mind but made me fully realise that your lives are in jeopardy and those of persons near and dear to you. It is either death or victory.
"If you consider that your people are not ready for a fight and that they are not worth fighting for, the path of compromise is inevitable. Such compromise or concession should, if it is to be effective, be wholehearted. Accession as suggested by the Viceroy with the concessions made by him is the first essential" (pages 388-389).
Clearly, far from advocating accession he urged its rejection: "It is impossible for me to continue except on the basis of an out and out fight." On this, evidently, the ruler differed. The tone of C.P.'s letter suggests that he offered to quit on July 28, yet stayed on. V.P. Menon sent two finalised drafts of the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement on August 4. C.P. wanted further talks to elicit clarifications. Since he could not go to Delhi, he deputed Travancore's Representative in Delhi, G. Parameswaran Pillai, for the talks (Sundararajan; page 607).
This brings us to a grey zone which explains why V.P. Menon formed the impression he did. Evidently, as a fall back position, C.P. posed sharp queries on safeguards in the event of accession. The ruler's wire to Mountbatten on July 28 was "in general confirmation of the terms discussed with my Dewan".
Sreedhara Menon records: "Sir C.P. wanted further clarifications on such issues as the control of State Forces, currency and coinage, customs, export and import control, irrigation and electric power, railway, police etc. In a telegram dated July 8 (sic. August 8?) he raised these issues with V.P. Menon. It ends as follows: "The State will of course be prepared to come to special agreement so as to come into line with all India policies and to prevent unfair practices or smuggling but the State's inherent rights to fiscal autonomy and to levy and to retain export and import duties must be guaranteed and ensured. They must be regarded as conditions precedent to accession as already agreed during discussions.
"G. Parameswaran Pillai took up these issues with V.P. Menon, C.C. Desai and other concerned officials in the States Department. On August 9, he sent telegraphic intimation to the Dewan of the various clarifications received by him. A key sentence in the telegram is as follows: `While the States Department insists that the form of Instrument of Accession and Standstill Agreement should remain intact, they are prepared to give assurances regarding all fundamental points covered by your telegrams and other matters discussed today'." S. Menon also publishes the text of C.P.'s report of his talks in Delhi on July 21-22 to the ruler. It records the assurances he had sought in Delhi.
C.C. Desai, Additional Secretary in the States Ministry, wrote to C.P. on August 10 recording the concessions (vide S. Menon, pages 391-3 for the text). They were substantial. The documents were signed on August 12. C.P. resigned two days later and left Travancore on August 19. No Dewan secured or could have secured better terms.
Had C.P. but taken the Unionist avenue, instead of the false path he did, he would have emerged as a formidable champion of federalism in the Constituent Assembly as K. Santhanam and B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya tried to. He had shot himself in the foot; having also shot his mouth off.
The safeguards he had won in July 1947 were washed away by the Constituent Assembly. Federalists could not stand up to Nehru and Patel. Nehru never forgave him for cabling Prime Minister Attlee on July 6: "Travancore cannot be found to join a Dominion whose leaders have at this critical juncture in world history established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Republic" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Vol. 3; page 293). Patel missed the point when he urged Nehru to use C.P.'s services as a diplomat. Their world-views clashed. But Nehru did use his services in other fields. C.P. emerged as an educationist of first rank.
A biography to be fair, must view his life and record in their entirety shorn of sentiment. This was not an easy article to write. The writer came to know C.P. in his last years and has warm memories of him.
In a letter dated January 10, 1965, commenting on the writer's analysis of Jinnah's role, C.P. wrote: "I am glad that you have remembered and quoted Sir Chimanlal Setalwad with reference to the failure of the negotiations with Jinnah. Having known him personally and fairly intimately from the days of the Home Rule movement, I agree that Jinnah was a man of great realism and courage but he was, as you indicate, deficient in historical imagination and was too temperamental and touchy wholly to put aside the personal equation."
It is neither unjust nor disrespectful to add that that was a fair judgment on C.P. himself.
Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar: A Biography by Saroja Sundararajan; Allied; pages 778; Rs.490.
Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore: Annals of Sir C.P.'s Sixteen years by A. Sreedhara Menon; Current Books, Kottayam; pages 414; Rs.395.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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