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When the postman knocked

S. MUTHIAH

THE LARGEST number of letters, calls and messages I have had since this column began has been in response to my query about Sir R. K. Shanmukham Chetty's resignation from the Cabinet in 1948 (Miscellany, March 15). There's a common threat in all of them, but, Rashomon-like, no two perspectives nor the details are the same. The common features of the story are these:

— Shortly after Independence, the government appointed an Income Tax Investigation Commission, with Justice Sir S. Varadachariar chairing it. The commission was to look into the huge arrears of income tax owed by several leading industrialists and Sir Varadachariar had accepted the assignment only on Nehru's word that there would be no interference by ANYONE during the course of the investigation.

— Sir Shanmukham Chetty, the Finance Minister, however allegedly took undue interest in a couple of cases involving Coimbatore mill-owners; he himself was a mill-owner and had owned the Vasantha Mills.

— When questions were asked about Sir Shanmukham Chetty's role, Nehru was quite upset and Sir Shanmukham Chetty resigned in order to, he stated, "set the highest standards of integrity in public life."

Several versions of this story have been sent to me, with the roles of heroes and villains varying in each one. But the one story quite in variance with this is from M. O. Mathai's "Reminiscences of the Nehru Age," a Xerox of the relevant page being sent to me by Reader M.G. Ratnasabapathy. He reminds me that Mathai was the Personal Private Secretary (Special Assistant) to the Prime Minister from 1947 to 1959 and had recorded "uninhibited disclosures" only because of his "obligation to true history." The story in the book reads:

"Sardar Vallabhai Patel did not want John Matthai as Finance Minister in the dominion government because he had agreed with Liaqat Ali Khan and had later persuaded Nehru to agree to set up an Income Tax Investigation Commission. Patel was of the view that Liaqat Ali Khan's real motive was to ruin Hindu businessmen and industrialists. So he managed to persuade Nehru to bring in R. K. Shanmukham Chetty as the first Finance Minister of independent India. Patel knew that Chetty would be pliable and do his bidding. Chetty's appointment, with the Ottawa Pact background, came as a complete surprise to most people. At the appropriate time, Patel persuaded Shanmukham Chetty to delete a few names of Gujarati businessmen and industrialists from the list of those who were to be proceeded against on the basis of the findings of the commission. When this became known, there was a furore in Parliament and Patel found himself in a tight corner. He kept quiet and let down the man who did his bidding, and did not lose a wink of sleep in the process. Nehru asked for and received Chetty's resignation. He was succeeded by John Matthai as Finance Minister. Patel was then in no position to prevent John Matthai's appointment. Some time later John Matthai was to say about Chetty that he was more sinned against than sinning."

Other bits and pieces arising from this correspondence was that Sir Shanmukham Chetty was the first South Indian to preside over the Central Assembly (1930s) that he abolished the "much hated Excess (Super) Profits Tax introduced by Liaqat Ali Khan" and deserves deeper study by economic historians for his role in the finances of India from the 1930s till his resignation. And, incidentally, wonders one reader, "Was he Chetty or Chettiar? And which form did he prefer?"

* Reader K.V. Ramanathan, like S.K. Chettur, a Civilian, says that Chettur's second short story collection was indeed titled "The Cobras of Dhermashevi" (Miscellany, March 15), a fact confirmed by Suma Chettur referring to the only copy with her. Ramanathan tells me that Chettur was Sub-Collector in charge of forested Cheranmahadevi, but had altered the name of the place for his story which probably was based on an incident there.

* I must have been daydreaming last week when I typed `Sweden' for `Denmark'. N. Sankar is Honorary Consul for Denmark and not Sweden as I had stated in Miscellany, March 22.

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