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Chettur Sankaran Nair

Chettur Sankaran Nair

He went to England & took the Jallianwalabagh massacres to court. When the only Bharatiya in the viceroy’s council made his way back to Madras after his resignation, it was an ovation all the way, the like of which had never been seen before in India. There were feasts and entertainments wherever the train stopped and crackers were fired under the wheels of the railway, so much so that there was one continuous firing for hours. 125 years back, he was the Indian National Congress President and to date, the only Malayali who held the reins of Congress.

Early Life

Sir C Sankaran Nair was born on 11-07-1857, at Mankara, Kerala. His early education began in the traditional style at home and continued in schools. in Malabar, till he passed the Arts examination with a first-class from the Provincial School at Calicut. Then he joined the Presidency College, Madras. In 1877 he took his Arts degree, two years later secured the Law degree from the Madras Law College. Starting as an advocate in 1880, he became a leading member of the Madras Bar. Appointed to the Madras Legislative Council in 1890, he initiated the legislation leading to the enactment of the Malabar Marriage Act of 1896. Participating in the nationalist movement, he was elected president of the INC at its Amaravathi session in 1897. He was the 1st Bharatiya to be appointed Advocate General of the Madras government in 1907 and later that year was elevated as a judge of the Madras High Court.


Immediately after Jallianwalabagh, Sankaran Nair writes in his autobiography: “Almost every day I was receiving complaints, personal and by letters, of the most harrowing description of the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh at Amritsar and the martial law administration…At the same time, I found that Lord Chelmsford [the Viceroy] approved of what was being done in Punjab. That, to me, was shocking.”

The effects of his resignation were immediate. Censorship of the press was immediately abolished and martial law in Punjab was terminated. This was also the time when the British Heavily Invested In Their Brand Gandhi, In his treatise “Gandhi and Anarchy”, he writes, ‘Non-cooperation, as advocated by Mr Gandhi, may be a weapon to be used when constitutional methods have failed to achieve our purpose. Non-violence and passive suffering will lead to bloodshed or be unfruitful of any satisfactory results.’ Published in 1922—the same year as the Chauri Chaura incident which led Gandhi to suspend the Non-Cooperation movement at a national level—the book did voice valid reservations for that time but also ensured that its author would be sidelined from common halls of fame for not seeing eye to eye with M K Gandhi. Ironically, his views found support in an address to the Constituent Assembly by Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar who warned about “the grammar of anarchy” arising from non-cooperation and street protests as opposed to the order of institutions.

The case in London

Lieutenant-Governor O’Dwyer sued Nair for libel. The case, O’Dwyer Vs Nair, which ensued before the King’s Bench in London created a sensation. An openly biased judge and partisan jury, however, saw the case decided against the defendant. The one dissenting juryman was Harold Laski. As the jury’s verdict was not unanimous, Sankaran Nair had the option of a fresh trial. He declined the opportunity; not trusting “another twelve English shopkeepers” to give him a different verdict. Further, they preferred to pay damages and costs amounting to 7,500 pounds – a princely sum then – rather than tender an apology to the plaintiff. Asked whether the verdict would tarnish his reputation, he replied: “If all the judges of the King’s Bench together were to hold me guilty, still my reputation would not suffer.”

Sankaran Nair can be best understood through the book C. Sankaran Nair written by KPS Menon, who had access to all his materials was first published in 1967. The volume is part of a series on Builders Of Modern India dedicated to and as it claims, “The story of the struggles and achievements of the eminent sons and daughters of India who have been mainly instrumental in our national renaissance and the attainment of independence”

On 24th April 1934, C Sankaran Nair, the man of many visions, attained Mukti in Madras. Sankaran Nair’s reputation may be untarnished, but he is himself forgotten & unsung. The country is the poorer for not recognizing the role of this towering personality in placing India squarely on the road to constitutional freedom.