Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat give a riveting account of how Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair stood up to the British following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919
Photos: Raghu and Pushpa Palat; the book cover; Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair
By Shevlin Sebastian
Authors Raghu and Pushpa Palat were walking around the Jallianwala Bagh Museum at Amritsar, in December 2017. Suddenly, Pushpa pulled up short and said, “Hey Raghu look at this plaque. Your great-grandfather is being honoured.”
Raghu stared at the words written in praise of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, and his eyes bulged in pride and happiness, even as he said, “It’s so wonderful.”
Suddenly he thought, ‘Here was a man from Kerala, being honoured on the other side of India, in Punjab. People did not know about him, even in the South and especially in his home state of Kerala. Even I don’t know much about him.”
Not surprisingly, a need arose in him, to know more about his ancestor. He also wanted to tell the story so that his daughters Nikhila and Divya (Bollywood actor) and granddaughter Nivaya should know the family history.
Soon, he began to do research. The more he read the more fascinated he came. Raghu then asked his wife to join him. “Both of us are writers,” says Raghu. “I have published 46 books in genres like management, shares, banking, investments and business communication, whereas my wife writes on luxury and lifestyle. We were both entering a new genre and we felt it would be better if we combined our different skills.”
The end result has just been published. Brought out by Bloomsbury, the book is intriguingly titled, ‘The Case That Shook The Empire’ -- One Man’s Fight for the Truth about the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
Nair (1857-1934) was the President of the Indian National Congress, Advocate-General of the Madras Presidency, and a member of the Viceroy's Executive Council. “Being a member of the Council was a pinnacle for an Indian,” says Raghu. But when details of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which took place on April 13, 1919, began to seep out, Nair had no hesitation in resigning immediately in protest.
This created ripples among the British establishment.
Later, he wrote a book called ‘Gandhi and Anarchy’ where he held the Punjab Governor Michael O’Dwyer responsible for the massacre ordered by Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer at Jallianwala. Officially, around 400 unarmed civilians, including men, women and children died.
When O’Dwyer read the book, he asked Nair to publicly withdraw the book from circulation and apologise along with paying 1000 pounds to charities specified by the former. Expectedly, Nair refused. Consequently, O’Dwyer filed a case for defamation in the Court of the King’s Bench in England in 1922.
However, it was not an even playing field. As the authors write, ‘There were innumerable disadvantages for Nair, not least of which was a less-than-proficient legal practitioner. The trial was to be held in England, the jury would be English… Most significant of all was the fact that the English continued to believe themselves to be far superior to Indians, which is why the latter were rarely treated fairly.
English juries had acquitted Englishmen who had killed Indians (one was acquitted after killing a coolie and another after killing a washerman who had asked for his wages) and here was an Indian accusing an Englishman of atrocities in an English court. It was destined to be a case that made history. “Later, it gave a tremendous fillip to the freedom movement,” says Pushpa.
The book is crisp and well-written. And the duo were keen to avoid just a bland recitation of facts and dates. “We wanted it to be a historical novel, as we wanted to reach a larger audience,” says Pushpa. And to a large extent, they have succeeded.
In a chapter on the history of Punjab, here is an unforgettable description of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. ‘It has been said that in appearance Ranjit Singh looked like an old mouse with grey whiskers and one eye. He was also short and mean-looking, with a swollen stub for a nose and skinny lips. His head sunk on his broad shoulders that were too wide for his height. His neck was muscular, his limbs were thin and he had small hands. However, when he mounted a horse, his whole demeanour transformed and he assumed a natural grace. Additionally, he was known to be selfish, avaricious, superstitious and untrusting. He was often drunk and revelled in debauchery. His greatness lay in the fact that he was a military genius, a great strategist and a born ruler’.