Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. No. 12, October 16-31, 2020

Sir S. Subramania Iyer — a life of public service – Part 1

by Karthik Bhatt

Sir S. Subramania Iyer, legal luminary and former acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court was a noted public crusader, a nationalist at heart and an ardent Theosophist. Though he commanded much respect amongst the British for his legal acumen and public spiritedness which resulted in several titles and also a knighthood, he did not shy away from speaking out against their policies and actions concerning the governance of our country on many occasions. One such resulted in him renouncing his knighthood and Dewan Bahadur title in the face of the hostile reaction of the Government of India to a letter written by him to President Wilson of the USA.

This two-part article is a brief profile of this remarkable personality and the incident, which represents one of the early instances of a high-profile protest against the Government by a man who was once part of the establishment, so to speak.

Born in 1842 in Madurai, Subramania Iyer lost his father when he was just two years of age. He grew up under the care of his mother and elder brother Ramaswamy Iyer, who was in Government service and had risen to the post of head-clerk.

Having completed his school education at the Zilla High School in Madurai with distinction, Subramania Iyer followed in the footsteps of his brother and joined Government service as a clerk. While working, he cleared the examination to appear as a Pleader but was denied permission to practice by the District Judge, R.R. Cotton, a man of irascible temper and arbitrary in his judgements. Subramania Iyer’s offence seemingly was his failure to salute the Court when he appeared before it to apply for permission. However, with the coming into force of the Criminal Procedure Code in 1862, Subramania Iyer’s legal qualifications found recognition and he was appointed Public Prosecutor by the District Magistrate. With the writ of R.R. Cotton still running large, Subramania Iyer did not find himself inclined to take up the assignment and chose to continue as a clerk. The practice of law was however not away from his mind and he was in search of ways to pursue it.

Chancing upon the Madras High Court Rules wherein it was stated that a person who had passed the B.L Examination and had served as an apprentice under a Barrister or a Vakil could practice as one, Subramania Iyer chose to obtain the degree from the Madras University. This required him to take up studies again, as he had to pass the Matriculation and F.A exams before being eligible to take the B.L exam. He passed all examinations with flying colours and apprenticed himself to J.C. Mills, Official Reporter of the High Court.

Subramania Iyer began his career as a Vakil at Madurai and soon began to make a name for himself with his erudition and deep knowledge of law. Amongst his earliest cases was the Ramnad adoption suit, where he assisted the legendary J.D. Mayne. Much impressed by his work, Mayne suggested to the Government that he would rather leave the case to be prepared by Subramania Iyer himself.

His growing stature as a lawyer meant that he soon began to get involved in several public causes in Madurai. In 1870, he was appointed a Municipal Commissioner and a member of the Local Board. It was an association that would last for nearly 15 years. During this time, several improvements were made to the town, including the development of water-supply. In 1873, he instituted a suit against the Devasthanam Committee of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple for its failure to account for Rs. 40,000 of its funds. Thanks to Subramania Iyer’s efforts, the sum was retrieved and he was appointed a member of the Committee in appreciation of his services. In 1875, he was appointed the Chairman of the Reception Committee formed to accord a civic reception to King Edward as Prince of Wales during his visit to the town. The sum of Rs 14,000 that remained unspent out of the funds collected for the occasion was later utilised in the construction of the Albert Victor Bridge across the Vaigai river. It is interesting to note that M.S. Subbalakshmi’s great-grandmother danced on the occasion of the inauguration of the bridge in 1889.

The year 1884 was a momentous one in the life of Subramania Iyer for many reasons. He was appointed a non-official member of the Madras Legislative Council in the place of Rajah Goday Narayana Gajapati Rao who had served continuously for 14 years. It was also the year he came into contact with the Theosophical Movement which would become an integral part of his identity for the rest of his life. The association however did not come about in pleasant circumstances. Drawn into religion and philosophy following the death of his wife that year, Subramania Iyer came into contact with Colonel Olcott, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, marking the beginning of a long association that would also lead to an active participation in the political movement.

In December 1884, Subramania Iyer was one of the ‘band of seventeen’ which met in Madras to discuss the need for a body that would serve as the representative voice of the public in politics and governance. This resulted in the formation of the Indian National Congress, which held its first session in Bombay the following year. Subramania Iyer was an important delegate in the Session and seconded a resolution on the reform and expansion of Local and Imperial Legislative Councils. He moved to Madras permanently in 1885.

In 1888, Subramania Iyer became the first Indian to be appointed as the acting Government Pleader, a post that he held until 1895. His tenure was marked by several notable cases such as the Nageswara Iyer Forgery Case, which was tried at Tanjore and had taken more than sixty sittings of the Court. Thanks to Subramania Iyer’s expert conduct of the case, it resulted in the conviction of the accused. He had been up against the redoubtable Eardley Norton who had appeared for the defence. Yet another sensational case was the one against the Mahant of Tirupathi, who was accused of placing copper instead of gold coins at the base of the newly erected flagstaff of the temple. The value was estimated at a staggering two lakhs of rupees. The Mahant was probably counting on the fact that being an issue concerning religious sentiments, no action would be initiated by anyone nor would the Government act on complaints. He however did not contend with Subramania Iyer, who had been appointed as a Special Prosecutor in the case as his tenure as Government Pleader had ended. Subramania Iyer’s passionate plea before the Judges C.J. Collins and Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer where he addressed them stating that ‘’Surely, Your Lordships cannot be deterred from doing justice here because the mere trifle of a thing, a flagstaff is to fall’’ found resonance with the Court, which ordered the foundations to be dug up. The Mahant was found guilty.

Subramania Iyer was appointed a Judge of the Madras High Court in 1895 following the death of Sir T. Muthuswamy Iyer. He would go on to become Acting Chief Justice three times in the next few years. Official recognition of his services followed in the form of the Dewan Bahadur title in 1891 and knighthood in 1900. These titles would form the bone of contention during the First World War, when the political scenario of our country too was gaining momentum with the formation of the Home Rule League and other developments. What transpired forms the concluding part of the article.

(to be concluded next fortnight)

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