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Vol. XXX No. 13, November 1-15, 2020

The Judge who renounced his knighthood

by Karthik Bhatt

(Continued from last fortnight)

Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s contribution to the world of law went beyond his career as a lawyer and his tenure on the Bench. He played host to several meetings of the Saturday Club, an informal think-tank comprising lawyers, at his residence, Beach House (which is today part of the Queen Marys College campus) where several aspects of law were discussed. It was at one of these meetings that the idea to bring out a periodical dedicated to law germinated. This resulted in the founding of the Madras Law Journal.

He retired from the Bench in 1907 citing failing health, which he felt came in the way of effective discharge of his duties. The Government of Madras paid rich tributes to his career stating that ‘the high judicial qualities, the independence of character and the profound learning which he has at all times displayed throughout his long and honourable career have earned for him a name which will long be held in reverence and esteem by the Government and public’.

Post his retirement, Sir S. Subramania Iyer started dedicating himself to causes close to his heart, especially that of temple legislation and reform. He founded the Dharma Rakshana Sabha in 1908 to tackle ineffective temple committees and work towards administrative reforms. It was thanks to the efforts of the Sabha that several temples including well-known ones such as Rameswaram, Srirangam and Tirupati were placed on a more secure footing with regard to management and control.

Subramania Iyer’s association with the Theosophical movement brought him in close contact with Dr. Annie Besant. Between 1907 and 1911, he served as the Vice President of the Theosophical Society. Later, when the Triplicane Lodge of the Theosophical Society built a hall in Hanumantha Lala Street in the 1920s, they named it the Mani Aiyar Hall in memory of Subramania Iyer. His close association with Dr. Annie Besant also meant that he would soon be involved in the freedom movement.

In 1916, Dr. Annie Besant along with her trusted lieutenants G.S. Arundale and B.P. Wadia founded the All India Home Rule League, a movement which aimed at obtaining self-governance for the country. Sir S. Subramania Iyer was appointed the Honorary President. He passionately took up the cause of the League and addressed a letter on the subject to the members of the Subjects Committee of the Indian National Congress held that year, exhorting it to welcome the ‘new-comer as a son and co-worker’ by which it would be able to infuse into itself new blood and before long would be able to bring upon the British public ‘the pressure which alone will convince it of the reality of our political demands’. He was a great advocate of taking the Swadeshi vow and spoke of the need to provide for the purchase of Swadeshi goods and articles and to afford help for starting of home industries. When Dr. Annie Besant, G.S. Arundale and B.P. Wadia were arrested and interred at Ooty in 1917, Subramania Iyer started a Fund to help the trio manage their legal expenses. It was however his act of writing a letter to President Woodrow Wilson drawing his attention to the arrest of Dr. Annie Besant and also seeking support to the cause of the Home Rule League that ruffled feathers in the highest echelons of the Government.

In a letter dated June 24, 1917 addressed to President Woodrow Wilson, Sir S. Subramania Iyer wrote of the resolutions passed at the conventions of the Indian National Congress and All India Muslim League asking His Majesty, the King of Britain to issue a proclamation announcing that it was the aim of the British Government to confer Self-Government on India at an early date, adding that there had been no official response in this regard. Drawing attention to India’s contribution of both ‘blood and treasure’ at various places such as France, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli, he stated that the men were sacrificing their lives to maintain the supremacy of a nation which used it to dominate and rule them against their will. He also wrote of the oppression and misrule in India, where officials granted themselves exorbitant salaries and allowances, sapped the country of its wealth, imposed crushing taxes without consent and cast thousands in jail for uttering patriotic sentiments. He exhorted the President to prevail upon His Majesty the King and the English Parliament, who he believed were unaware of these conditions and help further the cause of the country.

The letter raised the hackles of the Government of India, which found fault in act of correspondence directly with the head of a foreign power by a man of the stature of Subramania Iyer, a man who had been knighted. The Secretary of State E.S. Montagu and the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford used the opportunity afforded by Sir S. Subramania Iyer seeking a meeting with them at the Government House to discuss political reforms to express their displeasure in no uncertain terms. In a detailed discussion on the subject at the House of Commons, Montagu called the allegations in the letter ‘too wild and baseless to require or receive notice from any responsible authority’. Things took a personal turn when Sir J.D. Rees called Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s letter a senile production, while drawing attention to his age. Back home, the Madras Mail launched a scathing attack and called for his knighthood to be revoked. The Government of India however deemed the personal rebuke expressed by the Viceroy sufficient and no further action was contemplated in the matter.

Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s statue outside the Senate House

In a letter to the press in June 1918, Sir S. Subramania Iyer detailed the timeline of the events and laid out his justifications for the correspondence which had caused such furore. Referring to the remarks of the Secretary of State where he had insinuated that the holder of the title of KCIE ought to have conducted himself more gracefully, Sir S. Subramania Iyer remarked that none could agree with him (E.S. Montagu) in supposing that the ‘possession of this title debarred him from criticising misrule in the country’. Tracing the events leading to the conferring of knighthood on him, Sir S. Subramania Iyer said that the title had been announced as a matter of routine following the practice to make every Indian High Court Judge who officiated as a Chief Justice for however short a time, a Knight, as a compensation for the inability in elevating Indians as Chief Justices. He added that he had preferred that the insignia be conferred on him by post, which had however been unostentatiously delivered to him by the acting Collector of Madurai and his peon while he was on holiday in his cottage on the Palani Hills. Referring to the attack by the Madras Mail, he remarked that it should probably ‘formulate the process by which the dis-knighting should be carried out’, adding that ‘A Durbar, of course would be indispensable as well as a mourning costume to be worn on such an occasion’.Two days later, in a letter to the press enclosing his address to the Chief Secretary, Government of Madras he stated that he had returned the insignia received on his being made KCIE and the Dewan Bahadur medal, as under the circumstances he felt it ‘impossible to continue to avail himself of the honour of being the holder of such a title, or that of Dewan Bahadur’. He also resolved not to receive any communications thenceforth addressed to him with the prefix Sir and the suffix KCIE or the title Dewan Bahadur.

It was a stunning act of defiance by a man of great conviction who firmly believed that ‘among western inventions, none operates more seductively and to the detriment of public interests than these titles’, and that it was to shunned by every honest man if by ‘accepting them he is to be debarred from the legitimate exercise of his civic rights’.

Subramania Iyer passed away in 1924, bringing to close an illustrious life full of remarkable achievements, none more than the renunciation of his titles.


1. Speeches and Writings of Dr. (Sir) S Subramania Iyer, Part I.

2. Sir Subramania Aiyer by S.M. Raja Rama Rao, Wednesday Review Press, 1914.

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