Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair is one of those people whom history has garlanded with immortality. He was born in the year of the Mutiny of 1857. A brilliant man, he became a lawyer, a member of the legislative council, the president of the Indian National Congress, and the first Indian member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. However, it was not a position he was destined to hold for long.
After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, he resigned his post in protest against the atrocities of General Reginald Dyer. Later, he fought a case in England against Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was the lieutenant governor of Punjab when the massacre happened. Although he lost the case, he brought British atrocities to the world’s centre-stage.
Nair was also the great-grandfather of the book’s co-author Raghu Palat. He had grown up seeing the life-size portrait of Nair in his grandfather’s house. The book, however, happened when Palat and his wife Pushpa came across a plaque honouring Nair at the Jallianwala Bagh museum in Amritsar. “After our visit… both my wife and I realised that his was a story that we wanted to share,” writes Palat.
The Case that Shook the Empire is meticulously researched. Although mostly a tribute to Nair, the authors have not shrunk from laying out the negative shades of his character in the form of entertaining anecdotes. He was, for example, a proud man, “deeply sensitive to any kind of disrespect”. He was once invited to be the principal speaker at an important event. When he arrived at the venue, he was asked for his admission card, which he did not have. As he was refused entry, he returned home. When the governor of Madras, Lord Pentland, who was presiding over the event, profusely apologised and asked him to come back, he refused, replying coolly that he had started an oil bath.
The book culminates in the case he fought in England. For the most part, the courtroom drama plays out like a racy thriller novel. Towards the end though, I found it slightly long-winded and felt the narrative could have been tauter. Nevertheless, Nair’s story is impressive and one that needed to be told. He might have lost the battle but he certainly won the war.
THE CASE THAT SHOOK THE EMPIRE
Author: Raghu Palat and Pushpa Palat