Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sir Albion Raj Kumar Banerji, I.C.S.

Autograph of Sir AR Banerji ICS
During the early eighties, I was working as the manager of one of the branches of a nationalized bank in India, beside the Banerji Road in Eranakulam. Despite my work of almost five years in that address, little did I know about “Banerji” except that he was a Diwan of Cochin.

Very little information is obtained from the books published in Kerala or India about this distinguished ruler and civil servant who had some of the most important assignments in British India as a member of the elite Indian Civil Service.

It does not speak well of us as Indians or Keralites that we know very little of our people and heritage and that after sixty years of independence a lot more work needs to be done on events and personalities of yore.

Sir Albion Raj Kumar Banerji (1871-1950) was the son of Sasipada Banerji who was a doyen of the Brahmo Samaj (The Society of God) founded by Raja Rammohun Roy in AD 1828 and a great social reformer in his own right. Sasipada Banerji along with his wife Rajkumari had visited England in AD 1871 at the invitation of Mary Carpenter, the renowned English educational and social reformer. Mrs. Rajkumari was the first Indian lady to visit England for which the couple was excommunicated from the community of conservative Bengali Brahmins. A son was born to them on the 10th of October 1871 while in England and they named him Albion Rajkumar Banerji.

Mrs. Rajkumari , mother of Sir AR Banerji ICS, the first Indian lady to visit England IN 1871


After his studies in England, Albion joined the Indian Civil Service, the elite group of civil servants in India. It is interesting to recall that 500 such officers ran the British Indian Empire stretching from Baluchistan to Burma. The ICS officers comprised the administrative backbone of British rule and its officers – both English and native – were largely incorruptible, known for their intellectual integrity and unwavering impartiality. So just was their tenure in remote, rural districts that even today, several decades later, their names are invoked with reverence, even by those who never knew them.

Mr.Banerji had a most distinguished career and was the Diwan, the role equivalent to that of the Prime Minister, in two princely states, viz. Cochin and Mysore. Between AD 1907 and 1914, he was the Diwan of Cochin under Maharajah Rama Varma XV, (Ozhinja Valiya Thampuran meaning the one who abdicated the crown) who reigned from AD 1895 to 1914 and brought much prosperity to the State.

In AD 1911, during the Delhi Durbar of the King Emperor George V and Queen Mary, Sir Albion Raj Kumar Banerji was honoured by awarding the title, the Companion of the Indian Empire, CIE.

The Cochin State Manual written by Sri.C.Achyutha Menon I Edition 1911 is an authoritative work on the erstwhile Princely State of Cochin. In the preface to the book, Mr.Menon writes as follows:
”The Manual owes its being to the present Diwan of Cochin, Mr.A.R.Banerji, I.C.S. Not only did the idea originate with him, but the work itself was started under his orders and carried out under his supervision. Although the book is thus an official publication, I am solely responsible for the correctness of the facts and comments contained in it”

In the book, Southern India by Playne Wright Somerset originally published in London by Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Pub. Co, 1914-1915, the following could be found:

“R. Banerji CIE, of the ICS was appointed Diwan in May 1907 and no previous holder of the office has succeeded to the same extent in gaining the confidence of a Rajah, in promoting the welfare of the State and in securing the affection of the people. There is universal feeling of the deepest regret throughout the State that this very able official is now retiring, and he will be remembered in Cochin for many years to come as one who has laboured for the moral intellectual and temporal good of the whole community.

The country was hampered by heavy debts and by many difficult problems when Mr.Banerji took up reins of office, but he has the satisfaction of knowing that the revenue of the State has greatly increased during the tenure of his Diwanship; that the various departments are in smooth working order; and that those frowning rocks of complex problems and the crippling effects of a depleted treasury have been safely passed. His successor is J.W.Bhore of the ICS who has been Under Secretary in the revenue department of the Madras Government.”

After a great stint in Cochin, Sir Banerji served as Diwan of Mysore from AD 1922 to 1927. Owing to historical reasons, the Diwans of Mysore were an integral part of the administration of Mysore from 1881 to 1946. Sir Banerji was responsible for the constitutional reforms inaugurated in Mysore in 1922 under the great maharajah
Sri Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV who was one of the most celebrated rulers among the Indian States. Paul Brunton, the philosopher and mystic traveler , who has many wonderful books to his credit had stayed with the Maharajah and has paid eloquent tributes to the philosopher-king as a role model for rulers over the world."

After his assignment in Mysore, the British Government sent him to the troubled State of Kashmir as the Foreign and Political Minister.

He has authored a few books of which the following are very informative and the copies of which are extremely rare.

1. An Indian Pathfinder, Being the memoirs of Sevabrata Sasipada Banerji 1840 -1924 Foreword by the Most Hon. the Marques of Zetland- Oxford - Kemp Hall Press
2. “The Indian Tangle" Foreword by the Rt. Hon. Earl Winterton, PC, MP, Hutchinson & Co, London.
I have procured from England these rare books with the author’s signature, which of course cost me, a small fortune, and about which I intend to write separately.

Palakkad, South India
20th May 2008.
Postscript:
1. It is very interesting to go through the reasons that led to the Maharajah Rama Varma XV of Cochin abdicating the crown on the 7th of December 1914. He used to have independent views on the administration and about his duties which often adversely affected the relationship with the Madras government.

For example, the British Resident took exception to the Maharajah addressing the Viceroy as “My Esteemed Friend” in one of his letters sent in AD 1913.The Resident reminded the Maharajah that the Viceroy should be addressed as “My Lord”. This led to much unpleasantness in the letters exchanged between the Madras Government and the Maharajah. This was only the spill over of a continued dislike of the Maharajah by the Madras Government.

However, in his message to the people of Cochin on 8th December 1913, the Maharajah had expressed his desire to abdicate the crown because of personal reasons but stressed that he shall continue till certain reforms were put in place. The formation of an Advisory Council, the introduction of a Tenancy Bill to protect the farmers and constituting the Village Panchayats were some of the reforms he wanted and initiated for which the contributions of Sir Banerji were no less important.


2. The infamous “Smartha Vicharam” (Trial of the Nampoothiri woman suspected of immorality) of Kuriyedathu Thaathri, was held in 1905 during the reign of this Maharajah. Though Banerji joined the services of the Maharajah only in 1907, it might have been quite interesting for him to study this practice prevalent among the Nampoothiris of Kerala especially since he happened to be the son of Sasipada Banerji who worked tirelessly for the emancipation of the womenfolk of Bengal.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A wonderful evening with the Tharakans of Thekkanattu Parayil.

Jacob, Abraham and Anto Tharakans are on the left

I was pleasantly surprised when Mr. Abraham Tharakan sent a mail presuming that I was in Kerala and then inviting us over to the Tharakan home in Olavipe.

From my ancestral home in Chenganda in Cherthala, the tiny beautiful hamlet of Olavipe is not far away. I presume that before the land reforms came, the entire Olavipe might have belonged to the Tharakan family. The title “Tharakan” seems to have been given to this ancient and aristocratic family of Syrian Christians by Maharaja Marthanda Varma (AD 1706-58), the founder of modern Travancore.The Maharajah was ably assisted in conferring such titles by his selfless Diwan (Prime Minister) Ramayyan Dalawa.

My wife Sindhu and son Mithun accompanied me to the Tharakan estate some 15 kilometers away through the country roads. The landscapes had not changed much over the last few decades and I could show the NSS College at Pallippuram to my wife where I had spent 5 years of my college life till my graduation. Small hills of sugar-white sand –Silica- could still be seen around despite much exploitation of these minerals by unscrupulous elements over the years.

The Tharakan residence is an ancestral home typifying the Kerala architecture. I don’t intend to dwell on this wonderful building because Mr. Abraham Tharakan has written about it in his exceptional blog many a time with beautiful photographs. http://parayilat.blogspot.com/

Mr. Abraham Tharakan and his brother Mr. Jacob Tharakan, who held important banking assignments in India and abroad, received us with much warmth. I felt it as an occasion when the hosts reflected the maturity gained over years of graceful living. The aristocratic simplicity in behaviour and the wisdom reflected in conversations spilled over to us making the fellowship most memorable. Mr. Abraham’s younger brother Anto Tharakan and his graceful wife Rema Tharakan made the conversations most interesting. Anto Tharakan was a highly decorated para-military officer before he took his voluntary retirement to concentrate on his other passions. Mrs. Rema, known to Jeevan TV viewers as a fine presenter was at ease entertaining a British couple from Bristol.

Two other Tharakan brothers are well known. Prof. Dr.Michael Tharakan was a senior economist/faculty with the Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum and has also been Director of the Kerala Institute for Local Administration, Thrissur. He is presently the Ramakrishna Hegde Chair in Decentralization and Development with the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore. Another brother Mr.Hormis Tharakan was in the Indian Police Service and was the DGP in Kerala. He also headed the RAW, India’s external intelligence agency before his present assignment as the Advisor to the Governor of Karnataka.

Though I have not personally met Mr.Hormis Tharakan, recently I happened to read the reminiscences he wrote on “Azhvanchery Thamprakkal “(High priests of Kerala Nampoothiris”) in a biography of the same title by Dr.Rajan Chungath. The article reflected his humility, scholarship, inquisitiveness and wisdom. I felt instant regard for him on reading this small article and mentioned it to Mr.Abraham Tharakan.

The ancestral Tharakan residence is selectively given for home-stay of exclusive guests from India and abroad. I don’t have any doubt that the guests will carry excellent memories of our heritage by enjoying the natural surroundings and thanking the warmth of the hosts. Mr. Jacob Tharakan, Anto and Rema really seemed to enjoy this responsibility.

While we were enjoying some cocktails, Mithun, my son, enjoyed the company of Emu birds in the farm, which, as Mr. Abraham Tharakan put it, always played to the gallery. Later he immersed himself with some “Asterix”comics in the fine Victorian style library of the Tharakan household. Mr. Abraham confided that he still enjoys reading “Asterix”comics.
Emu, looking curiously

The following anecdote from Mr. Abraham Tharakan was interesting and worth quoting.

“Mr. Chacko, grand father of Rema Tharakan was the first native superintendent of police under the last Maharajah of Cochin. During those days, this police boss used to move around on a stallion from the cavalry.

Every other day, while retiring for night to his house in Parur, he used to have a stop over for refreshments, with the vicar of the St.George Church at Edappally.(This church is still famous and popular with travelers who offer their obeisance on the way)

A householder of the house by the side of the vicar’s quarters used to have his daily drinks, late in the evenings, by sitting on the veranda.

It was pretty late on a day and the householder had a couple of drinks more than his usual quota when Mr. Chacko arrived on his horse back. Sensing that the householder was in a thoroughly inebriated condition, he shouted “Enthaa, Mathiyayille”- What? Is it not enough? - Then he made his horse jump over the gates of the vicar’s quarters-as it was closed for the day- and disappeared.

The householder with all the alcohol in his veins decided that it was St.George himself who came to him on his horse and asked him on his excessive drinking. From the next day onwards, the poor man kept away from his indulgence and used the evenings to say his prayers.

Of course, his family members knew the truth but they decided that they will keep it a secret.”

We had a great dinner with many a traditional dish. The old chef of the household with decades of service with the family made a unique curry with raw and tender cashew nuts which went well with the fine chapattis.

Since I had to return to Palakkad, I had requested Mr. Jacob Tharakan to a pay a visit to my parents in Chenganda, which I hope he shall do at his convenience.

I owe one to the Tharakan family and reserve it hopefully for my next holidays.

Palakkad, South India
18th May 2008.