Raghu and Pushpa Palat were walking around the Jallianwala Bagh Museum in Amritsar in December 2017, when they chanced upon the plaque that mentioned the name – Chettur Sankaran Nair. It was then that the couple decided to tell the world the story of the man from Kerala whose groundbreaking fight changed the course of Indian history.
Sankaran Nair had fought a courtroom battle against the British Raj to uncover Punjab Governor Michael O’Dwyer's role in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
Moved by Nair’s grit, Bollywood producer Karan Johar announced on 29 June that he will be producing a movie based on his life. The film, which is a biopic on C Sankaran Nair, is inspired from real life events and adapted from the book 'The Case That Shook The Empire', written by Raghu Palat, the great-grandson of Sankaran Nair, and his wife Pushpa Palat.
“Nair believed in not apologising for speaking the truth. He would not buckle down, even if it was the British High Command. He had nothing to be sorry about because he had the truth.”Raghu Palat, Sankaran Nair's Great-grandson
Sankaran Nair, the Lawyer and Reformer
Chettur Sankaran Nair started as a lawyer in 1880 in the High Court of Madras and was the advocate-general to the government and an acting judge till 1908. He became a member of the viceroy's council in 1915 and in 1919, wrote two famous 'minutes of dissent' in the despatches on Indian constitutional reforms, pointing out the various problems of the British rule in India. It was unusual for an Indian to openly criticise the British government, yet he never hesitated. He was also the only Malayali president of the Indian National Congress.
He resigned from the viceroy's council in the aftermath of Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919 and this created ripples among the British establishment.
“He was a lawyer and not an anarchist. He believed in the rule of law being the gospel truth and that justice can be got only in the court. His resignation was his way of telling that he did not want to be a part of a government that sanctions such atrocities. I learnt how important it is to hold on to principles, no matter what, in order to fight for the truth,” said Pushpa Palat.
From Punjab to London
Later, Nair wrote a book called ‘Gandhi and Anarchy,’ where he held the Punjab Governor, Michael O’Dwyer, responsible for the massacre. Though the official numbers dictate deaths of only 379 unarmed civilians, the unofficial figure is around 3,000.
O’Dwyer asked Nair to publicly withdraw the book from circulation and apologise, along with paying £1,000 to charities specified. He refused and consequently, O’Dwyer filed a case of defamation in the Court of the King’s Bench in England in 1922.
The case was argued by Sankaran Nair who was also a lawyer at the Court of the King’s Bench in England for six weeks — the longest in the history till then.
The movie, which will be based on the courtroom battle, will be directed by Karan Singh Tyagi.
"I am in awe of his absolute fearlessness. In the face of adversity, when the country was colonised, he stood in the highest court of law in the United Kingdom, in front of a highly biased English judge and a 11-member jury made of only Englishmen and fought his case."Raghu Palat, Sankaran Nair's Great-Grandson
“My wife and I wanted to bring alive a tumultuous era in Indian history. We had a lot of resources…the biography written by his sons-in-law former Ambassador KPS Menon and Madhavan Nair. The tragedy was reported widely, but still no one outside the subcontinent, especially the English was aware of these atrocities,” said Raghu.
“That day was historical and it made history. Later, it even gave tremendous courage to the freedom movement,” added Pushpa.
Raghu Palat is a leading writer on banking, finance and investments and has over 45 published books to his credit. Pushpa Palat started her career as a freelance journalist and writes books for children and on lifestyle.
What the Book Says
Here is an excerpt from the book by Raghu Palat and Pushpa Palat, 'The Case That Shook The Empire':
Nair resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council on 23 July. Soon after, he was called in by Lord Chelmsford for a final interview to the Viceregal Lodge. As soon as he entered the mock-Tudor palace designed by Henry Irwin, he was escorted to the Viceroy’s study. A giant portrait of the monarch was placed above the impressive, perfectly-polished mahogany table and dominated the room. The Viceroy rose from a straight-backed but ornate, maroon, velvet-upholstered chair embossed with the imposing crest of the British Empire, and gestured for him to sit on another equally ornate chair in front of him. This was not an occasion that involved the exchange of pleasantries.
Once they had both settled into their chairs, Lord Chelmsford politely expressed his regret in receiving Nair’s resignation. Then, with no real interest in Sir Nair’s opinion but with typical British courtesy, the Viceroy enquired whether Sir Nair could suggest someone as a successor. Sir Nair, sensing the Viceroy’s disinterest and unconcern for anything an Indian had to suggest, found it hard to resist one last dig. Looking directly at the Viceroy and speaking in a solemn tone, as though he had given this matter very serious thought, he said, ‘Yes’ and pointed to the turbaned, red- and gold-liveried peon standing ramrod straight by the giant doorway. Sir Nair, still perfectly straight-faced, continued, ‘That man there, Ram Parshad.’
Lord Chelmsford almost shot out of his chair. Nair replied, ‘Why not? He is tall. He is handsome. He wears his livery well and he will say yes to whatever you say. Altogether he will make an ideal Member of Council.’iLeaving the Viceroy speechless, Sir Nair warmly shook his hand and quietly exited the chambers.
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