S N Roy hears from Lytton: A 1922 case of British imperial racism in Indian governance (with lessons for today) [Draft text 12 August 2018]

Surendranath Roy (1860-1929) helped pioneer Indian constitutionalism under several British governments: Carmichael, Ronaldshay, Lytton, the Simon Commission too.

Victor Bulwer Lytton (1876-1947) arrived as Governor in February 1922

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then in May wrote to SN Roy from Darjeeling.

Lytton’s letter below dated 1 May 1922  denied SN Roy appointment as President of the Bengal Legislative Council; Lytton imported HEA (Evan) Cotton (1868-1939) from England instead.

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The purported reason Lytton gave was specious.

SN Roy had vastly more experience of Indian constitutionalism than Cotton. He had been the pioneering first President of  an inchoate Bengal Legislative Council after the first 1912 elections, supported by the eminent British civil servant  Sir Henry Cotton (1845-1915), who was Evan Cotton’s father!

The elder Cotton is seated to S N Roy’s left in this 1913 photograph of the newly elected members.
https://independentindian.com/2008/10/12/origins-of-indias-constitutional-politics-bengal-1913/

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The younger Cotton, like S N Roy, had practised for some years as a lawyer in the Calcutta High Court, but then  became a journalist and returned to England. There he apparently had a very minor political career, losing as a Liberal to Bonar Law in the 1910 General Election, being elected a London City Councillor as a Progressive until 1918, obtaining a parliamentary seat as a Liberal momentarily in a bye-election, then losing it again in a General Election.

During the same time, S N Roy had become the most influential officially recognised Indian statesman in Bengal, receiving as Deputy President the visit at home in 1916 of Carmichael, first Governor of Bengal after the 1912 reunification of Bengal,

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https://independentindian.com/2009/03/01/carmichael-visits-surendranath-1916/

and later officiating for years as President of the Council under the next Governor, Ronaldshay (later a Secretary of State for India as the Marquess of Zetland).

https://independentindian.com/2009/02/28/bengal-legislative-council-1921/

 

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SN Roy was what future historians would call a “Moderate” not a “Radical”: he pioneered primary education for the masses, became a legislative expert on local and general public finance as well as the federal politics of his time, authored books on the “Princely” States of Gwalior and Kashmir, and proposed the origins of what later became the Council of Princes and then the Council of States and then the Rajya Sabha.  As early as 1888 in his book on Gwalior, SN Roy recommended popular Constitutions for India’s States on the grounds “where there are no popular constitutions, the personal character of the ruler becomes a most important factor in the government… evils are inherent in every government where autocracy is not tempered by a free constitution.”**

He protested the Salt Tax as early as 1918 in a speech to the Bengal Legislative Council; a decade later his idea may have been taken by his colleague KS Ray of Orissa to MK Gandhi in Gujarat.

In March 1919 Indian politics had been extremely tense over the draconian “anti-terrorist” law known as the Rowlatt Act.  On 23 March, MK Gandhi called for the general strike or hartal on 6 April that later came to be known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha (and was soon to be followed by the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April).  On 28 March, MA Jinnah resigned his membership of the Viceroy’s Imperial Council in protest  that  the Rowlatt Act had not been amended as demanded by the Indian members of the Council.   In midst of such tumultuous events, SN Roy on 27 March 1919 quietly managed to get his  “Bengal Primary Education Bill” passed in the Bengal Legislative Council.

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Evan Cotton like his father was a great friend of India — had Lytton not been prejudiced in his favour and against SN Roy as President, Cotton, the younger man by eight years and the less experienced of both constitutional politics and Bengal, may well have been happy to return from England to become SN Roy’s Deputy President.  But that was not something Lytton’s racial consciousness could imagine: an Indian as Legislative Council President with a British Deputy President! There are analogies that may be easily found today in more recent cases of foreign rule.

Bengal politics and Indian politics from 1922 were marked by the rise of the Swaraj party of CR Das.

CR Das  adopted obstructionism as a technique, much to Lytton’s displeasure, against the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. SN Roy by contrast had in 1919 introduced with approbation in the Bengal Legislative Council the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms.

Cotton’s legislative tenure as President came to be rendered ineffective and dysfunctional by the Swarajists, as Lytton himself reported in *Pundits and Elephants* published in 1942, years after both SN Roy and Evan Cotton had died.

SN Roy had been a close political friend of CR Das, and may well have been able to find middle ground and guide Indian constitutionalism better after the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in that tumultuous period.

The British aristocracy, like any other, was generally pompous but and incompetent.  Lytton’s pompous incompetence as a governor in India was soon matched or surpassed by Linlithgow and of course Mountbatten.

 

 

Draft text 12 August 2018

 

** In a lecture to the Conference of State Finance Secretaries, Reserve Bank of India,  Mumbai, 29 April 2000, I quoted SN Roy on the need for State Constitutions “We could ask if a better institutional arrangement may occur by each State of India electing its own Constitutional Convention subject naturally to the supervision of the National Parliament and the obvious provision that all State Constitutions be inferior in authority to the Constitution of the Union of India. These documents would then furnish the major sets of rules to govern intra-State political and fiscal decision-making more efficiently. An additional modern reason can be given… namely, that fiscal constitutionalism, and perhaps only fiscal constitutionalism, allows over-riding to take place of the interests of competing power-groups…” https://independentindian.com/2000/04/29/towards-a-highly-transparent-fiscal-monetary-framework-for-indias-union-state-governments/

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bengal Legislative Council 1921

This is a 1921 photograph of the Bengal Legislative Council with the Governor of Bengal, the Earl of Ronaldshay (later Secretary of State for India and  known as the Marquess of Zetland) at the centre. To his immediate right is Surendranath Roy, then President of the Council. Seated second to the left of the Governor is Surendranath Banerjee, the eminent leader of the Indian National Congress (and mentor of GK Gokhale and other “moderates” in the national movement); he and Surendranath Roy were friends and political colleagues.

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MK Gandhi, SN Roy, MA Jinnah in March 1919: Primary education legislation in a time of protest

In March 1919, Indian politics were extremely tense over the draconian “anti-terrorist” law known as the Rowlatt Act.  On March 23, MK Gandhi called for the general strike or hartal on April 6 that came to be known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha (and was soon to be followed by the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre in Amritsar on April 13).  On March 28, MA Jinnah resigned his membership of the Viceroy’s Imperial Council  in protest  that  the Rowlatt Act had not been amended as demanded by the Indian members of the Council.   In midst of such tumultuous events, my great grandfather Surendranath Roy, on March 27 1919, seems to have quietly managed to get his  “Bengal Primary Education Bill” passed in the Bengal Legislative Council.

From India in 1918: A Chronological Record of the Phases of Developments in Indian Polity During 1918, HN Mitra (ed),  Annual Register Office, Sibpur, 1921.

Surendranath Roy (1860-1929)


Surendranath Roy was my paternal great grandfather. He was an eminent statesman of his time, sometime President of the Bengal Legislative Council, and close political friend of CR Das who led the Indian National Congress before MK Gandhi.  SN Roy helped pioneer Indian constitutionalism under several British governments: Carmichael, Ronaldshay, Lytton, the Simon Commission too.

Lytton’s letter dated 1 May 1922  denied SN Roy appointment as President of the Bengal Legislative Council; instead, Lytton imported HEA (Evan) Cotton (1868-1939) from England in a classic case of British imperial racism in Indian governance.

SN Roy was a pioneer of primary education, and a legislative expert on local and general public finance as well as the federal politics of his time, authoring books on the “Princely” States of Gwalior and Kashmir, and proposing the origins of what became the Rajya Sabha. He also protested the Salt Tax as early as 1918. SN Roy Road in Kolkata is named after him.  The first photograph is of him as a newly graduated advocate-at-law, the second may have been after his book on Gwalior was published in 1888.   He also gave the Tagore Law Lectures in 1905, on the subject of customary law; these are available at India’s National Library.  His friends included the academician Ashutosh Mukherjee and the scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose. His role in the development of the legislative process in Bengal after the Morley-Minto reforms will be described further here in due course, as will be his role as a pioneer of primary education.

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Postscript: We did not know until recently he was present and badly injured, along with Ardeshir Dalal, by Bhagat Singh’s bomb thrown in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929 during the Simon Commission deliberations. He died seven months later.

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see also

S N Roy hears from Lytton: A 1922 case of British imperial racism in Indian governance (with lessons for today) [Draft text 10 Feb 2018]

 

Origins of India’s Constitutional Politics: Bengal 1913

Carmichael visits Surendranath, 1916

MK Gandhi, SN Roy, MA Jinnah in March 1919: Primary education legislation in a time of protest

Bengal Legislative Council 1921

Jaladhar Sen writes to Manindranath at Surendranath’s death, c. Nov-Dec 1929

Sarat Chandra visits Surendranath Roy 1927

The Roys of Behala 1928

Manindranath Roy 1891-1958

Two scientific Boses who should have but never won Nobels

Pre-Partition Indian Secularism Case-Study: Fuzlul Huq and Manindranath Roy

Life of my father, 1915-2012

“I’m on my way out”: Siddhartha Shankar Ray (1920-2010)

Bengal Legislative Council 1923


Bengal Legislative Council 1923

SN Roy, then President of the Bengal Legislative Council 1923, is seated to the left of the Governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, who has the Chief Justice on his right.  At Surendranath Roy’s left sits his friend and colleague, Surendranath Banerjee.