S N Roy hears from Lytton: A 1922 case of British imperial racism in Indian governance (with lessons for today) [Draft text 6 March 2018]

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

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.






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.

 originsofconstpolitics1913 (1)

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,



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).




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.

mkgandhisnroymajinnahmarch1919 (1)

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 who  adopted obstructionism as a technique, much to Lytton’s displeasure. 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 in that tumultuous period.

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



Draft text 6 March 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/








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

I  am grieved to hear of the death of Siddhartha Shankar Ray last night.

I was introduced to him by an uncle who had been his college-buddy, and he took up a grave personal matter of mine in the Supreme Court of India in 1990 with great kindness, charging me not a penny, being impressed by a little explicit “civil disobedience” I had had to show at the time towards Judge Evelyn Lance.

He also told me he and his wife had been in London on May 29 1984 and had seen *The Times*’s leader that day about my critique of Indian economic policy. He invited me to his Delhi home where I told him about the perestroika-for-India project I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986, at which he, of his own accord, declared

“You must meet Rajiv Gandhi.  I will arrange a meeting”.

That led to my meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, then Congress President & Leader of the Opposition, on September 18 1990, which contributed to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform as has been told elsewhere. https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/rajiv-gandhi-and-the-origins-of-indias-1991-economic-reform/

Rajiv’s assistant George told me Rajiv had said he had not heard more fulsome praise.

In Bengal, he took me as a guest to visit the Legislative Assembly in session when he was Leader of the Opposition; it was the legislature of which my great grandfather, Surendranath Roy, had been a founder, being the first Deputy President and acting President too; Surendranath had been friends with his maternal grandfather, CR Das, leader of the Congress Party before MK Gandhi, and he said to me in the car heading to the legislature about that relationship in Bengal’s politics some seven decades earlier “They were friends”.

He introduced me to all the main leaders of the Bengal Congress at the time (except Mamata Banerjee who could not come) and I was tasked by him to write the manifesto for the State elections that year, which I did (in English, translated into Bangla by Professor Manjula Bose); the Communists won handily again but one of their leaders (Sailen Dasgupta) declared there had never been a State Congress manifesto of the sort before, being as it was an Orwell-like critique of Bengal’s Stalinism.

In a later conversation, I said to him I wished he be appointed envoy to Britain, he instead came to be appointed envoy to the USA.

In Washington in September 1993, he said “You must meet Manmohan Singh”, and invited me to a luncheon at the Ambassador’s Residence where, to Manmohan Singh and all his aides, he declared pointing at me

“The Congress manifesto (of 1991) was written on his (laptop) computer”.

In later years I kept him informed of developments and gave him my publications.   We last met in July last year where I gave him a copy, much to his delight, of *Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant*.

I said to him Bengal’s public finances were in abysmal condition, calling for emergency measures financially, and that Mamata Banerjee seemed to me to be someone who knew how to and would dislodge the Communists from their entrenched misgovernance of decades but not quite aware that dislodging a bad government politically was not the same thing as knowing how to govern properly oneself.

He,  again of his own accord, said immediately,

“I will call her and her main people to a meeting here so you can meet them and tell them that directly”.

It never transpired.

He and I were supposed to meet a few months ago but could not due to his poor health; on the phone in our last conversation I mentioned to him my plans of creating a Public Policy Institute — an idea he immediately and fully endorsed as being essential though adding

“I can’t be part of it,  I’m on my way out”.

“I’m on my way out”.   🙂

That was Siddhartha Shankar Ray — always intelligent, always good-humoured, always public-spirited, always a great Indian.

I shall miss a good friend, indeed my only friend among politicians other than the late Rajiv Gandhi himself.

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.


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.


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)

Manindranath Roy 1891-1958

My grandfather, Manindranath Roy (1891-1958) was a quiet enigmatic literary figure and artistic benefactor in Calcutta; he wrote very well and had excellent taste and manners (though was of foolish judgement in money and friends). This photograph is from about 1922 at Allahabad where he used to take his family on annual holiday. (The little boy to the left behind his mother would grow up to become my father.)

My grandfather is dressed in fine post-Edwardian fashion; at the time, his father, Surendranath Rai, was at the peak of his political career as first Deputy President and then President of the new Bengal Legislative Council. Surendranath was an orthodox Brahmin and chose never to wear Western-style suits and neck-ties, and he was thoroughly averse to the idea of dining with Europeans. Manindranath was the first to wear Western clothes, as well as to dine in Calcutta’s Western restaurants. There was tension between father and son due to such matters.

My grandfather came to visit us in Ottawa in May 1958, and here we are on a day’s outing to show him the sights. I recall it well though I was three years old. My mother had stayed home to arrange our meal.

Manindranath Roy died in Ottawa on September 3 1958, the first Hindu gentleman known to have done so, it was said; he had to be cremated in Montreal as no one was cremated in Ottawa back then.

There will be more of his eventful and interesting life here in due course. For example, he was a benefactor of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya and many others including Uday Shankar, and he was a close friend and colleague at Grace and Co of Rabindranath Tagore’s son-in-law, Nagen Gangulee. Rabindranath apparently visited the Swaraj Party’s political meetings where Surendranath was an old friend of CR Das. Another close and respected friend of Surendranath’s was Jagdish Chandra Bose.