Justice and Equal Opportunities – the life of O Thanikachalam Chettiar

Having been interested in the street names of Chennai for long, Thanikachalam Street in T Nagar had long been a mystery to me. It was only recently that I came across a few sources, published and otherwise that gave details about a remarkable personality. Here is a brief account based on these.

The O Narayana Chettiyar family was one of several middle class households of 19th century Madras and resided at Tondiarpet. Narayana Chettiyar’s first wife bore him three sons and his second wife, Vedammal had six among whom the eldest was Thanikachalam who was born in 1875. Narayana Chettiyar died when Thanikachalam was still young and it was left to Vedammal to bring up her brood of six. Her eldest was the bright one and having completed his schooling at the Muthialpet Middle School, he joined the Madras Christian College and graduated in Physical Science from there in 1896.

Thanikachalam then joined the Head Post Office where he worked for some time before getting a job as a clerk at Short, Bewes and Company, a European firm of solicitors of many years standing in Madras city. His diligence was rewarded and he soon rose to become Manager. Deciding to put the legal knowledge he was acquiring to good use, he joined the Law College even while continuing with his job and in 1908 he qualified as an Attorney at Law. Keeping in mind his experience at Short, Bewes and Company, the Madras High Court waived the minimum number of years required for a person to be enrolled as a lawyer and duly admitted him. From then on O Thanikachalam Chettiar or OT Chettiar as he became better known made a mark for himself in the field of law. In time, his legal acumen came to the notice of Short, the senior partner of the firm who began entrusting him with a number of briefs. The firm specialised in cases filed against the Corporation of Madras and Chettiar acquired deep knowledge about the civic body’s workings. This was to stand him in good stead later in life. Short, Bewes and Co was later reorganised following the retirement of Mr Short and was renamed as Bewes and Thanikachalam, the new senior partner recognising the talents of the manager and by then practically the standing counsel of the firm and making him a partner as well.

OT Chettiar was not a man to remain content with his work in the legal profession and he soon became involved in politics. In 1916 (later Sir) Pitty Theyagaraya Chetty, Dr TM Nair and C Natesa Mudaliar began a series of Non Brahmin Conferences in Madras Presidency and this culminated in 1917 in the setting up of the South Indian Welfare Association with its political wing the South Indian Liberal Federation. The latter came to be known as the Justice Party, a name derived from its English language daily, The Justice. The party had as its principal aim the prevention of Brahmin domination in all Government offices and educational institutions. OT Chettiar threw himself wholeheartedly into this movement and in course of time emerged as the right hand of Sir Pitty Theyagaraya Chetty.

Marrying Manikkammal in 1909, OT Chettiar set up home at No 305, Linghi Chetty Street. The couple had four daughters. In 1918 Manikkammal passed away and in the subsequent year, OT Chettiar married Kamakshi Ammal. He was to have four sons and a daughter through her.

Such domestic upheavals notwithstanding, OT Chettiar stood as a candidate for Madras Corporation Council election for Zone 6 and won handsomely against Dr U Krishnaswami, the candidate of the Congress in 1919. He was to win in the elections of 1922 also. He was to be an important member of the Committees that were in charge of taxes and expenditure. In 1925 he was elected President of the Madras Corporation (equivalent to the latter day Mayor). That year he was defeated in the elections but the Rajah of Panagal who was then Premier of Madras Presidency appreciated his services and nominated him to the Corporation as a councilor.

The Montagu Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 saw the setting up of Diarchy in Madras Presidency and elections were held in 1920 for the Madras Legislative Council. The Justice Party won majority and one of the victorious contestants was OT Chettiar. The first Premier Subbarayalu Reddiar soon stepped down on grounds of ill-health and was succeeded by Panaganti Ramarayaningar, the Rajah of Panagal. OT Chettiar lent him his full support. In August 1921, he brought forward two proposals to the Legislative Council, both with far-reaching consequences. The first was that all Government posts were to be henceforth filled only by non-Brahmin candidates even if they possessed only the minimum qualifications for the posts. The second was that all posts in the Madras Secretariat (excluding the ICS) were to be filled by non-Brahmins only. Both resolutions were passed with a majority. This was to later fructify as the Communal GO in 1928 which stipulated reservations on caste and religious lines, a forerunner of the contentious reservation policy of the Government of India. OT Chettiar also sought reforms in the Judiciary. Observing that a majority of district munsiffs were Brahmins he brought forward a resolution that the Government ought to take over the appointment of munsiffs from the High Court. He later withdrew this proposal when the Government and the Court jointly agreed to look into the matter, setting up an independent committee for this.

In 1921 the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in Perambur declared a lockout following labour trouble. The lockout persisted for over six months. At the end of three months, one group of workers, identified with a particular community, reported to work and this was opposed by the others. Violence erupted in the Pulianthope area with arson, looting and killing. The police resorted to firing for over two days. Sir Pitty, OT Chettiar and Dr C Natesa Mudaliar toured the area without any police escort and formed their own conclusions. Based on this, OT Chettiar raised the issue in the Legislative Council and in his speech strongly condemned police inaction and also apathy on part of the department in charge of labour matters. Under Diarchy these were departments directly under the Governor and a speech criticising them was tantamount to criticism of the Governor himself. This, from a member of the Justice Party which usually toed the British line on most matters was very daring.

In 1923 the Panagal Government was faced with a no confidence motion brought by Sir Cattamanchi Ramalinga Reddy, an erstwhile Justice Party member who resigned his membership and forming a splinter group aligned with the Swarajists. The motion was debated and OT Chettiar’s speech outlining the achievements of the Panagal Government turned the tide. When put to vote, the Panagal ministry survived with 65 members of the House voting against the motion.

During these busy years OT Chettiar did not neglect his legal practice. He now had juniors such as WS Krishnaswami Nayudu (who later became Judge of the High Court), KB Krishna Rao Naidu (later a District Judge) and TR Kothandarama Mudaliar. By 1924 he had enrolled himself as an Advocate in the Madras High Court. A couple of years later the firm of Bewes and Thanikachalam appears to have been dissolved with Bewes becoming Public Prosecutor and OT Chettiar setting up independent practice. WS Krishnaswami Nayudu in his memoirs (My Memoirs, Justice WS Krishnaswami Nayudu, 1977) recalls that the day would begin at 305 Linghi Chetty Street at 7.30 am with senior and juniors going through the cases for the day. Most of the cases were on the Original Side and some were at the City Civil Court. At 9.30 am they would disperse, each going home for meals and then reassembling at Court by 10.45 am. OT Chettiar would keep a watchful but fairly lenient eye on his juniors and encouraged them to prepare briefs independently. He also introduced them to his clients and allowed them to interact independent of his presence. Evenings would be spent at the Marina in the company of the juniors or at the Cosmopolitan Club. OT Chettiar, according to Nayudu greatly relished his meals. He preferred his breakfast to be English in style and when travelling always ate in the European Refreshment Rooms at the stations.

In 1924 OT Chettiar was conferred the title of Rao Bahadur by the Government. The same year the first All India Non Brahmin Conference was held in Belgaum and OT Chettiar participated in it, travelling in state in a special first class carriage. He also participated in the 1925 Second All India Non Brahmin Conference in Amraoti. In 1926 the Justice Party lost in the elections. With that, OT Chettiar’s participation reduced in government matters. But he continued with other social activities of which there was no shortage. At one time he was on the board of Governors of his old school in Muthialpet, looking into the welfare of students of the Veterinary College, inspecting and studying the welfare of the inmates of the Government Institute for Mental Health, Trustee of the Kandasami Temple on Rasappa Chetty Street and also involved with religious institutions. He also served on the Board of the Pachchayappa’s Trust between 1920 and 1929. He was conferred the title of Dewan Bahadur in 1926.

In 1928, OT Chettiar shifted home, moving to Waverley House, a bungalow in Egmore.. By then he had been diagnosed as being ill with diabetes and was asked to take adequate rest to recuperate his health. Taking up a bungalow on Osborne Road in Bangalore Cantonment, he relaxed for a large part of the summer of 1928.  Though in indifferent health, he participated with enthusiasm in the first Self Respect Movement Conference organised in 1929 by ‘Periyar’ EV Ramaswami Naicker. With the reopening of the Courts following the summer vacation in 1929, OT Chettiar was appointed Chief Judge of the Small Causes Court. But his health took a turn for the worse and he passed away on 21st July 1929. Several condolence meetings were held. Notable among these was the one held at the High Court with Chief Justice Sir Owen Beasley and the Advocate-General Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer participating. Later the road in T Nagar was named after him.

Much later, rather ironically, a property on this road was gifted by KB Sundarambal to S Sathyamurthy, the Congress party member and freedom fighter, who built his house there. Sathyamurthy and OT Chettiar had been bitter opponents at the Legislative Council. A few years later there was a move, perhaps supported by Sathyamurthy to rename the street as the Hindi Prachar Sabha Road. This witnessed enormous protests and the move was dropped. Today the ‘Chettiar’ has been dropped from the street name and it is now Thanikachalam Road, but the man who gave it the name is largely forgotten. Perhaps the last public function that commemorated him was in 1959 when his portrait was unveiled at the public function in Armenian Street (at the Gokhale Hall?) with CN Annadurai presiding.

This account of his life is based on a slim volume O Thanikachalam Chettiar – Samuthaya Neethiyin Mahattaana Thalaivar translated into Tamil by Prof S Ratnasami based on the English original by Prof M Ilanchezhiyan and published Dr O Somasundaram (one of OT Chettiar’s sons) in 1996. It is supplemented by notes from WS Krishnaswami Nayudu’s memoirs and from A Century Completed, A History of the Madras High Court 1862-1962, by VC Gopalaratnam and published by the Madras Law Journal Office.


Sriram V