The recent road-renaming exercise has brought out several fringe elements that have been putting in demands with no awareness of history. While that is understandable, what cannot be allowed is that a historic body like the Chennai Corporation simply listens to them and accedes to their requests. Chennai has always been a city that accepted the past and took it in its stride. It was gracious enough to retain statues and commemorate personalities who did well by the city and the country, no matter what was their nationality or country of origin. Why, the Corporation has not even contemplated changing the name of Ripon Buildings as the former Viceroy’s sympathy to Indian aspirations is well-known. That it will extend the same kind of understanding when it deliberates over the latest demand to uproot the statue of Sir Thomas Munro is to be hoped for.
It is not without reason that in the years after independence, successive Governments left Munro undisturbed. Here are some excerpts from Munro’s statements and writings which will show how much he sympathised with India and what a vision he had about the country’s future.
– (On the presiding over Indian crimes by European judges): I have never seen any European whom I thought competent, from his knowledge of the language and the people, to ascertain the value of the evidence given before him. The proceedings in our courts of judicature, which in our reports make a grave and respectable appearance, are, I know, frequently the subject of derision among the natives.
– (On why Indians ought to dispense justice for themselves): It is absurd to suppose that they are so corrupt as to be altogether unfit to be entrusted with the discharge if this important duty; if they were so, there would be no remedy for the evil; their place could never be supplied by a few foreigners imperfectly acquainted with their customs and language.
– (On the British attitude to Indians): Foreign conquerors have treated the natives with violence and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them with so much scorn as we, none has stigmatised the whole people as unworthy of trust, as incapable of honesty, and as fit to be employed only where we cannot do without them. It seems to be not only ungenerous, but impolitic to debase the character of a people fallen under our dominion.
– (And lastly, on how, when and why Britain should exit India): Your rule is alien and it can never be popular. You have much to give your subjects, but you cannot look for more than passive gratitude. You are not here to turn India into England or Scotland. Work through, not in spite of, native systems and native ways, with a prejudice in their favour rather than against them; and when in the fullness of time your subjects can frame and maintain a worthy Government for themselves, get out and take the glory of achievement and the sense of having done your duty as the chief reward for your exertions.
In many ways his understanding of India was unequalled and he was a greater friend of the country than even Ripon. On him Rajaji had this to say: “Whenever any young Civil Servant came to me for blessings or when I spoke to them in their training school, I advised them to read about Sir Thomas Munro, who was the ideal administrator.”
Here are some basic facts on his life. Munro was an old India hand, having served the Indian army in the wars against Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. He stayed on to administer some of the territory taken from Tipu and here learnt the principles of revenue survey and assessment. Based on this experience, he opposed the bringing in of the zamindari system as prevalent in Bengal into South India and suggested the more humane ryotwari system of land revenue. In 1814 he returned to Madras from a stay in England and implemented judicial and police reforms. He became Governor thereafter and founded the systems of revenue assessment, general administration and education, all of which have been followed with modifications over the years. Munro died of cholera while on tour of the Ceded Districts in 1827. In his lifetime and after, Munro commanded enormous respect from Indians. It was customary to name children as Munrolappa and he was also one of the early Britishers to be commemorated in song. The famous composer Ghanam Krishna Iyer created a piece on him which is unfortunately lost.
The same fate ought not to befall his statue. It ought to stand where it is, as a symbol of honest, efficient and sympathetic administration. It should serve as a guiding light to administrators as Rajaji had wished. In fact it would not be a bad idea to translate some of Munro’s statements into Tamil and inscribe them on aesthetic tablets and erect them in the vicinity. They will not only serve to keep his memory alive but also help educate some who labour under the mistaken impression that all of the British Raj was evil and all colonial masters were dictators.