THE YEAR 1857 SAW the establishment of the University of Madras, and it opened out yet another opportunity for the enterprising Subramania Iyer. While as a clerk, passed the Pleadership examination, topping the list of successful candidates. But the cross-grained District Judge of Madura —who had been incensed by an old legal practitioner of the place against likely intruders into his preserve—would not grant a sanad (or permission to practice) to Subramania Iyer. However, when the Criminal Procedure Code came into force in 1862, Subramania Iyer’s legal qualifications found recognition; he was appointed Public Prosecutor.
But the same old cross-grained District Judge continued to hold sway and he greeted Subramania Iyer’s debut in his court as Prosecutor with the elegant exhortation: “Don’t chatter like a monkey.” Naturally vexed at all this, Subramania Iyer was on the look-out for a smoother road to an opportunity of making the best of himself.
The prospects held out by the B. L. degree of the new University inspired him with fresh hope. He became a student once again, and passed the matriculation examination in 1865, F A. in 1866, and B.L. in 1868—all by private study. This academical success secured him promotion to the office of Tahsildar. But the charms of Government service could no longer keep down the impulse that turned his heart towards an independent calling of many-sided public usefulness.
Beginning the Tahsildarship, he joined Mr. J. C. Mills, an English Barrister who was also the Official Reporter, as apprentice. And within a few months he was able to start his career as a Vakil at Madura. The strong purposefulness thus shown, the forcefulness of his character, the winning intelligence and the innate love of independence could not have gone unnoticed by the public of Madura. The prizes of the race were naturally within his easy reach when once the road became clear.
It was precisely to a man of these qualities that the new spirit of the times made its special appeal. By the time Subramania Iyer set up as a lawyer, the great pre-Congress patriots of Madras had come to the end of their noble and high-spirited labours. But the popular grievances which they strove to redress still remained to cry for attention, and the potent ideas which they meant to sow were still floating about in quest of suitable soil.
All these manifestations of the New Spirit were surely not to go wasted upon one of Subramania Iyer’s alertness of mind and sensitiveness of soul.
Sir Subramania Aiyar’s patriotic ardour has thus grown in him as a natural counterpart of the vital warmth of his heart. It shone forth with the very dawn of his mental life and flamed up with the rise of his outward fortune—rebuffs and disappointments, serving only to fan it. The unseen hand that took care to provide for his material good was not less careful to feed the moral glow of his inward being.
As a young man of 28, blossoming into a leader of the bar, he was afforded in 1870 an opportunity to be of service to his townsmen, and for ten years he took a useful part in the municipal administration of Madura. He was likewise a member of the Madura District Board.
In 1873, the committee of the Madura Temple was found to be unable to account for ₹ 40,000 of its funds. It was Subramania Iyer’s fearless public spirit that took the matter to law courts and secured the amount for the temple, whereupon he was elected a member of its committee.
Two years later, when King Edward visited Madura as Prince of Wales, Subramania Iyer was chosen to be the spokesman of the town in presenting its address of welcome. And it is instructive to recall that a sum of ₹ 14000 which remained unspent out of funds then collected from the public for the reception of this royal visitor, was utilized for the construction of a bridge across the Vaigai
In 1877, recognition of his public work came to Subramania Iyer in the form of a Certificate of Merit awarded by Lord Lytton. Not less important is the fact that he was called upon to appear as a witness before the Famine Commission which visited Madura in the same year. One of the chief points in his evidence was that the peasantry stood in need of protection against the arbitrary orderings of landlords.
He relinquished in 1880 his seat in the Municipal Council of Madura for a reason which is of some special interest to us. He was suspected of having instigated the bazar-men to go on a strike because an additional tax had been imposed on them. Bus his proven civic zeal and popularity were such that, after two years, he was again invited to join the Council, and for two years afterwards, his voice there was supreme. A public park for which his own family contributed as much as ₹ 4000, a temple-garden and a water-supply project were among the notable achievements of Subramania Iyer in the service of his town.
His renown had now travelled beyond the limits of his District. The Government had come to recognize him as a public man whose support was worth having. In 1882, to make recommendations as to how best the policy enunciated in Lord Ripon’s historic resolution on local self-government could be carried out in the Madras Presidency, a committee was appointed by the Local Government, and Subramania Iyer was asked to join it. Among his colleagues were A. Seshayva Sastri and P. Chentsal Rao, both of whom rose to high positions later on. But he could agree with none of them in their disbelief in the people’s fitness for local autonomy.
The minute of dissent he then submitted is a remarkable testimony to the steadfastness of his devotion to the cause of popular liberty. It exposes the hollowness of the bureaucratic boast about efficiency, it vindicates the people’s natural interest in their civic and social institutions, and it pleads for the purity of non-official public life.
When it was written, Mrs. Annie Besant had not even come to India, and Subramania Iyer had not yet joined the Theosophical Society.
To be continued
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