IT WAS IN 1884 THAT HE JOINED the Theosophical Society. He had just then lost his partner in life and felt the need to seek such comfort as may be found in the companionship of earnest seekers of the Truth. It was an important year for two other reasons as well: he was nominated to be a non-official member of the Madras Legislative Council by Grant Duff who had seen Subramania Aiyer as the energetic Vice-President of the Madura Municipal Council. At the end of the year he participated in the deliberations of the meeting that was held in Madras to evolve the scheme of a national assembly for India.
In the following year (1885) the Indian National Congress held its first formal session at Bombay. Subramania Aiyer was there to throw some instructive light on the working of the Legislative Councils, out of his own experiences. This, again, is an instance of Subramania Aiyer’s deliberate advocacy of the cause of popular government, long before Mrs. Besant’s advent (1893) on the Indian soil.
In 1885, he found it necessary to settle down in Madras. Migration to the metropolis was naturally followed by a widening of the sphere of activity. He was appointed a Fellow of the University, and he found much to do for the Hindu and the Mahajana Sabha, both started by his worthy namesake whom South India has known. Of S. Subramania Aiyer’s work in the Legislative Council, what everyone felt was thus recorded in the Hindu:
There is not another Hindu gentleman in this Presidency in whom the community has greater confidence, or who has more endeared himself to it—not merely by his attainments, but also by valuable services rendered. He is perhaps the only instance known for many years of a Hindu gentleman who has won the confidence of the Government as well as of the public.
The Government gave expression to their appreciation of his work first (1888) by appointing him to the office of Government Pleader—an office till then reserved for Europeans, and then (1895) by raising him to the bench of the Madras High Court in succession to that most celebrated of Indian judges and jurists, Sir T. Muthusami Iyer.
For 12 years S. Subramania Iyer continued to be an honoured figure on the bench of the High Court, thrice being raised to be its Chief. The Privy Council recognized him as “a Hindu lawyer of great distinction” and showed deference to his views. The Vakil world admired him as a judge of an incorruptible conscience and a kindly, painstaking disposition. The general public idolized him as one who never forgot to temper justice with mercy.
He never quibbled and never lost the true spirit of justice amid the mazes of legal jargon. His special point was not ingenuity in the soulless technic of law, but the spacious humanity that is the vital breath of all law worth the name. The zealous social reformer who was the editor of the Hindu had expressed the hope that it may be Mr. Subramania Aiyer’s good “fortune to be instrumental in furthering, so far as it lies in the sphere of a High Court Judge, the cause of Hindu social advancement.”
The hope came true in as full a measure as opportunities permitted. In interpreting the ancient Hindu Law of Property, Mr. Justice Subramania Iyer recognized a woman’s inherent right to be placed on a footing of equality with man. He took care to uphold the widow’s claim to be enabled to live honourably, exercising the rights vested in her by her husband. He was equally careful to safeguard the interests of morality, and laid down that a courtezan has no right to adopt a minor girl into her family for professional purposes. He declared that among Hindus, though the husband is the legal guardian of his wife, he becomes entitled to have actual custody of her only after she attains maturity. In the decision of every case that came up before him, the paramount factor was “justice, equity and good conscience.” These stood above all other authorities and considerations.
Every one in our day is familiar with the dictum that “liberty” and “justice” denote but two aspects of the same principle. What is known as democracy in politics is known as equity in jurisprudence. It would therefore be strange if he who, as politician, is to-day leading the movement for popular ascendancy, had forgotten, as judge, to raise his voice on behalf of the neglected womanhood. What he was able to accomplish for the peasantry of Southern India is truly voluminous.
The reformer who would do so much to undermine the vested interests of the bureaucracy and of the aristocracy was not the judge that would pay homage to vested interests in houses of worship and of charity.
We have already noticed his services to the famous temple of Madura. It was given to him when he was Government Pleader, to set the law in motion against the Mahant or manager of Tirupati, and pave the way for its present reformed system of administration. The flag-staff of the great shrine had then been newly erected. The Mahant, who had to deposit a quantity of gold underneath it in accordance with some ecclesiastical rule, deposited copper in its stead. He proclaimed to the world that it was gold to the value of two lakhs of rupees that had been laid at the bottom of the new flag-staff. His sense of security arose out of the hope that no daring iconoclast would be forthcoming to pull down the sacred pillar and look in for a corroboration of his statement.
Mr. Subramania Iyer, in whom Hindu religious and social institutions have never had a more zealous or more faithful supporter, was however not found to be wanting in courage to rise superior to popular superstition and gullibility. He insisted that the Mahant’s assurances were not to be taken unverified. “The maxim of law is that justice should be done though the heavens should fall. Surely, your Lordships cannot be deterred from doing justice here because the mere trifle of a thing, a flag-staff, is to fall.” The reasonableness of this exhortation was seen by the judges, and on examination, the flagstaff was found to be standing supported by the baser metal.
The zeal and courage thus shown for purifying temple management and securing the interests of worshippers could not fail to come into full play while opportunities occurred to them when Sir Subramania Aiyer was on the bench.
To be continued
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