How a British barrister and ‘early’ Congressman shaped India’s liberal ethos

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | M R VENKATESH
Published Feb 11, 2019, 5:57 am IST
Updated Feb 11, 2019, 5:57 am IST
The author himself puts the project's focus succinctly in his memorable Epilogue.
Eardley Norton- A Biography : The Life and Times of a Famous Barrister and Champion of India's Rights and Liberties, (Two Volumes),  by Suresh Balakrishnan, Published by Old Madras Press, Chennai, 2018.  (Price Rs 1, 900 for the set).
 Eardley Norton- A Biography : The Life and Times of a Famous Barrister and Champion of India's Rights and Liberties, (Two Volumes), by Suresh Balakrishnan, Published by Old Madras Press, Chennai, 2018. (Price Rs 1, 900 for the set).

CHENNAI: Hardly before in recent years have the cornerstones of the Indian Constitution, imbued with the spirit of political liberalism at its core, been so sharply contested as during the last five years by the new saffron rulers.

Just skim the current hot debates on "sedition, nationalism, extremism or liberalism" and there are clear pointers to an ill-informed or partially informed critiques, eventually pegged in Congress-bashing, the grand old party as it is perceived and assailed today for its 'pseudo-secularism or dynastic rule or corruption'. But how fair or true are these "historic re-evaluations"?

 

It is a very daunting task to even pose this question today, lest one might be accused of being "unpatriotic". But Suresh Balakrishnan, a well known Chennai-based lawyer has taken upon himself this momentous task, albeit somewhat indirectly. He shows that the lives and times of some the "earliest Congressmen" like Eardley Norton, the protagonist in this monumental two-volume biography running to 1,152 pages, form a solid basis for re-evaluation of the philosophy of political liberalism and secularism that inspired the freedom struggle.  

And some of these "earliest Congressmen", including Eardley Norton (1852-1931), were from Great Britain, and were contemporaneous with people like William Wedderburn and A.O. Hume. Despite their loyalty to Britain and their professional interests, they were, through their individual actions and convictions, in the vanguard of taking Western liberal, enlightenment values to create a framework for gradual social change in India yearning for self-rule.  Alongside greats like Dadhabhai Naorjoji and several other early Indian nationalists, souls like the Norton family for over two generations have been catalytic, wittingly or unwittingly, to nudge for change in outlook to make Indian self-rule truly meaningful. Amid all the injustices and the 'drain theory' of labour and creation of wealth, the British system of education and their penchant for fair-play in an institutional sense through the courts of Law did play a crucial role.

Suresh Balakrishnan's meticulously and painstakingly researched two volumes, "Eardley Norton - A Biography, The Life and Times of a Famous Barrister and Champion of India's Rights and Liberties-"is thus much more than a detailed biography. It comes as an important contribution to the ways of reassessing contemporary Indian history in the modern period. Equally important, it warns us against any reductionism in the social sciences, as a man's life, as much as the life of the society it mirrors at any point of time, has, complex, multiple strands and cannot be judged by just one facet, as today's culture guardians are prone to.

The author himself puts the project's focus succinctly in his memorable Epilogue. "So much space was devoted to highlight the importance and relevance of the liberal political tradition, because many people in India have an inchoate understanding of the history of the Indian national struggle. They understand the struggle as one that was characterised entirely by the ideology and methods of the Congress Extremists, bomb throwing revolutionaries and Gandhianism. A closer look at the history would throw the role played by the liberals, notably the earliest Congressmen into sharper focus and might engender the view that the cornerstone elements of their political philosophy- a liberal and secular outlook and respect for the rule of Law- bear direct relevance and are vitally important in the present times."

The author contends that though liberals in the pre-Independence times were often denounced as "lackeys of British imperialism" - even today they draw flak as being "pseudo-liberals and pseudo-secular", and the conflict between "extremism and liberalism" continuing, the attitude of the mind and the "psychological temper" which liberal values help infuse in people are crucial in pointing to the "right direction" when a society is at the crossroads today.

This hugely magnificent work written in lucid, readable style, bristles with family histories, genealogies, telling episodes, delectable anecdotes, court room dramas and at times hilarious advocacies, extensive extracts from the protagonist's 'My Reminiscences', besides from official records and personal interviews. In this backdrop, just savour one contrast in Eardley Norton's life to get the flavour of what it meant to fight for civil liberties and the rule of Law in British India.

In the sensational 'Alipore Bomb Case' - following the unrest in the East in particular in the wake of Partition of Bengal in 1905- in which the great scholar-philosopher Sri Aurobindo was an accused along with his brother Barindra Kumar Ghose, the famous British barrister Eardley Norton, who had by then shifted his practice from old Madras to Calcutta, was appointed the Crown Prosecutor when the case was going on in 1908-09.  Norton, reportedly, was hell bent in getting a conviction for Sri Aurobindo, as the "intellectual brain", apparently cued by a police report, behind the series of bomb blasts. In principle, Norton was a liberal, but not a believer in the bomb-culture though his handling of the case came for much criticism later notwithstanding Sri Aurobindo being acquitted in the case.

But when it came to defending people's civil liberties in the wake of the draconian 'Rowlatt Acts' and imposition of martial law in Punjab a decade later, Norton went full steam to defend "Kalinath Roy, then Editor of The Tribune, who was charged with conspiracy to stir up rebellion by certainly allegedly inflammatory articles he had written in 1919."  Norton and other lawyers were then not even allowed to enter Punjab, but the barrister was unsparing, telling the British authorities how 'summary courts', the 'Rowlatt Acts' and 'martial Law' were undesirable, and how the Editor of 'Tribune' was "entitled to prove his innocence." Norton even wrote to Lord Chelmsford then in 1919 that the order prohibiting him from "entering the martial area be revoked", writes the author. This is a good example of the constant tension between the 'ideal' and the 'real' and how no man can be judged by just acts of one phase of a professional role.

The Norton's family tryst with India, as the author traces, goes back to Eardley Norton's grandfather, Sir John David Norton when he sailed to Madras in 1841 on being appointed as "one of Her Majesty's Judges of the Supreme Court at Madras." Then, Eardley Norton's father, John Bruce Norton, also a barrister, had worked substantially in the educational activities in the old Madras Presidency and had served in various positions in old Madras including as Public Prosecutor and Advocate General in the 1860s'. And Eardley Norton himself was born in Madras on Feb 19, 1852. He later attended Rugby School in England and Merton College, Oxford. After a quirky early career there including as a journalist and as barrister, destiny brought back Eardley Norton to Madras, "to become one of the fastest rising barristers in the early 1880s'."

With the gift of the gab, Eardley Norton donning several hats including as Commissioner of Madras Municipality in 1889, his early associations with the Indian National Congress, he teaming up with Dadhabhai Naoroji in lobbying in England for greater Indian representation in the Councils that eventually led to House of Commons passing the 'Indian Councils Act, 1892',  and how his political carrier "came to a sudden, dismal ending" in the mid-1890s' in the wake of an extra-marital affair, have all been chronicled in great detail by the author.

Interwoven into this work, despite some repetitions, are the famous cases that Norton appeared for in Madras, Hyderabad and Calcutta, his case for a Supreme Court, his stellar role as 'Coroner of Madras' when the 'Park Fire Tragedy' happened killing over 400 people in 1886, Norton's embellished argumentative style laced with wisecracks getting him into trouble even with judges, his memories of fellow-lawyers and then judges of Madras, a separate chapter on Norton and Mahatma Gandhi, have all enriched this text for a new generation of readers. Exhaustive appendices, notes, bibliography and index are a researcher's wonder. With rare, exquisite and well reproduced photographs, it is an amazing collector's delight that may also inspire lawyers and judges alike. 

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