Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bretts Road, Salem

Philip Mason finished his book, "The Men Who Ruled India", with these words:

"When all has been said, one simple point remains. It was put clearly by Lord Wavell in an informal speech made after he left India. The English would be remembered, he believed, not by this institution or that, but by the ideal they left behind of what a district officer should be. At the other end of the long line, Warren Hastings had expressed a similar thought. 'It is on the virtue,' he had said, 'not the ability, of their servants that the Company must rely.' And if today the Indian peasant looks to the new district officer of his own race with expectation of receiving justice and sympathy, that is the memorial of the English."1

"Bretts Road, Salem" is one such memorial. Harry Augustus Bretts, was the collector of Salem district, between 1853 and 1862 (called Baramahal then). His achievements:

He was a great administrator who brought in sweeping reforms in land taxes.
He levied less tax for poor yielding lands under ‘Less Fertile’ classification.
It was he who abolished the sukavasi inam (free lands for living), a free distribution of lands to Brahmins and Muslims in the district and instead introduced samathuvapuram concept by making all people live in all places amicably.
Bretts was also responsible for bringing out the first government gazette.
He brought out The Salem Gazette in 1859. Historian Le Fanu called Bretts a man of impeccable character and straight forward in administration and deliverance of justice and architect of many people welfare schemes.2

The Government of Tamil Nadu would like to rename "Bretts Road" as "Central Library Road". The proposal serves no useful purpose other than erasing the memorial to Harry Augustus Bretts, who ably served Salem as its Collector. Philip Mason did not live to hear of this tragic move.3 However, the Indian Civil Service has undergone radical changes after the British left India, and the move to rename is perhaps only the last nail on the notion of virtuous service.

Baramahal then included Salem, Dharmapuri and Namakkal, and was one of the earliest districts to come under British rule in India:4

Alexander Read, was appointed by Lord Cornwallis, as the first head of the district in 1791. Thomas Munro was appointed one of his assistants. Salem was completely surveyed in seven years time. Munro never forgot Salem and remembered it as a model unit of administration. Bretts served decades later, building on the foundation laid by Read and Munro.

Mason's book is replete with anecdotes on administration of revenue, justice, building roads, canals, bridges, railroads and nurturing institutions.
The rule of "Audi alterem partem" was taught this way:

To a Bhil tribesman who, after a long tale of woe, begged him for justice at once, here and now, on an oppressor who had not been heard in answer, Malcom asked:
'Why do you suppose God gave me two ears?'
That would be enough; it would carry instant conviction where half an hour's explanation would have produced only a sullen bewilderment. It was an answer which ought to have been taught to every young man entering the Company's service.5

Even today, the role of the Collector remains much the same. He takes charge of the district. He is duty bound to remove public nuisances and maintain public order.6 During the British rule, more than 3000 thugs were convicted between 1831 and 1837, after Lord William Bentinck appointed Sleeman to capture and bring the thugs to justice. Thugs those days killed for gain, and it was not unusual for them to have targets of killing one thousand pilgrims and travelers. Clearing India of thugs was no easy task but the evil was tamed.7

"Bretts Road" stands in glorious remembrance of the difficult services of not only Henry Augusts Bretts, but scores of others like him who diligently served India. The greatest criticism against the civil service of the British era was that they were not accountable to the people. Mahatma Gandhi started the non-cooperation movement in 1919, when Indians were cooperating with the administration in every way. After Independence, the anomaly stands corrected and the rulers are held accountable to the people through elected representatives. The Collector is a pillar of strength in our democratic set up. As a native of Salem, a wish: The road to virtuous service is a hard one and "Bretts Road" ought to remain on the map of India, as a guide to every sincere traveler.

1 Philip Mason, The Men Who Ruled India, Rupa & Co, 1985, p. 346
2 R. Ilangovan, We want Bretts Road, The Hindu, 28th November, 2009, accessed on 29th November, 2009.
3 Philip Mason passed away in 1999. A clip from the "Daily Telegraph (London), Obituaries, Friday, January 29, 1999" is available at, accessed on 29th November, 2009.
4 Mason, op. cit., p. 86
5 Ibid., p. 88
6 AIR 2009 SC 1868, Suhelkhan Khudyarkhan & another v. Sate of Maharashtra and others also available online at
7 Mason, op. cit., p. 115