Pandit K Santhanam is hardly remembered by anyone, yet directly or indirectly he touched the lives of many and played an important role in India’s independence.
Born in Kumbakonam in 1885 to a high cast Brahman family and orphaned at an early age, Santhanam was sent by his elder brother, who was a successful lawyer, to England in 1906 where he studied at King’s College, Cambridge. However, when he returned to Kumbakonam, he found out that as he had traveled over the sea he was now excommunicated by his religion.
Perhaps this may be surprising to my Hindu friends, who never fail to mention the toleration of their religion, that Santhanam’s family cut off all ties with him. Even the brother who told him to go to England stopped talking to him!
He could neither get a job nor a wife at the time (they did not forgive him even when he died as the priests refused to perform his last rites).
At this stage,Lala Lajpat Rai, known as the second lion of Punjab (the first being Ranjit Singh) whom he had met in England invited him to come to Lahore, which in those days (surprise surprise) was much more religiously tolerant than many parts of India.
Within a few years he became a leading lawyer of Lahore and even found himself a wife in 1916.
Then in 1919 the JallianwalaBagh massacre changed his life.
He became the defense counsel in the case of Lala Harkishen Lal and others, and he decided to break the police cordon which had been thrown around Punjab. He smuggled himself out under the first class berth of a railway compartment occupied by an Englishman, and made his way to Shimla.
He managed to meet and apprise Sir Sankaran Nair, member of the Viceroy’s Council, of the atrocities being committed under guise of martial law, and it was thus that news of the black happenings in Punjab were leaked out to the nation and the authorities had to act.
Later when the Congress appointed a commission of inquiry into the Punjab atrocities consisting of Moti Lal Nehru, FazlulHaq, C.R. Das, Abbas Tyabji, M.R. Jayakar and M.K. Gandhi, Santanam was designated its secretary, and charged with the responsibility of preparing and publishing their findings. He completed his task in under a year. The report is a model of meticulous documentation (after interviewing 1,700 witnesses and recording evidence) and its publication was dubbed by Gandhi to be the “last nail in the coffin of the British Empire.” Santanam was jailed three times for offences which included participation in the Non-Cooperation Movement and satyagraha.
In 1920, Santanam resigned from his legal practice during Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. The question was what to do for living and once again Lajpat Rai came up with an idea and suggested business; and thus in 1924 Lakshmi Insurance Company (LIC) was born. Santhanam,who by now was known as Panditg, is the father of Insurance business in the Indian subcontinent.
LIC soon became extremely successful with branches all over India and even in East Africa. The company built huge official and residential buildings in many cities including Lahore, Karachi and Bombay.
Panditg continued to lead the company and play a role in politics, but the turn this took was what he did not want. In 1947, when his dream of Indian independence became reality it was accompanied by the partition of Punjab. Tragically at the time he was in Kashmir with his family, to escape the heat and dust of Lahore as he was suffering from an acute bout of asthma. He was never able to go back to his beloved Lahore which had given him everything when his own flesh and blood had rejected him.
Migrating to Delhi Panditg could have got a post in Nehru’s cabinet but he was a heart broken man. He decided to throw himself in helping the victims of the holocaust and became member of the Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, but he never recovered from the trauma of partition and died in 1949 at the age of 64.
There is, however, an interesting end to this story.After the Partition, many of the flats in the Lakshmi building in Lahore were allotted to the migrants from India. Among them was the writer Sadat Hassan Manto who wrote the most incredible yet disturbing stories about the Partition. Manto lived and died in Lakshmi building Lahore. So in some way,though they never met, Panditg and Manto touched each other’s lives and Manto gave a voice to how Panditg must have felt.
Ironically one of them, a Hindu never wanted to leave Lahore and the other a Muslim was more or less forced to move to Lahore!