Sir John Andersson Thorne ICS, CIE, CSI, KCIE

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An interesting man, a crusty old bureaucrat and a friend of Malabar

Sir JA Thorne (1888-1964), was a person who spent a large part of his life in India, a diminutive man in stature, who rose on to become a powerful administrator during the pre-independence days. The ICS was his life and career and when he came to India aged 24, especially to Malabar (Tellicherry and Calicut), I am sure he must have been, if not anything else, bewildered. Born to JC Thorne, he was educated at Blundell’s School, continued on as an open scholar in Balliol College, passed the ICS examinations in 1912 and was deputed to Malabar shortly thereafter to work as an assistant collector with the Madras presidency under Sir Charles Innes,.

The next few years were to get him into the thick of things, he became the administrator of the Zamorin’s estates, toeing a tough line with his masters the British and a people he came to love, the people of Malabar. Very soon he garnered much information on the history, the culture, the practices and the age old law of the land, and so was asked to contribute to the ML Dames version of the Durate Barbosa travelogue edited by the Hakluyt society, around the 1920 time period. Even today you will see that his original comments are oft quoted by present day writers and historians. The land tenure rules which flummoxed many a foreigner were patiently mastered by Thorne over discussions with the Zamorin and his advisors. Sometimes I wonder if he ever made a detailed account of the short association Thorne had with my great grandfather, for those were the Zamorin’s last years, a period when he was deeply worried of the debts racked up by the family and the passage of the estates to the court of wards, the British (What vexed him, a deeply religious Sanskrit scholar, most was the loss of the Guruvayoor temple). Nevertheless the old Indian and the young Englishman forged a friendship of sorts. Thorne would always remember his days in Calicut and when he retired to Sedlescombe, it is stated that he planned to take up farming like the people of Malabar. We also see him involved with interesting disputes such as the misuse of the Zamorin’s Mankavu pond by non-caste people and his handling of the complaint. If you recall from my Manjeri Rama Iyer article, similar issues had cropped up about the Tali temple and Thorne was involved in issuing prohibitory orders with Manjeri Rama Ayyar later taking it up legally.

KVK Ayyar remembers him in his book on Guruvayoor – he says “In the Estate Collector, Mr. (afterwards Sir) J.A.Thorne I.C.S., it appeared that the Lord had had an officer, entirely to his liking. He scrupulously refrained from entering the Gopuram but made his obeisance from outside and even used to make offerings. This helped in creating an impression among the public that the interests of the temple would be safe in his hands and that he would enforce the rules (Note that the temple management was reverted back to the Zamorin in 1927) without fear or favor. He continued with his predecessor Konthi Menon’s public works and built a Satram (now remodeled and called the old Satram) at Guruvayoor.

Some 10 years later, after a good teething period in Malabar, he was transferred to Madurai and though he briefly held a two year tenure as a secretary to the board of revenue, he returned to district work, but went back to the board in 1931. In the midst of it all, he was deeply involved in three important events, the 1921 Moplah Rebellion in Malabar, the 1924 Malabar floods, and the 1930 Tanjore Rajaji incident.

The 1924 Malabar floods were devastating and something which was taken up by Gandhiji himself. This was also known as the 99 flood (1099 Malayalam calendar) when large tracts between Trichur and Travancore were severely devastated by rains and flood waters and Munnar was isolated. But the worst was the aftermath of the 1921 Moplah revolt in the Malabar districts which resulted in large human losses and property destruction as well as an organized rebellion against the British. Throne’s involvement was mainly behind the scenes (as a person who well understood the people of Malabar), providing analysis and advice resulting in the brokering of peace between the warring communities.
As a bureaucrat, Thorne was a stickler for the law. He was clear that as an administrator, he held firm to the rule of law and strictly administered the same. One event that catapulted him to infamy amongst the Indians and put him firmly back on the side of the British rulers was the Rajaji incident, otherwise known as the Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha. The pitting of C Rajagopalachari against Collector Thorne and the end results were soon to become a jolly David and Goliath style tale that came to be told and retold by friends to friends and parents to children.

In summary it went thus. In March 1930, Rajaji after consultations with Gandhiji who had started his Dandi march, decided to enact a similar scenario at Vedaranyam, a salt manufacturing area chosen for specific reasons (Cape Comorin was originally chosen, but as it was part of Travancore, an independent state not directly under the British, got dropped) by marching 100 volunteers for 240 KM from Trichy to the site, starting on the 5th April. At first Throne, the district collector of Tanjore, planned preemptive arrest, but this was turned down by Madras due to the fear of making a martyr out of Rajaji, though they allowed Thorne to arrest ‘harbourers’.

Quoting Hindu (Article by R Varadarajan April 22, 2001) As Rajaji led the Sathyagraha into Tanjore district, the "astute and energetic" Collector by name J. A. Thorne, ICS ordered the people not to receive the Sathyagrahis or entertain them with food and accommodation, under the threat of penal punishment. Thorne's warning against the "harbouring" - punishable by a six months sentence and a fine - were carried on Tamil leaflets, by the beat of drum and in the press. Rajaji was shown this challenge appearing in the papers as he stepped out at the head of the marching column of Sathygrahis. The order, CR predicted would enlarge the public's welcome. With a twinkle he added "Thorns (Thornes) and thistles cannot stem this tide of freedom."

The somewhat arrogant retort from Thorne to Madras was – ‘I apprehend no great difficulty dealing with the sheep once the shepherd is gone’. He also added that he would take pains to see that the marchers meet with increasing difficulties and discomforts, adding – if at all they reach Vedaranyam, he would prevent them from getting accommodation. The strong willed Rajaji retorted that the Satyagrahis were prepared to lie under the open sky and starve on Tanjore soil.

The first open defiance of Mr. Thorne's orders was made by Sri Pantulu Iyer at Kumbakonam. Pantulu Iyer arranged a royal feast for the sathyagrahis and for this he was promptly put in prison. Pantulu Iyer's case stimulated the thinking of the people and produced novel ideas of entertaining the civil resisters and yet escaping Thorne. Wayside trees, besides protecting the sathyagrahis from the scorching summer heat, bent low to offer them food packets that had been tied to the branches. In some places where the marchers had camped on the Cauvery river bed, were found indicators showing where huge containers carrying food lay buried. The roads were sprinkled with water in many places. There were welcome arches in some places and green leaf festoon everywhere. In the bargain, the police personnel were starved. The village people did not give them even a morsel of food or a cup of water to drink. The "menial staff" refused to carry out their routine duties of cleaning the latrines and sweeping the roads; barbers and washermen declined to render their services to the British establishment. The government offices and their families were in a lurch without these basic services of everyday life. Though a toe infection obliged him to walk barefoot for two or three days, Rajaji stood the journey well.

Throne as the Salt commissioner tried again to arrest Rajaji enroute, but did not get permission from Madras. Eventually Rajaji and team reached the location on 28th and declared that they will break the salt law on 30th, Rajaji formally notifying Thorne in writing that he intended to do it.

The anticlimax of arresting and convicting Rajaji (on the 30th April by Police Supdt Govindan Nair and 50 constables) subdued the overconfident Thorne. Rajaji was not taken to the Vedaranyam Town Police Station or to the Magistrate Court. The salt office itself became the venue of the court and prison cell, to honor Rajaji's stature and righteousness in defying the salt law. Magistrate Ponnusamy came all the way to the salt office "to hear the case" where a small room was made into a prison cell to detain Rajaji for a few hours until he was escorted on the train to Tiruchirapalli jail ( 6 months imprisonment and Rs 200 fine + additional 3 months for refusing to pay the fine)

The protagonists eventually met in the train which was taking Rajajji to prison and the honorable gentlemen he was, Thorne ordered tea and refreshment for Rajaji. Rajaji said “Your plan was bold, but you forgot that we are in our own country". Thorne smiled and replied "Yes, we have each tried to do our best and worst. Many years later, he was to remark about the role of a post-independence Madras Chief minister Rajaji thus - Above all, the old warrior, C. Rajagopalachari ("Rajaji" for short, throughout India) emerged once more from retirement-the Cincinnatus of lndia-and as Chief Minister of Madras has made his presence felt in every department of the administration. He very soon swept away most of the apparatus of food-controls. This was not in accord with the policy of the Central Government, and it appeared that he was taking a risk: but the soundness of his judgment has been proved, and the supply and distribution of food-grains in South India is no longer a cause of bitter complaint against the administration.

People continued to gather salt and some 375 people had to be arrested by Thorne’s police. Even though CR triumphed, Throne maintained peace in Tanjore when compared to other places which revolted. Throne ended his report to the Madras Government thus – CR’s actions were something of a triumph, even Mohammedans and Adi Dravidans (untouchables) took part in the receptions, CR maintained excellent discipline amongst his followers, always adhering to nonviolence, refraining from the acts of demagogy. He concluded, if there ever existed a fervid sense of devotion to the government, it is now defunct. In turn, the Madras secretariat informed Delhi that the movement had "left in its wake a growing spirit of bias against government."

What was next for Thorne? After a successful tenure at Malabar, and despite the turn of events at Tanjore, he rose up in the esteem of his masters due to his clear lines of thought and action, coupled with a bit of fearlessness. In 1933 he was involved in the Budget debates and by 1935 he was bound to Delhi, as a joint secretary to the government of India and the Home department.

But I think it is a good idea to digress a little bit and understand Thorne the person and in order to get to some of those tidbits, we have to read the account of his protégé SK Chettur who fondly talks of Thorne, his boss at Tanjore, after he joined the ICS in 1929. Thorne comes across as a good man and at the outset ensured that the young assistant Chettur was signed up to the officers club and that there was no discrimination even though Chettur was a native.

Chettur describes his boss’s day thus - Thorne awoke at 6AM, and started with a ½ hour of bird watching session until 730. After breakfast at 8, he started work at 830 and briskly moved files until 1PM, after which he took lunch and had a short ½ hour nap. Two more hours in the office, tea at 415PM and local inspection tours followed until 630PM. To end the day, he would settle under a petromax lamp to read. In between and during trips or weekends, he found the time to swim and do some snipe shooting, taking his new protégé along. Etiquette was very important to him. He would address a senior officer Sir at work, but after work, he would call him by name, since according to him, outside the office, one ICS man is as good as another!

Thorne was a smalltime poet in his spare time. One of his verses goes thus, showing that his heart was with the people, not his masters who stuck only to the rules and procedures and cared little for the populace they were governing.

The services thanks their friends
A thousand thanks, yet some of us recall
Such hackneyed words such as duty, right, tradition
Believe our India is built on these
Shall we foreswear our heritage and brawl like hucksters
For the ear of a commission
Weighing our honor gravely in rupees?
Chettur adds- Both Thorne and I were equally fond of reading and both of us shared a common interest in doing a bit of writing in our spare moments. I wrote serious verse and he wrote light verse. That was the only difference. In fact, along with Mr. Justice Jackson, Thorne was one of the original contributors to Madras Occasional Verse which contained very snappy light verse about the Indian scene. One poem made fun of the resounding vernacular names for various offices and places, and concluded with the remarkable lines, that one hears, ‘beyond the bar, The Surge of the thundering Tahsildar (Tahsildar is the name for a revenue officer in charge of a taluk roughly one-ninth or one tenth of the whole district).

In his memoirs, Chettur covers a lot of Thorne’s interesting personality, his excellent grasp of law, his quick wit, his adventures at snipe shooting and above all his absolute honesty in handling cases and issues.

Later he was the first to state – Congressmen in Madras presidency (siding mostly with Zamindars) have shown little tenderness for the genuine peasant. And he added later, in a number of provinces, the poachers are becoming gamekeepers (pointed reference to some congress ministers). However, one should also note that later day writers like Conrad Wood accused Thorne to be on the side of the Zamindars and an anti Moplah when it came to Malabar.
His work in Delhi in the home ministry traversed a number of difficult periods, starting with the World War II, the Indian involvement in it, the difficult participation of the home ministry in post war negotiations and eventually in the handover and Indian Independence. During the war the Throne report was widely used as a basis for information control, censorship and INA monitoring. The notes, minutes, letters and jottings of Thorne can be found in a great number of deliberations of that period and are still quoted by historians. His involvement in the arrest and detainment of Jayaprakash Narayan, Lohia, Krishnan Nair etc. as political prisoners and his ensuring their eventual release is mentioned here and there.

But then again, JA Thorne was responsible in many ways for the rigid stance held by the British during WW II. He stuck to the hardline and did not spare a thought for the common man, while at the same time agreeing to pardons when bigwigs like Gandhi took up the case (e.g. Mitra). He stood by the Enemy Agents Ordnance of 1943 which by 1945, was seen as untenable, after which adhoc judgments and hangings ceased in the case of Indian nationalists termed as enemy agents. In my opinion the role of JA Throne during his home secretary days, especially WW II was a blight to his otherwise stellar career.

As his obituary states - In 1938 Thome was selected to be Secretary to the Governor-General (Public) and great responsibilities related upon him in the war years. On two occasions he acted for brief periods as a temporary member of the Governor General’s Council and in 1945 he became Home member, a post he held until his retirement in 1946. He had been made C.l.E. in 1931, C.S.I. in 1938 and advanced to K.C.l.E. in 1942.

In retirement, he moved back to England and dabbled in archaeological researches as well as farming 
and bird watching. He settled down in Sedlescombe, in Sussex with his sister Jane. His wife Dorothy Horton, had passed away in 1944 and he was survived by a son and a daughter. Robin Horton John Thorne, his son passed away in 2004 after a career similar to his father. Sedlescombe must have provided him avenues for historical research for it was the close to Beauport Park - the HQ of the Roman Navy in Britain. During his retirement days, the village boasted two pubs, a butcher, a bakery, a newsagent, a blacksmith, a garage, two eateries and two general stores. Today only the village store and garage remain, and well, in many ways it would have reminded him of his West Hill lodgings, in Calicut.

He also generated some income as a part time director of Pierce Leslie.

Thorne always had a soft corner for Malabar. He wrote the forward for Zamorins of Calicut and jotted thus “The story of the Zamorins of peculiar interest to all Europeans who have known Malabar: both because of the part those rulers played for centuries in that impact of the west on the east which has developed in to the politics of our own day, and also for a more personal reason. We foreigners who have lived and worked in Kerala hold ourselves to be singularly fortunate: whatever else India may come to mean for us, we remember with gratitude and affection the country and people whose civilization is bound up with the dynasty of the Zamorins.”

Thorne did come back to India, in fact his trip in 1949 is ample evidence of his love for the country where he lived for close to four decades and admitted that he found a welcome as warm as ever. You can sense a trace of irony when he ends his article on his trip for he says “The Finance Minister who balances his budget after the country has weathered the storms of partition, provision for millions of refugees, the Kashmir " war," and an unprecedented shortage of food, has a right to claim that the finances of India are intrinsically sound”.

He was also critical about the way the bureaucracy ballooned after 1935. He says - When I was translated from my Province to a department of the Government of India in 1935, the number of officers therein was six i.e. one Member of Council, one Secretary, one Joint Secretary (myself), two Deputy Secretaries and one Under-Secretary. The other day, looking at the Delhi telephone directory I found that the staff in that department now is-one Minister, one Deputy-Minister, one secretary, one Additional Secretary, four Joint Secretaries, fourteen Deputy Secretaries, and twenty-three Under-Secretaries. Moreover, 20 years ago the world had direct access by telephone to all officials, not excluding the Member of Council. Now everyone down to Deputy Secretaries (inclusive) has at least one private secretary or personal assistant, sitting in ante-rooms and protecting their masters from interruption by telephone or otherwise. As regards "otherwise" the procedure introduced during the war for preventing invasion of the Secretariat by visitors is still in force: and, unless one makes previous arrangement with the official one wants to see, it is not easy to get at him. So the change is complete from the pre-war days when Congress Ministers in some Provinces proclaimed that they would be accessible all the time-and work became impossible. From these facts various deductions might be drawn, including the following -that work in the Secretariat has greatly increased ; that officials are more bureaucratic than they were ; that the cure for unemployment among the educated has already begun in the Central Government ; above all, that the planning era is in full swing.

In a later visit he observed the rise of communism in Malabar and in his analysis it was a direct effect of the increase in poverty following the decline in the common man’s income resulting from the fall in coconut prices after the WW1 and other causes for discontentment.

After making the usual comments about problems and opportunities in Young independent India, he does not forget to mention the people he loved. He added “The record Of the South Indian in his own country contrasts with the contribution he is making to the strength of the center. Witness, for instance, the Governor-General, two of the principal Ministers, and those sons of Kerala whose prominence has inspired the jest about Menon-gitis at New Delhi”. Poignant last words…

Rajaji: A Life - Raj Mohan Gandhi
Steel Frame and I – Life in the ICS – SK Chettur
A People's Collector in the British Raj: Arthur Galletti - Brian Stoddart
Asiatic review July 1949 – India, Pakistan & Burma Today - Lecture
Towards freedom Part 1 – Sumit Sarkar
India problems and the Plan – Sir JA Thorne (Bankers Magazine #175 -1953)
The republic of India – Planning & administration – JA Thorne (Bankers Magazine #181 -1956)
Times Obituary & WKML response – JA Thorne

Note – I could not find a single picture of Sir JA Thorne in any of the many sources I perused. If anybody can provide one, I would be pleased to upload it…

For a while there were so many Keralite bureaucrats with the surname Menon in the various ministries and so it was a standing joke that the Government of India was suffering from an attack of Menon-gitis.