Monday, October 20, 2014
If ever colonial administrators could be canonised, Sir Thomas Munro would be first on the list for the people of the Madras Presidency. They came to idolize him as Munrolappa, for the simple reason that, even in his first posting as a lieutenant, Munro concluded that the King was levying a far higher share from the common man than the latter could bear. He argued that a fair tax would ensure higher compliance - and less scope for bribery. Such a line of thinking was not conventional for British officers in the late 18th century and it was no wonder that this man became a favourite of the local populace.
But it was not only about pleasing the locals. Sir Thomas was also highly regarded as a competent administrator and it was on his recommendations that the administrative system of the districts was reorganized to what, by and large, is its current form. His sensitivity towards matters of faith showed up in his actions at Tirupathi and Mantralayam. In Tirupathi, he set a practice of offering pongal to the deity - a practice that continues to this day, with the offering made from a vessel called the Munro gangalam. His decision to waive all taxes from Mantralayam's Sri Raghavendra Swamy Mutt was so surprising that the citizens decided he must have had a vision of the holy saint himself.
Much more than all of these, Sir Thomas Munro held a firm belief that the British could not stay on as rulers for ever. He actively prepared for a transition by placing 'natives' in important positions of administration. He argued that Europeans, especially those who disdained local language and customs, were unfit to dispense justice on local issues. That attitude was probably what helped him become victorious in the Pindari War of 1817. His army was overwhelmingly local and in the words of Lord Canning, "Nine forts were surrendered to him or taken by assault on his way; and at the end of a silent and scarcely observed progress he emerged ... leaving everything secure and tranquil behind him." The tranquility he gave others came to him as well. In his final days, the legend goes that he saw the bangaru toranam, the golden garland made by Anjaneya for Venkateswara - a reward for the purity of his thoughts and deeds!