Obituary: Kalyan Sundaram

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The Independent Online
Kalyan Viadyanathan Kuttur Sunderam, civil servant, born Kuttur south India 11 May 1904, Law Secretary 1948-58, Chief Election Commissioner 1958-68, Chairman Law Commission of India 1968-71, died New Delhi 23 September 1992.

KALYAN SUNDARAM, India's former Law Secretary and Election Commissioner, worked closely with Lord Louis (later Earl) Mountbatten in the transfer of power to India and the White Paper he drafted was largely responsible for reorganising newly independent India's federal structure and merging the princely states into the Union.

As an officer of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, Sundaram participated in the legal implementation of the Government of India Act, 1935, one of the initial moves towards granting independence to India through an elected legislature in every province.

A brilliant jurist who worked in tandem with Mountbatten and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the home minister (known as the Iron Man of India), Sundaram almost single-handedly drafted the White Paper on the reorganisation of Indian states, many of which retain the territorial boundaries he set over four decades ago.

Four days before India's independence on 15 August 1947 Mountbatten wrote to thank him for his 'splendid' work on the adaptation orders. 'Though I am no lawyer,' he said, 'I believe the drafting is of a very high standing.'

Earlier, Sir George Spence, head of India's executive council or law department, had specially asked for this brilliant ICS officer to be seconded to his department to aid them in resolving knotty territorial issues, above the heads of more grizzled administrators.

On retiring in the early Sixties Sundaram became chief Election Commissioner for nine years, after which he headed the Law Commission and then became adviser to the Rome ministry on the ticklish boundary dispute between Assam and Nagaland states in north-eastern India. As Election Commissioner Sundaram saw the prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri die in office and Indira Gandhi become prime minister.

Sundaram was born in 1904 in Kuttur village in the former Madras presidency (present-day Tamil Nadu), the son of an eminent professor. After graduating from Presidency College, Madras, he completed his studies at Christ Church, Oxford, and joined the ICS in 1925. On returning home after training in 1927 he was allocated the Central Provinces (later day Madhya Pradesh) cadre.

After an initial round of district-level postings Sundaram's legal inclinations led to his transfer to the provincial judicial wing in Nagpur in 1931 as a reforms officer. His proficiency is recorded by Sir Robert McNair, Judicial Commissioner, who said Sundaram outdistanced other civilians in knowledge of law and though he seldom disposed of any case on the recommendations of junior legal officers, Sundaram's endorsement often required no appraisal. In 1934, after the death of Laxmi, his first wife, Sundaram married Indira Shergill, the sister of Amrita, India's best-known painter.

In 1936 Sundaram's legal acumen was rewarded by a posting to the centre for training in legislative drafting and to prepare the ground for the seemingly inevitable transfer of British suzerainty to an Indian government. The ground had already been laid through the 1935 Act and the subsequent legislative elections and, though the war intervened, the British bureaucracy wanted to be well prepared to hand over power to the Congress Party, then led by Jawaharlal Nehru. Towards this end Sandaram was commissioned to prepare a White Paper to reorder existing state boundaries principally along linguistic lines, also taking the extensive boundaries of the princely states into consideration.

In accordance with Sundaram's White Paper, Patel, the Home Minister, and VP Menon, his bureaucratic deputy, were after independence able to persuade the princes to merge with the Indian union in return for privy purses and the three presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were abolished and sub-divided into states, as were many other provinces. Sundaram, having succeeded Sir George Spence as Law Secretary in 1948, supervised most of these changes under free India's constitution till the end of his tenure a decade later.

A reticent and self-effacing person who rarely ever talked about himself or the high and mighty with whom he had worked, , Sunderam was a widely-read man and a Sanskrit scholar who recently translated Kalidasa, Sanskrit's most famous playwright, into English. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushna, India's second highest civilian award, in 1968.