Obituary: Sir Percival Griffiths


THE WORKING life of Sir Percival Griffiths, the writer and former Indian civil servant, fell into three distinct stages.

Born in Middlesex in 1899, he took his degree from Peterhouse, Cambridge, and entered the Indian Civil Service in 1922. He was posted to the troubled province of Bengal and went through the normal stages of a young officer’s career, trying at first petty cases of assault and theft, with increasing powers and responsibility as his experience grew, inspecting village records and the work of village committees and outlying police stations. He became in the natural course an officiating and then a permanent district magistrate and stepped into the limelight in the early Thirties when he was appointed District Magistrate of Midnapur. At this time, nationalist feeling ran high in Bengal and among the students in particular there was for a short time a cult of violence. There were several assassinations of British officers and in Midnapur no less than three district magistrates in succession had been murdered. It was to this post that ‘the lion-hearted Griffiths’ – to quote a recent autobiography – volunteered. He held it for the usual tenure, surviving as he said later because he was too small a target for the terrorists to hit.

He seemed set for a successful career in the Indian Civil Service but resigned in 1937 after only 15 years. This was just when the Government of India Act (1935) was about to come into operation. It introduced provincial autonomy which meant that in most of his functions the district magistrate – who had once been virtually ruler of his district – would be under the orders of an elected Minister. There was naturally some apprehension in the service and Griffiths, though no die-hard, decided that a more rewarding career was open to him in the private sector.

He accepted the post of political adviser to the Indian tea industry and became a member of the Legislative Assembly, the central legislative body in Delhi, which at this stage of development included a block of nominated official members and the small European Group, representing British industry. Of this group Griffiths became leader in 1946.

During the war he acted also as publicity adviser to the government of Lord Linlithgow and as Central Organiser of the National War Front, and was arguably more useful and influential than he might have been in the Indian Civil Service. As leader of the European business group in the central assembly at the end of the war, he was an outspoken critic both of Government and of the two parties of opposition, the Muslim League and the Congress. But though his criticism was fearless and his manner often distinctly aggressive – the chin thrust out, a defiant cocksparrow of a man – he was popular on both sides of the house because of his obvious integrity and goodwill.

The third stage of his life began with the independence of India in 1947. Griffiths stayed on in India for some time representing British business and business interests in a variety of ways and constantly travelling between London, Delhi and Calcutta. He was a director of several companies and active in many voluntary bodies becoming, as one example, President of the India Pakistan and Burma Association.

He was an Honorary Fellow of the School of Oriental and African Studies but during this period his considerable energies were directed increasingly to writing. His numerous books were of two kinds. There were a number on general political and historical subjects, such as: The British Impact on India (1952); Empire into Commonwealth (1969); The Changing Face of Communism (1961). There were also a number of specialised works for a more limited readership, such as a history of the Indian police (1971) and histories of English chartered companies (1975), of the Indian tea industry (1967) and of the Inchcape Group (1977), all meticulous in industry and accuracy and marked by a pragmatic liberalism and balanced judgement.

His life was devoted to the British connection with India, which had begun in the 17th century with trade, and it was perhaps appropriate that for the greater part of his long life it was with the business connection that he was concerned, both as an influential adviser and as historian.

(Photograph omitted)

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