A Wartime Travesty
Louisa Carolina Maria Ouwerkerk and her travails
There are some people who deserve all the respect you can give them. Louise, if you ask me is one of them. Her story is multilayered and complex, with only one facet briefly known to most, her life in Travancore. As you will soon read, her decision to venture out for a career in the East, would prove to be very stressful, for her independent thinking and forceful nature pitted her against some very powerful forces that converged to take her destiny far away from what she planned it to be, a simple teacher. She was to get involved in the Indian freedom movement, many intrigues in the South Indian Kingdom of Travancore, a wartime prison camp, an eventful fight to clear her name and finally find peace.
Her ten years in Travancore are well detailed (based on her recollections and research) in her account ‘No Elephants for the Maharaja’ and the book covers her turbulent relationship with the mercurial dewan Si CP Ramaswami Iyer. After she passed away in 1989, the book was put together and published posthumously by Dick Kooiman in 1994. What it did not cover, however is the story of the rest of her life in India. This is that story, which readers will read for the very first time, but before we get into it, a recap.
Louise Ouwerkerk was born in England to naturalized Dutch parents in 1904 and went on to obtain an MA degree in economics from Cambridge, in 1925. As a student she was involved in many movements and was a keen rower. After graduation, she had some difficulty in finding a job and for a while worked as a temporary teacher. One day she saw an advertisement inviting applications for a professorship in economy and history at the Maharaja's Women's College in Trivandrum. Louise applied, got the appointment, and sailed to India in 1929. Aboard the steamer, she raised eyebrows by dancing with the one and only Indian on the ship. Many a memsahibs warned her that it was not right "You wait till you get out East, then you will understand the color bar". She cared not, and was to cross that divide many times after that.
She arrived in Colombo sometime in the fall of 1929 and was led to Trivandrum by an exquisitely dressed Indian in a blue flannelled suit who was sent by the government of Travancore to tend to her luggage. Travancore surprised her, it was green, the people looked contended, buses plied on the roads and electric street lighting was in vogue. When she joined the Women’s college, she found it a mess, undergoing a renovation and run haphazardly. Moreover she was asked to teach economics and political science instead of economics and history.
She found her students mugging their topics and it took a while for her to wean them away and get them to derive their own answers to problems. Later she was given the additional responsibility as warden of the women’s college hostel. In 1936, she became an acting principal and proved to be an able administrator. Soon she had moved into a bungalow opposite the college sharing it with the principal Ms Grose and later into her own, which she found hard to tend even with half a dozen servants to help. Her next advance was to a new position in the University of Travancore as a professor of history and Economics. It appears she was quite uncomfortable in a largely male bastion. But her independent self, abundant energy, keen intellect and lofty ideals carried her through.
Louise’s book goes on to detail the days when Sir CP ruled Travancore with an iron hand and tolerated no dissent. Brilliant as he was in actions favoring Travancore, the way he steered Louise out of the state eventually is a sad tale. That much is well known.
This tale however starts after Louise left Travancore, and will perhaps be the first time a wider audience gets to know it. I had initially completed a draft on Louise’s times in Travancore and her tempestuous relationship with Sir CP, but I shelved it for a later date after I got a chance to read her wartime internment files. The story it revealed, was sobering, saddening and something that should never happen to anybody.
Louise found time for her work and much more within both European and Indian circles mingling with families, partaking in many social activities. The British resident CP Skrine was a friend, so also many other key Europeans. As a devout Christian, she was in regular touch with not only Catholic clergy, but also the protestant missionaries and many a missionary at Kodai Kanal. Along the way, she acquired a summer holiday house there, so she was not doing badly. She got involved with Rev RR Dick Keithan’s Sarvodaya and national congress movements at Kodai Kanal after which she is known to have imparted socialist and pacifist ideas to her students, sometimes discussing these with them after hours, at her house.
Meanwhile, there was a good amount of turmoil in the palace and to get a good feel, one should read Manu Pillai’s well researched book, Ivory Throne. In 1924, Mulam Tirunal had adopted two nieces (cousins between themselves) from the Mavelikkara royal family and the junior Rani’s son was to be the heir to the throne. The accession of Chitira Tirunal as planned was becoming a tough prospect, what with rumors (seemingly propagated by some in the Christian clergy of Travancore) of the young Raja being a bit on the wonky side, doing their rounds early on in 1930. To add to the discomfort there was an anti-royalty movement afoot in Trivandrum, led by the anti-durbar Nair party.
Sethu Parvathi had been in contact with Sir CP earlier in 1929 as waters were getting murky. CP who was serving as the Viceroys EC member, put in a good word with Willingdon. The Viceroy eventually agreed to let the boy be the king a bit earlier than originally planned. Eventually the prince and the Viceroy met at Simla, the latter agreed that the boys mind was sound and the decision was sealed. The boy had earlier requested (with Willingdon’s prodding) that Sir CP become his legal and constitutional advisor. That was how CP first landed in Travancore.
Why did Louise, who thought Sir CP was the "the perfect dinner partner" change it later to Sir CP, the "the power-hungry autocrat"? Was it her strong evangelical roots manifesting themselves, was it her strong sense of righteousness or did she just nurse a grouse? Was Sir CP or for that matter Chitira Tirunal a staunch proponent of a Hindu Travancore? Or was the queen mother behind it all?
If you read other accounts of that troubled period in Travancore, you will find vociferous arguments by the Catholics and vehement retorts from the Hindu factions, both seemingly right in their own ways. In addition you will find another set of factions, pro-British and pro monarchy, both marvelously detailing and exquisitely positioning their lucid arguments alongside other issues such as development and social rehabilitation. I was alternatively swayed by these groups as I perused the many sources, tilting from one side to the other. But as I mentioned earlier, this is more about Louise, the lady, in the middle of the storm.
Ouwerkerk’s problems, so to say, started with the arrival of this egoistic and forceful new Dewan, the well-known C P Ramaswami Aiyar. As time went by, in the Travancore of the 30’s and well into the 40’s and until independence, three people shared the powers of the Travancore throne, the young Chitira Tirunal, his mother Sethu Parvathi and most of all, Sir CP occupying the driver’s seat,
Ouwerkerk is not at a loss of words to describe the volcano of character that Sir CP was. She does not hide her admiration in any way, for she says CP was ‘a man of outstanding intellect, immense charm, a rapier keen mind, prodigious learning, and possessing an incredible ability to marshal facts, administate and deploy arguments, with brilliance in oratory, conversation and always, an outstanding lawyer’. As contemporaries in Travancore, Louise was some 25 years younger than the senior statesman CP was and perhaps for that reason, she would mostly observe him from a distance. Even after all the bitterness she left with, she stated that in CP’s canvass, you would see two threads of pure gold, his sincere devotion to the Hindu religion and his unshakable devotion to those he elected to serve, in this case Sethu Parvathy and Chitira Tirunal. He braved many political storms and even threats to his own life in defending them. Louise however maintains that he never cast the blame where they belonged (at the royal doors).
The next decade saw a number of issues crop up between the royals and the people. The Syrian Christian lobby, the Ezhava SNDP lobby, the TSC, the youth movement, the anti-Durbar Nairs and a smaller number of communists questioned every move of Sir CP and he countered them sternly. He muzzled the press, banned organizations, used his law and order machinery, sometimes mercilessly and they were all actions which invited much wrath from the general public.
CP stuck to his guns and once he was formally instated as the Dewan, the autocracy that he supported came down heavily on the rebels and violence erupted at times. While the temple entry announcement surprised all and sundry, CP’s opposition to responsible government was firm and absolute, he would not have it. The Quilon bank case threw much mud on the Syrian Catholics. All these stories are well known to the knowledgeable Travancore public even now and so I will cut to the chase.
As all this was going on, Ouwerkerk, now a professor of History in the Travancore University was getting more and more involved with the pacifists, congressmen, the Syrian Christians, the missionaries and the agitators. CP was losing his patience with this foreigner in his employ, who he now believed was stirring up the mud excessively and also hobnobbing too much with the British resident CP Skrine. He decided to get rid of her and wrote to the Raja on Sept 17, 1938 thus “She seems to be a very disturbing factor in the Arts College. It has been reported to me that she is in touch with a lady who lives in Kodai Kanal and who poses as a dancer and who constantly frequents Trivandrum and meets the member of the state congress and students in the middle of the night in Miss Ouwerkerk’s house. There is some reason or thinking that she is really a communist doing some propaganda”.
Sir CP also mentioned to Resident CP Skrine that O’s house was the rendezvous of ‘an unhealthy pseudo religious spiritualistic circle’. Sreedhara Menon notes that the immediate royal decision was to keep a watch over her.
Ouwerkerk had an inkling that her job was already in jeopardy as she set out to Europe on vacation in March 1939, amplified by the fact that she was drawing a salary more than two times the other professors in the college. By July, vacationing in Denmark, she received the formal notification of her termination. She was first served a 6 months’ notice of termination and the Raja’s final decision of her termination (due to exigencies of public service) was recorded on June 17th 1939. Louise travelled around Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Germany before being served with the termination notice by post.
Events rapidly snowballed and soon the world was at war, by Sept 1939. Louise hastened back to India in Dec 1939 and went on a lecture tour around India visiting Bombay, Calcutta (meeting R Tagore at Shantiniketan), Wardha (meeting M Gandhi) and most other cities in the north on behalf of the International fellowship, to end up conducting a rural survey in Paniyaram TN. She then managed to obtain the position in May 1940 as Acting principal at the Maharani’s College for women, in Bangalore. We can note that she is happy that she had left the intrigues at Trivandrum and was slowly relaxing and enjoying Bangalore. What she did not know was that her world would very soon get turned upside down.
In Travancore, CP reigned supreme and his 60th birthday was celebrated in grand style. As Travancore tensed, some leaders agitating for responsible government were arrested while others fled to neighboring British India and Cochin and some went underground. Newspapers were shut down. People learnt that war policies and draconian laws were too difficult to fight.
Louise had an inkling that something was not right. Perhaps her friends in the Sarvodaya movement (Ramachandran, Brother Keithan) supporting home rule, tipped her that the CID were watching her, or perhaps it was because she saw that her letters were being intercepted or tampered with. The input to all this activity seemingly originated from Travancore, where it was determined that Ouwerkerk was known to express anti British sentiments, was not only friendly with congress leaders but was also known to associate with pacifists, communists and other undesirables (As a member of the international fellowship, she was decidedly pro congress). The first tip of Sir CP’s involvement appears in the home ministry files where it is stated that he did not approve of her behavior in Travancore. But the British also noted that they felt Sir CP was biased in this opinion. Later letter intercepts proved that she did have pro congress, pacifist and Anti-British leanings and that this was the reason she got her into a morass. Dr Ada Hetherington (Nabha Maharani’s physician) also seems to have made some negative remarks against Louise, around this time.
The state of Mysore decided that she was undesirable and had to be expelled, and it was decided that she should not be allowed to ‘wander around India ‘and stir up dissent. The debate between the political and Home department was if she should be sent back to England or interned in a parole camp. Eventually in Nov 1940 it was decided to arrest her and send her to the parole camp in Satara, concluding that she would neither become pro-British nor neutral during the war period.
The bewildered and overwrought Ouwerkerk objected in no uncertain terms and insisted on a review of her case, as a British subject. Both she and her mother in England contacted everybody they could think of and in power, sometimes repeatedly asking for their involvement and personal influence to get her released. Many who reviewed her files suggested that this was all too drastic and that she had done nothing ‘dreadful’ or extreme. On the other hand they recorded that she was more of a crank, somewhat queer, an eccentric or quite opinionated at times and that the action planned was unduly harsh. But it was not reversed. Her mother wrote to Winston Churchill asking for redress stating that they were owed that (reminding Churchill of the services Gen Ouwerkerk had carried out for Churchill’s father, the Duke of Marlborough). This flurry of communication was making the political department and the home department very nervous. As letters flew back and forth, Ouwerkerk languished at the Satara camp, ensconced with other female parolees, where she would soon fall sick of food poisoning.
In the meanwhile she got a job offer as principal in a women’s college in Bombay, and she tried again to get a release, but the Home department refused. They believed that she should not be allowed to teach again, since she would impart bad ideas to her young wards. But there was one person who always thought she was being treated wrongly, that was Sir Maurice Gwyer, the Chief Justice of India who stood squarely in support behind her.
In desperation Ouwerkerk changed her stance from wanting to finish her ‘mission in life in India’, to being expatriated to London, which the ministry wanted to mull over, if only she could find funds to finance her voyage back. She also resigned from all her pacifist association memberships. Some officers looking at her files remarked that she was harmless as such, and belonging to ‘a wild type of theoretical pacifist’, many of whom could be seen even in England. But the outstanding issue was her association with the objectionable Rev Keithan, his so called communist views and the strong pacifist faith Louise’s mother was exhibiting through her letters to Louise.
By April 1941, the government who believed that O’s case had given them far too much of trouble than it ever deserved, decided to ‘perhaps’ let her go if she could maintain herself and not teach. Louise suggested that she could lodge herself with friends and support herself from a £120 annual pension she was drawing from Travancore. Thus she was eventually released from detention in April 1941.
The Mysore resident was however not willing to take her into his state considering her previous activities. In the meantime the Maharani of Vizhianagaram decided to employ O as her assistant at Ooty, and live there, as she said, quietly and not teach. O later contacted the resident to ask if she could go back with the Rani to Bangalore. The request was denied.
Ouwerkerk was not going to let this lie, she challenged the grounds on which she had been instructed not to take a teaching post (she of course did not know it was due to her being perceived to be one with communist views). As this was going on, she got a position as a Hostel superintendent at Lady Irwin College Bombay. This did not work out for obvious reasons, and next O applied for a position at The Nazareth convent in Ooty. The Home department asked the Madras government for advice. It was Jan 1942 already and an entire year lost in limbo for this iron willed lady, but she was slowly wilting.
The Chief justice recommended that the case be taken leniently since O had learnt her lesson and changed her views. He pointed out that she had renounced her pacifist views. The government was finally willing to lift the ban placed on her teaching. As this was being discussed, Louise obtained a job with the department of information & broadcasting as Publicity officer to lecture American troops on Indian economic problems.
She did not let go of her ongoing battle with Conran Smith of the Home dept. on the teaching ban, which she wanted fully lifted. She now ratcheted it up a notch by applying for a position as a secretary in the WVS (woman’s voluntary service). The home department when asked for a reference were lukewarm, suggesting that her talents lay elsewhere. Eventually, not having sufficient grounds any longer, and perhaps positive news from the war fronts, a formal notification allowing her to teach was issued by the Home department in Oct 1944.
O continued her wartime work, and won much appreciation. Later on in 1946, she was even recommended for an MBE but it did not pan out after the concerned in the Viceroy’s office read her files.
The machinations of the British bureaucrats would have naturally made you wonder how they ever thought O had communist leanings. An analysis shows that it was her proximity with RR Keithan in Kodai Kanal which triggered it. The British in those days saw all the people against British rule to be possessed by leftist leanings, be it Krishna Menon, Nehru or Keithan. Added to that, Keithan had correspondence with a group called war resistors international, considered communist. The CID established that O continued close contacts with Keithan (who had also moved the IF to Banaglore and O was a family friend), Leonard Schiff, Dr Mees, G Ramachandran and UG Exner all of whom had problems on the same count with the British and were not people with strong Anti-Nazi feelings. O also blundered in stressing that she was proud of her Dutch origin in various meetings, rather than British. Finally, the CID tapping O’s mail found her making general antiwar remarks when communicating with her mother and Hilda Elsberg.
Though Sir CP had started the train rolling, I cannot affirm he had any interest in O personally, and did not quite destroy her career, as O herself thought. Nevertheless, Sir CP continued to target those against his interests and his CID continued to track activities in neighboring regions.
Sad, the way this brilliant lady was treated, as she herself explains – ‘being judged for the acquaintances she had with such persons under police supervision, but not the far wider contacts she normally had which had not attracted police attention’. Anyway after a fight of over 4 years, she managed to get justice, though her teaching career in India had been inexorably ruined. In 1945 she published her book ‘The Untouchables of India’ and had the last laugh, to see Sir CP himself being ejected out of Travancore.
She was later involved in creating an East West fraternity in Delhi and after Indian independence, O returned to England and moved later to Nigeria where she taught during 1953-1963. In 1963, she returned to Ooty, spent 4 years reconnecting with old friends and went back to England for good. In 1974, she completed her accounts of Travancore, but did not succeed in getting it published even though advertisements appeared calling it “A popular history in Epic tone” and describing the book thus - A readable, impressive story about the Princes and the people, the modernization of Travancore, communal problem, temple entry proclamation, attitude of the Paramount power, civil disobedience and the final steps towards independence.
MA Thomas wrote fondly about her in his memoirs, explaining how she treated him like a younger brother and even taught him how to use a knife and fork. He recalls a visit by her and her sister in the 60’s to Bangalore and the important advice she gave him while in London - ‘Do not be in a hurry to make your contribution. Study and prepare yourself’.
Louise Ouwerkerk passed away in 1989, 85 years old.
That was Louise Ouwerkerk, India’s friend….
No elephants for the Maharaja – Dick Kooiman
National archives of India – Home office files, Louise Ouwerkerk (Political-E-1940-Na-F-67-32-40)
Ivory Throne – Manu Pillai
Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore: Annals of Sir CP's Sixteen Years - A Sreedhara Menon
Envoy of the Raj (the career of Sir Claremont Skrine) – John Stewart
Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar a biography – Saroja Sunadararajan
The dancer, Hilda Elsberg, was a Jewish German, who was employed in the Presentation Convent in Kodaikanal as a dance and gym teacher. She too was a pacifist and as a good friend of Ouwerkerk, corresponded with her, but if she went regularly to Trivandrum or not is not clear (I still don’t know what she was up to in Trivandrum. Interestingly, the daughters of the Queen Regent were studying at the very same Kodai School – Information courtesy Manu Pillai). Copies of letters sent to her by Louise do exhibit some controversial views and were intercepted by the British.
Dick RR Rev ‘brother’ Keithan was expelled from India, but returned and spent his remaining life, as a Gandhian, in Dindigul. His story is a project for the future, I will retell it another day.
Xanadu – Where Ouwerkerk lived in Trivandrum, is a minister’s house, these days!
O defined Malayalees thus - The Malayalee is above all an individualist, used to going about his business regardless of anybody except the members of his own family, tenacious of his personal rights, quarrelsome, difficult to organize for any continuing purpose. There is a saying in Kerala which may be relevant here, as it certainly is to the main theme of her book: “Take one Keralan: you have a politician; take two Keralans: you have a political party; take three Keralans: you have two political parties.”