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Pherozeshah Mehta biography

Pherozeshah Mehta

(1845-1915)

biography

      Pherozeshah Mehta, son of Merwanji Mehta was born on 4 August 1845 in Bombay, where he spent most of his life. He belonged to a middleclass Parsi merchant family. His father was a partner of M/s. Cama and Company.
Beginning his education in Ayrtons School, he passed the Matriculation examination in 1861 and graduated from Elphinston College, Bombay in 1864. He was married the same year, at the age of nineteen. A good sPherozeshah Mehtatudent of history and English literature, he was awarded a scholarship at the recommendation of his college principal, Sir Alexander Grant, which enabled him to go to England for further studies. He left the for England in December 1864, entered Lincolns Inn, took three years in to qualify and was called to the Bar in 1868 and left for home.
    While in England, he used to meet Dadabhai Naoroji and was influenced by his liberal thinking, which resulted in his joining the liberal school of Indian politics, the important members of which were M.G. Ranade, W.C. Bonnerjee, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dinshaw Wacha. 1901 After the death of Ranade and Bonnerjee, Pherozeshah Mehta and Gokhale led this group of Congressmen which came to be known as Moderates as against the group led by Tilak, Lajpat Rai, B.C. Pal and Aurobindo, who were called Extremists.
     After his return from England, Pherozeshah started legal practice in then Bombay and soon became successful as a criminal lawyer. His services were requisitioned in almost all parts of Bombay Presidency including Gujarat and Kathiawar. He also acted as a legal consultant for some Indian rulers like those of Kathiawar and Junagarh.
    While in England, Pherozeshah had joined the East India Association for which Dadabhai and Bonnerjee were working. On his return to India, he was selected as one of the secretaries of the Bombay branch of the East India Association and used to deliver lectures under its auspices.
      Mehta’s public life began with his involvement with Bombay Municipal Corporation, which he joined in 1872 and remained connected with for four decades. It was his speech in 1872 that paved the way for the introduction of principle of election in the municipality. The Municipal Laws of 1872 and the Municipal Act of 1888 were, to a large extent, the result of Pherozeshah’s untiring efforts. He was chairman of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1884, 1885 and 1905. His involvement in the Bombay municipal affairs had actually reduced him to a provincial leader and he had hardly any following in large parts of India.
      Along with K.T. Telang and Badruddin Tyabji, Pherozeshah formed the Bombay Presidency Association in 1885, of which he became honorary secretary. Under his stewardship it served as the organizational wing of the Indian National Congress in the metropolis for nearly thirty years (1885-1915). He continued to take part in the working of the Bombay branch of East India Association also. In 1886, Pherozeshah became a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, and when the Council was reconstituted in 1892, he was elected to it. He represented Bombay in the Imperial Legislative Council during 1894-95 but resigned in January 1896 because of poor health and left for England for treatment. He came back from England in February 1898, stood for election and got reelected to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1898 itself and continued as member till 1901, when he finally resigned on health grounds once again. In the legislative bodies' he distinguished himself by his eloquent speeches criticizing the government’s economic policies, as did most of the Moderates starting with Dadabhai Naoroji. But because they sang praises of the British rule and swore by constitutional methods, the government never took them seriously. In a way they were a contradiction in themselves. They were called mendicants by the Extremists.
           Pherozeshah had some role in founding of the Indian National Congress and presided over its session of 1890 at Calcutta, and twice served as chairman of the reception committee at the Bombay sessions of 1889 and 1904. Gradually, he became a dominant figure in the Congress in the first decade of the twentieth century. His main endeavour in those days was to keep the Extremists, led by Tilak, from dominating the Congress and in this he was largely successful though the Congress suffered grievously under his autocratic control. His most unprincipled act was during the Surat session of the Congress in 1907. The session was scheduled to be held in Lahore; he got the venue changed to Nagpur and from Nagpur to Surat where he had influence. He realized that neither at Lahore (where Lajpat Rai was a dominant force) nor at Nagpur (where Tilakites had the sway) he could have his way. He, along with Gokhale, did not want to get the resolution about swadeshi, boycott, national education and Swaraj, which was passed in 1906 at Calcutta, confirmed in 1907. The intention of the Moderates became clear when during the Provincial Conference in April, 1907 at Surat, the resolution about boycott etc. was omitted and also when they refused to accept Lajpat Rai as president of the Surat Congress to be held in December (Lajpat Rai later withdrew to avoid controversy and the Moderates elected Rash Behari Bose as president). Aurobindo wrote an article in the Bande Matram under the caption ‘Phirozeshahi at Surat’ castigating the autocratic nature of Pherozeshah." Not heeding the criticism, he resorted to unethical and unparliamentarily methods to teach the Extremists' a lession at Surat Congress in December, 1907. He is said to have kept ready in the pandal, in case of need, some hired men (Pathans) armed with sticks to forcibly expel the Extremists. The Surat session ended in pandemonium when Tilak went up the rostrum to move an amendment about the Calcutta resolution. The Extremists were expelled from the Congress and remained expelled as long as Pherozeshah was alive.
     Pherozeshah behaved in the same autocratic manner when he was elected president of the Congress to be held at Lahore in 1910. He changed his mind not to be president at the eleventh hour as he feared that the session would not be a peaceful one and at Lahore he would not be able to repeat Surat. He refused to go to Lahore and the Reception Committee was in a dilemma. Pherozeshah’s biographer, Homy Mody, wrote about the incident: The country was bewildered. Not even the closest friends of Pherozeshah suspected his intentions or could guess at the reasons that prompted this extraordinary step which threw the Congress into utter confusion. The President elect was as silent and mysterious as the Sphinx. Whatever be the reasons, the whole episode was in bad taste. Madan Mohan Malaviya then presided over the Lahore session. Being so autocratic by nature, Pherozeshah could not have a mass following and actually remained a provincial leader.
     However, his apolitical contribution to the nation was not insignificant. As a supporter of indigenous industries Mehta was one of the first to invest in cotton textile mills. He also raised an indigenous bank which later came to be known as the Central Bank of India, at present a leading Indian bank. Mehta had a deep interest in education, both primary and higher. Like so many other leaders of his time, he believed that western education was one of the most precious gifts of the British rule. He had been connected with the University of Bombay since 1868, when he was nominated a fellow of the senate. He took active interest in the university affairs, and in 1886 helped to promote the Graduate Association, along with Ranade, which did useful work in the educational field in Bombay. He was elected Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Bombay University. In March 1915, he was appointed vice-chancellor but he died soon after. He was awarded the D.Litt degree by the Bombay University the same year. The British government was always quick to honour the Moderates. Pherozeshah was honoured with C.I.E. (Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire, in 1894; and a knighthood in 1904.
    Pherozeshah did not dabble in journalism nor did he write any book or tract. However, he was mainly responsible for the founding of an English newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle in 1913, which became an important source for expressing Indian opinion, under the editorship of B.G. Horniman.
     “Majestic in appearance and stately in his manners Pherozeshah was endowed with wonderful intellectual powers. At the sittings of the Indian National Congress, in the Bombay Legislative Council and the Vice regal Legislative Council, Pherozeshah Mehta made contributions to debate all matters of public importance which were not only unsurpassed in brilliant phrasing but also in practical sagacity. Great as a speaker, he was the greatest debater that India ever produced. He had a rich and sonorous voice, when he was speaking to an audience, without effort, he could be heard in the most distant corner”. Pherozeshah was a born leader of menand those who came in Contact with him, seemed to succumb under the charms of his personality. Gokhale was the best example, who always looked to Pherozeshah as his leader and had to do and say things which he did not believe in. Wacha, Setalvad, Jinnah, Paptista and Jayakar had their early lessons in public life in Pherozeshah’s chambers.
In Western India, Pherozeshah is remembered mainly as the maker of the modern Bombay Municipal Corporation and the father of civic life in that city. His magnificent statue in from of the Bombay Corporation Building is a symbol of that contribution.
He died in Bombay in 1915, at the age of seventy.

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