Sir R.K.Shanmugham Chetti could be rightfully considered the top most national level leader that Coimbatore has bequeathed to India. The first Union Finance Minister of the Independent India, he is credited with having resolved the “sterling crisis” through which he managed to get back a huge amount from the British to the Indian Government. He was instrumental in establishing the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Southern India Textile Research Association, and Perur Tamil College in Coimbatore. Besides, he headed the Southern India Mills Association and the Chamber also.
Born in an affluent family in 1892, he is a multi-faceted personality. Apart from being an economist of eminence, who got the chance to attend three international conferences on behalf of India, he was also an eminent lawyer, industrialist, great orator and an exemplary Tamil literary enthusiast. While his father Kandaswamy Chettiar wanted him to join the Civil Service passing ICS or become a lawyer, Shanmugham managed to convince his grand father Ramaswamy Chettiar to send him to Madras to pursue studies in Madras Christian College. He could become a councillor of the Coimbatore Municipality in 1917 even as he was studying in the Madras Law College. He became the vice-chairman of the council soon after.
In the elections to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1920-21, he was elected. This tenure helped him learn quite a lot about the legislative activities. In 1923, he was elected to the Central Legislature wherein he served upto 1934. He was elected Speaker of the Central Legislature in 1933. His economic genius and oratory brought him into close contact with the stalwarts of those days like Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, V.S.Srinivasa Sastry and C.F.Andrews. He visited England at the invitation of Annie Besant. He attended various international conferences including that of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva in 1928, 1929 and 1930.
As he lost 1934 elections to the Central Legislature by 92 votes, he kept himself away from active politics for quite a while. On the invitation of the “Raja” (King) of Cochin, Rama Varma, he became the Diwan of that princely State (samasthanam). He contributed considerably to the improvement of the Cochin Port. He is said to have implemented reformist ideas of E.V.Periyar in Cochin and also initiated a number of administrative reforms as well. As he had had enormous felicity in Tamil also, he had contributed a “urai” (explanatory note) for Silapathikaram also. He headed the Tamilisai Sangham as well.
He became the Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University in 1951 and extended enormous fillip to studies in agriculture and science. Then he honoured a number of Tamil savants including Prof.R.P.Sethupillai and “Kavimani” Desiga Vinayagam Pillai. With specific reference to Coimbatore, while he headed the local unit of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he persuaded the pre-independent Railway companies to grant various concessions to the industries of Coimbatore. His end came on May 5, 1953.