Sir Sankaran was born on 11 July 1857 on the Malabar Coast. His early education began in the traditional style at home and continued in schools in Malabar, till he passed the Arts examination with a first class from the Provincial School at Calicut.
He thereafter joined the Presidency College, Madras and in 1877 he took his Arts degree. Two years later he secured the Law degree from the Madras Law College. Sankaran Nair started as a lawyer in 1880 in the High Court of Madras.
In 1884, the Madras Government appointed him as a member of the Committee for an enquiry into the state of Malabar. Till 1908, he was the Advocate - General to the Government and an Acting Judge from time to time.
In 1908 he became a permanent Judge in the High Court of Madras and held the post till 1915. In the meantime in 1902, the Viceroy Lord Curzon appointed him Secretary to the Raleigh University Commission. In recognition of his services he was awarded the title 'Commander of the Indian Empire' by the King - Emperor in 1904 and was knighted in 1912.
He became a member of the Viceroy's Council in 1915 with charge of the Education portfolio. As member, he wrote in 1919 two famous Minutes of Dissent in the Despatches on Indian Constitutional Reforms, pointing out the various defects of British rule in India and suggesting reforms. For an Indian to offer such criticism and make such demands was incredible in those days. The British government accepted most of his recommendations.
He played an active part in the Indian National movement which was gathering force in those days. In 1897, when the First Provincial Conference met in Madras, he was invited to preside over it. The same year, when the Indian National Congress assembled at Amraoti, he was chosen its President. In a masterly address he referred to the highhandedness of foreign administration, called for reforms and asked for self-government for India with Dominion Status. In 1900 he was a Member of the Madras Legislative Council. His official life from 1908 to 1921 interrupted his activities as a free political worker.
In 1928 he was the President of the Indian Central Committee to co - operate with the Simon Commission. The Committee prepared a well-argued report asking for Dominion Status for India. When the Viceregal announcement came granting Dominion Status as the ultimate goal for India, Nair retired from active politics.
Undoubtedly he was an ardent nationalist. He was, however, not a fanatic nationalist who was blind to what was good in other people. Thus he admired the British democratic institutions, patriotism, and industry. At the same time he courageously pointed out the harmful effects of British rule on the Indian economy.
In politics he was a liberal and a moderate. Nair’s appearance was impressive as were his attainments; he reached the pinnacle in every sphere of activity which he entered. He was a patriot, who worked for the welfare of his people. He was ahead of his times in social reform and here his contribution was substantial.
“We must insist on perfect equality. Inequality means race inferiority, national abasement. Acquisition, therefore, of all civil rights conferred on Englishmen, removal of all disabilities on Indians as such - these must be our aim.”
From the Presidential Address - C. Sankaran Nair I.N.C. Session, 1897, Amraoti