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The Maharaja Who Cheerfully Took A Palinquin Ride To His Hanging- The Trial And Judicial Murder Of Maharaja Nanda Kumar

Sanjoy Ghose
4 Sep 2020 6:55 AM GMT
The Maharaja Who Cheerfully Took A Palinquin Ride To His Hanging- The Trial And Judicial Murder Of Maharaja Nanda Kumar
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Raja Nanda Kumar or Nuncomar missed Governor General Robert Clive dearly. The Governor General had so readily accepted his loyalty when Nuncomar shifted his allegiance from Nawab Siraj-Ud-Dullah who Clive had vanquished in Plassey. With Clive's blessing, the Governor of Hugli under the deposed "Nabob", had effortlessly transitioned to the epithet "Black Colonel" under the Company Bahadur.

However, all that had changed and Clive's replacement Warren Hastings viewed him as part of the ancien regime someone to be suspected. While all the officers of the East India Company were busy with plunder, Hastings had taken it to another level. When Hastings was removed, Nanda Kumar heaved a sigh of relief. His old loyalty was recognized by the Company Bahadur and he was appointed as Dewan (Collector of taxes) for Burdwan, Nudia and Hughly in 1764. The titular Emperor Shah Alam II sitting in Delhi conferred on Kumar the title of "Maharaja".

This peace was to be short-lived and Hastings was reinstated as Governor General in 1772 albeit only of the Presidency of Fort William at Bengal. The Company had also crippled Hastings by appointing a council of four members having the same powers as Hastings-Richard Barwell, Phillip Francis, General Clavering and Colonel Monson.

A smarting Nanda Kumar began collecting his evidence to implicate his old enemy for his misdeeds. Nuncomar handed over the evidence of Hastings' bribery and corruption to Philip Francis, a council member and someone who was in good terms with the native.

Nanda Kumar's letter of March 11, 1775, stated that in 1772, Hastings, as Governor, had accepted a bribe of Rs 1,04,105 for appointing one Gurudas as Diwan and Rs 2,50,000 from Munni Begum to appoint her as guardian of the infant Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daulah. This letter was promptly presented to the Council by Francis leaving Hastings red faced. Emboldened, Nanda Kumar directly wrote to the Council on March 13, 1775, offering to even produce vouchers to support his charge. Monson, another Council member, now moved a motion to ask Nanda Kumar to appear before the Council. A heated discussion followed, as Hastings who was presiding opposed the idea tooth and nail. In the end, the motion carried. The infuriated Hastings dissolved the meeting, got up and left in a huff. The others elected Clavering to preside and Nanda Kumar had his appearance and claimed he was in possession of a letter written in Persian by Munni Begum addressed to him. At the Council he was asked point blank:

"Where you ever approached by Governor General Hastings or his men for the letter of Munni Begum?"

"Kanta Babu, Hastings Saheb's Baniya, had come to me four months ago. I did not give him the original!".

Kanta Babu was summoned and, following Hastings' command he avoided appearing. The Council then concluded that the Raja's charges against Hastings were true and he was directed to deposit the bribe money into the Company's treasury-all Rs 3,54,105 of it! Barnwell, who was on the council and very close to Hastings, dissented. He rushed to Hastings' Alipore residence to give a minute by minute account to his mentor. Soon a plan was afoot to teach that bloody native a lesson.

Within months of the humiliation at the Council's hands, Nanda Kumar along with one Joseph Fouke and Radha Charan, were arrested on charges of conspiracy. Hastings always knew that the charges were weak and would not stand.

Curiously, another trial was launched against Nanda Kumar for allegedly forging an acknowledgement of a debt from a Banker Boluckee Doss (Bulaki Das) executed in 1765. It read, as follows (the original translation presented to court on June 12, 1775):

"The sum of one lack and ninety thousand rupees of different sans (years) on account of the Sircar of the Nabob Allee jah has been received by me at a place near the river of Doorgautee.-Boluckee Doss"[1]

Complainant Mohun Persaud (Mohan Prasad) conveniently "brought" his case before the justices of peace for the town of Calcutta on May 6, 1775, a full ten years from the date on which the document was claimed to be executed. Magistrates Le Maistre and Hyde heard the case and scrutinsed the documents late into the night. Then they ordered the Sheriff to "receive into your custody the body of Maharaja Nanda Kumar" and Hastings' tormentor lost his freedom at 10 PM on that Saturday night. Legal historians have doubted whether, in fact, Mohun Persaud had, on his own, filed the complaint or whether he was set up to do so as even the warrant referred to him as a 'witness'. Hastings pretended he had no idea of what had transpired. He, after all, went to bed early.

On May 7, 1775, the very next day, which was a Sunday, 'complainant' Mohan Prasad gave his bond to prosecute Kumar before the Supreme Court. The fact that it was a Sunday indicates the unusual interest this prosecution had received. Kumar's case was placed before the Chief Justice and three other puisne judges on May 8, 1775 which convened in the spacious ground floor of the Old Court House. Calcutta Chief Justice Sir Elijah Impey, incidentally, was Hastings' old Westminster schoolmate and lifelong friend.[2] He took no time to commit Nuncomar to trial.

The Raja petitioned the Council the same day, saying:

"I mean not, however, to deprecate the Governor-General's resentment. The reason of the encouragement of my enemies, and the motives of the Governor General's resentment against me, will be sufficiently explained to the world…

Should my life be taken away by the flagitious charge now laid against me, the facts before alluded to will remain upon record, the witnesses will be ready, and the proofs produceable whenever the Governor-General has courage sufficient to hear them."

Hastings ensured that Kumar languished in the dreaded Calcutta prison and when Council Member Monson sought to get the Council to examine the warrant, the Governor General protested the attempt at 'executive intrusion' into the sphere of the Supreme Court.

Hearing in the Nanda Kumar Case commenced on June 8, 1775, and went on continuously for eight days. The Court sat every day at 8 AM and the hearings went on late into the night. The jury consisted of ordinary men as many excused themselves on the pretext of official duties. The Foreman was on Robinson, a private friend of Hastings, who went bankrupt a few years after the trial. It included a substantial number of "half-castes" ie Anglo-Indians.

Kumar's advocates Messrs. Farrer and Brix, raised the preliminary objection on the jurisdiction of the Court. They submitted that the offence was committed when even the Supreme Court had not been established. Also, natives had to be tried by the local Faujdari Adalat. Secondly, the Forgery Act of 1729 (2 Geo II), which introduced capital punishment for forgery, having been passed by the British Parliament, was not applicable to India without the Council having resolved to apply it[3].

Chief Justice Impey, would in his own impeachment, refer to Kumar's lawyers as "two English barristers of eminent ability and repute" though Brix was neither a barrister nor English but the Dane who was secretary to the Governor of Serampore and Farrer was not a barrister either at that time. If Farrer was not a barrister and depended on Impey's grace to be able to practice, it does put into question his independence. In any event, neither knew a word of Bangla and the Raja, English. The Client had to use interpreters to communicate with his legal team.

Impey had no hesitation to brush aside these points and asked the King's Counsel to place the charges. However, the government lawyer, Hercules Durham, was nervous and bumbling. While there was no doubt he had never tried a case as high profile as this one, yet his incompetence got Impey impatient. After a while, the Court started directly cross examining the defence witnesses on pretext that the King's Counsel was inept! Beveridge writes that "Price also says that the Company's lawyer used to boast that he would save the Raja's life if his counsel would consent to his paying the debt, and give him a handsome sum." So the bumbling perhaps was deliberate. The Raja was, after all, a rich and powerful man.

The Crown's witnesses were only eight. One Naba Krishna, who would go one to prove the charge of forgery was also intimately connected with Hastings having served as his Persian Munshi. In 1778 Hastings would go on to reward this witness with the unique position of a Calcutta taluqdar. Well, Hastings would go on to also borrow three lakhs from him which he would never end up paying forcing Krishna to litigate for the same.

The Defence faced a problem which should have been anticipated in any decade old dispute which is conveniently resurrected. The witnesses Matlab Rai and Mahomed Kamal, who were present when Boluckee had executed the bond were dead. Farrer submitted that he would produce letters in Boluckee Dos' own hand admitted to the bond and the entrustment of jewels. Tej Rai, Matlab's younger brother took the witness stand for the Raja. Other witnesses such as Jai Deb Chaube, Chaitanya Nath, Lala Doman Singh and Yar Mohamed testified to the execution of the Bond. All were extensively crossed by Impey. Even subsequent letters of Boluckee were exhibited. At one stage, the jury wanted to examine the papers. The foreman then announced that it was "an insult" to their understanding to offer those papers in evidence as papers of the date they purported to be.

Farrer lost his cool calling the juror's remark most reckless and arrogant. Chief Justice Impey promptly stepped in to chide the Raja's lawyer and said:

"This is a manner in which the jury ought not and shall not, be spoken to. The prisoner ought not to suffer from the intemperance of his advocate." The jury assured that they would no be prejudiced.

Finally, at midnight of June 15, 1775, the Court concluded the Trial. Impey's jury instructions were short and unfavourable to the prisoner though he referred to the hardship on the Raja to face trial at a late stage when crucial witnesses were dead. He inexplicably concluded that "though, to be sure, this hardship is diminished, as there are so many witnesses still alive who were present at the execution of it."

The very next morning Chief Justice Impey was back to pronounce judgment.

The jury had also found that Maharaja guilty. The judges concurred.

Then the Chief Justice stunned the packed court room as he sentenced Nanda Kumar to be hanged. The first for a hindu native of his stature which would send Calcutta society into shock and panic![4]

Nanda Kumar's lawyers had not given up hope. He was immediately on his feet and appealed passionately to the Court to stay his client's execution so that he could appeal to the King in Council. The Chief Justice would do no such thing.

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, who would go on to give India her Evidence Act, after studying the trial concluded "no man ever had, or could have, a fairer trial than Nuncomar, and Impey in particular behaved with absolute fairness and as much indulgence was compatible with his duty".[5]

Immediately, efforts were made to petition the Council. The Council, which had been so vocal, now inexplicably was non responsive. It did however forward Kumar's petition for mercy to Chief Justice Impey who tossed it out saying that the convict could directly petition the court and that it was improper for the executive to forward such requests.

Even an appeal that was procured from the Nawab dated June 21, 1775, seeking a stay of execution till the appeal could be exhausted and the pleasure of His Majesty was known, fell on deaf ears. The Nabob had written:

"The services of the Maharaja on this occasion (prevailing upon Mir Qasim to not expel the British) are well known to the King of Hindustan, certainly he never could have committed so contemptible a crime…"

Farrer even reached out to the foreman Robinson in vain to make a jury's plea for mercy. Robinson, in fact, filed a complaint.

Calcutta's Hindoo society could not imagine the hanging of a Brahmin, much less, of one of the Raja's power and pelf. Even Mohan Prasad, the "complainant", signed up onto a petition seeking a pardon for the Raja. Mohan could not for the life of him have imagined that his complaint of forgery would cost Nanda Kumar his life. One of the jurors, Edward Ellerington actually ended up signing the petition seeking mercy for the Raja.

Hastings was determined to extract his revenge. He knew well that what happens to his accuser would also impact on his English detractors who had used the native for their own ends to humiliate and oust Hastings.

In July 1775, the Supreme Court in Fort William returned a finding of guilt in the conspiracy case against the Kumar and others. Co-conspirator Fawke was fined.

On August 5, 1775, at 8 AM Maharaja Nanda Kumar was taken to the Pasha garb. Alexander Maccabee, Calcutta's sheriff who was charged with overseeing the task recalled:

"He walked cheerfully to the gate and seated himself in his palanquin, looking around him with perfect unconcern. The Rajah sat in his palanquin upon the bearers shoulders and looked around first with some attention. I did not observe the smallest decomposure in his countenance or manner at the sight of the gallows or any of the ceremonies passing about it. He was in no way desirous of protracting the business but repeatedly said that he was ready".

Nanda Kumar requested the Sheriff to allow his prostrating servant to tie the cloth over his face. The seventy-year-old did have some difficulty walking up the steps of the gallows.

As the Maharaja's body fell the assembled people gasped in horror. Many unable to digest the hanging of a Brahmin took a dip in the ganges that flowed nearby.[6]

was hanged at Cooly Bazar, near Fort William. It is not known as to whether Hastings was there to witness what Francis would go on to describe in Hasting's own trial as a "judicial murder"!

Impey, accused of being the murderer, in his impeachment would stick by his friend, saying:

"I would by no means have my friendship to Mr Hastings be denied or extenuated. It was founded on friendship for a school fellow, and has been confirmed by opinion of the man."

Views are personal only
(Author is a Delhi based Lawyer)

[1] Henry Beveridge, "The Trial of Maharaja Nanda Kumar: A narrative of Judicial Murder"

[2] William Daryimple, "The Anarchy", 2019, Bloomsbury.

[3] Rohit Kumar, "Trial of Raja Nand Kumar-the judicial murder", the article.in

[4] Sir James Stephen disputes that Nanda Kumar was sentenced the same day. Henry Beveridge contradicts this. In fact, there is no record of the sentence proceedings.

[5] Sir James Stephen, "The Story of Numcomar and the Impeachment of Sir Elijah Impey", (1885)

[6] Hanging of Nanda Kumar, Kolkataonwheels.com

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