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The Typewriter Still Works -The Story Of A Judge Who Presided Over India's Most Sensational Trial

Sanjoy Ghose
17 July 2020 6:14 AM GMT
The Typewriter Still Works -The Story Of A Judge Who Presided Over Indias Most Sensational Trial
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I have only re-read one book. The first time was when it was gifted to me on my birthday by a dear college friend in 1998 and it had me right from the catchy title "Princely Imposter"[1]. It was the tale of British India's most iconic litigation-The Bhowal Sanyasi's Case masterly captured in every page by Partha Chatterjee.

When the Legendary Ram Jethmalani, donning his professorial hat, had come to Law School to teach us the law of evidence, explaining the 'hearsay' doctrine, he had given our resident Professor a public dressing down for having not exposed us to that fatal day when at the Darjeeling Sanatorium call was made for volunteers to serve as pall-bearers to take Prince Ramendra Nath to the cremation ground.

In April 1909, the Zamindar of Bhowal, East Bengal's most dominant estate with 500 villages[2] over 1500 square km[3], "Mejo Kumar" or the Second Prince, Ramendra Narayan Roy, had escaped to the hills with his wife Bibhabati Debi to deal with his persistent colic pain[4]. His debauchery had finally caught up with him.

They had retained the impressive cottage 'Step Aside', adjacent to the Mall, a favourite of another Legendary lawyer, Chittranjan Das. The time of "death" became relevant as, 12 years later[5], a sannyasi plaintiff in the Court of Dhaka Judge Pannalal Basu contended that he was indeed the Prince of Bhowal and that the funeral party had abandoned his "corpse" and taken shelter from the rain (yes the stationed Meteorologist of Darjeeling would go on to be a witness). The plaintiff claimed that it was then that a group of recluse Naga sadhus had rescued him and nursed him back to health. He had lost his memory and it was over time that it donned on him that Bibhabati was indeed wrongly widowed. Bhibhabati Debi claimed that the plaintiff was a "Princely Imposter" and that there had been an evening funeral which consigned her husband's mortal remains forever to the flames.

Ram Jethmalani thundered that while the news of Bhowal Maharaja's death was hearsay and hence inadmissible, the time when this news was received at the sanatorium was direct evidence and could be relied upon specially when the time of the funeral procession was hotly contested by both sides.

This is not a write up on evidence law; it is not Bhowal Sanyasi's story either. Here we try to piece together the scraps to bring alive Pannalal Basu, the Dacca Judge, who presided over British India's most ambitious trial.

Pannalal Basu was educated in the University of Calcutta.[6] In the Trial would appear before him from both sides barristers called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn. Bejoy Chandra Chatterjee, son in law of the legendary Surendra Nath Banerjee and a towering Calcutta High Court barrister in his own right, would passionately present the Sanyasi's case. Bibhabati Debi, who had steadfastly refused to even meet her "husband"[7], would have her case pleaded by Calcutta high society's coveted member, Amiya Nath Chaudhary, younger brother of the famous Calcutta barrister Sir Ashutosh Chaudhari. The government side would have to make do with the less glamourous Sasanka Coomar Ghose[8].

This galaxy of lawyers would have overwhelmed any trial court judge. Pannalal Basu was determined to insulate himself from all influences. He even stopped reading the newspapers during the trial as no case was as followed as this sensational trial. Papers in Bengal competed to carry the scandalous details revealed by the witnesses and the twists and turns. Leaflets, pamphlets and ballads on this trial would flood the corners of Bengal to satiate the curiosity of the people[9].




 The suit by the Sanyasi, seeking a declaration that he was the Kumar of Bhowal, had been instituted on November, 27 1933. The proceedings continued till May, 21, 1936. 1584 witnesses were examined. Many witnesses, British officials who had retired and returned to the Mother Country, were examined through a Commission in London. 1069 witnessed came to testify for the Sanyasi plaintiff and 515 witnesses attempted to spruce up the defence of Mejo Kumar's 'widow' Bibhabati and the Court of Wards.[10] By the time the sides had found up, there were twenty-six volumes of evidence numbering 11,327 pages and 2000 exhibits. Incidentally, even Subordinate Judge Pannalal Bose had been promoted as Additional District and Sessions Judge, Dacca[11].

Over the course of the prolonged proceedings, "the man's physical attributes, birthmarks, portraits, testimonies and memory were put together as forensic evidence to establish his identity. Hundreds of witnesses, including doctors, photographers, prostitutes, peasants, revenue collectors, tenants, holy men, magistrates, handwriting experts, relatives, soldiers and passers by were deposed."[12]

Some of the witnesses, like the mistress Elokeshi with whom the degenerate Kumar is supposed to have had relations, as well as the guru Dharamdas Naga who led the group of naga sadhus who had rescued the half dead Kumar from the Darjeeling crematorium, created quite the flutter and interest.

The Blitz reported:

"The ages of the witnesses ranged from 21 to 100: they came from all castes and creeds. They were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Paris, Christians, Buddhists, animists, naga, sannyasis and bhutias [Tibetans]; there were quite a few Englishmen too. There were doctors and lawyers, sculptors and photographers, zamindars and coachmen, mahouts and grooms. Quite a few pimps and prostitutes rendered evidence and the testimony of some of the latter related to intimate sexual pleasures."[13]

One can only fathom the skill a Trial Judge had to summon to navigate a Trial of such Herculean proportions!

Before summing up, Pannalal Basu brokered an agreement between both sides that the plaintiff Sannyasi Prince would be examined by a doctor with a view to identifying certain marks.

Both sides' closing arguments lasted for 6 weeks before the court adjourned May 20, 1936. Basu had presided over 608 days of actual court hearings.

Partha Chatterjee writes that it was the height of summer when Basu finally sat down to the task of writing his judgment. He says, as is the story with every Trial Judge in India who is hearing a sensitive case, "There was every likelihood that his findings would be appealed against in the High Court, and he could not afford to be sloppy."

During the three months Basu took to pen his judgment, he followed a strict daily routine. To keep his mind agile, every morning he would take a brisk half hour walk around his house in Tikatuli, Dacca. Then he would sit himself at the desk the whole day long. From eight, a plainclothes police man would station himself across the street from the judge's residence and stay till evening, strolling and biding his time by sitting on a stool under a tree or at a shop entrance. He had been tasked to provide Basu security, a protocol followed for a judicial officer hearing a sensitive case.

There was a reason why the cop was in plainclothes. During the trial, which was the talk of the town, the District Magistrate had approached Basu and offered police protection. The Judge had flatly refused.

Basu, given the sensitivity of the case, had even refused to accept the services of a typist. He would type away his verdict in his own Remington, but more on that later. He first wrote out the judgment in longhand and then typed it out. The day's work would be locked in his study at night. Basu made sure that he slept with the key under his pillow.

So this was how Pannalal Basu persevered to maintain the integrity of the decision making process.

Some enthusiastic Dacca residents had been camping in front of the Court house right through the night of August23- 24, 1936. The news that Basu would be delivering his verdict on August 24, 1936 had spread far and wide. By early morning, the entire square was packed with curious people.

As Basu skillfully steered the trial, the interest spread beyond Dacca. Calcutta papers would have daily dispatches sent by their Dacca correspondents. Basu's judgment created journalistic history as on that day, Ananda Bazar Patrika and Basumati arranged for their reporters to telegraph the judgment immediately after Basu had delivered it. They brought out a Special Afternoon Edition that day itself dedicated to this iconic verdict.

Chatterjee writes that Basu was to deliver the judgment at eleven o'clock. By then, the entire stretch from Sankharibajar at one end to the church at the corner of Victoria Road at the other was filled with people.[14]

It was early noon when Basu read out that decisive sentence of his verdict and earned himself a place in India's legal history: "I find that the plaintiff is Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second son of the late Rajah Rajendra Narayan Roy of Bhowal."

Calling it the last verdict of Basu's "distinguished career", Tim Steel, in his article in the Dhaka Tribune says that it "shook the British establishment to its bureaucratic roots by finding for the claimant."[15]

"If Kumar-sannyasi is the protagonist of this narrative, the real hero is Judge Basu", observed Rudrangshu Mukherjee[16].

Barrister Chaudhary would go on to mockingly describe Judge Basu as "the Dacca Shakespeare", something which Justice Biswas who with Justice Costello would affirm Basu's verdict, found most disapproving.[17]

Prema Nandakumar, while reviewing Partha Chatterjee's Prince and the Sanyasi (a second avatar of Princely Imposter on popular demand) states "Unswayed by public opinion for or against the sanyasi, Pannalal Basu conducted the case with clinical accuracy and delivered a judgment that can be described only as a superhuman feat for "even the admittedly impressive standards of legal loquacity in India, the volume of evidence produced in the Bhowal case was unprecedented.""[18] Rosane Rocher, while reviewing Chatterjee's work for The Journal of the American Oriental Society,[19] also notes how Judge Basu stood up to official pressure and found on behalf of the claimant "with a meticulously written judgment". Swapan Dasgupta calls the judgment "exhaustive and –by today's standards-well written."[20]

As for any Trial Judge, the greatest Tribute to his labour would come from the pen of the Appellate Judge who would go on to affirm his verdict. Justice Biswas of the Calcutta High Court would go on to write:

"I have read and re-read his judgment several times over, and it is no small tribute to the care, thoroughness and vigilant attention he brought to the consideration of the case that I was unable to trace a single error of fact in his statements…When I think of the time I have taken in preparing my judgment, I cannot but be filled with admiration for the learned judge who was able to produce his in less than half that time, and be it remembered, was able to do so without the exceptional facilities of the printed record which were available to this court."

As Basu rode back in his carriage to his modest rented house that evening, though he had much to be proud of, his mind was ill at ease. He has been thinking about it for a long time. Now he decided to share it with his wife. He wanted to quit the judiciary. Partha Chatterjee speculates that perhaps having strongly come down against the Court of Wards for its Palace Intrigues, Basu felt he was a marked man and that rest of his judicial career would be filled with stress.

In fact, on August 25, 1936, so traumatized was Pannalal, that after delivering the judgment in favour of the Sanyasi and decreeing that defendant Bibhabati cease her life as a widow, he decided it was not safe to stay in Dacca. Fearing for his life and his family's safety he arranged safe passage to Calcutta for himself, his wife and eleven children. The belongings were to follow.

Pannalal, while fleeing, however carried one small black case. Son Tapan Kumar Bose, who settled in Calcutta after partition on Bengal, claims the case contained a Remington Rand, portable type, on which the judge had himself typed out the verdict on 532 closely typed full-scape pages.

Two years later, Pannalal Basu took up the position of manager of the estate of Panchet-located in the Bengal-Bihar border.

Basu, in Independent India, moved away from the law completely. He served as a Calcutta Corporation Official, as an MLA from Sealdah and also as Education and later Land Revenue Minister in Bidhan Ray's cabinet from 1952-1956. As Revenue Minister, the Judge who made a Sanyasi a Zamindar, piloted a Bill in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly to abolish the Zamindari system. Sadly, before the Bill could be passed as the West Bengal Estates Acquisition Act, Basu died.

In a 2003 interview to Madhumita Bhattacharya, Basu's son, had not only demonstrated that the famous Remington type writer was in working condition but also disclosed that he had asked his children never to part with this family heirloom. "what is Rs 5000 compared to a lifetime of memories?"[21]

Basu's type writer may still work, cannot say that about the judicial system he worked tirelessly for.

Views are personal only.

(Author is a practising Lawyer at Supreme Court of India)


[1] Partha Chatterjee, "A Princely Imposter?: The strange and universal history of the Kumar of Bhawal", Princeton University Press.

[2] "The Prince who rose from death-The Mystery of Bhawal Sanyasi", the mysterymaker.com, 15.10.18.

[3] Ahmed & Vaskor, "A tribute to the silent death of the Bhawal Raja's heritage in Bengal", Procedia, 23-27 November, 2015.

[4] In trial the Sanyasi claimed he was suffering from syphilis and his brother-in-law Satyen Bannerjee had conspired to have him poisoned. For pictures of the Rajbari of Bhawal, read, BacktoBangladesh.blogspot.com, 4.2.2006.

[5] Shantanu Ray Chauhary, "The Mysterious Bhawal Sannyasi Court Case That Inspired Srijit Mukherji's Next", Film Companion, 23.08.2018.

[6] Peoplepill.com

[7] Waqar Khan, "The Legendary Tale of The Bhawal Sanyasi", The Daily Star, 3.12.18.

[8] Partha Chatterjee, Dead Man Walking, Permanent Black, 2016.

[9] Banglapedia, National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh.

[10] Barun Roy, Fallen Cicada: Unwritten History of Darjeeling Hills.

[11] Modi, A Textbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology. In Pg 46 Modi does a comparison between the marks and features of the plaintiff and the "dead" Kumar.

[12] Zuleikha Chaudhari, "Rehearsing the witness: The Bhawal Court Case", alkazifoundation.org The author's piece by the same name on journals.uchicago.edu have the 90 photographs that had been led in evidence before Judge Bose on the issue of identity.

[13] Rajmani Tigunait, "At the Eleventh Hour: The Biography of Swami Rama".

[14]Gautam Dasgupta, "The Princely Imposter, Bhawal Sanyasi case, the case which almost rocked the country's judiciary and civil administration., Facebook post dated 10.2.2015.

[15] Tim Steel, "The Bhawal estate scandal", Dhaka Tribune, 7.11.2014.

[16] Rudrangshu Mukherjee, "Return of the Native", Telegraph Online, 15.07.2020.

[17] Dr Pradip Bhattacharya, A Princely Imposter-book review", boloji.com, 19.08.2007

[18] Prema Nandakumar, "Mysterious Trail", Deccan Herald, 25.06.2011.

[19] Vol 123, Issue No 4. Page 934

[20] India Today, Book Review, 10.6.2002.

[21] Madhumita Bhattacharya, "A grand 70, machine that keyed in history", Telegraph Online, 8.11.2003.

[Pictures were taken from Partha Chatterjee's book




 


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