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October 26, 2003 

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Law as (hi)story

Enslaved daughter, Bhawal Mejo Kumar and the Agartala Conspiracy Case

Shahdeen Malik

Law, it seems to me, is becoming rather disinterested in its own potential. We don't have our John Grisham to point out to us that law is fun! Since we don't have our equivalent to a John Grisham, I suppose one needs to say a few words about the actual John Grisham.

Some years ago, a young lawyer named John Grisham, wrote a novel based partly on an actual court case, but enhanced by an author's imagination. The book became a best seller. Still practicing law, but no longer so young, he wrote another book that not only became a best seller but was also made into a movie starring glamorous Hollywood stars. The movie became a mega-hit. Understandably, John Grisham left the profession, devoting himself to full time writing. The genre of novel, litigation dramas packed with courtroom scenes where the main characters are judges and lawyers, has proven to be unstoppable. Maybe his novels do not attain to literature, but they capture something of the irresistible drama of law, and of people in contact with the law such that thousands of people stop to purchase his books on their way to railway stations or airports or for weekend trips.

The movies based on his books, dramatically gripping, peopled with big names such as Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, remain true to their essential focus, the law.

The title of the books readily convey the 'legal content' The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, The Runaway Jury, The Street Lawyers, and so forth. It is estimated that more then 100 million copies of his books have now been sold world-wide.

Now, why this tale about John Grisham? Partly because of the fact that we neither have our own John Grisham, nor, partly, any tradition of popular books based on cases, trials and, generally, mamlas. I have always wondered, why?


One good example of a mamla on which not only one but many books could have been written is the famous Agartala Conspiracy Case of the late 1960s. One could have easily written the political history of those days based on the mamla -- its legal intricacies, the protests outside the court-room, (real) hartals, galvanising the whole nation. Obviously, the characters in the book would include lawyers, judges, the jail-keepers, the accused, and their families. The book would also include the sub-text about the official version why the mamla was initiated, why the later decision to include Bangabandhu as an accused, what political or other goals or gains the official circle strove to achieve by making Bangabandhu an accused in this case, and so forth could form fascinating reading. And, the denouement of the novel? Why their attempt or plot failed so miserably.

Or this mamla could easily be the primary material for a history of the maturing of political movement in our country. One could even write a historical novel, based the feeling, experience, dreams (and nightmares) of the persons involved in this mamla the accused, the lawyers, the judges, the prosecutors and so on.

Alas, we don't have a book on the Agartala Conspiracy Case. Not that the Agartala Conspiracy Case has not been mentioned in the literature. It has been mentioned in a number of books as the defining moment in our political history. And the list of such books is rather long. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Agartala Conspiracy Case is yet to merit a book-length treatment.
On a more popular front, a number of murder cases have captured our attention through extensive reporting in the newspapers and other media. However, none of these cases many of which had the classical ingredients for a best seller such as betrayal, extra-marital affairs, conspiracy for murder and planning and, finally, execution of the plans. Needless to say, one need not portray the victim or the killer in any lurid or denigrating hue books nevertheless are easily possible for a number of criminal trials.

Not those books are being written about famous mamla. Partha Chaterjee's recent book, "The Princely Imposter? The Kumar of Bhawal and the Secret History of Indian Nationalism" is a splendid recent example. A Sannyas''s claim that he was the long-dead Mejo Kumar of Bhawal Raj in the early 1920s did stir popular imagination and half a dozen books were written while the case was being decided at various courts. Not only that, two leading Kolkata newspapers brought out special evening editions, on the day of the judgement, to report the judgement of the case from the Dhaka Judge Court. In other words, the judgement of this case was the occasion on which the first ever evening edition of newspapers was published in Bengal.

The Bhawal Mejo Kumar's story, at one level, is rather simple. The second son of Bhawal Raja went to Darjeeling in the late April of 1909 with his wife, wife's brother and a small retinue of twenty odd servants and house-helps. He fell ill there, was treated by a number of doctors, including European ones. But, apparently, he died in the evening of 8th May, 1909, aged about 25 years. Late in the evening his body was taken to be cremated; there was a sudden storm and those who went to cremate run away to take shelter. Meanwhile, a group of wandering Sannyasis who happen to go through the cremation site found a man ready to be cremated, but alive and they took the man with them and nursed him back to health. The person became a Sannyasi as well, roaming all over India with them for a decade. In the process, or due to his illness before the supposed death, he had lost his memory of his earlier life and his moorings.

Meanwhile, a body was cremated on the morning of 9th May, 1909 as the Mejo Kumar and, officially, the Mejo Kumar had died in Darjeeling.

A dozen years later the Sannyasi started to recall his early life, came to Dacca in 1921, and stayed on the Buckland Bund for three months. Rumors about this strange Sadhu reached the Bahawal Raj -- the Sadhu resembled the Mejo Kumar. Meanwhile the Raja of Bhawal, the elder and the younger brothers of the Mejo Kumar had died, without leaving any male heir to the zamindari. Consequently, the zamindari was taken over by the Court of Wards.

I need not get into any further detail (its all there in the 400+ pages of the book), except to mention that a case was filed in Dhaka Judge Court by this Sadhu, claiming that he was the Mejo Kumar of the Bhawal Raj, who was supposed to have died in Darjeeling on the 8th May, 1909. The formal hearing started in 1933 and, thus, the recourse to law was taken more than a decade after the return of the Mejo Kumar. Appeal from the decision of the Judge Court was filed in Calcutta High Court and, therefrom, to the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council decided the case in 1946. The Mejo Kumar died two days after the judgment by the Privy Council.

The DC office of Gazipur is now housed in one of the palaces of Bhawal Raj, and many of the Gazipur courts are housed in other palaces of the Bhawal Raja. North of Farmgate, including major portions of the present day Banani, Gulshan, the airport, Uttara and northwards were part of the Bhawal estate in the early twentieth century.

During the case, the grandmother and sisters of the Mejo Kumar claimed that the Sadhu was the Mejo Kumar, while his wife who was with him in Darjeeling during the time of his alleged death denied that the Sadhu was her husband. The rayats of the Bhawal Raj, overwhelmingly, supported the Sadhu as their Raja. There were more than 1,000 witnesses in favor of the plaintiff, i.e., the Mejo Kumar, while around 400 witnesses deposed, including his mistress and others, that the Sadhu was an imposter.

The mejo rani, the wife of the Mejo Kumar, died in Kolkata in the mid-1960s. Bibhabati Debi, the wife of the Mejo Kumar, "was regal in her bearing, even as she always wore the coarse white cotton sari and close-cropped hair of the Bhramin widow. She was deeply affectionate, caring, and singularly honourable."

The sub-judge of Dhaka who tried the case, resigned soon after pronouncing the judgement in the case, which he heard uninterruptedly for almost three years. The sub-judge, Panna Lal Basu, was elected in 1952 to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly from Sealdah in Calcutta and joined the Congress Government of Bidhan Chandra Roy as the Education Minister. Two years later, as the Minister of Land Revenue, he moved the bill to abolish the zamindari system in West Bengal.

A Bench of three judges heard the appeal against the decision of Panna Lal Basu in the Calcutta High Court. Of the three judges, one was a Bengali and the other two were Englishmen. The Bengali Judge, Charu Chandra Biswas, joined in 1946 the interim government of Jawaharlal Nehru as the Union Minister in charge of Minorities, and from 1952 to 1957 was the Union Minister of Law of the Indian Government. In that capacity, he piloted through the Indian Parliament the four laws in the mid-1950s which 'abolished' Hindu Law in India. Panna Lal Basu abolished zamindari, and Charu Chandra abolished Hindu Law -- the dual infirmities from which all the actors and actresses of the Mejo Kumar's case seemed to have suffered.

And the house in Darjeeling in which the Mejo Kumar allegedly died in 1909 -- Step Aside was the same one in which Chitta Ranjan Das, whom Gandhi himself had hailed as "the uncrowned king of Bengal" died on 16th June, 1925, following a brief illness.

This is a fascinating story based on a mamla. By the way, the Mejo Kumar was not really a likable person formally illiterate, too fond of drinks, women, mistresses and so forth and shikar. But, apparently, the rayats loved him as they, in their droves, came to assert that the Sadhu was their Mejo Kumar and they would rather have him as the Raja, instead of the Court of Wards. Hence the history of "secret nationalism" by Partha Chaterjee who, as a Professor of Anthropology of Columbia University, is a very renowned scholar.


And what about Rukumbhai, a twenty five year old hindu wife who did not want to submit herself to her husband, whom she disliked intensely, and who fought the case for restitution of conjugal rights in the last quarter of the twentieth century, all the way to the Privy Council. She not only fought the case, but also wrote extensively in the media, yes, in the 1870s, about her plight and became a cause celebre.

Rukumbhai wrote, almost a century and a half ago:
Is it not inhuman that our Hindoo men should have every liberty while women are tied to every hand for ever? If I were to write to you all this system of slavery, it would require months to complete it
Oh! But who has the power to venture and interfere in the customs and notions of such a vast multitude except the Government which rules over it? And as long as the government is indifferent to it I feel sure that India's daughters must not expect to be relived from their present sufferings '

And Sudhir Chandra has written a book, based on Rukumbhai's legal battle: "Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law and Women's Rights". Another engaging story.

All these bring me back to the central theme of this write-up, assuming that there is a central theme: why doesn't anyone write about our famous cases of more recent vintage? We all talk about rule of law, about access to justice, about independence of judiciary and so forth and all these jargon would be meaningful to those who are not trained in law if only we could make the operation of law interesting, through our stories, histories, and narratives.

Lawyers can and do tell stories about their interesting cases. But will any one write a book or two, and soon!

Shahdeen Malik is an advocate of the Supreme Court.

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