Bhawal case

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Ramendra Narayan Roy, the prince of Bhawal Estate

The Bhawal case was an extended Indian court case about a possible impostor who claimed to be the prince of Bhawal and was presumed dead a decade earlier. Bhawal is a common surname of the people from East Pakistan (Bangladesh). The surname is rarely spelt as "Bhowal". [1][2]

Apparent first death and cremation[edit]

Bhawal estate
A cremation in the 1900s decade

Ramendra Narayan Roy was one of the kumars ("prince") of the Bhawal Estate, a large zamindar in Bengal in modern-day Bangladesh. He was one of three brothers who had inherited the estate from their father. The Bhawal Estate spread over 579 square miles (1,500 km2) and included villages with a population of around 500.000, many of them tenant farmers.

Ramendra Narayan Roy, second kumar of Bhawal, spent most of his time hunting, in festivities and with women, having several mistresses. By 1905 he had contracted syphilis. In 1909 he went to Darjeeling , accompanied by his wife Bhibhabati Devi and her brother Satyendranath Banerjee and a large retinue to seek treatment but was reported to have died there on 7 May at the age of 25.[1] The reported cause of death was biliary colic (gallstones). His body was supposedly cremated in Darjeeling the next day and customary funerary rites were performed on 8 May.[3]

Later there was much discussion of what had exactly happened on 8 May and what was the exact time of the cremation and exactly who had been cremated. Some witnesses testified that a sudden hailstorm had interrupted the cremation just before the pyre should have been lighted and the body might have disappeared when the mourners had sought shelter.[citation needed]

His young wife Bibhabati Debi moved to Dhaka to live with her brother Satyen Banerjee. Over the next ten years the other Bhawal Estate kumars also died and the colonial British Court of Wards took control of the estate on behalf of their widows. Sometimes before the beginning of British Raj in Hindustan (India) 'Baro Bhuiya' (১২) (বারো ভুঁইয়া) or (12 great land lords) ruled over the lands of then Bangladesh (current day West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, parts of modern day Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha). One of them were the Bhawals.

There was a common ritual between the Zamindar families of those days of acquiring high sound titles like Roy, Chatterjee, Banerjee etc. And the surname Roy of Ramendra Narayan Roy was in fact a title. His original surname is Bhawal.

Rumors and return[edit]

In 1920 a sannyasi appeared in Buckland Bund in Dhaka covered in ashes.[1] He sat on the street for four months and attracted attention because he was of unusually good physical condition. There were rumours that the second kumar had returned, even when the man said that he had renounced his family. Buddhu, the son of an elder sister of the brothers, visited him but was not yet convinced. Some of the locals arranged for the man's visit to Joydebpur where he arrived on 12 April 1921 on an elephant. The sannyasi under public pressure, finally disclosed openly that he was Ramendranarayan Roy, the raja of Bhawal.[1]

The sannyasi claimed that while in Darjeeling he was poisoned and a cremation was attempted. But the people hired to cremate the raja left him uncremated because a strong hailstorm had started raging at that time.[1] A group of naga sanyasis found him lying unconscious took him to their den and nursed him. When he recovered, but had lost his memory and wandered India for the next 10 years. While returning from Chittagong to Dhaka in 1920, his memory recovered and was instructed by his guru to return home.[1]

Over the following couple of days, his sisters became convinced that this sannyasi was the second kumar, but he returned to Dhaka by 25 April. Relatives invited him back to Joydebpur on 30 April when various relatives and tenants came to see him.[2] When the crowd questioned him, he remembered the name of his wet nurse, a fact that was not public and they recognised him as the second kumar of Bhawal.

Popular acceptance[edit]

There was considerable rural acceptance that the man was the Second Kumar of Bhawal. Many of his former tenants and relatives began to support him. On 15 May a large crowd gathered before the Jaidebpur Rajbari in Dhaka and announced in public that they believed that he was the returned Kumar. Kumar's widow Bibhabati refused to meet the claimant and regarded him as an impostor.

On 29 May 1921 the claimant arrived in Dhaka in the Bhawal house with two lawyers to meet the district magistrate and collector J. H. Lindsay who recorded his claim.

The British colonial government and the Court of Wards were not enthusiastic. Managers of the Bhawal estate sent investigators to make inquiries about the real identity of the claimant and find witnesses to support their side of the story. Two investigators went to Punjab to meet Dharamdas Naga, who identified the claimant as his pupil Mal Singh of Aujla, also known as Sundardas. On 3 June the Board of Revenue announced in public that they had proof that the kumar's body had been cremated in Darjeeling and therefore the claimant was an impostor.

Despite this, the public and many tenants of the Bhawal estate continued to support the claimant. Many tenants paid their rents to the claimant, who used them to hire lawyers. Solicitor Ananda Chandra Roy agreed to represent him in court. Claimant's principal supporter was Suren Mukherjee.

Both opponents and supporters of the claimant published their own articles and pamphlets propagating their cause. Some of them included alleged witness reports of how group of sannyasis had rescued still-alive kumar from the funeral pyre, taken him away and healed him. Others compared the case with that of a historical impostor Pratapchand and even the Tichborne case. Some writers wrote whole plays or stories to make their point about the case, some of them accusing Bibhabati and his brother of incestuous relations or conspiracy to poison the kumar.

The Board of Revenue claimed that the whole matter was a conspiracy organised by interested parties who wanted to use the estate for their own purposes. When they had found a suitable candidate, they had prepared him for the part of a returned kumar with the aid of kumar's sisters. Many Indian witnesses also stated that the claimant could not speak Bengali well and he was mainly ignorant about the events of the kumar's youth. One of them, Mukunda Guin, was stabbed to death in September 1921.

After the claimant moved to Calcutta in 1924, he also received recognition in local social circles. He joined the Bengal Landholders Association and became a director of Bengal Flotilla Service. He tried to use various official channels to argue his case until 1929, when he moved back to Dhaka and began to collect tenant's rents and tribute against his share of the 1/3 of the property.

Criminal case: Srimati Bibhabati Devi v Kumar Ramenda Narayan Roy and others (1936– 42)[edit]

First trial[edit]

On 24 April 1930, lawyers working for the claimant, supported by the sisters and elder sister-in-law of the kumar, filed a declaratory suit in Dhaka claiming the name and property of Ramendra Narayan Ray against Bibhabati Debi and other landholders who were represented by the Court of Wards.[2] Judgement was delivered in favour of the plaintiff in 1936. District judge Alan Henderson assigned judge Pannalal Bose to the case. Bejoy Chandra Chatterjee served as counsel for the claimant, now a plaintiff. Amiya Nath Chaudhuri counselled the defendants, those represented by the Court of wards. The trial began on 30 November 1933.[1]

In court the sannaysi declared that he fell victim to a conspiracy hatched by his brother-in-law Satyendranath Banerjee, an unemployed graduate, who wanted to control his share of the estate through his childless sister. He further Satyendranath had bribed the family physician Ashutosh Dasgupta to admit that he raja was suffering from syphilis, and was persuaded by the conspirators to go for treatment to Darjeeling, where they all lodged at a house called "Step Aside," close to the funeral ground.[1]

Lawyers working for the Court of Wards tried to prove that this barely literate man could not be of Brahmin caste, but those on the claimant's side were able to prove that kumar had really been able to barely read and write. Defense also claimed that the fact that Kumar had had a mistress named Elokeshi was total fiction. When Elokeshi was summoned, she said that police had offered her money for not testifying.

Defense also argued that kumar's syphilis had advanced to the state of open sores when there were no sign of any syphilitic scars in the claimant's body. The claimant spoke mainly Urdu, claiming that he had forgotten most of his Bengali during his travels. There was also an argument about the exact colour of kumar's eyes. There were also claims that the body burned in the funeral pyre had been a substitute.

Both sides summoned hundreds of witnesses and some of their comments were contradictory. Defense questioned kumar's sister Jyotirmayi Debi, who supported the claimant and stated that the claimant had various family characteristics and that the claimant did speak Bengali. The plaintiff's side, in turn, closely questioned Bibhabati Debi, who denied she saw any resemblance between her dead husband and the claimant. Ananda Kumari, widow of one of the other kumars, claimed that the kumar had been able to speak English and write in Bengali, neither of which the claimant could do. However, the letters that were presented as evidence of this were found to be forgeries.

In September 1935, the guru Dharamdas Naga arrived to testify in court through an interpreter and repeated that he recognised the claimant as his former disciple Sundardas, previously Mal Singh, who was a Punjabi sikh from Lahore. Das fell ill and had to be questioned outside the courthouse. The claimant's supporters insisted that this guru was a fraud. Both sides' closing arguments lasted for 6 weeks before the court adjourned on 20 May 1936.[citation needed]

Judge Pannabal Basu deliberated his final judgment for three months and on 24 August 1936, after a very detailed explanation and with a large crowd waiting outside, he ruled in favour of the claimant. Afterwards he retired from the judiciary.

Second trial[edit]

The claimant moved to the estate but the Board of Revenue did not release any funds to him. On 5 October 1936 the government filed an appeal against the judgment in the Calcutta High Court, again in the name of the wards of the Court of Wards. Chief justice of the High Court gave an order that all the evidence in the previous trial must be printed for the use of the appellate court. It amounted to 11,327 printed pages.

Three judges, Sir Leonard Costello, Charu Chandra Biswas and Ronald Francis Lodge formed a special bench for the case. Both sides retained their former lawyers. The hearing began on 14 November 1938.

Appellants' side concentrated on what had really happened in Darjeeling, that there should be proof that kumar was not dead and who, if any, had been cremated. Respondents' side defended the judgment, stating the kumar's identity had been proved. Hearings concluded on 14 August 1939.

Judge Costello left for a holiday in Britain, intending to return in November to finish the case. In the meantime, World War II erupted in Europe and he was unable to return due to state of war. On 20 August 1940, other judges decided that the judgment could not wait any longer and began to announce their judgment. Other judges had presented their view to Costello in writing, he had delivered his own judgment in writing from Britain and it remained enclosed until it was read in court.

Judge Biswas defended judge Basu's conclusions in his long verdict and stated that the defendants had failed to prove that the Second Kumar had died. He charged that the defendants had tutored witnesses and produced fraudulent letters. He therefore found the favour of the claimant. Justice Lodge disbelieved the story of the rescue, criticised the amount of witnesses both sides had summoned, dismissed many details of the plaintiff's evidence and accused the plaintiff's side of pressuring and insulting the witnesses for the defence. He therefore found in favour of the defendants.

When judge Biswas read the judgment of Justice Costello's on 29 August 1940, it broke the tie. Costello criticised the Court of Wards for pressuring witnesses with irrelevant questions and withholding documents. He did not find sufficient reason to overturn the decision of the lower court. On 25 November, after two months of deliberation, the court announced that Costello's view was valid and therefore the appeal was dismissed.

Privy Council[edit]

The claimant was allowed to withdraw money from his share of the estate. He still left this share in the care of the Court of Wards until further developments. He also got married.

The Board of Revenue did not answer right away and A.N. Chaudhuri withdrew from the case but Bibhabati Debi was not ready to give up. Developments of the war delayed further appeals until 1943, when lawyers for Bibhabati Debi filed appeal for a leave for appeal against the judgment of the High Court in the Privy Council in London.[3] Partially because of the bomb damage to the council chamber in the blitz, The Council moved to the House of Lords and the next hearing began there in 1945. D.N. Pritt worked for the claimant's side and king's counsel W.W. K. Page argued the case for the Court of Wards.

The Privy Council did grant the leave to appeal. Lord Thankerton, Lord Herbert du Parcq and Sir Madhavan Nair handled the case. The hearing lasted for 28 days. On 30 July 1946 they ruled in favour of the claimant and dismissed the appeal,[1] confirming the capacity of Indian courts to decide their own affairs.[3] Judgment was telegraphed to Calcutta the next day.[citation needed]

Aftermath[edit]

The same evening, when the claimant went to offer prayers, he suffered a stroke and died two days later. Funeral rites were performed on 13 August 1946. Bibhabati Debi later regarded this as a divinely ordained punishment for impostor. She later refused the inheritance (Rs. 800000) coming from the estate.

Forensic significance[edit]

A forensic study,conducted on the dead body of the sadhu confirmed that he was indeed the kumar:[citation needed]

S.No Identification data Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy (The second Kumar of Bhawal) The Bhawal Sanyasi
1 Complexion Pink and white Pink and white
2 Hair Brownish Brownish
3 Hair form Wavy Wavy
4 Moustache Lighter than hair Lighter than hair
5 Eyes Brownish Brownish
6 Lips Twist on the right lower lip Twist on the right lower lip
7 Ears A sharp angle at the rim A sharp angle at the rim
8 Lobes of ears Not adherent to the cheeks and pierced Not adherent to the cheeks and pierced
9 Adam's apple Prominent Prominent
10 The left upper first molar tooth Broken Broken
11 Hands Small Small
12 Index and middle fingers of the left hand Less unequal than those of the right hand Less unequal than those of the right hand
13 A point of flesh in the right lower eyelid Present Present
14 Feet Scaly, size 6 for shoes Scaly, size 6 for shoes
15 Irregular scar on the top outer of the left ankle Present Present
16 Syphilis Present Present (disputed)
17 Syphilitic ulcers Present Present (disputed)
18 Boil mark on the head and back Present Present
19 Operation mark near the groin Present Present
20 Tiger claw mark on the right arm Present Present
21 A minute mole on the dorsum of the penis Present Present

In popular culture[edit]

The case became the subject of songs and ballads, plays, jatras and movies in Bangladesh and India.[1] In 1975, Uttam Kumar starred in a Bengali film as the Sannyasi Raja.[3]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Islam, Sirajul. "Bhawal Case". Banglapedia. Bangladesh Asiatic Society. 
  2. ^ a b c Sen, Ronojoy (30 March 2002). "Scholar delves into Bhawal mystery". Times of India. Times of India. Retrieved 23 January 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d CHAUDHURI., SUPRIYA (6 October 2002). "The man who would be king". The Hindu. The Hindu. Retrieved 23 January 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Partha Chatterjee – A Princely Impostor? – The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal (2002) ISBN 0-691-09031-9
  • Murad Fyzee – A Prince, Poison and Two Funerals: The Bhowal Sanyasi Case, English Edition Publishers (2003), ISBN 81-87853-32-8

External links[edit]