Enslaved daughter, Bhawal Mejo Kumar and the Agartala Conspiracy Case
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
a body was cremated on the morning of 9th May, 1909 as the Mejo Kumar
and, officially, the Mejo Kumar had died in Darjeeling.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Sudhir Chandra has written a book, based on Rukumbhai's legal battle:
"Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law and Women's Rights".
Another engaging story.
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.
can and do tell stories about their interesting cases. But will any
one write a book or two, and soon!
Malik is an advocate of the Supreme