Bhawal Sanyasi case is a bizarre case. It is the most famous of all Indian cases. After about 12 years of death/ disappearance of a prince, a Sanyasi claimed to be him. Did the prince die or disappear; was the Sanyasi the prince or an imposter – these were the questions to be decided in a suit filed 21 years thereafter. In the suit, some facts were admitted and some were contested like hell.
I had read about the case in the legal history class as a law student in 1970 but did not go into the depth as better means of identification have come about. This year in January, Khoj International Artists' Association approached me to play the role of the judge in re-adaptation of the case. It was to be staged in Dhaka literary festival. For some personal reasons, I could not go but it piqued my interest.
The trial court had held Sanyasi to be the prince and the Calcutta High Court dismissed the appeal by 2-1. These judgements are not reported. The High Court dismissed the application for leave to an appeal to privy council and it is reported in AIR 1942 Calcutta 498. However, Privy Council granted leave but later dismissed the appeal after briefly recording the facts. The judgement is reported in AIR 1947 PC 17.
Dead Man Wandering
I have read the reported judgements. I have also read ‘Dead Man Wandering’ written by Partha Chatterjee as well as other available material. I don’t think that the case was rightly decided. But before I tell you about it, a few words about the book.
Partha Chatterjee has done research on the case and has written ‘A princely Imposter’, a treatise on the case. The book ‘Dead Man Wandering’ is shorter version of the same. If you wish to know more about the case, then this is the book to read. It is interesting and gripping. I could not leave it till I finished the same. Even if you don’t have legal background, you will enjoy it. But before we delve into the case, here are some other earlier similar cases.
Similar Earlier Cases
Raja Pratapchand of Burdwan Raj in Bengal said to have died in 1821. In 1834, a sanyasi appeared at the palace. Clerks, officials, and people recognised him as Raja Pratapchand. He was arrested and tried for fraudulent personation in 1838. Despite being accepted by most, including some Europeans, as Raja Pratapchand, he was convicted by a British Judge after holding that as there was convincing evidence for his death and cremation, he could only be an imposter.
In another case, Raja Rudra Narayan Ray, Zamindar of Ghar Basdebpur was said to have died in 1833 and cremated. After two years, a man appeared and claimed to be Raja Rudra Narayan Ray. He claimed that: he was poisoned be his step mother and was taken for cremation; he was laid on pyre but it could not be lit as rain started; and he was saved by some passing sadhus; he moved with them and now has come back to claim his rights. His step mother got him arrested and his legal attempts to establish him as Raja failed.
There has been the Tichborne case in England. The father of Roger Tichborne was baronet of the Tichborne estate Hampshire. In 1854, he was supposed to have died in a shipwreck. In 1867, a man arrived in England from Australia claiming to be Roger Tichborne. His story was that: after shipwreck, he was saved by a fishing boat bound for Australia; the shipwreck and the journey in the open boat weakened his memory; he heard about his father’s death recently and decided to write to his mother; and after hearing from her, he decided to come back.
The person lacked the education and traditions of the high class but his mother accepted him though not the other family members. After his mother’s death in 1869, he filed a civil suit for recognition as Roger Tichborne. It was dismissed and the jury as well as the judge recommended that he be prosecuted for perjury. In 1873, he was prosecuted and was sentenced to two consecutive sentences of 7 years.
The Bhawal Sanyasi case has many similarities with the earlier cases. The escape story is similar to the case of Rudra Narayn Ray; the defence in its strategy seems to be inspired by the Tichborne case but unlike as in the case of Raja Pratapchand, the trial court wrongly chose to decide first if the Sanyasi was the prince or not.
Bhawal Estate was in north of Dhaka district and was the largest estate in Bengal. Rajah Rajendra Narayan Roy was its zamindar. He died in 1901 leaving behind his widow, three sons and three daughters. Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy (the second Kumar) was his second son.
The second Kumar had vices of the rich. In 1902, he was aged eighteen years and was married to Bibhabati aged thirteen. Soon after the marriage, he developed syphilis of the third stage: gummas and ulcers appeared on his legs and hands. This was not from his wife but from his visits to other women.
|Ramendra Narayan Roy - the Second Kumar - picture courtesy Wikipedia|
Bibhabati stayed back with her in laws at the estate but bad days were coming to it. The eldest Kumar also died in September 1910. After his death, Bibhabati came back to Calcutta to live with her mother and brother. The youngest Kumar was unfit to manage the Estate and died soon thereafter. This left three young widows. The Estate was taken over by court of wards. The widows started getting maintenance. Bibhabati also got Life insurance claim of her husband. In times to come, the youngest widow adopted a son.
In the years that followed rumours used to periodically surface that the second Kumar did not die but was living as a Sanyasi. The second sister was more prone to the rumours and used to enquire from Sadhus in Benaras if anyone could give any news about the second Kumar.
In December 1920 or January 1921, a handsome Sanyasi appeared in Dhaka and sat near the river where people used to take walk. Some people started whispering if he was the second Kumar. Initially, the Sanyasi did not claim to be the second Kumar but later when the second sister also claimed the same, he accepted it.
The Sanyasi had his own version as to what happened in Darjeeling. According to him, he was poisoned by his brother in law and was taken to be dead at dusk on 8th May and not at midnight; his body was taken for cremation on the same evening and laid on the pyre but before fire could be lit, heavy rains started and every one took shelter; at that time some Sadhus were passing by and heard him moaning; they rescued him from pyre and took him with them; when he regained his consciousness, he lost his memory and he accompanied them; slowly his memory started coming back and he remembered that he was from Dhaka and he came here; he regained his memory, when he was recognised by the people.
The Sanyasi did not deny that a body was taken on 9th May for cremation but according to him, after the rains stopped, people realised that his body was not there; they arranged for another dead body and cremated it on 9th May.
Many tenants started paying rent directly to the Sanyasi. However the court of wards denied his claim by public notice dated 3rd June 1921 and declared anyone paying rent to him will do so at his own risk. In 1930, nine years after his appearance and 21 years after the fateful visit to Darjeeling, the Sanyasi filed a suit for declaration that he is the second Kumar and claimed for his Share.
Bibhabati refused to recognise the Sanyasi and always maintained that he was an imposter. According to her, after her husband’s death, she was in the room with the dead body till it was taken out for cremation on the next day morning and there was no question of his being alive. The suit was defended by court of wards on her behalf.
This was not only a bizarre case but a gruelling one as well. The Plaintiff produced 1042 witnesses and 27 were examined on commission: some in England and some in Calcutta. The court of wards produced 433 witnesses. Plethora of documentary evidence was filed by the parties. In the High Court, 26 volumes of paper books were prepared consisting of 11,327 pages and three volumes of photographs. At that time, it costed 80,000 rupees to print 20 copies of them. The actual hearing lasted 608 days before the trial court. Before the High Court, hearing started on 14th November 1938 and continued till 14th August – a total of 164 days. Before the Privy Council also, it was argued for 28 consecutive days.
What Went Wrong
Often in a case some factors go in favour of one side, some in favour of other and in longer run they balance out. But in this case, every factor went against Bibhabati: firstly, there was bad strategy on the part of defence lawyers; secondly, over zealousness of the court of wards to win the case at any cost; thirdly, the wrong approach adopted by the trial court and the basic points not properly considered by the courts; and fourthly, the timing of the case. The case was not being fought by Bibhabati, a widow, who may have sympathy, but on her behalf by the court of wards, a wing of British Raj, which was denying the claim of Hindu raja and nationalism was on rise. The sentiments were against them. Perhaps, all this led to the case being decided in favour of the Sanyasi.
The defence took up the strategy that the Sanyasi did not resemble the second Kumar; there was a deep conspiracy to set him up for the claim; and the second Kumar was a cultured Bengali Zamindar, whereas, the Sanyasi wasn’t.
The Sanyasi, though an inch taller than his recorded height at the age of 21, did resemble the second Kumar. There was no evidence to show that there was any conspiracy. Perhaps, the reason to recognise him as the Second Kumar by family members and other people had more to do with Indian psyche warped by the idea that family continues by male descendants and a benevolent raja is better than the tyrant British empire rather than any conspiracy on part of the family members or the people of the Bhawal estate to set up the Sanyasi.
There could be conspiracy on the part of the Sanyasi to take advantage of the rumours floating for many years. It is said that they were so strong that:
‘The people of the locality were ready to believe that Second Kumar was alive. They were in a mood to accept a claimant and if anyone was inclined to put foreword a claim, he must have realised from the experience that an impostor bearing any resemblance to the second Kumar would have a reasonable chance of success.’
Many details about the second Kumar were in public domain and some can be unwittingly revealed by the sympathisers.
The second Kumar was not a cultured Zamindar and the evidence to prove him so was found to be false and this surely must have acted against the court of wards.
It was observed that
‘It is not the evidence shaping the case, but the case - the evidence.’
Crucial documents were withheld, false photographs and letters were filed; irrelevant evidence was introduced, contradictory and false statements given. The court of wards also saw to it that people supporting Sanyasi were threatened and were asked not to give evidence in his support or took adverse action against them. It was not an ordinary litigant; it is part of the State. It is not expected from them to behave like this: they are expected to be fair. This also must have gone against them.
Trial Court – Wrong Approach
There were two questions to be decided in the case: firstly, whether the second Kumar died in Darjeeling; secondly, if the answer to the first point was in affirmative then whether the Sanyasi was the second Kumar. The first one was the basic one. If the second Kumar died in Darjeeling then the second question did not arise. However, the trial court thought otherwise.
The trial court observed that
‘The principal question raised in this suit. is in respect to the identity of an individual’And decided it in favour of Sanyasi. The court observed that:
‘Nothing in my opinion can displace the identity unless it appears that the second Kumar died at Darjeeling’.
He then goes on and holds that the second Kumar did not die at Darjeeling.
A judgement is not illegal on this ground but the judges are not Gods: they are also humans. Once the trial court held that there was no doubt about his identity then this undoubtedly subconsciously weighed in deciding the question about his death. If he was the second Kumar then he couldn’t have died at Darjeeling. The trial court should have first made up its mind about the death and then, if necessary, ought to have applied its mind about the identity, the way it was done in the Raja Pratapchand case.
There were other issues connected with the question whether the second Kumar died in Darjeeling or not. They were - when did he die; when was he taken for cremation; whether it rained on 8th May or not. In case it did not rain on that day or the second Kumar was not taken to cremation in the evening then the case of Sanyasi fell through.
Important Aspects – Not Proper Emphasis Placed
There was conflict of oral evidence about the rain but all documentary evidence was one way: there were no rains in Darjeeling on 8th May. There was some forgery on the date it rained in the Municipal records and 13th May was said to be forged but Scotland Yard had reported that probably it was 6th that was changed to 13th. There was no justification for assuming that it could be 8th May and forgery could be by the contesting defendants.
There appears to be some justification for holding that there was a mistake in prescribing correct medicines to the second Kumar but conspiracy to kill him was not proved and Bibhabati was not even alleged to be part of the conspiracy. She was genuinely sad on the death of her husband. She lived with her in laws till first Kumar was alive and left for Calcutta after a few months of his death. There was no allegation that she was part of any conspiracy or wanted her husband dead. She did state that her husband died around midnight and she was in the room with the dead body till morning, when it was taken for cremation. The civil surgeon had also given death certificate and had stated that he was present when the second Kumar died. The fact that the right medicines were not prescribed does not mean that the doctors were telling a lie.
The other thing where more emphasis ought to have been given by the court is regarding affliction of syphilis. It was admitted that the second Kumar had syphilis of the third stage. This is the reason that party had gone to Darjeeling. The only cure of syphilis is penicillin, which came to be used in 1940. Syphilis is otherwise incurable. It will remain in the body. It weakens the organs and also causes deformities. The Sanyasi was not deformed; he had no sign of syphilis. He maintained that he was cured by God, which is not possible.
It is also true that syphilis causes loss of memory as well. But can a person forget his mother tongue the only language that he spoke till 25 years of age. His memory did come back but why he did not remember his mother tongue. In later years, he did speak Bengalee but with Hindustani accent: unlike the second Kumar, who used to speak fluent Begalee in Bengalee accent.
The trial court also recorded that
‘It is perfectly clear that the public sympathy is on the side of the Plaintiff. One could see that from the crowds that have come to court and listen to the proceedings’.
It was the time when national feelings were dominant. The injustice of British empire was apparent. Bibhabati was a widow but her case was being defended by the court of wards, an arm of British empire: prejudice was sure to be there. It is said that the Judges are not affected by these considerations and decide the case on the basis of record but this is oversimplification. I am not sure that the trial court judge was not affected by the mood of the nationalism against British at that time or the public support for the Sanyasi. And perhaps this, did injustice to Bibhabati.
Once the trial court records a finding on oral evidence then the appellate court does not interfere in the finding unless some special feature about oral evidence escapes the notice of the trial court. The reason is that the trial court has the advantage of seeing the demeanour of the witnesses. The law on this point is summarised in Madhusudan Vs Narayanibai AIR 1983 SC 114 = 1983 (1) SCC 35. However, it was more so, in this case
The evidence was recorded after about 24 years of the incident: the demeanour of the witness was important. Had the trial court correctly approached the problem as was done in the case of Raja Pratapchand, then the result might have been different. There is another reason for some doubt.
The appeal before the High Court was heard by three judges. Two of them had remained in India and gave different judgements. The third judge, Justice Costello had gone to England but could not come back as the second world war had started. He wrote his judgement in England and sent it from there. But he did not have records of the case. He wrote it without access to the records, when England was in middle of air shelling by German bombers – with uncertain future. I don’t think that a case consisting such voluminous records can be decided without record and that to in such surroundings that he was in. He himself observed,
‘It may perhaps be that time was on the side of the Plaintiff, and that had the issues in controversy between the parties adjudicated upon at an early stage the result might have been different’.
The High court denied the leave to appeal to Privy Council but leave was granted by the Privy council. The appeal was heard for record 28 days continuously but was dismissed without going into merits of the case, as the Privy Council held that it was bound by concurrent finding of facts.
The trial court judge resigned after deciding the case. The Sanyasi, who was living at Calcutta, received the telegram of his victory on 31st July 1946 and went to Kali Mandir in the evening to worship. He had a massive heart attack there and fell down. He could not rise and died two days thereafter. Bibhabati said that she lost the case but God gave her justice. She was offered Rs. 8,00,000 from the Estate but she refused to take it saying that it was being offered to her as widow of the Sanyasi and if she took it, it would be wrong. She lived for another 20 years but did not accept anything from the Estate.
I have not seen records of the case and have not seen full judgements of the trial court or the High Court so this opinion may not be final but this is the feeling that I got. Such a case is not possible now. DNA and finger print identifications are there and better tests (blood tests) are available to find out if the person has syphilis or not rather than his physical appearance. But I am left with the feeling that Bibhabati did not get justice. The idea of sharing the same bed with a stranger would be abhorrent to her.