murder
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This article is written by Aditi Aggarwal, from Symbiosis Law School, Noida. The article provides a detailed analysis of the Raja Nand Kumar case, the first judicial murder by the colonial government in 1775.

Introduction

The rule of law is nothing more than an instrument of societal control supported by a sovereign, but that law or control must be balanced by certain principles or tenets of justice. Only a state governed by such a law can be said to have the ‘rule of law’.

The pre-independence ruling in India by the British, where law used to be enforced unequally on parties with a different set of rules for the Indians and the British, is a clear illustration of what it means to be ruled without fairness and justice. ‘Law’ was used as a tool of political repression by the British on Indians. It can be said that rather than the rule of law, ‘rule by law’ was the aim of the British. Judicial remedies lost their importance since they were administered with the best interests of the colonial authority in mind, rather than what was right or legitimate.

The Raja Nand Kumar case is one of its kind that adequately demonstrates the oppression by the British and is heavily criticized even now. Raja Nand Kumar was hanged to death by the colonial government because of a conspiracy initiated by the then governor-general Warren Hastings against him to fulfill his grudge and to take revenge for the trial conducted against him because of a report presented by Raja Nand Kumar.

Passing of the Regulating Act of 1773

In 1773, legislation known as the Regulating Act was passed by the British Parliament. It was passed for the regulation of Indian territories governed by the British East India Company, mainly in Bengal

One of the main provisions of the Act was the setting up of a Supreme Court having four English judges in Kolkata. As a result of this Act coming into force, the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Kolkata was founded in 1774 under Section 13. A charter issued by King George III appointed Sir Elijah Impey as the Chief Justice and Robert Chambers, John Hyde, and Stephen Caesar Lemaistre, as puisne judges.

It can be said that this Act initially attempted to establish a separate and somewhat independent judicial institution in India, under the king’s direct control. But in the era of this Act of 1773, Raja Nand Kumar’s trial, which is also known as the ‘the first judicial murder in colonial India’ caused big mayhem. 

A brief about Raja Nand Kumar

Raja Nand Kumar, also known as Maharajah Nuncomar, was a Hindu Brahmin of the highest rank. He was given the title ‘Maharaja’ by Shah Alam II in the year 1764. He was a big zamindar. He worked for the Nawab of Bengal in a variety of capacities, mostly as a revenue collector. He was made the Governor of Hugli under Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daulah once in 1756. 

He had earned the confidence of the Murshidabad Durbar. After holding a succession of posts under native governments of Bengal, owing to his loyalty pledged towards the English East India Company during 1757, he was awarded the name “Black Colonel” during Governor General Robert Clive’s period. In 1758, he was even recommended to Lord Robert Clive for appointment as an agent to collect revenues for the districts of Burdwan, Hooghly, and Nadia. He was a very influential person in Bengal.

First-person of India to get executed by hanging

Raja Nand Kumar brought several charges against then Governor-General Warren Hastings. The charges were related to the offenses of bribery and corruption, after which he himself was accused and convicted of forgery and became the first person of India to be executed by hanging.

Facts of the case 

  • At Warren Hastings and his favorite council member Barnwell’s instance, Raja Nand Kumar, Fawkes, and Radhacharan were arrested. Both of them clearly declared their intention before the Supreme Court judges to prosecute all three persons for conspiracy.
  • Hastings wanted to take revenge from Raja Nand Kumar in furtherance of which he demanded Mohan Prasad to humiliate Nandkumar by filing a case of forgery against him. The charges of forgery against him were in connection to a deed or bond which was executed by Raja Nand Kumar in 1765 and was claimed as an acclamation and ratification of a debt from a banker, Bulaki Das. The judgment was reserved for Nand Kumar whereas Fawkes was fined.
  • The trial against Raja Nand Kumar for forgery and conspiracy ran concurrently. Warren Hastings anticipated that involving Nand Kumar directly in any way possible as far as charges for the conspiracy were concerned, would be laboriously difficult, so he implicated and scapegoated Raja Nand Kumar in another case of forgery. 

What happened during the trial

The trial went on continuously for eight days without any adjournment, starting from 8th June and ending at the midnight of 15th June 1775. The judges, in red robes and heavy ‘full bottomed’ wigs, heard the case at length and used to change linens twice a day. From 8 am every day till late night, they used to probe and contemplate the evidence on behalf of the prosecution, and witnesses used to be cross-examined till late at night.

Meanwhile, a plea was filed according to which the King’s Counsel was not proficient in doing the cross-examination of witnesses fastidiously. After this, the defense witnesses were critically and exhaustively cross-examined by the judges. This raised questions on the probity and righteousness of the judges.

After careful consideration, they refuted the evidence provided by the prosecution witnesses and then ordered the sheriff, Alexander Macrabie, and keeper of His Majesty’s Prison in Kolkata to detain Raja Nand Kumar in safe custody until his release per the legal provisions.

Issues raised

  1. Whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the matter in the first place?

The question raised was whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear the matter in the first place. Raja Nand Kumar’s advocate advanced a plea relating to this matter in front of the Supreme Court at the beginning of the trial but it was rejected. 

But in actuality, it is observed that the offense was committed before the Regulating Act 1773 came into force and subsequently, before the establishment of the Supreme Court. Before this establishment, the Indians residing in Bengal were tried by local Faujdari Adalats. Thus, the Court had no prima facie jurisdiction to decide on the matter.

  1. Whether the English Act of 1729, according to which forgery was a capital offense, was applicable to India?

Under the English Act of 1729, the offense of forgery attracted capital punishment. Questions were raised on the applicability of this Act to India and there was a divided opinion even among the sitting judges at that time but ultimately, the view of the majority of the judges along with that of Chief Justice Impey prevailed. 

Steps that were taken to save Raja Nand Kumar:

  • Raja Nand Kumar’s advocate forwarded an appeal to the King-in-Council. He also filed a petition in the court for holding the verdict till the time the Council’s decision was not established but it was rejected by the court. 
  • Efforts to seek the aid and support of the members of rebuffed also did not help.
  • The letter of suggestion from the Nawab to the Council to defer the sentence till His Majesty’s pleasure was known proved to be nugatory as well because the Supreme Court took no cognizant undertaking on it after it was delivered by the Council.

The final decision of the court

The matter was summarized on the morning of 16th June 1775 by Chief Justice Impey. Raja Nand Kumar was held unanimously “guilty” by judges and the jury also gave the same verdict. He was incarcerated to death by the Chief Justice under the English Act of 1729 of the British Parliament. The then Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed the ‘conspiracy case’ as they did not have any evidence against Raja Nand Kumar. 

Therefore, he was hanged on August 5, 1775, at 8 o’clock in the morning at the Cooly Market near Fort William and close to the modern Hastings Bridge. 

Why Warren Hastings conspired against Raja Nand Kumar?

One of the reasons for Warren Hastings, the Governor at the time being militant against Raja Nand Kumar, was that Nand Kumar had participated in the Battle of Plassey with Nawab Siraj-Ud-Daulah. The Nawabs admired him, so Hastings conspired against him with the help of other Indians.

Warren Hastings was appointed as the Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal in 1772, and directors of the Company further limited his powers by establishing a council of four members who had similar authority as he did. The four council members were Clavering, Francis, Monson, and Barnwell. Out of the four, the first three were against the governor-general and only Barewell was in his favor. 

Nand Kumar was sidelined when the seat of administration shifted from Murshidabad to Calcutta and the task of actual governance got in the hands of the acknowledged officials of the company. The council members except Barnwell instigated Nand Kumar to accuse Hastings of bribery and corruption before the Council. Thus, when Francis arrived in the city, Nand Kumar gave a letter to him mentioning the complaints. He also said that Hastings had accepted bribery of more than 1 lakh from him to appoint Gurudas, his son, as Diwan. It was also said that Hastings had accepted a bribe of rupees 2.5 lakhs from Munni Begam to appoint her as the guardian of the minor Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daulah.

After Francis presented the letter at the council meeting, Monson moved a motion for Nand Kumar to appear before the council meeting. Warren Hastings was presiding over the council at that time and opposed the move. Mr. Barewell suggested that Nand Kumar should file his complaints before the Supreme Court and not before the council as according to him, the Court was competent to hear this case. The majority members objected to the action and then elected Clavering to preside over the meeting instead of Hastings.

When Nand Kumar was called before the council to prove his charges against Hastings, the majority of the council declared that the charges against Hastings were right. As a result of this, Hastings was directed to deposit the amount of Rs 3,54,105 in the company’s treasury. This event was the second reason that made Hastings a bitter enemy of Nand Kumar and now he looked for an opportunity to show him down. 

Why is the trial called the judicial murder of Raja Nand Kumar

The trial startled and dismayed the moral scruples of mankind and was termed widely as the “judicial murder” of Raja Nand Kumar. There were many peculiar features of the trial like Impey being a close friend of Warren Hastings, judges cross-examining the witnesses themselves, the petition presented to the King’s council being rejected by the Supreme Court, and the fact that even after forgery not being considered as a crime by neither Hindus nor Muslims, Raja Nand Kumar being given capital punishment. 

Moreover, Elijah Impey heard the matter along with two other judges of English origin. The fact that the jury was composed totally of Englishmen gave another reason for the trial to be a peculiar one where there were many contradictory testimonies, which were incompatible with the Indians.

Seeking all the above points, it is clear that this was certainly and openly a case depicting malfunctioning of ‘natural justice’ during colonial rule.

Reaction of the native people

Nand Kumar expressed his desire to die near Adi Ganga so that the final rites can be performed at its ghats because of which the well was dug up ostensibly for his hanging. At the time of execution, the seventy-year-old prisoner’s hands were tied and he walked with difficulty on the stairs due to weakness in his knees.

The hanging of the Brahmin is believed to have caused “horror” and “consternation” among the gathering natives. Many Hindus were appalled and bathed in the holy Ganges to wash away the sin of seeing the event. Several Brahmins households even protested the hanging and left Calcutta.

The historical significance of the trial

The trial sparked a lot of controversies, shocking not just the Indians but also the British living in India. The trial of Raja Nand Kumar is historically significant because it was a primary ground for the impeachment of Chief Justice Impey of the Supreme Court of Calcutta and Governor-General Warren Hastings by the House of Commons after they returned to England. Despite being chastised by famous statesmen Edmund Burke and Lord Macaulay, Hastings was cleared of all accusations after 19 years. At the present time, Victoria Memorial authorities are putting Nand Kumar’s turban on display.

Conclusion

Even after so many years, the trial is still considered the most unfortunate and unjust. The quoted words by Bar and Bench: “Nand Kumar’s trial was a manifestation of this diabolical cocktail of connivance between the then executive and the judiciary,” clearly reflect the state of our country during the pre-independence period particularly concerning the case of the judicial murder of Raja Nand Kumar. 

References

  1. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1B3e8jsQ9I6EQYSCSJe98q2_mIwJIrRm_/view
  2. https://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-4665-raja-nandkumar.html 
  3. https://www-scconline-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/Members/NoteView.aspx?enc=SlRYVC05MDAwODkwNTk2JiYmJiY0MCYmJiYmU2VhcmNoJiYmJiZmdWxsc2NyZWVuJiYmJiZ0cnVlJiYmJiZyYWphIG5hbmQga3VtYXIgMTc3NSYmJiYmQWxsV29yZHMmJiYmJmdTZWFyY2gmJiYmJmZhbHNl 
  4. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Regulating-Act 
  5. https://notesmilenge.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/regulating-act-of-1773-creation-of-supreme-court-at-calcutta-some-landmark-cases.pdf 
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20190206200233/https://www.kolkataonwheels.com/hanging-of-nanda-kumar/ 
  7.  https://thearticle.in/hindustan/judicial-murder-rajanad-bengal/ 

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