During the period of British colonization, India as a country suffered various kinds of setbacks. Slavery, colonial rule, financial crisis, and bondage are to name a few. There are many reasons that led to Britishers ruling our country for an endless period of time, but one crucial reason for it was the lack of law and order in India.
When Britishers slowly started to build their roots in India, we as a country were divided and there was an absence of harmony and law and order that brought India together as a country. This setback was a great advantage to Britishers as they took it upon themselves to establish law and order in our country that not only limited our powers as Indian citizens but also facilitated Britishers with more control over India. As a result, Britishers started creating laws that favored them mostly and were biased in nature towards the Britishers and against the Indians.
The murder of Raja Nand Kumar proved the theory of bias and the unjust nature of the laws created by the British administration. The following case was highly criticized by Indian citizens and Raja Nand Kumar’s native people. The trial of Raja Nand Kumar projected how arbitrary and full of flaws British Indian administration justice was. This case is known as the judicial assassination of Raja Nand Kumar.
BACKGROUND OF RAJA NAND KUMAR
Maharaja Nand Kumar (1705-1775) was a Hindu Brahmin Zamindar who ruled over a large area of Bengal and wielded enormous power. He was known as The Black Colonel and was a strong supporter of the East India Company from Lord Robert Clive's time.
REASONS THAT CAUSED THE TRIAL OF RAJA NAND KUMAR
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.
The main person responsible for the murder of Raja Nand Kumar was Warren Hastings. He was appointed as the Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal in 1772.
WHY DID WARREN HASTINGS CONSPIRE 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 which made Hastings jealous, resulting in him conspiring against him with the help of other Indians.
As a result of the Regulation Act of 1733 that intended to take complete control of Indian territories under the Crown, the directors of the East India 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 Barnwell was in his favor.
Nand Kumar was side-lined 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.
RAJA NAND KUMAR V. WARREN HASTINGS
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. Barnwell 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.
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 on Raja Nand Kumar in furtherance of which he demanded Mohan Prasad 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 following were the issues raised during the trial of Raja Nand Kumar:
WHETHER THE SUPREME COURT HAS JURISDICTION TO HEAR THE TRIAL OF RAJA NAND KUMAR 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.
WHETHER THE ENGLISH ACT, 1729, ACCORDING TO WHICH FORGERY WAS A CAPITAL OFFENCE WAS APPLICABLE TO INDIA’S JUDICIARY SYSTEM?
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 TAKEN TO PROTECT 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.
VERDICT OF THE COURT
The matter was decided on the morning of 16th June 1775 by Chief Justice Impey.
Raja Nand Kumar was found 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 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.
THE 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.
WHY IS THE TRIAL TAGGED AS 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.
To conclude, the reasoning for the trial of Raja Nand Kumar and ultimately his execution is not considered justifiable.
It is certainly seen as the malfunctioning of ‘natural justice’ during colonial rule law.
This trial is seen as the result of a personal vendetta of Warren Hastings against Raja Nand Kumar and the biased nature of the judiciary system established by Britishers. This case is seen as unjust and against the law, as it depicts the oppression of Britishers over India. Therefore, the biasness of the case resulted in aggression and feeling of revolt amongst the Indian populace as the trial lacked reasonable justification for the execution of an Indian. This was also seen as an attempt by Britishers to eradicate any ‘icon’ amongst Indians that would inspire the rest of the Indian population to follow his footsteps.
This article is written by Nandini Sharma of IILM University, Gurugram.