Cinematic representations of the Pakur murder case, 1933

SHRIMOY ROY CHAUDHURY

THE recent controversy in the context of the film Padmavat, especially the renaming of Padmavati as Padmavat, a fictional account, unshackled it from a series of associations like royalty, Hindu, Rajput, Kshatria, Rajputana, Rajasthan – integrated by blood and co-production – represented the historical continuity of a territorial imagination. In this imagination, subjects feel aggrieved and edited when the tarnishing of spatial association of Rajput Kshatria blood with that of the estate – the palaces, forts, heritage, hotels, and museums take claim on the convergence of the economic and the political in the estate in synchrony with that of the nation state.

The estate therefore lives in representations as both a reminder of feudal relations as well as one which has been negotiated through political solidarities of postcolonial India. This imagined estate reminds us that solidarity based on blood, contrary to Henry Maine,1 is not something that one would have to overcome to arrive at modernity. Rather, it is an object of accumulation personified by the state. What Maine thought to be symptoms of asynchronicity in countries like India is now being paraded around as an instance of being at home in the age of globalization and decolonization. What drives my query is what does this spatial convergence between the representation of the synchronic, the primordial and that of the political and economic in the body of the estate entail for a historical understanding of cinematic depiction of history, legal discourse and memory.

To this end, I study how the estate comes alive in the spatial representation of the Pakur murder on 26 November 1933 as a discrete economy within territorially bounded imagination of British India. I argue that while cinematic and judicial representation of the crime have been fixated with the estate, the estate presently iconized by a palace in ruins in Pakur stands witness to contestations which are foundational to the postcolonial, spatial and mnemonic convergence of the primitive and temporal asynchronous and synchronous, the local and the cosmopolitan.

Pakur, following the linguistic reorganization of states after independence, was carved out as a subdivision of the Santhal Parganas in Bihar, which was previously part of the Bengal presidency. Historically, the Pakur Raj has demonstrated its proximity to the East India Company during the Santal rebellion of 1855 when the palace was attacked by the insurgents. The Raj also thrived under the legislations in the 19th century, which ensured a reduction in the disciplinary powers of the tribal chieftains in favour of the zamindar. Indeed, it would not be an exag-geration to say that Pakur, situated in the foothills of Raj Mahal, was administratively modelled around the government state, the Damin-e-koh, a territory that the British government claimed in its favour to distinguish the Santals from the Paharias.

In Bengal, the framework of permanent settlement assumed that when measured in Mahals, zamindari property was synonymous to estates of the English gentleman landlords. Over the 19th century, Neeladri Bhattacharya has argued, estates came to be replaced by villages measured in maujas as the revenue administrative category.2

This paper revisits the residual estate to understand how primordiality became a mark of the very estate that was meant to rule over it as a model of the state. Prathama Banerjee’s work has convincingly argued that a committee was constituted in the process of unfolding of colonial political economy where Santhals and Paharias directly fenced in, thus emphasizing that their access to modernity could only happen through subjectification as primordial asynchronous in relation to the rest of the society.3 She argues that whereas in the West this primordiality was psychologized and internalized as symptoms of individual trauma, in colonial Bengal, the Santhals and the Paharias were rendered primitive in relation to two indices of modernity – money and language.4 The Bengali representation of tribe, as asynchronous with the logic of market, was reflective of its split subjectivity as synchronous in relation to colonial space, but part of a nation fractured in time and space.

Crispin Bates and Marina Carter have demonstrated that such representations of the Santal failed to establish their mobility as indentured labour in the latter half of the 19th century to replace slavery as a dominant mode of plantation production.5 This literature provokes me to reflect on the historical modes of ‘aestheticization’ of the social in the context of transformation of slavery to plantation labour, indentured or otherwise in the 19th and 20th century.

This essay shows how the Pakur estate was socialized in the context of the murder case and its aftermath. In the first section, I studied the cinematic recreation of the murders in 1976 in the film RajBangsha or royal lineage to understand how the postcolonial Bengali audience was subjected to the reconciliation of the memory of the estate with the counter memory of the nation state. In the second section, I revisit the judicial making of the murder case to face the emergence of a state as a distinct economy. The third and concluding section will study the restoration of the Gokulpur Palace of the Pakur raj and spatial modalities of reconciliation synchronous with the asynchronous in the memory of independent India.

In Rajbangsha (Royal Lineage), what we see is a revised version of the original script, which was challenged in the court of law by Prasunendra Chandra Pandey, the son of Binayendra Chandra Pandey, the  prime accused in the Pakur murder case of 1934. The naming of the film is a moment of reckoning with royalty in postcolonial memory. Thus we see the protagonist Pratap Sinha (name changed in the film), being released from jail as part of the Nehruvian government’s declaration of amnesty for business in 1947. He is seen as traveling by train back to Moynamoti estate, 17 years since his imprisonment. The film starts with a train journey to Moynamoti estate and ends with it entering a landscape reminiscent of the Chotanagpur Plateau, a site of Bengali nostalgia. In between, the viewer revisits with Pratap the life cycle of a zamindari and how he brought an end to the estate by insinuating criminal acts against the proprietors.

The narrative is framed as a journey back in time and space for post-colonial Bengali audiences who travel along with Pratap to the past, where the Kshatriya zamindar and the Dom subjects, all speaking the same dialect, remains separated by the palace – the iconic representative space of the estate. Consummated from an extramarital affair between the zamindar of Moynamoti and the queen’s companion, Pratap finds himself ostracized from the village along with his mother in his childhood. Thereafter, Pratap decides to encounter his past following his mother’s death and leaves his academic ambition of becoming a lawyer to return to Moynamoti to claim what was his own, what was his entitlement, i.e. equal claims to the property with the zamindar’s legitimate son. On his return, he, however, finds himself unwanted in the palace, but discovers that he was welcomed in the Dom village where he is reunited with his childhood friend, Putul. Between the palace and the Dom village, the presence of the state is minimum but not inconspicuous.

While it was true that the zamindar survived on appropriating forest plants with force while the state looked the other way, it was Pratap’s threat to go to the magistrate, which forces the zamindar to accept his claim to reside in the palace without any right to inherit the property. Deprived of his fair share, Pratap now turns to violence and unleashes forces of scientific and legal knowledge against the royalty. He finds a cohort in the estate physician to carry out his vindictive exploits and wins his trust by marrying his daughter. Thereafter, he gets the doctor to use toxins to kill the zamindar and the zamindar’s son, but only to realize that all who mattered to him in the estate had died or left it. Overwhelmed with guilt, Pratap decides to hand himself over to the police.

The jail provides a space for Pratap to reflect on his mistakes. The movie ends with Pratap completing the journey to Moynamoti. We see Pratap facing up to the death of the estate and independence from British rule simultaneously. Will the protag-onist embrace the new dreams promised by independence or will he continue to wilt in guilt and fail to live up to the times?

For Bengali audiences, revisiting the estate in this landscape in 1976 envisage two possibilities – experiencing the tribe through cinema as a surrogate experience of travelling back to Bihar. Second, experiencing the estate as a repository of a past location removed in time, not only because of its exploitative relation with the primitive subjects, but also because, as Prathama Banerji’s work reminds us, primitivity did not rest being the other.

The film portraits a threat within the moral economy of the estate which threatens the imagination of a distinct economic space when the blood of the ruler is already blemished by sexual excesses. Toxin proves to be its only remedy. The nemesis of the anti-hero Pratap is that he would end up having to destroy from within what was his object of desire, the estate, by cutting off his corporeal ties. Pratap’s insanity, the film underscore was not situated in speech. It was located in his hatred against the father, in the recesses of his mind. The character, since childhood, rubbed the two sides of the head to mark the inability to internalize the insults thrown at him by an authoritarian father. The film also rendered the estate familiar, with the residence of the Doms, an officially designated cast of scavengers. This imagination of estate as a bounded space was founded on the erasure of its own universality as a property.

The colonial mandate that a criminal case be designated by the name of the place where the first information report was lodged, led to the naming of Pakur murder case as such. The murder, however, was committed in Howrah Station on 26 November 1933. The state’s lawyer launched the first information report against Binayendra Pandey (Pratap Sinha in the film) on 17 February 1934 thus making it a case of the Pakur Raj.

Contrary to what the name suggests, the investigation of the Pakur murder case had to acknowledge the wide geographical spread of networks and agencies which produced the alleged conspiracy against Amarendra Pandey (Raj Narayan in the film). Indeed, the judgment of Alipur Sessions Court in Calcutta observed that mobility – between Howrah, Bombay and Pakur to procure the toxic specimen, produce subcultures and pass it into Amarendra’s body produced the vicious plan of murdering the latter with the germs of Plague Bacillus. While investigation revealed that ingenuity of the plan of murder, lack of direct evidence against the accused Binayendra, Dr Taranath, Dr Siva Pada Bhattacharya, and Dr  D.R. Dhar made it difficult for the prosecution to pin any of them down, as guilty of that.

The dark complexioned man in Khaddar, who had pricked Amarendra in Howrah Station, had disappeared for good. Moreover, Amarandra had been cremated without a postmortem. It was the development of the bacteria from Amarendra’s blood culture at Tropical School of Medicine and the report it published on 13 December, eleven days after Amarendra’s death which proved that he had a plague infection. His death certificate signed by Dr Siva Pada Bhattacharya, had stated heart failure caused by septicaemia. The prosecution’s case against the three was thus based on circumstantial evidence.

This dearth of direct evidence produced two effects – it triggered extensive speculation in news mediums about Binayendra Pandey and his sexual life. Moreover, such unwarranted aspersions did not remain restrained outside the court of law. While deliberating on the appeal of Binayendra and Dr Taranath against Alipur Session Court’s deliverance of the death sentence, the High Court of Calcutta too agreed that such specimens should not be allowed as evidence in this case.

Averse to declaring it as mistrial and inviting more public attention during the trial, the High Court divided the judgment into two parts – Binayendra and Taranath’s active participation in a conspiracy to kill Amarendra, which had been convincingly proved by the prosecution and the defendants complicity in the actual execution of the crime, which was not supported by direct evidence. The High Court reached a compromise in favour of reducing Binayendra’s punishment to imprisonment for life. Binayendra’s resistance to partitioning of property between the two brothers was seen as proof of his desire to appropriate it.

The judicial understanding of the Pakur Raj, was based on the bill left by their father Pratapendra Pandey, who built the estate in the name of two brothers, leaving his sister-in-law Rani Suryabati to represent the estate for the time being. However, I would argue that bills of the zamindari estates, especially in the Santhal Parganas, hardly betrayed the conflicting jurisdictions between tribal chieftains, the colonial state and multiple proprietary claims from within zamindari establishments which rendered partitioning of estates a difficult proposition.

Indeed, when Binayendra, in his defence accused the Pakur royalty of conspiring against him, the estate that he accused was one mired in differences over territorial rights between several stakeholders represented by two palaces the Gokulpur Palace and the ‘BoroRajbaari. Moreover, it is evident from the defence testimony that the pre-disposition of two matriarchs – Rani Suryabati of Gokulpur Palace and Rani Jyotirmoyee Devi of Boro Rajbaari towards Amarendra had become a constraint for Binayendra to govern the estate as the ‘karta’.

It appears from the Defence Council’s argument, that restraints issued by the rest put a stop to Binayendra’s plans to set up a marketplace in the khas lands, which led him to shift to Calcutta. In Calcutta, Binayendra would set the value of estate in circulation through investments in areas promising quick profits. Binayendra Pandey’s co-accused, Taranath was associated with the Medical Supply Corporation which he had joined after completing one year of a course in the Tropical School following his graduation in medicine. Taranath was known to be researching on the possibility of
an anti-plague vaccine. Siva Pada Bhattacharya was a teacher in the Tropical School of Calcutta who had achieved success as a general practitioner in private practice. And D.R. Dhar was an MRCP (Member of the Royal College of Physicians) from London and associated with the Bengal Immunity Company, which had been set-up by Dr B.C. Roy and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

Apart from them, the seven medical practitioners who featured in the witness list demonstrated a wide range of medical expertise and was symptomatic of the expanding world of bio medicine itself. In this emerging bio medical world of public health and commerce, the laboratory had appeared as an authoritative voice inhabiting the protected domain of the colonial state. The crown’s case against the accused rested at the end of the day on their participation in procuring with wrong intent specimens of various matter from the Haffkine Institute and the government’s Arthur Road Infectious Diseases Hospital in Bombay on 19 July 1933.

What left Binayendra eligible for punishment was this act of infiltration into the domain of public health. I would like to argue that judicial framing of the case in the Alipur Sessions Court had ended up refracting the attention of the jury from these very colonial spaces (laboratories) to relocate the source of contestation in the Pakur estate. After all, Binayendra’s Defence Council had alleged a conspiracy formed through coalition of interests between his enemies and personnel of the Tropical School of Medicine. The prosecution could not throw the same charge at Binayendra because it could implicate government employees, thereby tarnishing its image. The British government’s policy of defending the spirit of bureaucracy by punishing its employees discreetly led to the expulsion of Dr Siva Pada from the Tropical School of Medicine but the colonial space of biomedical research was left untouched in this discourse.

The instructions of Judge Ellis to the jury in the Alipur Sessions Court is revealing insofar as it helped them frame discrete events and testimonies within a coherent narrative underscoring the role of Pakur estate as the prime source of the conflict. It stonewalled all speculation on the source of infection with its own experts arguing that Amarendra’s infection could not have come from any other source than the one produced artificially in laboratory conditions by Taranath.

The prosecution produced a history sheet that demonstrated that this was not the first time that Binayendra had tried using biomedical toxic substance to kill Amarendra. An incident at Deoghar in 1932 involving Amarendra getting infected with tetanus in suspicious circumstances, was cited as first crucial evidence of the conspiracy of the co-accused. The prosecution’s case, in 1933, against Dr Dhar was weak as the patient had survived the treatment. Dr Siva Pada’s suggestions during the course of the treatment were not followed, which leave him of any malfeasance. Moreover, Dr Siva Pada was found to have acted with propriety in his diagnosis where septicaemia  was a cause of death given that he did not have the blood culture report.

The history sheet isolated Binayendra and Taranath from the rest and zeroed in on them as the original source of this grand biological war against Amarendra.

The crucial argument in the case that under the able guidance of Binayendra, Taranath had smuggled the subculture was faulty because a subculture would not survive the 40 hours long train journey from Bombay. It would be more convenient to smuggle infected rats which would reveal corruption and laxity on the part of the government personnel. Faced with the prospect of acts of violence taking the shape of a political offense, the justice system found it convenient to distance the rule of government’s own scientific infrastructure from the conspiracy and privilege the Pakur state to prevail over that of the colonial space. I will conclude this study by reflecting further on the confrontation between colonial state and the estate and how its career pans out in the postcolonial memory of the nation state.

If colonial institutions invoked the imagination of a bounded totality and in relationship to which the national space was imagined, as Manu Goswami has suggested, another strand of scholarship reminds us that the estate could well be the living sign of an unfinished conquest symptomatic of a deferral and investment of a sufficient concept of legal sovereignty. This clearly comes out in the declaration in 1929 of the Chamber of Princess which had been founded by a royal decree that various princes of the subcontinent were invested with an independent source of sovereignty irrespective of their dependency on the British Raj.

On 18 November 1947, it came to be widely publicized that Binayendra had been killed in a gun fight with the Indian Army in Gokulpur Palace in Pakur. Contrary to the conviction of the police and local magistrate that there was a prostitute with him and another associate, Binayendra was found alone in the palace dead. The inquiry that followed took exception of the bloodshed and adverse publicity caused by the local administration dealing with Binayendra. For the sake of brevity, I will draw attention to two areas of inquiry that this report highlighted. First, why did the local administration get involved in what was a family affair and attack the vanity of Binayendra Pandey? Second, whether the administration was justified in summoning the army to bring down Binayendra?

It is evident from the  report of the Intelligence Bureau that in both the cases it was the local police which was found to have insinuated the proceedings. The deputy superintendent of the police in Dumka appeared to have gone out of his way to record Prasunendra Chandra’s complaint and the latter had confided to the superintendent that he, along with his mother, feared for their
lives. The deputy superintendent was known to be a close friend of Binayendra, but after having failed
to infiltrate the palace, it was this very police which had sought the intervention of the army. But was the police within its right to kill the person or touch the building of that person?

In spite of the Bhagalpore DIG’s repeated exaltation about Binayendra being a lunatic, the  government had to take into consideration that this would inform civil suits
for damages being filed on the destruction of the building, forcing the government to embrace the prospect of paying compensation. Irrespective of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, the state could acquire it or any rights therein, or the extinguishment or modification of any such rights and hence tenures prevalent in  local practices or jagirs would be included as part of the estate.

 

In recent years, this definition of a state has fallen short of satisfaction in judicial trials of civil cases. While the new liberal state comes to terms with the legal boundaries of estate, the present state of Gokulpur Palace is testimony to the asynchronicity that haunts the notified tribal belts of Jharkhand in relation to more contemporary cosmopolitan cinematic imagination of estates in western India. Accordingly, the memorialization of Pakur and its representation in to regional divides between the local and the cosmopolitan. While cinematic, fictional as well as documented representations in Bengal, inevitably tilts towards the conspiracy and the socalled Pakur murder case, Gokulpur Palace is testimony to the final battle that was fought between the British and the Pakur Raj and where the estate stands against the grain of history, both as a vanguard of nationalist war of independence and a signpost of local history.

Footnotes:

* Dr Shrimoy Roy Chaudhury unfortunately passed away from a sudden cardiac arrest in December 2021. The following is an edited version of the last academic presentation he made on a case he was researching on. The editors thank the efforts of Shrimoy’s wife Tapati and close friend Dr. Iman Mitra in preparing the final version.

1. Henry Summer Maine, Ancient Law: Its Connection with the Early History of Society, and Its Relation to Modern Ideas, John Murray, London, 1861; Village-Communities in the East and the West. John Murray, London, 1871.

2. Neeladri Bhattacharya, The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2019, especially ‘Section II: How Villages Were Found’.

3. Prathama Banerjee, Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and History-writing in a Colonial Society. OUP, New Delhi, 2006.

4. Ibid.

5. Crispin Bates and Marina Carter, ‘Tribal Migration and in India and Beyond’ in Gyan Prakash (ed.), The World of the Rural Labourer in Colonial India. OUP, Delhi, 1992, pp. 205-45.