Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Hanging of Maharaja Nandakumar

The well at the place of Nandakumar's execution

The trial and execution of Maharaja Nandakumar (referred to in contemporary documents as Nuncomar) was one of the most infamous episodes of the early days of the East India Company’s rule in India. Nandakumar was an Indian tax official, appointed collector of Burdwan and given the title “Maharaja” by Emperor Shah Alam II in 1764. A bitter enemy of Warren Hastings, Nanadkumar accused him, through a letter, of accepting a bribe from Mir Jafar’s widow Munny Begum for securing for her the guardianship of the Nawab Mubarak-ud-Daulah, then a minor. The case was taken up in the Supreme Council of Bengal by Hastings’ rival, Philip Francis. But Hastings was able to overrule the Council, and even though he admitted to accepting a bribe, could not be brought to book.

Interior detail of the well. What is that metal contraption?
Nandakumar was however, prosecuted, first on the charge of compelling a certain native by the name of Kamal-ud-Din to falsely accuse Hastings, and second, the more serious charge, of defrauding a certain Indian banker, by the name of Bolaqi Das Sett, of the sum of Rs. 70,000. This, the accusation was, was accomplished by a forged note which was discovered once Bolaqi had died, and the money collected by Nandakumar. Nandakumar was tried under Elijah Impey, India’s first Chief Justice, and friend of Warren Hastings. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed on the 5th of August, 1775. Whether or not this constituted “judicial murder” is a subject that is still debated. Although both Impey and Hastings were later accused, impeached and cleared of all charges by the British Parliament, many would say that the fact that two white men would be found innocent on the charge or murdering a native was foregone conclusion. The punishment for any native for forgery, at that time, was indeed death by hanging. But the point to be noted is that the East India Company failed to take any action against Robert Clive when he indulged in a similar piece of forgery, it’s target being the Indian businessman, Amir Chand, referred to by contemporary documents as Omichund.

Shankar Singh, squatter who lives on the gallows ground
Nandakumar, at the time of his execution was in his seventies, and by all accounts handled himself with a stoic calm, walking up to the gallows without causing a scene or hesitating in any way. He was a well-respected person, and his execution caused widespread panic with many notable locals leaving Calcutta for places like Benares. But Indian documents from the time, do not point out the exact spot where he was executed. Multiple British records however point to a spot near Cooly Bazar, which would roughly correspond to today’s Hastings, close to “Hastings Bridge” which I assume, would be what we call the Kidderpore Bridge today. It was Nandakumar’s wish to be hanged within sight of the Adi Ganga, which we know today as the Tolly Canal so his last rites could be carried out at one of its ghats. Busteed in his book Echoes From Old Calcutta, quotes a newspaper article which identifies a spot immediately North of the North-Eastern end of the bridge as the usual place of execution. If we were to get on the bridge from the Kidderpore end, and get off at the Hastings end, immediately to the left of the bridge may be found today, a triangle of land, raised from street level, forming what Calcuttans refer to as an “island”. By all accounts, this seems to be the spot. This is what it look like on Google Maps.

The lock, which has seen better days
Within this triangle, which today is surrounded by a fence, is a curious well-like structure, it’s high walls recently painted the municipal shade of blue and white, or rather, dark and light blue. Entrance to the well is through a metal gate, and access is prevented by a lock that is so rusted that a crow could probably make short work of it. Within it, may be seen a strange metal contraption, the exact purpose of which cannot be discerned. This, then, is where the hanging took place; that of Nandakumar and possibly more, both before and after him. While the gallows are surrounded by a wall, there is no plaque mentioning exactly what it is, or was, and while locals seem aware of the fact that this was a place used for hangings, are not aware of Nandakumar’s infamous incident. Today, the island is home to squatters, chief among them, is Shankar Singh, who lives there with his family, selling tea and various other roadside snacks. Is he aware that hangings used to take place here? Yes, he says. Has he ever seen ghosts wandering about? No, he giggles, nothing of the sort.

It is a pity that the government that renames roads, in an attempt to erase all memory of a British presence in this part of the world, has failed so far to put a simple marker on the spot, and millions pass by the forlorn looking well, without having any idea of it’s history.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


Echoes from Old Calcutta – H.E.Busteed
Calcutta Old and New - Henry Evan Cotton
The Good Old Days of Honorable John Company - W.H. Carey

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