A Princely Imposter? by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya SignUp
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A Princely Imposter?
by Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya Bookmark and Share

A Princely Imposter? by Partha Chatterjee. Princeton University Press, 2002

This study of the Bhawal Sanyasi case of the 1930s in India is exceptional not because the proceedings covered 1500 witnesses whose evidence ran into 26 printed volumes before the Privy Council, but because of Chatterjee’s novel viewpoint. Not content with presenting just a historical account, he acts both as detective and judge presenting a thesis that behind the resolution of the case lay a secret undercurrent of nationalism and decolonization.

For instance, in the similar case of Raja Pratapchand of Burdwan (1838), Prince Dwarakanath Tagore changed his sympathies to testify against the claimant lest his business interests with the East India Company suffer, the colonial officials being determined to discount the claims. The returned-from-dead case of Rudra Narayan Roy of Midnapur (1835) was decided on considerations of not upsetting the settled order as dictated by colonial rulers, despite the evidence to the contrary. Chatterjee points out how it was virtually the government that was fighting the Bhawal instead of the widow.  

The sanyasi’s advocates were all nationalists opposed by westernized barristers. Basu, the Dhaka judge and Justice Biswas in the Calcutta High Court show in their criticisms the new nationalist awareness of the secretive and selective tendencies of colonial officials. In Biswas’ condemnation of the “bad language and worse manners” of barrister Chaudhuri for scoffing at the lower court judge as “the Dacca Shakespeare”, Chatterjee finds middle class Bengali society’s “delegitimation” of westernized elite. He exposes the wealth of cultural assumptions underlying the English High Court Judge Lodge’s discounting evidence as “simply incredible” and “ridiculous exaggeration” giving no reasons. However, the third judge, Costello, also an Englishman but writing his judgement in England, while being intolerant of criticism of government conceded the mofussil judge’s credibility. Chatterjee wonders if he was experiencing decolonization as he wrote his judgement during the World War when affairs of Dhaka appeared distant and best decided by the local judge. During 1920-30 a shift to decolonization occurred within colonial institutions and that the smooth transfer of power in the judicial system is shown in Bhawal case which is in microcosm the secret story of this transfer.
Taking this further, Chatterjee points out that the Khilafat and Non-cooperation movements coincided with the first appearance of the sanyasi who also became a focus of utopian kingship that protects the “praja” (subjects). As a deposed Raja, he was visualized as a victim of colonial oppression and became the people’s king despite the “praja movement of East Bengal” to abolish zamindari. Most “praja” were Muslims, yet no communal politics erupted. Instead, Islam and Hinduism had a shared idiom of the just ruler. Noting that the decline of zamindari coincided with rapid rise of sectarian strife, Chatterjee posits that kingship’s political legitimacy guaranteed the religious traditional framework and continuance of sectarian tolerance. Hence the local zamindar’s utopian figure bridged the communal divide.

The coincidental appearance of Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay’s novel Ratnadeep (1912-14) dealing with the same theme soon after the supposed death of the Bhawal Prince and long before his reappearance remains a mystery. The Tichbourne case (1870) in England—written up when the Bhawal sanyasi trial began (1933-34)—was repeatedly alluded to by the judges. The earliest parallel is the celebrated French case of Martin Guerre (disappeared 1548, reappeared 1556, hanged 1560). Guerre’s wife accepted the impersonator as her husband, and the true Martin turned up minus a leg during the hearing of the appeal—a story made into the hit Hindi film “Hum Dono” (1960s) that Chatterjee is not aware of. Unfortunately, he does not discuss the implications of this case for his subject. Wendy Doniger brilliantly analyses its widespread literary influence Bedtrick (2000). A pattern emerges in these stories: death through feminine conspiracy as wages of a sinful life; botched cremation; expiation as a monk; return as a “rajarshi” (touching a deep chord of utopian desire for the just philosopher-king that is the secret of the popular appeal) to claim inheritance in which the colonial government contests the claim of identity.

Chatterjee is not aware of Swami Rama’s Living with Himalayan Masters which records Bangali Baba’s rescue of the Bhawal prince and sending two disciples to give evidence. This contradicts the case record naming as witnesses two disciples of Harnamdas: Lokdas and Darshandas, unless Bangali Baba’s real name was Harnamdas. The fate of the Bhawal Sanyasi is intriguing. On 31.7.1946 news of his victory in the Privy Council reached. He died two days later of a stroke. Swami Rama’s records Bangali Baba foretelling that though the Bhawal Sanyasi would win his case, he would not live to enjoy the fruits of his victory.

The book should be studied alongside Gautam Bhadra’s Jaal Rajaar Kathaa (Story of the Pretender, 2002) that documents the earlier case of Pratapchand of Burdwan. Bhadra points out that impersonators of royalty were no novel phenomenon but had appeared claiming to be Dara Shukoh and Suja and been executed by Aurangzeb. Raghunath Bhao, the Maratha general killed in Panipat, reappeared in Chait Singh’s court and died in prison. In Europe the most famous instance remains that of the Dauphin, Louis XVI’s son, who disappeared from the Bastille, besides the celebrated Man in the Iron Mask, supposedly Louis XIV’s double. Chatterjee provides an extremely interesting link by quoting Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s letter to Emilie Schenkl about the Bhawal case. Netaji himself remains the subject of numerous sightings as a sadhu. Chatterjee notes the prevailing paradox of modern government—the individual is presumed to be an imposter unless it is proved otherwise—making the telling point that the situation has worsened after 9/11.  

More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya
Views: 5961
Article Comment Two most trustworthy god-men like Swami Ram & Pt Ramanandan Mishra in their memoirs have clearly mentioned about the Bhawal Prince issue .Swami Ram has mentioned that his Guru Bengali Baba with Totapuri Maharaj on their Parivrajan to Tibet had visited Down hills of Dargiling.Bengali Baba being younger in age was assisting Totapuri Ji who was a Bi-centurian Monk to travel and cross Himalayas.Totapuri Ji was conteprorary to his Guru Babaji Mahasaya was like his father figure/Guru.Both the Monks,Bengali Baba and Totapuri Ji along with a few disciples visited the crimetion ground and the Nala side where the dead body of Bhawal prince was lying being washed away in flooded waters of the Nala.As there was rain the people carrying the body could not crement it and rather threw the body in flooded adjecent Nala.The corps of Prince being washed away in water landed in a little away in down stream. Both the Monks getting information by some of their disciples about the Prince proceeded to the venue where Bengali Baba chanted sanjivani mantra and Totapuri Ji Sprinkled holy water from his kamandalu with holy water on the dead body.After a while the dead came to life.The dead prince could servive owing to grace and blessings of two great noted Monks.The said Prince was also initiated into Sannyas in Naga cult and followed the saints in their Vrajan to Tibet crossing Himalays to meet Babaji Mahasaya near Lake Manosarovar...............Deshraj.
Rajkishore Dash (Deshraj)
Article Comment I am sceptical if blood group was detected and matched for both. The case was escalated as far as Privy Council; blood group testing is expected. Blood groups were discovered at the advent of 20th century and Landsteiner was awarded Nobel on 1930.
Tirthankar Bhattacharya
Article Comment 95% of this is actually in the "A Princely Impostor?" book by P. Chatterjee.
Article Comment Where are these details about Darshan Das to be found?
pradip bhattacharya
Article Comment Actually, the name of Bengali Baba was Dharam Das. Harnam Das was the master of Dharam Das. So Harnam Das was Bengali Baba's master. As you can read from Swami Rama's writings he states he also had a grandmaster.

Darshan Das, who testified in court, was a student of Harnam Das, thus making Dharam Das (Bengali Baba) his brother-student as they were technically both under the tutelage of Harnam Das.

Darshan Das was instructed by Harnam Das to testify in court in favor of the Bhawal Kumar.

The witness accounts of Darshan Das coincide with many independent witness accounts ranging from 14 year old boys to older, educated vacationers in Darjeeling. There was the singing of "Hari Bol" which Darshan Das did not recognize, as he was originally from the Punjab, which he heard late at night, before a rain storm. After the rain storm he went to check the cremation grounds below as he heard strange sounds, and found the Kumar tied to a funeral kot.

A 14 year old boy remembers someone interrupting his play rehearsals and ask some gentlemen there to accompany a funeral procession of the Bhawal Kumar who had died that night. Later, after 10 o'clock that night he saw a funeral procession with people carrying lanterns and chanting "Hari Bol".

Further there were many accounts of people who attended that nightly procession that they had to seek shelter some distance away from the cremation grounds (as there were no buildings at the grounds themselves). And that after the rain passed and they got back to the cremation grounds, the body of the Kumar was missing and the cloth/rope he was tied to the kot with appeared loosened or untied. Several people remember funeral attendants coming back late at night (around 1:00 or 1:30 am), completely soaked with rain.

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