Book Reviews

A Princely Imposter?

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

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Comment As a medical student,I first read this fascinating case of bhowal sanyasi in 1968 in the text book of Medical jurisprudence by Dr J P Modi .since then the case remained in the memory lane.In 2015 as a professor of Forensic Medicine,while writing an article on the history of Forensic Medicine during the RAJ,I Did some research from the medical angle which comprised of Anthropomorphic features,moles scars etc and included the same in my article. Today I learnt more facts about the case through this exemplary article. Great article!.Undoubtedly the greatest case of disputed identity of 20th century.The casewent in favour of the sanyasi.While his own wife and the Government blundered successive courts decreed in favour of the plaintiff.The case was heard for long time.Finally when justice was delivered,irony of fate ebbed the life out of the Kumara Raja,amply proving the dictum,"justice delayed is justice denied.

ananta murali mohan patnaik
10-Nov-2016 02:02 AM

Comment After more research I would like to detract my previous comment about the identification of Bengali Baba with Dharam Das, etc. Not only is not enough known to make such assertions; the information I did find wasn't very congruent with such assertions.

It is true that Sw. Rama has expressed that his teacher, Bengali Baba, was the person who rescued the Kumar of Bhawal and become his guru. Sw. Rama further relates that he himself actually met the Bhawal Kumar at Tagore's Shantiniketan, when Sw. Rama was staying there.

However, what Sw. Rama has related about the rescue itself is very inaccurate. When you read the above-mentioned book by Dr. Chatterjee and read other accounts (such as the court proceedings, etc.) you will soon discover that the actual 'rescue' took place quite differently.

Firstly, the Kumar was not floating down a river as Sw. Rama states; he was taken off the pyre cot by the group of sadhus, who had to untie him from the cot. The first took him back to their boulder-formed cave close to the cremation ground, after which they moved him to a small shed, after which they moved him again to a larger shed/workshop.

Secondly, Sw. Rama mentions that he met the Kumar at Tagore's Shantiniketan and that Tagore greeted the Kumar with the respect due to a sage. And that shortly after, Sw. Rama's guru beckoned him to come to Darjeeling. Sw. Rama went to Darjeeling with some friends and met up with his guru Bengali Baba there. It was then that Sw. Rama was told the Kumar had finished his work on earth. The problem with this story is that Tagore died around 5 years before the Kumar did (1941 vs 1946). So how could Sw. Rama have met the Kumar with Tagore being there, when he went from Shantiniketan to Darjeeling in the same year? It is impossible.

Further on to the notion that Bengali Baba is the same person as one of the sadhus who rescued the Kumar and became his guru, namely: Dharam Das. The rescue of the Kumar took place in 1909 in Darjeeling. Dharam Das would have had to been at least 30 years old or older to be senior enough to be guru, which would put Dharam Das' birth at at least 1880 or earlier. People who have read Sw. Rama's works will recall that Sw. Rama mentioned that his guru Bengali Baba had been a judge before he renounced the world. Sw. Rama mentions that Bengali Baba's son tried to or did assassinate 'the Governor of Darjeeling' to quote him. I don't think there was a Governor of Darjeeling at that time, but there was an assassination attempt on Sir John Anderson, Governor of Bengal, at a Darjeeling (Lebong) race track. So it is probably referring to that instance. Indeed, one of the boys who carried out the attempt was convicted to death by the government. The boy's name was Bhawani Prasad Bhattacharya (some alternative spellings are: Bhavani, Prosad, Bhattacharyya, Bhattacharjee, etc.). According to record the father of Bhawani was named Basanta Kumar (or Vasanta) Bhattacharya. Going with this then Bengali Baba could have been Basanta Kumar Bhattacharya in his life as a judge. However, I was not able to find any further information regarding the father's person at this time (was he indeed a judge, etc?).

To further expand upon the claim that Bengali Baba was a former judge, it is mentioned by Maitreyi Devi Das Gupta (romantic interest of Mircea Eliade) that a few years after Eliade was thrown out by her father, she went to the Himalayas with some family members. There she met a sadhu whose was remaining silent. Another sadhu there explained to her that this silent sadhu had come 2 years before and used to be a judge. In a review of this story it was mentioned that this judge-turned-sadhu was Sw. Rama's teacher, Bengali Baba. So there are 2 references to Bengali Baba having been a judge.

However, when you look at the time-line of all this, it becomes very hard to maintain several notions. First, the rescue of the Kumar by Dharam Das occurred in 1909, whereas the assassination attempt by Bhawani Prasad occurred in 1934. For Bengali Baba to have been a middle-aged Dharam Das in 1909 and then turn judge in the mean time and raise a family, to then renounce the world yet again in 1934, is extremely unlikely. So either Dharam Das was never Bengali Baba to begin with, or Bengali Baba later become a teacher to the Bhawal Kumar, in addition to Dharam Das.

Going from this information, we then look at Sw. Rama's claim that Bengali Baba had contact with Sw. Rama's parents before he was born in 1925. How was Bengali Baba, who at that time then must have been a judge, wandering around the Himalayas as a sadhu on the other side of the country, long before he renounced the world? Again, the time-line and occurrences don't seem to fit.

To make matters even more complicated, there seems to be a genuine connection between the Bhawal Kumar and a Bengali Baba. Not because of Sw. Rama's stories, but from something the Bhawal Kumar himself actually said in the court case that took place during 1934-36. The Kumar mentions that before he regained his memory and returned to Dacca, he and the other 4 sadhus were at Pashupatinath in Nepal. There, he mentions with great awe, he met a "great sadhu. His name is Bangali Baba. He speaks Hindi." The fact he mentions this sadhu in particular and with awe has significance, given that he and the other 4 sadhus moved in the sadhu circuit for 12 years and met a many sadhus. But this puts the existence of Bengali Baba, if indeed the same person, as he was in Pashupatinath to be an active sadhu around 1920. Certainly, then, he would not have returned to world after that, raised a family, become a judge, all in the course of 14 years, to then renounce the world yet again? This also clearly shows that this 'Bangali Baba' the Kumar mentions cannot be Dharam Das, because Dharam Das was with the Kumar and so were the other 3 sadhus, when they went to Pashupatinath where they met this Bangali Baba.

To bring even more contradictions to the fore in Sw. Rama's stories, it should be noted that Sw. Rama himself stated that he once visited Bengali Baba's birthplace, which was a village in Bengal. He was able to find two elderly ladies who remembered that Bengali Baba was taken away at age 14 by a sadhu from the Himalayas. To then also have been a judge later on, after being with the sadhu, is not impossible but it does not seem likely or probable. Sw. Rama both said that Bengali Baba was a former judge, as well as having left with a sadhu at age 14. Judges often came from learned and well-to-do families (as they would have had to go through law training in England, etc.) but that doesn't mean it's entirely impossible. It just seems unlikely.

So there is mention of a Bangali Baba as early as the 1920's (by the Kumar; and by Sw. Rama in reference to his parents meeting Bengali Baba before Sw. Rama's birth).

As far as Bengali Baba having been a judge who had a son who killed/tried to kill a Governor and who was sentenced to death, this must put that story in the era of violent uprisings in British-controlled India and is likely to refer to the 1034 assassination attempt on Sir John Anderson. Paired with the story by Maitreyi Devi who purportedly met a silent sadhu in the Himalayas in the 1930's (who, as mentioned by the other sadhu who talked to her, was a judge up to 2 years before he arrived there in the Himalayas), one would think this should be the same person referred to by Sw. Rama. However, this places the renunciation of Bengali Baba in the mid-1930's.

How then could Bengali Baba the sadhu have met Sw. Rama's father in the Himalayas before 1925? And how could the Bangali Baba referred to by the Bhawal Kumar in 1920 be the same person?

When Sw. Rama himself says that Bengali Baba went with a Himalayan sadhu when he was 14 years old, and the Bhawal Kumar mentions meeting a great sadhu, Bangali Baba, in 1920 at Pashupatinath, and also Sw. Rama's father met Bengali Baba in or before 1925, then perhaps these things are consistent.

What would not be consistent is that Bengali Baba was a high court judge and would have only renounced the world in 1934 or 1935; what also would not be consistent is that Bengali Baba is the same person as Dharam Das, nor that Bengali Baba is the person who rescued the Kumar.

What I find more likely is that Bengali Baba did not rescue the Kumar in 1909, because the Kumar's 4 fellow sadhus are documented and he traveled with them for 12 years to various places. The Kumar himself mentions with awe how he met the great sadhu Bengali Baba in 1920 at Pashupatinath (after having traveled there with Dharam Das and the other sadhus, not to forget). So Dharam Das is not Bengali Baba. Hence, Bengali Baba did not rescue the Kumar in 1909 in Darjeeling.

What further supports this is the fact that Sw. Rama's recounting of the Kumar's rescue is extremely inaccurate and clearly shows no intimate knowledge of what actually occurred. Only in the popular folklore retellings does the story get this embellished. A newspaper of the time had extensive accounts of the court proceedings so even the casual reader of that paper had better understanding of the rescue than Sw. Rama did. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Sw. Rama's version of the rescue story cannot even be direct hearsay from Dharam Das or the other sadhus involved.

To conclude I would say that there clearly was some kind of link between the Bhawal Kumar and a Bangali Baba. Even though speaking in court, the Kumar appears to express awe for this great sadhu he met in Nepal. I think that perhaps Sw. Rama heard from a brother-student or other sadhus something about Bengali Baba's connection to the Kumar. Remember that Sw. Rama said that most of the time (sometimes months) he and Bengali Baba would remain silent when they were together and that it was hard to get details or specifics out of him. So I think that perhaps the Kumar received instruction from Bengali Baba in 1920 in Nepal, and that there is that teacher-student type connection. But I don't believe Dharam Das is the same person as Bengali Baba.

Is it possible that another judge renounced the world in 1934, and that Bengali Baba was also a judge but earlier? Maybe. Unlikely, but maybe. Is it possible that the Bangali Baba in 1920 in Nepal is not the Bengali Baba of Sw. Rama? Maybe. Perhaps someone knows more about all these things, and if they do I hope they can clarify some things.

03-Dec-2014 13:25 PM

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)
19-Sep-2013 13:31 PM

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
20-Sep-2012 02:57 AM

Comment 95% of this is actually in the "A Princely Impostor?" book by P. Chatterjee.

26-Oct-2011 21:35 PM

Comment Where are these details about Darshan Das to be found?

pradip bhattacharya
04-Aug-2011 03:50 AM

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.

01-Aug-2011 13:57 PM

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