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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 1 January 6, 2024

Equality of treatment in the eye of the law: Viceroy of India Lord Lytton stood for justice by Katwaroo, a Dosadh in 1876 | Atul Krishna Biswas 

Friday 5 January 2024, by A K Biswas


Katwaroo, a victim of violence, inflicted by a high-profile British Barrister Fuller at Agra died instantaneously in 1876. Soon after arrival of Lord Lytton, the Governor-General and Viceroy of India (1876-1880), a vernacular newspaper of Calcutta highlighted this tragedy which caught his close attention. He waded straightway to redress the grievance for the humble victim. The Viceroy caused a letter to be addressed post haste to the North-Western Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) Government from the Government of India to redress injustice of Katwaroo, who was a syce of the accused. The place of occurrence, though hundreds of miles away, Calcutta remained steadfast as the theatre of operation for dispensing justice to the faceless native of Saran district of Bihar under Bengal Presidency. His caste, numbering at 893,689 souls, was returned in the first census of Bengal, 1872 as “a semi-Hinduised aboriginal.”  [1]

Facts of the case, in short, were as follows: on a Sunday morning Barrister Fuller, with his family, was to drive to Church. On arrival at the portico to leave for the destination, he found Katwaroo, the syce of his buggy absent. Predictably, he might have lost his cool and screamed for syce’s immediate presence right there. According to Charles Edward Buckland, a Bengal Civilian of high standing when the servant reported to him, a furious “Mr. Fuller struck the syce with his open hand on the head and face and pulled him by the hair, to cause him to fall. Fuller and his family drove on to Church; the syce got up, went into an adjoining compound, and there died almost immediately.” Unpunctuality of the syce might be by a minute or so, sadly, brought the curtain down on his life.

Compensation of Rs. 30 for syce’s death!

The accused stood trial before Leeds, Joint Magistrate, Agra who was a Covenanted Civil Servant. He found the accused guilty of “voluntarily causing what distinctly amounts to hurt,” and sentenced him to pay a fine of Rs. 30, or in default to undergo 15 days simple imprisonment; directing the amount of the fine to be made over to the widow of the deceased. At the request of the Local Government, the (Allahabad) High Court expressed an opinion on the case, which was to the effect that the sentence, though perhaps lighter than the High Court would have been disposed to inflict under the circumstances, was ‘not specially open to objection” noted Buckland. The punishment was evidently inadequate and therefore grossly unsatisfactory. This agitated the public mind in Calcutta.

The British authorities were proud of their judicial system. The miscarriage of justice in question to poor Katwaroo drove the Viceroy to give vent to ballistic expression of his intense anger. The Governor-General was aghast at the callous attitude of the local authorities. His observations, as follows, are self-explanatory: “the Local Government should have made no inquiry, until directed to do so by the Government of India, into the circumstances of a case so injurious to the honour of British rule, and so damaging to the reputation of British justice in this country.” With surgical precision, he went into the dynamics of failure in dispensing justice to the victim in the case by all involving on the spot.

“The Governor-General in Council cannot doubt that the death of Katwaroo was the direct result of the violence used towards him by Mr. Fuller. He observes that the High Court assumes the connection between the two events as being clear. Yet on reading Mr. Leeds’s judgment he does not find that that gentleman ever considered the effect or even the existence of this connection. Mr. Leeds did, indeed, consider whether Mr. Fuller ought not to be subjected to a more serious charge, but only because there was evidence given of further violence used by him, which evidence Mr. Leeds rejected, on grounds which are here assumed to have been sufficient. He seems, however, to have viewed an assault resulting in the death of the injured man in just the same light as if it had been attended by no such result.”

The supreme authority of the Empire in India noted that he could not say whether Fuller would have been “convicted of a more serious offence, such as that of causing grievous hurt, or that of culpable homicide, had he been charged with it. But this he can say with confidence that in consequence of Mr. Fuller’s illegal violence his servant died, and that it was the plain duty of the Magistrate to have sent Mr. Fuller to trial for the more serious offence; a course of which would not have prevented him from being punished (indeed he could thus have been more adequately punished) for the lesser offence, if that alone had been proved.” 

Victim lost life for exceedingly small provocation!

Thereafter the Viceroy turned his focus on the Joint Magistrate’s lamentable incompetence. According to his appreciation, “the Governor-General in Council thinks that Mr. Leeds has evinced a most inadequate sense of the magnitude of the offence of which Mr. Fuller was found guilty.” The offence was that of “voluntarily causing hurt. That is an offence which varies infinitely in degree, from one which is little more than nominal to one which is so great that the Penal Code assigns to it the heavy punishment of imprisonment for a year and a fine of Rs. 1,000. The amount of hurt and the amount of provocation are material elements in determining the sentence for such an offence. In Mr. Fuller’s case, while the provocation was exceedingly small, the hurt was death. For this, Mr. Leeds, while saying that he intends to inflict a punishment something more than nominal, inflicts only a fine of Rs. 30. The Governor-General in Council considers that, with reference either to the public interests, or to the compensation due to Katwaroo’s family from a person in Mr. Fuller’s position (and it does not appear from the papers that Mr. Fuller has made any other compensation), such a sentence is wholly insufficient.” 

The Joint Magistrate framed the indictment under section 333 of the Indian Penal Code for “causing hurt to one Katwaroo, his syce; and it appeared from the evidence of the Medical Officer who had conducted the post mortem examination that the man had died from rupture of the spleen, which very slight violence, either from a blow or a fall, would be sufficient to cause, in consequence of the morbid enlargement of that organ. The evidence in the case does not show any other assault: at least the Joint Magistrate disbelieved all that portion of the evidence which referred to any other assault.” The Joint Magistrate found Mr. Fuller guilty of “voluntarily causing what distinctly amounts to hurt,” and sentenced him to pay a fine of Rs. 30, or in default to undergo 15 days simple imprisonment; directing the amount of the fine to be made over to the widow of the deceased.” 

The enraged feelings entertained by the Governor-General towards Leeds reflect in the parting shot, 

“For these reasons, the Governor-General in Council views Mr. Leeds’s conduct in this case with grave dissatisfaction. He should be so informed, and should be severely reprimanded for his great want of judgment and judicial capacity. In the opinion of the Governor-General in Council, Mr. Leeds should not be entrusted, even temporarily, with the independent charge of a District, until he has given proof of better judgment and a more correct appreciation of the duties and responsibilities of Magisterial officers for at least a year."

Lord Lytton’s grave dissatisfaction over ‘great want of judgment’ and ‘judicial capacity’ of Joint Magistrate Leeds in dispensing justice to a nameless victim is almost uncommon in administrative history of India. He used loaded words to highlight extreme unhappiness in the given situation. Speaking as a matter-of-fact Katwaroo occupied the centre centre-stage of the rarest of occasions in Indian administrative history when the highest Imperial authority exhibited his warmest concern for a man on the street in the dispensing justice!

Coming as it does, the highest Imperial authority had thus set the tone and tenor of administration of justice across the board without any shadow of ambiguity. To treat the case, as ordained, with grave dissatisfaction accompanied by severe reprimand against Leeds great want of judgment and judicial capacity had put him on the mat not merely for a year but, we are afraid, far longer. This furious explosion of anger on account of death a man from Saran by the Viceroy of India nobody repeat nobody perhaps staked his future or fortune, as we are wont to see or accustomed to hear in Indian polity, by pleading for mercy favouring Leeds or tweaking the Viceregal indictment. 

Surendranath Banerjea did not dispense justice to an untouchable

Two years before Katwaroo’s tragic case, Surendranath Banerjea was dismissed in 1874, barely thirteen months through his probation as an ICS, which was known as the steel-frame of India. Vested with first class magisterial powers, Banerjea did not hear the complaint case of theft of a boat filed by Jaikrishna Kaibartta, a fisherman against another Kaibartta, Judhistir by name of Sylhet in Eastern Bengal (now in Bangladesh). He granted inexplicably several adjournments thereby unduly delaying disposal of the case. In his memoirs, Surendranath stated that on 31 December 1872, he passed an order, declaring the accused as “absconding.” Later, the same man explained that the accused Judhistir had not absconded and that it was merely an “artifice” to justify the long pendency of the case. “Artifice” did not is not edify him. It was a lamentable incompetence. Deplorably, this has been viewed by reputed historians as a “minor offence of technical character.” [2]

We have no record to understand why he did not hear the case with promptitude for delivery of justice to the poor complainant. His dilatory adjournments impeded delivery of justice. In his memoirs, Surendranath advanced plea, “Owing to my heavy pressure of work, it (the case) had to be postponed from time to time” sounds lacking truth, if not false. Moti K. Kirpalani, who qualified the ICS examinations in 1925, joined the district of Rajshahi as an Assistant Magistrate in December, 1926. The aerial distance of Rajshahi is 209 miles from Sylhet (now also in Bangladesh). Kirpalani’s reminiscence as a probationer furnishes a diametrically opposite picture: “As Assistant Magistrate at Rajshahi I did not have much work to do; prepare for departmental examinations, learn the Bengali language; otherwise make myself generally acquainted with the working of the different departments of the Government.” [3]

Does the plea of Banerjea’s ‘heavy pressure of work’ warrant further proof?
The Viceroy, on the contrary, stood firmly by untouchable Katwaroo to deliver justice as also to exhibit the courage of his conviction in the case, no matter where he came from or the station he belonged to. A distinguished authority of the stature of John Mason, ICS underlined the reasons of Surendranath Banerjea’s dismissal in a nutshell as follows: 

“In the course of his first year, Banerjea sent in false return. On one list he gave a full explanation for delays in dealing with a case----but the same case was included in another list of cases in which no action had been taken because the accused could not be arrested. Carelessness, one would think, but the Government of Bengal ordered an enquiry by three senior officers who came to the conclusion, that Banerjea had deliberately intended to deceive the Collector. The sentence was dismissal. Banerjea became a dismissed government servant for life”

Deliberate deception of immediate superior in official hierarchy by a probationer can rarely be in tune with discipline of the steel-frame or the ecosystem. It was not just a bad manner; it was misconduct---a substantive proof of dishonest intent. A mistake or an error by a probationer may be pardoned but---make no mistake---however, deception through thirteenth month his training as a probationer, could hardly be overlooked nor countenanced. He was, in consequence, dismissed from the ICS with a compassionate allowance of Rs. 50. 

Towards the fag end of his life, poet Rabindranath Tagore had observed what we may recall with solemn admiration for his vision. India, no doubt, would, said the poet, achieve independence, sooner or later, lest, however, we do not regret we were better under the British rule! 

A lady Judicial officer’s plight

A lady Judicial Officer of Uttar Pradesh, according to widespread social and print media, has been subjected to sexual exploitation and mental harassment in her workplace. Having failed, by all legitimate means, to safeguard herself for a secured and dignified life, she has, in the end, moved the Chief Justice of India for permission to embrace voluntary death. Her previous pleas to get justice from the appropriate forum in the face of persecution, harassment and indignity met with no success. Now that the matter has again reached the Chief Justice of India, the nation may perhaps be interested to see a satisfactory resolution in terms of law of the crises which the lady judicial officer has encountered.

(Author: A. K. Biswas is a retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar)

 The article is primarily based on the following works: 

  • Bengal Under the Lieutenant Governors, Vol. II, by C. E. Buckland, ICS., 1901. 
  • The Men Who Rule India, by Phillip Mason, ICS, 1992. 
  • A Nation in Making, by Sir Surendranath Banerjea, OUP, 1925. 
  • Memories of My life and Times, by Bipin Chandra Pal, The Modern Book Agency, Calcutta, 1932. 
  • K. L. Punjabi, The Civil Servant in India, First edition, 1965, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay.

[1Report of the census of Bengal, 1872 by H. Beverley, Calcutta, 1872, General Statement V. B., Bengal Secretariat Press, 1872, p. cxxvii.

[2Quoted by AK Biswas in Untold Story: Sir Surendranath Banerjea and his dismissal from ICS, Mainstream, Vol. XXXI, No. 42, August 28, 1993, New Delhi.

[3K.L. Punjabi, The Civil Servant in India, First edition, 1965, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay, p. 130. Offices held by Moti K. Kirpalani include the District Magistrate. Collector and District and Sessions Judge of various districts in Bengal, e. g., Midnapore, Barisal, Comilla and Chittagong, Deputy High Commissioner, Karachi, Minister, Embassy of India, Washington, Ambassador of India. Bangkok, Thailand, Chief Commissioner, Ajmer, Chief Commissioner, Pondicherry, Ambassador of India, Reo-de-Janeiro, Brazil, and concurrently Caracas, Venezuela

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