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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Crime under cover of pandemic: Plague in Pakur Raj Fratricide | AK Biswas

Friday 4 September 2020, by A K Biswas


A man injected plague germ to kill his stepbrother

The crime was extraordinary, perhaps, India had no parallel. The elder eliminated his younger stepbrother by injecting plague germs. In a remorseless design, a hired medical professional, as an accomplice, accomplished the job. The scene of the crime selected, of all places, was the busiest Howrah Railway station, on the outskirt of Calcutta. As planned, the crime was committed smoothly. The conspirator perhaps believed to evade detection of the perpetrators of murder in so crowded a place. The murder involving a member of Pakur Raj turned out to be a sensational case in the annals of crime. An influential feudal estate disintegrated and broke up in the end.

Monopoly over family properties was the motive

Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and Amarendra Chandra Pandey stepbrothers jointly inherited the Pakur Raj estates on the death of their father in 1929. The elder son was 27 years of age and the younger 16 when their father expired. Their father had two wives.

They were also joint reversionary heirs of their aunt Rani Surjabati. On father’s expiry, Benoyendra became the karat or head of the family. Arrogant, extravagant, pleasure-seeking the elder’s relation with a dancing girl, named Balikabala, was viewed as beneath dignity of the Raj family. [1]

A genuine concern that agitated many of the close relatives, well-wishers and even other landlords was that the elder brother neglected the well-being of the Pakur Raj. He even was apathetic, if not opposed deliberately, to proper education of Amarendra. Such feeling generated ill-feelings between two brothers. Ultimately the tension ignited mutual hostility. On attaining adulthood in 1931, Amarendra, a legitimate contender of family properties, began to assert his rights. Hence, conflicts grew more and more intense. Obviously, when brothers lost faith and respect for each other, suspicion and hate marked their relation. Home turns into battleground. Happiness became the first casualty. Peace vanished and reputation of the family started getting sullied. The elder brother began sharpening his claws and waited for opportunity to strike critical blow against his younger rival. And the means adopted to achieve the end was extraordinary.

Plague as weapon for settling personal score

Plague from Manchuria in 1896 invaded Indian subcontinent with lamentable consequences. Between 1900-1920, Bihar suffered 9,91,637 deaths whereas and Chota Nagpur, now Jharkhand, 4,498, totalling 9,96,135. [2] The black death had claimed, by then, over one crore of deaths of Indians. [3] In third decade of 20th century Bihar’s plague mortality aggregated at 1,12,552. [4] Widespread tragedy invading almost every village across Bihar furnished ideas to the offenders to satisfy their evil intent.

Dimension of family conspiracy: Spread far and wide?

The elder brother was calculative. He made his moves and planned his actions with forethoughts. He made preparations to eliminate Amarendra from the scene. In fact, after his death by injecting plague germs, inquiries by police revealed long trail of conspiracy, embracing Pakur apart, Deoghar, Calcutta and far off Bombay.

During the Durga Puja vacations of 1932, Amarendra was staying with Surjabati at Deoghar. One day Benoyendra accompanied by a compounder, a complete stranger arrived there. He and Amarendra went for a walk together and thereafter Benoyendra and the compounder departed. After a few days, Amarendra began to fall ill and his illness was diagnosed by doctors as due to tetanus infection. Benoyendra, when informed, promptly visited Amarendra with Taranath Bhattacharjee, a doctor (?) from Calcutta, instead of the family physician. On that occasion there was differences of opinion between the physicians already attending and the doctors, e. g., Taranath Bhattacharjee and subsequently two others brought in by Benoyendra. The relatives of Amarendra became suspicious about both Benoyendra and his doctors. Amarendra’s illness left him with heart permanently damaged and an otherwise broken health. Dr. Sourendra Nath Mukherjee became alarmed about Taranath who tried to induce him to abandon the serum treatment in favour of injections of morphia.

In November 1932, there was a fresh friction over withdrawal of cash by the elder brother from some bank account without the knowledge of Amarendra. The younger brother began to seek protection against unauthorized exploitation of family finances by Benoyendra. The strained relations between the brothers came to the critical stage---indeed a flashpoint. The near relations and friends of Amarendra were deeply worried about his fate. They were more or less convinced that Benoyendra might do any harm to his stepbrother. In this background the two brothers met and discussed at length the question of partition of the family estate.

Almost a year passed since without any important happening between the two. In November 1933, situation started suddenly changing. The elder brother was shadowing Amarendra. He had engaged various persons for this purpose. They were unknown to other members of the Raj family. Their motives too were unknown.

Crowded Howrah Railway station: Theatre of the heinous crime

After the festivities of the Durga Puja were over Rani Surjabati and Amarendra decided to leave Calcutta on the 26th November. Benoyendra got to know about their departure for Pakur the previous night. On that night, Benoyendra was seen at Howrah Railway station. He was accompanied by a companion. In Khaddar, the man was short and dark-complexioned. The next day Benoyendra met Surjabati and expressed willingness to see her and Amarendra off at Howrah Station when they departed, which court held as an ‘unexpected courtesy.’ [5] As per the arrangement, Rani Surjabati and her party arrived at the Howrah Station and were met by Benoyendra. On the way to the platform, Amarendra was jostled by someone, whom, coming from opposite direction, he described as a black man inKhaddar. Immediately after, Amarendra felt a prick in his right arm and cried out, “Someone has pricked me.” Benoyendra made light of it to deflect attention. He even tried to make fun of it, saying it was nothing. But Amarendra rolled up sleeves and showed the mark of prick to his relatives, present on the occasion at the Howrah Station. Amarendra was asked by his relatives and well-wishers not to leave Calcutta, as they suspected something wrong but Benoyendra Pandey almost forced him to proceed to Pakur, as scheduled.
                                                                    However, when they reached Deoghar, his relatives including Rani Surjabati became more and more anxious about the fate of Amarendra. Therefore, Amarendra persuaded by well-wishers, returned on 29th November to Calcutta for medical advice and attention. Dr. Nalini Ranjan Sengupta, one of the prominent physicians of the city examined Amarendra. He opined that the mark on his arm was by a ‘hypodermic needle.’ He advised for blood culture which Dr. Santosh Kumar Gupta had carried out. On the 4th December 1933, Amarendra died. “After a thorough and exhaustive testing of the blood culture on white rats and by means of other tests” it was conclusively established that “Amarendra’s blood was infected with germs of bubonic plague and this was reported to the public health authorities.” [6]

Investigation started - Benoyendra Pandey and accomplice arrested

Immediately after the death of Amarendra, some of his relatives thought of instituting a police inquiry, as it was known that Taranath Bhattacharjee was very friendly with Benoyendra. Eventually a petition was presented to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Calcutta about two months later on the 22nd January 1934. A sub-inspector, Sarat Chandra Mitra was assigned the task of a confidential enquiry into the petition.  [7]

Benoyendra was arrested, after 24 days of lodging of the complaint, on the 16th February, 1934 in a train while on way to Bombay. A case was formally instituted next day i.e. on the 17th February, after Benoyendra’s arrest. Durga Ratan Dhar and Sivapada Bhattacharjee and others unknown also were charged with conspiring to murder Amarendra.

Taranath Bhattacherjee, who flaunted his DTM, (Diploma of Tropical Medicine) to which he was not entitled, was arrested on 18th February. Investigation was conducted at Bombay and Calcutta. Valuable, though intriguing, information emerged in inquiries about visits of accused Benoyendra alone to Bombay and in company of Taranath. The facts in the hands of police led them to suspect both Benoyendra and Taranath in the murder of one of Pakur Raj’s heirs.

Network of the conspiracy: Calcutta to Bombay with Pakur at the centre

Amarendra had executed several power-of-attorney on the 12th May 1932. The same day Taranath had sent an express prepaid telegram to the authorities in the Haffkine Institute at Bombay, requesting them to send some ‘virulent plague culture’ for laboratory work. Benoyendra at this time was staying in Calcutta. Taranath failed to get the supply as the Institute refused unless Taranath first obtained permission of the Surgeon General of Bengal.

Later in May Taranath approach Dr. Ukil of Calcutta and induced him to believe that Taranath had discovered a cure for the plague and to allow Taranath to work in his laboratory. Plague cure was obtained from Dr. Naidu of the Haffkine Institute, Bombay but Taranath was not allowed to handle it. Nothing came of an attempt to subculture the strain and Dr Ukil refused to indent for culture a second time. Eventually in 1933, Taranath obtained from Dr. Ukil a letter of introduction to the head of the Haffkine Institute to the effect that Taranath had discovered a cure for plague and that he might be extended facilities for making experiment there.

In April 1934 Benoyendra went to Bombay and helped or sought to help Taranath in his quest. On the 1st July Benoyendra again went to Bombay and made strenuous efforts to obtain plague culture from the two surgeons attached to the Haffkine Institute but failed. He, however, gathered information that he could get plague culture from Infection Diseases Hospital on Arthur Road, Bombay. Here he induced Dr. Patel, the superintendent to allow his friend Taranath Bhattacharjee to work on his alleged plague culture. At Benoyendra’s persistent request, one tube of live plague culture was obtained here pending arrival of Taranath in Bombay. Ultimately, Taranath arrived at Bombay on the 7th July 1934. Benoyendra provided accommodation for his friend and co-conspirator Taranath there and the two went about together to purchase rats in the market. Taranath was allowed free scope for carrying out experiments in the laboratory and one of his experiments on rats was successful to the extent that they died. On the evening of July 12, Taranath offered an excuse to the doctor he was working with that he had an urgent work in Calcutta and must leave immediately for Calcutta. He promised at the same time that he would return to Bombay to complete the experiment in the laboratory as soon as he would be free from his preoccupation at Calcutta. He never did so nor did he ever correspond later with the Institute. Benoyendra and Taranath left Bombay together on the same night of the 12th July for Calcutta. In Bombay, Benoyendra used false address while checking in hotels.

At Bombay Benoyendra tried hard with insurance companies to get Amarendra Chandra’s life insured for a sum of Rs. 50,000 with the condition that the policy should not be contested after Amarendra’s death. This unusual condition scared the insurance companies off and no policy could be affected. Benoyendra at the trial took the plea that he went to Bombay on business connected with film industry and that he had made enquiries for Taranath purely as an act of friendship.

Medical evidence was adduced before the Sessions Court during trial to the effect that plague culture could be carried from Bombay to Calcutta and could be kept alive for a period of six months from July to December. When arrested, Taranath flatly refused any idea of any plague cure and any visit to Bombay. Later he altered the statement and admitted that he had been to Bombay but not with Benoyendra. He made other conflicting statements also. Benoyendra Pandey too made contradictory and conflicting statements to the police as his accomplice Taranath did.

Capital punishment for Benoyendra and Taranath

Based on facts and circumstances as aforementioned, the Sessions Court awarded death sentence to the accused Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and Taranath Bhattacharjee for injecting at Howrah Station plague germs that ultimately caused the death of Amarendra. The condemned accused challenged the order of the Sessions Court before the Calcutta High Court. The Bench comprising Justice Lord-Williams and Justice Nasim Ali heard the reference and appeal. The High Court characterized the case as “probably unique in annals of crime.” [8] Undoubtedly the case unique in many respects.

In the first place, it was a case of fratricide with a view to eliminate a younger brother in a reputed zamindar family in Bihar in order to gain monopoly of the family property and fortunes. Secondly, this murder for gain was contrived by elder brother in a very ingenuous method. Thirdly, responsible men of the medical profession were involved in this heinous crime.

Fourthly, the trial was protracted for long time, while the public watched the proceedings with keen interest across India. The accused arrested in February 1934, were committed for trial in May, and were under trial until February 1935. Two of the accused were sentenced to death. The High Court modified the death sentence to transportation for life.

The High Court came to the conclusion that the two convicted men, Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and Taranath Bhattacharyee had conspired to murder Amarendra Chandra Pandey with a hired assassin. He was provided with the plague culture brought from Bombay. Upon the instigation and temptation offered by Benoyendra, the hired men, whose identity could not be proved till the end, injected plague germs in the body of their victim at the Howrah Station. The direct result of this injection caused the death of Amarendra Pandey. The motive of the heinous crime was abundantly clear.

Benoyendra Pandey wanted to get rid of a troublesome partner in family properties. His attempt to get Amarendra Pandey’s life insured for a hefty sum of money shows that apart from pecuniary gain from the murder of his stepbrother, revenge was his main objective. The ingenuous method adopted to do away with Amarendra was presumably suggested to Benoyendra Pandey’s friend Taranath.

Taranath believed that it was impossible and impracticable for the police to unravel the mystery of a crime committed in a place like Howrah station. But the destiny did not favour them and nitty gritty of the conspiracy emerged in public and the murderers had to pay the price for their sin. The dreadful family tragedy drew a curtain on the Pakur Raj.

The Calcutta High Court had held very aptly the case as ‘unique in the annals crime.’

(A retired IAS and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur.)

[1Calcutta High Court, Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and ... vs Emperor on 10 January, 1936. Equivalent citations: AIR 1936 Cal 73.

[2A. K. Biswas, Understanding Bihar, Blumoon Books, Delhi, 1998, p. 27.

[3Dr. Atulkrishna Biswas, Coronavirus from Wuhan in 2019 Reminds catastrophe plague from Manchuria in 1896 wrought in India: Lessons of History, Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020.

[4Ibid., p. 15.

[5Calcutta High Court, Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and ... vs Emperor on 10 January, 1936. Equivalent citations: AIR 1936 Cal 73.

A. K. Biswas, Understanding Bihar, Blumoon Books, Delhi, 1998, p. 27.

[6Abdul Hasanat, Crime and Criminal Justice, Dacca, The Standard Library, May, 1939, Appendix B, p. 55.

[7Calcutta High Court, Benoyendra Chandra Pandey and ... vs Emperor on 10 January, 1936. Equivalent citations: AIR 1936 Cal 73.


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