Calcutta’s Secret Gallows

Anindita Mazumder

While travelling from Hastings towards Khidderpore Bridge, on St. Georges Gate Road one comes across a traffic island. Unkempt, encroached upon, the only sign of its importance is the fresh coat of blue paint that the circular structure inside the fencing has received, indicating it is government property. If one cares to enter through the gate, throwing off the discomfort of the creepy surroundings and the strong stench usually emanated by public toilets and take a peek one would realise that the circular structure is actually a well. There is a barred iron gate, the remnants of the rusted lock gives the impression that the last time when it was opened Warren Hastings was still in control of the fortunes of British India. The surrounding wall is high enough but allows a foot-hold to climb up and peep inside. In the midst of abundant foliage one can still catch a glimpse of the flight of steps and a mechanical contraption. Unfortunately, not even a board has been put up to indicate the historical significance of the “Phansighar” (as it is known locally), to the thousands of people who pass this spot every day. This is the very spot where the hanging of Maharaja Nanda Kumar had taken place. The Dewan of the Nawab of Murshidabad was said to be the first victim of judicial murder – fallout of accusing Warren Hastings of corruption.

Maharajah Nuncomar or Nanda Kumar was a Brahmin of the highest rank. He had earned the confidence of the Murshidabad Durbar and held a succession posts under native governments of Bengal and in 1758 he was recommended to Lord Robert Clive for appointment as their agent to collect revenues of the districts of Burdwan, Nadia and Hooghly- assigned by Mir Jaffar to the Company after the Battle of Plassey.

In 1772, Warren Hastings was appointed as the Governor-General, not of India, but of the Presidency of Fort William in Bengal and directors of the company further crippled his powers by appointing a Council of four members who enjoyed equal authority as he did. The four members were Richard Barwell, Philip Francis, General Clavering and Colonel Monson. Hastings and Francis were bitter rivals, Burwell always supported the Governor General while Clavering and Monson casted their votes against him.

Nanda Kumar had his first skirmish with Hastings when, on the accession of Mobaruck-ud-Dowlah, a twelve-year-old boy as fifth Nawab Nazim, he, according to HEA Cotton (Calcutta- Old and New) “strove to bring about the ruin of the two most powerful officials at Murshidabad, Muhammad Reza Khan, the Naib Subah or head of the Native administration in Bengal and Rajah Sitab Roy, his colleague in Behar.” Hastings dismissed them both in 1770 but apparently, the allegations did not stand the scrutiny of inquiry.

 With the task of actual governance entrusted with acknowledged officials of the company and the seat of administration shifted from Murshidabad to Calcutta Nanda Kumar was sidelined. But he had his “revenge” with the arrival of Francis in the city. Francis placed before the Council a formal letter addressed to the Governor-General and Council by Nanda Kumar. In it Hastings was accused of accepting bribes from Munny Begum, the widow of Mir Jafar, Md. Reza Khan and others. Two day later Nanda Kumar in another letter offered to appear before the Board and give evidence, both oral and documentary. While Francis and his two colleagues favoured acceptance of this offer Hastings declared the Council dissolved, left the room with Barwell, protesting that any acts of the Council in his absence was “unwarranted” and “illegal”. Francis, Clavering and Monson voted themselves to a Council, with Clavering chairing it and after going through the charges made by Nanda Kumar declared Hastings guilty of having amassed forty lakhs in two and half years through underhand dealings. Those favouring Hastings allege Nanda Kumar had forged the papers.

Meanwhile, a charge of forgery against Maharaja Nanda Kumar by an individual, Mohan Kumar which had been pending for long, was brought before the newly set-up Supreme Court headed by Hastings’ school friend, Chief Justice Elijah Impey. Cotton insisted that though it was true that Hastings had lodged a charge of conspiracy and false swearing against Nanda Kumar for his attempt to use the Council against him but it never came up for hearing. Nanda Kumar was confined to the “Country Jail” now known as Presidency Jail located at the south of Maidan.

The sittings of the Supreme Court were held in the spacious ground floor room of the Old Court House which stood on the site of St Andrew’s Church. Here, he was arraigned in the summer of 1775. The Court sat for eight consecutive days including Sunday from 8 AM in the morning till late at night with the judges attired in red robes and heavy “full bottomed’ wigs, retiring twice a day to change linen. The verdict was returned in the morning of June 16 and the jury unanimously pronounced Nanda Kumar as guilty.

On August 5, 1775 he was hanged at Cooly Bazar “within a few paces off Fort William and close to the modern Hastings Bridge”. The well was dug up ostensibly for his hanging as he had expressed his desire to die near Adi Ganga so that the final rites can be performed at its ghats.

Nanda Kumar though pronounced a “rogue” by most British historians conducted himself with dignity during the trial and even during his execution. Alexander Macrabie, the sheriff of Calcutta was entrusted with the task of overseeing the execution. “He walked cheerfully to the gate and seated himself in his palanquin, looking around him with perfect unconcern. The Rajah sat in his palanquin upon the bearers shoulders and looked around at first with some attention. I did not observe the smallest decomposure in his countenance or manner at the sight of the gallows or any of the ceremonies passing about it. He was in no way desirous of protracting the business, but repeatedly told me that he was ready,” wrote Macrabie only four hours after the hanging.

His own servant tied the black cloth over his eyes and the seventy-year-old prisoner had some difficulty in climbing the stairs because of some weakness in his knees and tied hands.

 It is said that there was “horror” and much “consternation” among the assembled native people watching the hanging of a Brahmin. A large section of the Hindu population was shocked and took a dip in the holy Ganges to wash away the sin of watching the scene. Many Brahmin families left Calcutta in protest and settled in Bally Khal and Uttarpara on the opposite side of the river.

Upon their return to England Hastings awaited trial for being the propagator while Impey faced impeachment for twisting the law leading to the first “judicial murder”. Though castigated by noted statesman Edmund Burke and Lord Macaulay Hastings was exonerated of all charges after 19 long years.

At a time when Victoria Memorial authorities are putting Nanda Kumar’s turban on display the rich history of this unmarked well leaves one wondering whether it at least deserves a plaque to make people aware of the past.