India, my Love|Aug 26, 2012 2:30 PM| by:

The Last Day of Raja Nandakumar

(On the occasion of India’s Independence Day which falls on August 15th, we take a page from history which gives us a glimpse of just one of many remarkable personalities who lived in the years before freedom.)

“The Rajah Nuncoomer was, by an insult on everything which India holds respectable and sacred, hanged in the face of all his nation by the Judges you sent to protect the people, hanged for a pretended crime, upon an ex post facto Act of Parliament, in the midst of his evidence against Mr. Hastings.  The accuser they saw hanged.  The culprit triumphs on the ground of that murder, a murder not of Nuncoomer only, but of all living testimony, and even of evidence yet unborn, from that time not a complaint had been heard from the Natives against their Governors.”

This is how Burke accused Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, and concluded before the House of Lords, “I impeach him in the name of the English nation, whose ancient honour he has sullied.  I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose rights he had trodden under foot, and whose country he has turned into a desert.  Lastly, in the name of human nature itself, in the name of both sexes, in the name of every age, in the name of every rank.  I impeach the common enemy and oppressor of all!”

The character of Hastings has in the last one and half-centuries, become a battle-ground for historians and biographers.  But no argument, old or new, seems to be able to alter the judgement of Macaulay on him, that “in his high place he had so borne himself that all had feared him, that most had loved him and that hatred itself could deny him no title to glory except virtue”.

Hastings was a sound, if not great, administrator.  It has perhaps been rightly said, “If Clive’s sword conquered the Indian empire, it was the brain of Hastings that planned the civil administration and his genius that saved the empire in a dark hour.”  But so far as Maharaja Nandakumar’s blood is concerned, nothing will wash it off the hands of Hastings.

The facts about the ‘judicial murder’ of Nandakumar are well-known.  Nandakumar brought grave charges of corruption against Hastings before the Board of Directors of the East India Company.  Before the board could investigate them,  Nandakumar was arrested on a ridiculous charge of forgery, and was tried by the most intimate friend of Hastings, Sir Elijah Impey, described by Macaulay as a dangerously corrupted judge.  Nandakumar was condemned to be hanged.  Thompson and Garratt say in their “Rise and Fulfilment of British Rule in India,” “Nandakumar was sentenced to be hanged, a result indecently anticipated by Hastings when it can hardly have seemed distantly possible; ‘the old gentleman’, he noted, was ‘in jail and in a fair way to be hanged.’”

Nandakumar has been rightly hailed by posterity as a martyr not only because his was the solitary voice against a powerful potentate from an alien land, but because it has been established by records that he was plotting to overthrow the Company’s rule.  He was negotiating with the Shahzahda and the French Governor-General of Pondicherry for an organised attempt at this.  It was under his inspiration that Raja Balwant Singh of Banaras dissociated himself from the English and joined hands with Shuja-ul-daulah.  All these must have helped Hastings to provide himself with moral support, to justify his actions to liquidate Nandakumar.  Nevertheless, his actions were primarily motivated to get rid of Nandakumar personally.  To quote from Thompson and Garratt again,… “no one can successfully challenge that it was universally assumed that Hastings was the real prosecutor and that Nandakumar was put to death for venturing to attack him.  No writer cites any second instance of forgery being punished with death.”

Of great value is a record left by an Englishman, Alexander Macrabie, the Sheriff of Calcutta, which contains the details of the execution of Nandakumar on August 5, 1775.  Macrabie was asked to see that the execution took place properly, and he wrote down his experiences only three hours after the passing of Nandakumar.

By the evening of August 4 Macrabie met Nandakumar. The latter talked with him with such remarkable “ease and such seeming unconcern” that the Sheriff doubted “whether he was sensible of his approaching fate.” Macrabie then informed Nandakumar of the embarrassing responsibility with which he was entrusted, upon which, to console the Englishman, Nandakumar said that fate was not to be resisted and that God’s will must be done. Macrabie described the condition of Nandakumar thus “His composure was wonderful, not a sigh escaped him, nor the smallest alteration of voice or countenance, though I understood he had, not many hours before, taken a solemn leave of his son-in-law, Roy Radicum. I found myself so much second to him in firmness that I could stay no longer.  Going downstairs, the jailor informed me that, since the departure of his friends, he had been writing notes and looking at accounts in his usual way.”

Next morning, when Macrabie came to conduct Nandakumar to the gallows, he was struck by “the howlings and lamentations of the poor wretched people who were taking their last leave of Nandakumar.”  Let the subsequent sequences be told here in Macrabie’s own words:

“There was no lingering about him, no affected delay.  He came cheerfully into the room….Seeing somebody look at a watch, he got up and said he was ready, and immediately turning to three Brahmins who were to attend and take care of his body, he embraced them all closely but without the least mark of melancholy or depression on his part, while they were in agonies of grief and despair…. Upon it being recommended to him that at the place of execution he would give some signal when he had done with the world, he said he would speak.

“We sat about an hour longer during which he addressed himself more than once to me;….But without any seeming anxiety; the rest of the time, I believe, he passed in prayer, his lips and tongue moving and his beads hanging upon his hand.  He then looked to me and arose then 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….

“I then caused him to be asked about the signal he was to make which could not be done by speaking on account of the noise of the crowd.  He said he would make a motion with his hand; and when it was represented to him that it would be necessary for his hands to be tied in order to prevent any involuntary motion, and I recommend his making motion with his foot, he said he would.

“Nothing now remained except the last painful ceremony.  I ordered his palanquin to be brought close under the gallows, but he chose to walk, which he did more erect than I have generally seen him.  At the foot of the steps which led to the stage he put his hands behind him to be tied with handkerchief, looking around at the same time with the utmost unconcern.  Some difficulties arising about the cloth,  which should be tied over his face, he told the people that it must not be done by one of us…… The Rajah pointed to a servant of his own, who was lying prostrate at his feet, and beckoned him to do it. He had some weakness in his feet, which, added to the confinement of his hands, made him mount the steps with difficulty; but he showed not the least reluctance, scrambling forward to get up.  He then stood erect on the stage while I endeavoured to see if I could observe the smallest symptom of fear or alarm; but there was not a trace of it.  My own spirits sank, and I stept (stepped) into my palanquin; but before I was seated he had given the signal, and the stage was removed.  I could observe, when I was a little recovered, that his arms lay back in the same position in which I saw them first tied; nor could I see any contortion on that side of his mouth and face which was visible.  In a word, his steadiness, composure, and resolution throughout the whole of this melancholy transaction were equal to any examples of fortitude I have ever read or heard of.  The body was taken down after hanging the usual time, and delivered to the Brahmins for burning.”

(Courtesy: The Heritage, August 1987)