The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 12, 2000

What a devious way to kill !
By P.Lal

AS he entered the coach at Howrah railway station on November 26, 1933, Amarendra Chandra Pandey felt a burning sensation on his left upper arm. After he had settled down in his seat, he rolled up his sleeve, and noticed a puncture through which some blood and an oily substance had oozed out. He thought the matter to be of little consequence. "Perhaps an insect bite", he said to himself.

He reached Pakur as planned, where he held estate along with his half-brother Benoyendra Chandra Pandey. Soon after reaching there, he fell ill and rushed back to Calcutta where a family-physician attended upon him. There was, however, no improvement in his condition. Hence, other doctors were sent for. One of them routinely took a blood sample and despatched it to the School of Tropical Medicine, for a report.

Meanwhile, the condition of Amarendra deteriorated rapidly. He developed painful swellings in his armpits and eventually died on December 4, 1933. The death-certificate issued by one of the attending physicians showed him to have died of septic pneumonia.

  Amarendra was cremated the next day at Kalighat, and with that, the curtain was finally rung on him or at least, so it seemed at that time.

The Detective Branch of the Calcutta Police, however, received a complaint after more than a month, alleging foul play in the death of Amarendra and suspecting the involvement of his step brother Benoyendra. The inquiry was handled by E.H. Le Brocq, officer-in-charge of the branch. Brocq was an experienced and seasoned officer. He proceeded to inquire into the matter methodically and diligently.

Investigations revealed that Benoyendra, who was elder to Amarendra, had been managing the latter’s half share in the ancestral Pakur estate till such time as Amarendra was a minor. When Amarendra came of age, he enquired of his brother the details of the proceeds of the estate, much of which Benoyendra had wrongfully converted to his use. This infuriated Benoyendra no end.

Brocq found out that earlier, in 1932, during the Puja holidays, at Deoghar where their aunt resided, Amarendra had contracted tetanus, after Benoyendra had placed a pair of pince-nez on the former’s nose with such a pressure as caused a small cut on the bridge. Though Amarendra eventually recovered, it was believed in the family that Benoyendra had intentionally caused the transfer of the tetanus — bacilli to Amarendra through the infected pince-nez.

Brocq then contacted the school of Tropical Medicine and obtained the report of tests on the sample of blood. He was taken aback to find that the report showed the presence of bi-polar rods of the deadly bacillus pestis. So, Amarendra had contracted bubonic plague and had died of it, a disease which had been responsible for only one death in Calcutta during the previous five years.

Further investigations showed that Benoyendra was friendly to a bacteriologist of Calcutta by the name of Tara Nath Bhattacharji who had been trying to procure live plague culture for use in his experiments which he claimed he had been conducting to find a cure for plague. Having failed in his attempts to obtain the culture, he managed to hook a job for carrying out research at the Arthur Road Infectious Diseases Hospital in Bombay which had a regular supply of the plague culture. He worked there for five days only, and then left for Calcutta, never to return. Within a few days of that, Amarendra had entrained at Howrah, where he had felt a prick in one of his upper arms. Benoyendra and other relatives had come to the railway station to see off Amarendra. The relatives testified to the presence of the puncture on an upper arm of Amarendra through which blood and an oily substance had oozed out.

It was concluded that Tara Nath Bhattacharji had supplied the live plague culture to Benoyendra, having obtained the same from the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Bombay, through dubious means. The latter, either himself or through an accomplice, injected the culture into the blood-stream of Amarendra through a pin-prick at Howrah Railway Station.

Benoyendra and Bhattacharji were sent up to stand trial for murder. There were, however, certain peculiar features in the case. For example, it had not been established as to who actually injected the plague culture into the blood-stream of Amarendra. Also, no post-mortem examination had been conducted of the body of the deceased. However, the evidence which could be available under the circumstances had been collected truthfully and lawfully, and was marshalled deftly in the court.

Both the accused were convicted and sentenced to death.

Murder by plague was doubtless unique in the annals of crime. What was also remarkable was the tenacity of Brocq and his team of officers in pursuing the leads, piecing together diverse shreds of evidence and drawing right conclusions therefrom.

They did not resort to the doctoring or the padding of the evidence, nor to the third degree methods in interrogating the suspects. The court, too, took an eminently fair and correct view in the matter.

The criminal justice system then worked and worked well.