Not many of the present generation are likely to have heard of Bhawal Sannyasi. His case of being a princeling literally risen from the funeral pyre to reclaim his zamindari, the second largest in East Bengal, was mind-boggling. Opposing him was his teenage wife (wife as she claimed to be) and her brother who denounced him as an imposter. The issue was fought out in the District, Sessions, the Calcutta High Court and finally heard by the Privy Council in London. It was the most bizarre case in legal history, in fact much stranger than fiction. I for one have not come across anything of the kind and often wondered why it had not been turned into a gripping novel. I read two on the subject which left me dissatisfied because they read like fiction, whereas the facts were stranger and more credible.
The story began in 1901 at Jaidebpur, headquarters of Bhawal Raj, not far from Dhaka. The family consisted of six siblings — three daughters and three sons Ranendra, Ramendra and Rabindera: of these the second Rajkumar Ramendra, handsome, light-skinned and grey-eyed — was the central character. He was not interested in studies and preferred to spend his time in hunting, whoring, drinking and making merry. In his mid-twenties, he was married off to 13-year-old Bibhabati. It made no difference to his style of living. Women of the household stayed on the upper floors of the sprawling Rajbari, men on the ground floor. Ramendra continued to entertain prostitutes in his apartments and occasionally sent for his teenage wife to fulfil his matrimonial obligations. He also visited Calcutta, taking his cronies along with him to enjoy lighter-skinned Anglo-Indian hookers.
It was not surprising that he contracted venereal disease: boils erupted all over his body. He was advised by his doctors to go to a hill resort. In April, 1909, he was removed to Darjeeling. His young wife and her brother were with him. On May 6, 1909, his condition took a turn for the worse and he died two days later. His body was cremated the same evening. His widow accompanied by her brother returned to Bhawal Raj. Twelve years later (1921), an ash-smeared bearded sadhu with grey eyes arrived in Bhawal Raj. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Rajkumar Ramendra. He could not speak any Bengali, only Hindi. By then rumours had been going round East Bengal that Rajkumar Ramendra had not died and while he lay on the funeral pyre prepared for him, there was a cloud burst and the mourners had taken shelter in a hut. A Naga sadhu passing by saw that the man on the pyre was alive and carried him away to safety. He was miraculously cured of his syphlis but had lost his memory. Most people believed this story. The issue was fought over bitterly in many courts right to the Privy Council till 1946.
The story has been told as it should have been in A Princely Imposter? The Kumar of Bhawal and the secret History of Indian Nationalism (Permanent Black) by Partha Chatterjee. Here is the history of half a century told as histories should be told. Amitav Ghosh is right in holding it "will soon be regarded as a classic".
Sometime in the 1970s I read in a column Now & Again of The Statesman a piece which impressed me so much that I sent a letter of appreciation to the then editor of the paper Alfred Evan Charlton with the request that it be forwarded to its author. A few days later, I got a two-lined note of thanks from a Ranjit Kumar Gupta. The letter-head read "Commissioner of Police, Calcutta."
I did not hear from him for the next 15 years till he came to see me in my hotel on one of my visits to Calcutta. By then he had retired from service and taken to writing. His chief interest was anthropology. He had published two books Poverty and Power in Rural Bengal and Essays on Economic Anthropology. He was a short, stocky powerfully built man with a passion of horses and Polo. He spoke English like a sahib without a trace of a Bengali accent. The only interests we shared were books and love of liquor. I restricted myself to two pegs of Scotch at Sundown; he liked a few Cognac, whatever the time. We got on very well. He regailed me with stories of his encounters with Naxalites and other underground Marxist-inspired revolutionary groups. He has now put them in a book The Crimson Agenda: Maoist Protest & Terror (Wordsmiths). He paints a grim picture of the communist-inspired parallel administration down from Nepal to Andhra Pradesh.
"In more than one-fifth of the Indian territory, the writ of the Left-wing extremists holds sway. Many jungle areas in Madhya Pradesh are out of bounds for junior forest officers. When the Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express derailed in Rathigarh in September 2002, the Bihar police avoided travelling through the Naxalite-infested tract, consequently delaying action. At many places, the police and the revenue system have been rendered redundant. Jan adalats held in Naxalite areas pass death sentences, readily executed. Even the junior bureaucrats of the state attend these jan adalats.
"The PWG and the MCC are working with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to establish a compact Revolutionary Zone (CRZ), stretching from Nepal to the south of Andhra Pradesh and the Tamil Nadu sea coast. The CRZ once achieved, will be an impregnable wedge between the North-East and the rest of India. In Nepal, 32 of its 75 districts are officially admitted to be in the Maoist cauldron. The extremist movements is also a strong magnet for the rural and urban youth.
"There are 40 parties calling themselves Maoist, claiming direct descent from Charu Mazumdar’s Naxalite party that made blood-curdling news in 1967-71. With suitable state action, that uprising was scotched. The present Naxalites have learnt from Charu Mazumdar’s mistakes. They are better trained, better equipped in arsenal and in leadership, and seem determined to achieve their agenda of social engineering swiftly."