THE TRIAL OF RAMA KOMATHI-1720
Malice in Blunderland
Rama Komathi's case is the earliest of "Notable Trials" in the annals of British law courts in Bombay, of which a fairly detailed account has come down to us. This case was tried in what might be called the dark ages of law and justice in Bombay, in an atmosphere of ignorance, and error, of lawlessness and corruption, when private malice combined with the blundering processes of a purblind and ill-equipped judiciary to frustrate the ends of justice. " The end of law is the beginning of tyranny," said Pitt the Elder, in one of his great speeches. Rama Komathi's misfortune was to be tried in an age when law in the right sense had not yet made even a beginning in Bombay; and he became the first notable casualty of a sinister combination of private malice and public miscarriage of justice.
Rama Kamath, better known as Rama Komathi, was a Shenvi (Pancha-Goud Brahmin) by caste, and not a Kamati as supposed by some writers. He was a man of great wealth and influence, and enjoyed a very high reputation in Bombay, not only for his wealth, but also for his philanthropy, benefactions and public spirit. What is more, for a generation he had enjoyed the respect and confidence of the East India Company in a signal measure, so much so that he was the only Indian citizen of Bombay invited to attend the inauguration of the St. Thomas's Cathedral.
As for back as 1690 in a letter addressed by the Surat Factory to Bombay, he was described as "a very able shroff and inhabitant of very good repute"; as a very able shroff and inhabitant of very good repute:; and further: "on the island (Bombay) is honest Ramagee Comagee, an old trusty servant of the Right Hon. Company, one that has stood by them in all the wars and has been very assisting on call occasions, not only in procuring men but in encouraging them to fight the enemy". By a perverse irony of Fate this man, who had stood by the British in all their perils, was, 30 years later, when he was old and infirm, charged as a traitor and a dangerous conspirator; and was committed to stand his trial before a tribunal of the Company he had served so long and so faithfully. His position, his character and his past record might have persuaded any sensible law court that such a charge in relation to such a man was incredible. Many observes in one place in his Criminal Law, that probably no amount of evidence would persuade a court that the Viceroy, the Commander-in-chief or the Chief Justice has picked a pocket. But such is the perversity and malignity of human nature, that, at times, a virtuous man makes more enviers and enemies than an unscrupulous and unprincipled timeserver and opportunist.
Rama was charged with being in secret correspondence with Kanhoji Angria, a notorious pirate of the time. Letters alleged to have been addressed by Rama to the pirate were intercepted and seized. It appeared from these letters that Rama, whom the British implicitly trusted, was in fact a secret enemy and a dangerous traitor. He had arranged with Kanhoji to seize the person of the then Governor of Bombay, Charles Boone, and deliver him, along with the Town and Island of Bombay, to the pirate. It was a very clever plot indeed. Kanhoji from his stronghold across the harbour was a standing menace to the security of Bombay. He was a bold buccaneer, a reckless rover of the seas, who at this time was subject to no authority and owed allegiance to no Government. He had at first professed allegiance to Sahu Maharaj, a descendant of the great Shivaji, and paid tribute to him. But later, not long before the date of the alleged conspiracy, when the accredited ambassadors of the Satara Durbar went to him to demand the annual tribute, Kanhoji turned them out in disgrace, not only empty-handed, but minus their noses! Thus he Angria was the most likely person with whom a secret enemy of the British could hatch a conspiracy. All that was needed was to procure evidence incriminating Rama. This was available in the shape of letters purporting to be in his hand, with his seal affixed. The case was complete against the accused, and it sent Rama Komathi to an apparently deserved doom.
The trial took place in 1720 before a Tribunal presided over by Governor Charles Boone, with among others, Laurence Parker, the Chief Justice, as a member of the Tribunal. On the strength of the letters, Rama's plea of innocence availed him nothing. He was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for life with confiscation of all his property. For eight long years he languished in gaol until death came to deliver him in 1728.
In pursuance of the sentence, Rama Komathi's property was pillaged, and sold by public auction. A commodious warehouse in Fort belonging to him was knocked down to the Company itself for Rs. 20,000. It was of course only appropriate that a property plundered out of the estate of a tragic victim of judicial error and malicious machinations of a gang of miscreants, should become the inspiring venue of law and justice.
It was proved later, after Rama's death, that the incriminating letters were all forgeries, that the seal was fictitious, fabricated by a soni who was an expert forger. The succeeding Government of Bombay tried to make reparation for the gross and grievous wrong done to a loyal and innocent man. They were satisfied that the whole affair was a fraud and a forgery; and poor Rama Komathi, far from being a traitor and a dangerous plotter seeking to undermine .the authority of the East India Company, was himself the victim of a dark and diabolical conspiracy to rob and ruin him. His immense wealth had excited the envy and cupidity of a clever gang of cheats and forgers. All that the Government could do now to repair the wrong was to give some monetary compensation to Rama's son.
The case is remarkable for the extent to which suborned witnesses and forged documents can impose upon the credulity of a court of law. Governor Boone himself was not above suspicion of complicity in this plot. But probably he was not originally in the plot; but later, it would seem, he could not resist the temptation which the trial offered, of sharing in the fruits of judicial spoliation. His conduct of the trial was dubious. He subjected a witness, a servant of Rama, to torture to extract a confession from him, notwithstanding the protest of Parker that judicial torture was illegal under English law. There is no suggestion that, barring Boone, the other members of the tribunal had any inkling of the plot against the prisoner. There is also no evidence that Boone was the brain or even the originator of the conspiracy. In all probability the plot had been hatched by individuals who coveted the wealth of Rama, independently of Boone; and the latter, when he found that the case presented a golden opportunity of sharing the booty, readily joined. He certainly shared in the distribution of Rama's properties. After the sentence, the President of this immaculate court of justice (Boone), invited claims against the property of the condemned criminal; and promptly put in a claim of his own to the tune of Rs. 12,791,- a very large sum in those days! He was apparently an apt pupil of the scoundrelly Scroggs (Lord Chief Justice of England in the generation preceding Boone's). But the age of Walpole had just commenced.
And so ended the Trial and tragedy of Rama Komathi.