A Page from the History: The Cooley Murder Case of Shimla
Sometimes my father, exasperated with some official apathy, procedural delays or corruption in public life, would say in utter desperation “the British Raj was much better!” I remember being very angry with my father and his friends when I would overhear them talking about something good about the British Raj. It was nothing less than blasphemy to me! But recently when I read a detailed account of an incident, that I had heard in bits during my childhood, it was an eye-opener for me.
The famous “Cooley Murder Case” brings to light some important facts. One is that to fight against injustice one needs moral courage which in this case was depicted by the Cooleys of Shimla—a class of downtrodden Indian slaves. If a class of people remains mute to the injustice meted upon it, it clearly shows the lack of moral courage to fight against the system.
We all know that the Sahibs and Mem-Sahibs during British Raj would indulge in fun and frolic and would party late during their sojourn in Shimla, the British capital during summers. The mode of transport in the hilly terrains of Shimla would be the old faithful Rickshaw that would be pulled by poor Indian cooleys. These cooleys would drive the Sahib Logs to their parties and would wait for them for the return journey. What would the poor cooleys do when the Sahib logs would be having a fun time. They would wrap their tattered sheets around their frail and sickly body and would try to steal a few winks of sleep, their bodies crying for rest. When it would be time for the party to be over, some English man would come to announce the same to the cooleys. They would get up hurriedly, rubbing all signs of sleep from their eyes. It was during one such party at Yates Place, the home to Mansel Pleydell, Controller of the Army Canteen Board, that one cooley by the name Jageshar fell down while trying to get up as his sheet got entangled in his feet. This infuriated the Master—the Sahib. He started kicking the poor man till the Cooley fell down writhing in pain. The other cooleys, so afraid of the Master, remained fixed in their place. They silently carried their sahib passengers back home, when one of them lay bleeding and hurt alone in the night. But they were slaves and belonged to the downtrodden class of the society. Bakhia, one of the coolyes, along with some others returned to the bleeding and injured man to carry him back. They found him in a critical condition. They took him to the Chhota Shimla Police station so that the his dying statement could be recorded to lodge a complaint against the British Officer who had so brutally hit that man. Can you imagine what kind of moral courage they might have needed to lodge that complaint? I am talking of a slave country where we had no rights. The police, as was expected, refused to lodge a complaint against the British offender. How could they. Not to be discouraged the cooleys walked to the house of Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal, Municipal Commissioner, and at his behest the report was lodged. The story so far brings to light the moral courage that the cooleys depicted as they had a strong wish to fight the injustice meted upon one of them and the support which was extended to them by one of the Indians who had considerable influence in the society. Mohan Lal did not refuse the help that was sought from him. He empathised with his fellow citizens, putting to stake his own interests.
The other part of the story depicts the sense of justice displayed by the British. The offender was tried in the court at Shimla. Much pressure was exerted on the cooleys who were witness to the inhuman treatment of the dead Cooley. Lala , too deposed in the Cooley Murder Case. He was cross examined for nine hours but he was unperturbed. The British house of common took note of the Cooley murder case and the case was discussed in the British parliament. The verdict of the court was in favour of the Cooleys and the British officer Mansel Pleydell was convicted, sentenced to eighteen months’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of 4,000 Rupees. The man committed suicide in the jail.
When I look back and try to place my childhood memories regarding antecedents about the British Raj I owe it to my father—my first link with our hoary past of the slave India. It is because of him that I developed an undying interest in reading and also an undefeatable spirit to fight any injustice. I thank him from the core of my heart for making me what I am today. I grew up listening to such stories from my father who would take us for long walks and would recite such stories. I developed a strong will to fight and take stand against any kind of injustice. But when I see multitude of spineless people around me I ask myself—has the sacrifice of these so called common human beings gone in vain? Did they fight injustice so that we live in a free country and still side with injustice?
When a Government employee has the crude sense of announcing to a houseful of so-called-intellectuals, “I am the king”, and they all sit mutely and further watch him abusing, kicking and hurting a hapless innocent creature, and still maintain their silence, I am reminded of the courage displayed by the cooleys to fight against the real “kings” and the “masters”.
I cannot help quoting from the Dhampadda:
We are what we think,
Having become what we thought.
I am what I am today because I grew up hearing such stories about human courage depicted during adverse circumstances. Ask yourself very honestly what kind of childhood references you are giving to your children. When I see around me the kind of environment, corrupt and dishonest, wielded by the adults, I wonder what values are they teaching to their children? I shudder at the thought of India, a few years hence, where the children of today would run the nation. God save my country!