Saturday, March 26, 2016

Guest Blogger Brian Stoddart--A Murder in Bombay: Raj Crime

Brian Stoddart for Jeff—Saturday

I’m pleased to welcome back to MIE my friend Brian Stoddart, a New Zealander now based back in Queenstown after several years working in universities around the world and for agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Brian has lived and worked in India, Malaysia, Canada, China, the Caribbean, Jordan, Syria, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He has written seventeen non-fiction works across the history of India, sport, international relations, biography and memoir. His first crime novel, A Madras Miasma, appeared in 2014 and was named among the top ten debut books for that year by CrimeFictionLover website. It features Superintendent Chris Le Fanu of the Indian Police Service in Madras in the 1920s. The third in the series (following up on The Pallampur Predicament), A Straits Settlement, will be available on May 19 in UK bookshops as well as internationally via Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and other agencies. And now, here’s Brian...

British India is remembered mostly for its pomp and circumstance, the Indian struggle for political independence and the rise of Mahatma Gandhi. But as elsewhere in the world its popular culture frequently made fiction look tame, and few events did that better than the so-called Bawla murder case.

One evening in 1925 a woman and some men were enjoying a drive through Malabar Hill, then as now one of Bombay’s ritziest suburbs. They were overtaken by a red Maxwell car, a splendid and expensive American import. The Maxwell swung in and blocked them off. The travellers were then surrounded by a gang of men who attempted to abduct the woman whose face they slashed. Yet another car arrived. Three British army officers returning from a round at the Willingdon Club leaped out to intervene using their golf clubs. Another officer arrived shortly after. The gang produced knives and guns, one of the officers was shot and stabbed but still grabbed one assailant. His comrades rescued the woman. Meanwhile, the owner of the car was dying from gunshot wounds.

The wounded officer was twenty four year old John Maclean Saegert, a Canadian-born member of the Royal Engineers educated at the prestigious Cheltenham School in England. He went on to a distinguished career, among other things becoming the first Officer Commanding  9 Commando Group in 1940. He was later captured, and in 1946 died in Toronto as a result of his imprisonment. He was  awarded the DSO.


The last officer to arrive was Colonel Charles Vickery, a career soldier who served in the Boer War then World War One as a member of the Royal Artillery but attached to the Coldstream Guards. He served in the Middle East and was close to and critical of Lawrence of Arabia. In 1920 Vickery was posted as the British Agent in Jeddah, and became involved in the rise of the house of Saud. He remained in the army until 1935 when he stood unsuccessfully as a Tory candidate in the General Election, became a County Council member in Durham, and wrote frequently on military affairs.


The dead man was a wealthy Bombay Muslim merchant and member of the Bombay Municipal Council, Abdul Kader Bawla. He had inherited most of his wealth and was considered to be more interested in social rather than business life, for which read he was interested in the ladies. His lady companion this day was another story altogether.

Mumtaz Begum

Mumtaz Begum was the runaway second wife of Tukoji Rao Holkar III, the Maharajah of Indore which was a wealthy princely state in Central India. Mumtaz Begum grew up in a Hyderabad, Deccan singing family that leased out her sexual favours from a very early age. She was just eleven or so when she attracted the Maharajah’s attention and was soon ensconced in the palace as his mistress and he later married her. She accompanied him to England when he attended the coronation of King George V, and she produced a daughter after their return. She later claimed that a nurse murdered the child. Life in the harem turned sour so she fled, going to several places throughout India before arriving in Bombay where she took up with Bawla.

Maharajah of Indore

The Maharajah of Indore was one of those “only in India” stories. His father had been forced to abdicate by the British over political differences. The new ruler was at first guided as a ward but took over in his own right at a young age – he was perhaps eighteen or so when he first met Mumtaz Begum. By then he had developed expensive tastes, learning from his predecessors. Just before the outbreak of World War One he was in Paris and visited the famous jewellers, Chaumet, where he spied a pair of diamonds that, oddly enough, had come from the Golconda mines near Hyderabad. Each diamond was 46 carats. He bought them, adding to an already burgeoning collection. Mumtaz Begum wore these and other Indore jewels regularly.

It transpired that her assailants on Malabar Hill were employees of the Maharajah, drawn from the state police and army, and their mission was to return her to Indore. The one attacker who was caught led to several others, and nine men were charged with several offences, including murder.

The case was a sensation and the local press carried little else for days. It had everything: royalty, sex, money, intrigue, drama, and murder. As soon as the trial began the courthouse was thronged, the proceedings reported in detail and relayed around the world.

The judge overseeing the case was (later Sir) Louis Charles Crump who had trained at Balliol, Oxford then joined the Indian Civil Service in 1890. He rose steadily through the ranks, went to the bench of the Bombay High Court in 1919 and had already presided over several important trials.

J.B. Kanga, the Advocate-general for Bombay led the prosecution. A Parsi and a tax specialist, he was one of the giants of the Bombay legal world and would attend court regularly until his death at age ninety two almost fifty years after this trial.  He was assisted by the Bombay-born (later Sir) Kenneth Kemp who would himself become Advocate-General. Kemp’s son, David, also became a lawyer in England and became the acclaimed expert on law relating to damages for injury or death.

The defence team was even more interesting. J.M. Sen Gupta of Calcutta was by now a major aide to Mahatma Gandhi and practising less law than previously. English-trained, he had a strong reputation and his English wife would become the President of the Indian National Congress in the 1930s. Sengupta himself would die as a political prisoner in 1932.

His assistant was more prominent still. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was simultaneously advancing his legal career as well as the political one that would lead to the partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan of which Jinnah became the first Governor-General. He was now part of the Indian National Congress but also leader of the All-India Muslim League and developing his thinking about the creation of a Muslim state.


With so many prisoners and the added political dimension of a princely state ruler being implicated, the case was complex. Crump’s summing up is still regarded as a work of extraordinary legal skill, and it cleared the way for all the accused to be found guilty. Three were sentenced to death, the rest to transportation for life in the Andaman Islands, British India’s notorious prison off the Southeast Asian coast.

Andaman Islands Prison

One verdict went to the Privy Council, however, because legal technicalities left Crump no other choice but a sentence of transportation or death even though he doubted the nature of the evidence. The case was rehearsed in the Privy Council by Sir John Simon who would later lead the Simon Commission to India to investigate possible further political reforms. Crump’s handling withstood the inquiry so Sardar Anandrao Gangaram Phanse went to the Andamans.

Two men were hanged: Shafi Ahmed Nabi Ahmed, and Shamrao Revaji Dighe. It was a huge cost for loyalty to their employer. The other man sentenced to death was declared mentally insane shortly after sentence was passed. The rest went to the Andamans as well.

Inevitably, the fledgling Indian movie industry was attracted, and what is still described as India’s first crime mystery film appeared quickly. Kulin Kanta was just the first of many such movies that shifted the facts around in order to make a story, and its main actor became the first of India’s movie heroes.

The movie connection was prophetic. Mumtaz Begum appeared in a silent film a few years later and was then said to have gone to Hollywood. There must be some uncertainty about that claim, though. In 1926 she married the son of a wealthy industrialist in Karachi, and they had two children. In 1929, however, her father-in-law demanded that the pair divorce, so she returned to Bombay with another settlement in the bank.

In 1946, she appeared in a story in the Milwaukee Sentinel illustrated by the marvellous Willy Pogany. Her daughter had married an Abdul Kadir in Amritsar, but a year after the marriage Mumtaz Begum turned up at the house and effectively kidnapped her own daughter. She herself then ended up in court.

Tukoji Rao Holkar III lost heavily. The guilty verdict meant that he was deemed the architect of the murder, an assumption that he challenged vigorously. The British threatened a commission of inquiry and, rather than face that, he abdicated in favour of his son. He spent most of his time in Europe, and in 1928 married an American, Nancy Anne Miller who converted to Hinduism, a move that alienated all sides of public life. That marriage failed fast and after she divorced, Miller sold the Indore Pears to Harry “King of Diamonds” Winston whose empire still continues. Among other things, Winston owned the Hope Diamond before gifting it to the Smithsonian. He bought and sold the Indore Pears several times, and they are now owned by Robert Mouawad, the third generation boss of the jewellery and watch company that began in Beirut in 1891 but whose headquarters he shifted to Geneva from where he internationalised the business.

Tukoji Rao Holkar III died in Paris in 1978.
—Thanks, Brian


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Brian, thanks!

  2. Amazing story, Brian! No one would believe it if you had made it up!

  3. Wow, Brian! I love the story ,and they way you tell it. As a fellow historical novelist of the Empire (with a capital E) I am making a beeline for your books. Welcome. Come back again soon.