Raipur is a nondescript village in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. In contrast, Lord Sinha Road is a bustling street in a very posh neighbourhood in Central Kolkata, filled with restaurants, a shopping mall and a well-known girls’ college. Even though it seems unlikely, these two places share a connection with the Upper House of the British Parliament – the House of Lords – and the bridge that connects the two is an extraordinary Indian – Lord Sinha.
The Sinha family had migrated from Ayodhya to Raipur in the 15th century CE and rose to become the zamindars of Raipur. Lord Sinha, or Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, was born into tis family in 1864.
He travelled to England at age of 17 to study law and was called to the bar in 1886. That same year, along with his wife, he joined the Sadharan Bramho Samaj. He returned to India and started a very lucrative law practice. Soon, he moved to Calcutta and took up residence in what was then Elysium Row.
In 1903, Sinha was appointed Standing Counsel to the Government of India, and between 1907 and 1909, and again between 1915 and 1917, he served as the Advocate-General of Bengal – the first Indian to occupy the post. He went on to become the first Indian member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Also known as the Council of the Governor-General of India, the Viceroy’s Executive Council was a cabinet consisting of five members heading revenue, military, law, finance and home by the Indian Councils Act 1861 In 1915, Sinha was Knighted for his services to the Empire.
– Sinha, as assistant to the then-Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, represented India in the special war conferences of 1917 and 1918 as well as at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which decided the terms of peace at the end of World War I.
He was also one of the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty signed at the end of World War I, between the victorious Allied powers and Germany.
That same year, Sinha became the Undersecretary of State for India. He also received his peerage and became Lord Sinha, or 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur. Peerage is a system of honours in Britain, composed of various noble ranks such as Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount and Baron. The peerage's fundamental role is of government, with peers being entitled to a seat in the House of Lords in the British Parliament. Until the elevation of Pratap Chitnis to a Baronetcy in 1977, Sinha was the only Indian peer. While there have been others who came after him, none of their titles are hereditary. Lord Chitnis, for example, is a life peer. His title cannot be inherited.
After taking his seat in the House of Lords, as Undersecretary, Sinha received accolades for steering the Government of India Act of 1919, which provided a dual form of government or "diarchy" for the major provinces, through Parliament. The Englishman's Overland Mail newspaper noted: “Had the methods used in the House of Commons been of the same candid, open type as those of Lord Sinha, there would have been far less bitterness, resentment and distrust produced by the reform measure.”
– In September 1920, amid speculation that he may be made Governor-General of India, Lord Sinha resigned as Undersecretary and returned to India, where he was received with great fanfare.
The University of Bombay conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Although Sinha was not made Governor-General of India, he was appointed as the Governor of Bihar and Orissa, a post he held until 1921.
Tryst with the Congress
Here, however, he ran into problems with the political activists of the time. While Sinha had been an active member of the Indian National Congress and had even been elected President for the 1915 Bombay session, he was opposed to the Non-Cooperation Movement. Inflammatory speeches were made by both sides and reported by the newspapers of the time. Such was the animosity between Sinha and other Congressmen, that when he visited Puri on 6th April 1921, the Congress observed a complete hartal or shutdown, leaving Lord Sinha stranded at the railway station without a coolie or a carriage!
From the winter of 1921, newspaper reports suggest, there was a decline in Sinha’s health. He was 57 years old at the time. In November of 1921, he was bedridden in Calcutta with “mental prostration”. The following month, he resigned from his Governorship due to poor health. Sinha did, however, recover enough to allow him to move around the city. But he was injured in 1923, when he was hit by a tram while crossing a street in Calcutta. In 1926, he was appointed as a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, another first for an Indian.
On 3rd March 1928, Lord Sinha arrived in Berhampore (in present-day Murshidabad district) with his wife, to visit one of his sons, who was a district judge. Two days later, he was discovered dead in his bed by his son.
– According to a report in Gloucester Citizen newspaper, Lord Sinha’s estate at the time of his death was worth 223,600 pounds, which after adjusting for inflation would be equal to a staggering Rs 1,44,42,48,792.66 in today’s terms!
Satyendra Prasanna Sinha had four sons, and the eldest, Arun Kumar, succeeded him as Lord Arun Kumar Sinha, 2nd Baron Sinha. He would, however, have some trouble taking his seat in the House of Lords. According to the rules of the time, when a hereditary peer wanted to claim his seat, he would have to prove his claim by producing his parent’s marriage certificate as well as his own birth certificate.
Back when Satyendra Prasanna Sinha had got married, in rural Bengal, neither marriages nor births were mandatorily recorded, and as such, Arun Kumar possessed neither of the mandatory documents. It would be a long fight of 11 years, after which he was finally permitted to take his seat in the House of Lords, when the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords ruled in his favour. The newspapers of the time were much more silent about Arun Kumar than they were about his father, probably because by the time he entered the House of Lords, it was 1939 and World War II had broken out. Arun Kumar Sinha died in 1967.
Shame and Scandal
The third Baron, Sudhindra Prasanna Sinha, was born in 1920. Unlike his forefathers, he pursued a career in business and was Chairman of the Calcutta-based firm Macneill & Barry Ltd. Tragedy struck the Sinha family when a mysterious fire broke out in their 24-room mansion on Lord Sinha Road in the wee hours of 28th November 1978.
– When the fire brigade was finally able to douse the flames, they discovered the charred remains of four-year-old Shane Patrick Sinha and his three-year-old sister Sharon.
Shane and Sharon were the children of Sudhindra Prasanna’s son, Sushanta Prasanna Sinha, from his marriage to the Anglo-Indian Patricia Orchard. Since the couple had divorced, Shane and Sharon lived with their father at Lord Sinha Road, while a third, older child, lived with their mother. At the time of the fire, the then Baron, Sudhindra Prasanna, his wife, their son Sushanta and their daughter Manjula were all present in the house.
Suspicions were raised about the fire in the report of the fire services Chief Subhas Chatterjee. It noted that the bodies of the children were lying four feet away from the bathroom. The heat was "most intense" at the spot where the bodies lay, leading him to suspect that this was where the fire originated. Besides, the children appear to have made no attempt to escape, “but they simply continued to lie peacefully, while a deadly fire engulfed them”. To an investigator, this suggested that the children had already been dead and that their bodies had been doused in an accelerant such as petrol or kerosene and set ablaze.
Death by fire was certainly not new to the Sinhas. In February 1919, Arun Kumar’s wife had perished in a fire in Calcutta when her sari caught fire as she was cooking for her child. Sushanta was also reported as being a pyromaniac and a drug addict. But what was most shocking for investigators was how unfazed Lord Sudhindra Prasanna Sinha appeared to be despite the horrific tragedy in his home, in 1978. The morning after the tragedy, the Deputy Commissioner of the Detective Department of the Calcutta Police found Sudhindra enjoying an English breakfast in an immaculate three-piece suit!
Sushanta and his sister Manjula were charged with the children’s murder but were not convicted for lack of evidence. In 1975, Macneill & Barry Ltd merged with Williamson Magor & Co to form Macneill & Magor Limited. Edged out of his Chairmanship and with the tragedy and ensuing scandal, Sudhindra Prasanna Sinha retreated into private life. When he was interviewed by The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1988, he was living in reduced circumstances. Forced to rent the lower floors of his mansion, Sudhindra Prasanna had come to accept that in a modern, democratic and republican India, a hereditary peer was completely irrelevant.
When Sudhindra Prasanna died in 1989, his son Sushanta became the next Baron Sinha, although he never filed a formal claim to his peerage. With his death in 1992, the direct male line ended. He had no male heirs after the death of Shane Patrick. According to the rules of primogeniture, the next Baron was Aninda Kumar Sinha, one of the younger sons of Arun Kumar Sinha, the second Baron. In 1999, Aninda Kumar died, leaving the Baronetcy to his son, Arup Kumar Sinha. Born in 1966, Arup is a British citizen and has probably never visited the ancient seat of his forefathers. In 2005, he was reported to be working as a travel agent in the UK.
It is a sad trajectory for a family that was once renowned for its wealth and power. The palace at Raipur, the Sinha homestead, possibly built around the mid-19th century, once covered 60 bighas of land, and had three wings and 120 rooms. Neelanjana Ghosh, one of the descendants of the family, who grew up in Shantiniketan, has fond memories of the palace, which she visited as a child in the 1960s. She remembers her great-grandmother managing the property and meeting visitors from behind a “purdah”.
But with the end of the zamindari system in 1951, and with different branches of the family migrating from Raipur, maintaining a palace became an impossible proposition. The Raipur Rajbari was abandoned in the 1970s. Ghosh claims that one of the last family members to live in the palace had removed all the teak beams which supported the ceilings and sold them. As a result, over the years, every single floor of the palace has collapsed, making the upper storeys all but inaccessible. Of the three wings of the palace, only one is still standing.
The Raipur Rajbari is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of zamindari mansions in Bengal which are falling apart for want of maintenance. While the havelis of Rajasthan have transformed into hotels and homestays, bringing in tourist dollars, in Bengal only a handful of these old and stately homes has been thus transformed.
The last that most Hindi film lovers would have seen of the Raipur Rajbari would have been in a 1984 film starring Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur. The film was appropriately named Khandhar (ruins).