How The Tribune was saved: An interesting chapter from its early history

Rajesh Kochhar

Reprinted from Kochhar, Rajesh et al (eds) (2013) The Making of Modern Punjab: Education, Science  and Social Change c. 1850-c. 2000, pp.51-53 ( Chandigarh: Panjab University).

The will of Dyal Singh Majithia which vested The Tribune in a public trust was probated by the Lahore Chief Court on 19 April 1900. The matter was then taken to the Privy Council which upheld the probate on 5 August 1903. Without waiting for the outcome of the legal proceedings, the objectors to the will hatched a conspiracy to take The Tribune out of the Dyal Singh fold and dispose it off to a private individual as a fait accompli. How the plot was thwarted deserves to be better known.

 

There are times when life follows the script of a thriller. This happened more than 100 years ago in the case of the emergence of The Tribune as an independent paper after its proprietor’s death. Sardar  Dyal Singh Majithia (1848-1898) who described himself as ‘Rais, Jagirdar and Land and House Proprietor of Lahore’ came into great landed inheritance thanks to the services rendered by his grandfather and father to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Very prudently Dyal Singh employed the feudal money to generate commercial money through investments in real estate and trade in gems.
Dyal Singh was ‘an admirer and supporter’ of the Brahmo movement. Although in Punjab Brahmo Samaj speedily lost ground to the more militant and broad-based Arya Samaj, it did constitute a small but valuable intellectual resource comprising Bengalis and a handful of well educated Punjabis. Since Dyal Singh had no children he decided in consultation with his friends and advisors to vest most of his immovable and movable property in three public trusts, one for The Tribune, in  existence since 1881,  and the other two for a proposed College and Public Library both subsequently named after him. The three executors of the will, Jogendra Chandra Bose, Charles Golak Nath and Harkishen Lal, were all advocates or pleaders. They were also named trustees of The Tribune and made members of the other two, larger, trusts as well. A member of Dyal Singh’s inner circle who was placed on the College trust was Ruchi Ram Sahni, then assistant professor of science at Government College Lahore. Sahni joined The Tribune Trust in 1919 a year after retirement and remained in office till his death in 1948.[1]
Dyal Singh’s last will was opposed tooth and nail by his relatives especially his estranged Amritsar-based wife Rani Bhagwan Kaur and to a smaller extent by the Karachi-based ‘Mrs Lily Catherine Gill’, ‘an East-Indian lady, claiming to have been married to the deceased’. ( Majithia as the last name is a geographical indicator; Dyal Singh’s clan name was Gill or Shergill.) An application for probate of the will was made by the executors on 18 February 1899. A two-judge Civil Court examined the matter at length rejected the contentions made by the objectors and granted the probate on 19 April 1900.[2] Bhagwan Kaur then took the matter to the judicial committee of the Privy Council which dismissed her appeal on 5 August 1903. [3]
The objectors claimed that the will was technically defective; that Dyal Singh was not in a fit state of mind at the time of the writing of the will; and that because of his heterodoxy and unconventional lifestyle he had ceased to be a Hindu and therefore the Hindu Succession Act was not applicable. All these points were anticipated by the will’s propounders. An elementary precaution was taken by Dyal Singh himself. He thus insisted on having as witness two high officials of Lahore: William Ronaldoon Clark, Civil Surgeon; and Charles Henry Tilson Marshall, Divisional and Sessions Judge. When Dyal Singh died ‘very great care was taken to give prominence to Hindu rites and usages in connection with the funeral ceremonies. Akhand Path was conducted, but no Sikh or Brahmo rites were observed’.[4] (Dyal Singh had cut his hair and smoked publicly.)
Legal precautions were necessary but not sufficient. Ground realities had to be faced squarely. Ruchi Ram had ‘the mournful satisfaction of being present by his bedside during his last illness’. As soon as Dyal Singh breathed his last Ruchi Ram and a friend, Sangam Lal[5], locked and sealed ‘the principal rooms, where we thought the account books and valuable documents would be kept’, and decided to spend the night on the front thara of the house. Dyal Singh’s loyal servants led by his treasurer Bhanga Singh came to attack Ruchi Ram and his friend, but the latter ‘succeeded in appeasing them by asking them to put their own locks and seals in addition to ours’.[6] How entangled the case was can be gauged from the fact that Dyal Singh College finally came up in 1910, that is 12 years after the benefactor’s death. While the College and the Public Library were into the future when Dyal Singh died, The Tribune was very much in existence. The first task of the will’s propounders was to make sure that The Tribune did not fall into wrong hands.[7]
Rani Bhagwan Kaur entered into a nefarious agreement with one Sultan Bux promising to pay him the substantial amount of a few lakh rupees  if he helped obtain physical possession of Dyal Singh’s properties independently of the court verdict .The Tribune press at the time was located in a rented house. Its manager was Ram Chand who had joined service in 1883 and was a loyalist. The editor Nagendra Nath Gupta entered into an underhand deal with Sultan Bux whereby Gupta would hand over The Tribune to the Rani if she later sold it to him for 10000 rupees. This intelligence was brought to Harkishen Lal by Ram Chand who was asked to play along. Rani’s minions were asked to come on the afternoon of a fixed day when the possession would be given to them. Harkishen who was at the time working as a vazir of the Raja of Sheikhupura  brought about 15-18 servants of the Raja. On his part Ruchi Ram supplied three or four hands from the instrumentation workshop that he ran. These about 20 people were hidden in the bushes in front of The Tribune office. Harikishen, Ruchi Ram and others arrived in the office an hour before the time given to Rani’s men. Ruchi Ram was now given the task of bringing the editor out of the building on some pretext and keeping him engaged for about quarter of an hour.
Playing the part to the hilt Ruchi Ram entered Nagendra Nath’s office and into a discussion on some topic. In the midst of the conversation Ruchi Ram got up and both came leisurely out of the house and stood in the compound under a tree. In the meantime Harkishen Lal, Ram Chand and their men entered the building and instructed their staff to vacate the building which was then locked.
When the operation had been successfully carried out  Harkishen Lal waved a handkerchief as a pre-arranged signal. Nagendra Nath was now permitted to go in to discover that he had been outwitted. Half an hour later, when Sultan Bux ‘accompanied by ten to twelve stalwarts and two or three servants of the Rani’ arrived he flew into impotent rage at what had happened. For the next two days and nights  the place was guarded by about ‘20 strong men’.  Arrangement was made for additional strongmen to come in sufficient number in case the other party launched an attack. However nothing whatsoever happened. The Tribune was now securely in the hands of the executors of the will. When the probate was taken the executors handed over the charge to themselves as the trustees of The Tribune. Not surprisingly, the editor Nagendra Nath Gupta was dismissed from service.//

[1] Ananda Prakash (1986) A History of The Tribune, p. 314 ( Chandigarh: The Tribune Trust).

[2] Gopal, Madan (ed) (1998) Brahmo Samaj and Dyal Singh Majithia, pp. 110-140 (New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House).

[3] Indian Appeals, 1903, Vol. 30, p. 249; Ref. 2, pp. 140-149.

[4] Sahni, Ruchi Ram  (no date) in Ref. 2, p. 40 .

[5] Sangam Lal served on the Tribune Trust 1913-1918; Ref. 1, p. 314.

[6]  Sahni, Ruchi Ram  (no date) in Ref. 2, p. 39

[7] The following details are taken from Sahni, Ruchi Ram (no date) in Ref. 2, pp. 150-152.

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