Posts Tagged ‘Ruchi Ram Sahni’

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

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 29th, 2013 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

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.

An 1885 super-cyclone in the Bay of Bengal: The Punjab connection

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 18th, 2013 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar

The  very severe cyclonic storm, Phailin, is a reminder that due to a combination of factors a large number of cyclones rise in the Bay of Bengal some of which can be very severe indeed. While the destruction caused by high winds and storm surge is unavoidable it has now become possible to minimize loss of human life. Meteorological science has sufficiently advanced to be able to foretell the intensity and time table of a cyclone allowing the administration to warn the public and arrange for large-scale evacuation.

It would be of historical interest to recall a cyclone that crossed the Orissa coast on 22 September 1885. Known as False Point cyclone (after the name of the harbor where it hit land), it ranks as one of the severest cyclones in the recorded history of Bay of Bengal. It generated storm surge as high as seven meters and wind speeds of 250 km per hour. There is no official casualty figure but contemporaneous accounts suggest that about 10000 people lost their life. The damage due to the cyclone was minimal thanks to the scientific acumen of a 22-year old Indian meteorologist who, though placed on the lowest rung of official hierarchy,  boldly issued the red alert on his personal responsibility without caring for green signal from his superiors.

A product of Government College Lahore, Ruchi Ram Sahni was the first Indian to be appointed to a scientific post in India Meteorological Department which was at the time headquartered in Simla. (After serving here for two years, 1885-1887, he returned to his alma mater as its first Indian science professor.) In September 1885, the Met chief  Henry Francis Blanford as well as the first assistant, both Europeans, were away to Calcutta, leaving the lowly Indian second assistant in charge. While preparing the daily weather report, which normally was an un-exciting affair, Sahni was struck by the input from Diamond Harbour which showed an unusually rapid fall of atmospheric pressure. He sent an urgent telegram to the observer there asking him to send a fresh report of the latest readings. This report confirmed the original suspicion that a big storm was approaching. Sahni then asked him to remain in place till further orders and to keep sending half hourly reports on the weather. Next, Sahni asked two or three of the other neighboring stations to do the same. In the meantime he educated himself on the previous big storms by reading their description. Convinced of the veracity of his findings he boldly made his forecast public. The timely warning was a great help to the ships.

Dutifully, Sahni sent a long telegram to his chief at Calcutta explaining what he had done and on what grounds. Seriously perturbed and upset at the news, Blanford at once ran to Alexander Pedler and asked him if he knew of anything of a big storm in the Bay. Pedler was professor of chemistry at the Presidency College Calcutta as also  the provincial meteorological  reporter for Bengal. In the latter capacity, he  used to get copies of all reports that were sent to Simla. Being busy with his various official duties (teaching, water and gas analysis) and private practice (wine testing), Pedler had not even looked at the reports and knew nothing of the storm. On Blanford’s suggestion,  Pedler sent out orders to the affected stations to repeat the telegrams they had been sending to Sahni. By this time the storm had very much increased in intensity and had invaded the coast. Blanford and Pedler  were now convinced that Sahni had been correct in his judgment and the orders that he had issued were quite justified. Pedler went on to write a well-cited 80-page scholarly paper  on the cyclone. Predictably, the lengthy paper does not refer to the circumstances of its prediction. True to pattern, we know of Sahni’s forecasting of the storm from his own memoirs; the colonial-time records do not seem to mention his name.( The writer is Honorary Professor, Panjab University Mathematics Department, Chandigarh.)


The early Indian Academy of Sciences: The Bhera connection

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on June 8th, 2013 by Rajesh Kochhar – 1 Comment

Rajesh Kochhar

Current Science 2013 Vol. 104 No. 11 (10 June) p. 1566

“It is remarkable that four of the fellows elected to the Indian  Aademy of Sciences, Bangalore in its year of establishment,
i.e. 1934, were connected with a small town Bhera now in the Sargodha district of Punjab in Pakistan. In three cases the reason is common. By virtue of being the ancestral place of Ruchi Ram  Sahni (1863–1948), Bhera became the birthplace of his two sons, the palaeobotanist Birbal Sahni (1891–1949) and the geologist Mulk Raj Sahni (1899–1983). It is however not fortuitous that the industrial chemist Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (1894–1955) was also born there. He is linked to the place and Lahore through the Brahmo Samaj. The connection in fact played an important role in Bhatnagar’s personal and professional  life.””

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