A new book talks of IM Lall, the ICS officer who defied the British Empire and won a case against it

Inder Mohan resided in several different cities, including Lahore and Ambala. He served as sessions judge from 1929 and was made permanent in July 1934.

Life as children of an ICS officer was nothing less than royalty. The ICS consisted largely of Englishmen coming over from England to rule the country. Hence, the lifestyle of the Indian ICS officers was also royal, and they too developed, so to say, English habits. Inder Mohan hosted elaborate parties, no different from those hosted by the colonial rulers, where all the children dressed up. The house had the normal ICS standard staff consisting of seven to eight servants, a chef, an assistant chef and two bearers. This staff would regularly help in hosting parties for 15 to 20 guests, or more, for a formal sit-down dinner. Owing to a shortage of other sources of entertainment at the time, the only leisure activities in a small town were either a visit to the club where one could play bridge or sports, like tennis and billiards, or attending house parties. Visits to each other’ homes for parties were also a norm, with the attendees being more or less the same. After all, there were only a few people who were in the position of attending those gatherings. The parties were always elaborate, with Dropadi as the hostess taking well over two days to complete the preparations, and then another two days thereafter to wind up. This involved removal of the silverware and crockery, giving them a thorough cleaning before use, and tidying things up after the party. Good old Brasso and Silvo were the preferred cleaners. It was nothing less than mini royalty.

As the ICS was the highest service, called the heaven-born or the steel frame of the British, it offered high salaries and perks along with power for decision-making. The monthly salary of a district collector was Rs 1000; a commissioner,Rs 3,000; a High Court judge, Rs 4000; a High Court Chief Justice, Rs 5,000; and that of a financial commissioner, Rs 3,500. The governor’s salary was Rs 8,333 + £300 (Rs 450). For perspective, in 1940, gold sold at Rs 14 a gram, while in 2023, it is above Rs 6,000. Hence, a rupee in 1940 would be approximately Rs 428 in 2023, taking the lowest salary, that of the district collector, to a current equivalent of Rs 376,200. Add to this, the palatial house and other perks. By any standard, these were princely sums.

To explain the scale of the homes that they lived in, Amar often narrated the story of the carpet that found a place of pride in our home in Panchsheel Park, New Delhi. Significant portion of the carpet were destroyed by carpet bugs and had to be cut away. The carpet was so big that despite the removal of a large part, it could still not fit in the spacious drawing room in our house. This carpet, in all its glory and at its full size, used to fit in the middle of the drawing room of Inder Mohan’s house in Ambala, with sufficient space left on all four sides. The carpet, in my estimation, would have been over 15 ft by 15 ft in its original state.

The eventful year that forms the core of this book was 1935. While Inder Mohan was performing his duties as the district and sessions court judge in Multan, he learnt that the staff under him, acting under the stewardship of the clerk of court, were indulging in nefarious activities. They would reach out to litigants whose cases were pending before Inder Mohan and offer to get a decision in their favour. They would take hefty sums of money from the litigants under the garb of extending it to Inder Mohan as his bribe. To camouflage their opprobrious conduct, they offered a money-back guarantee. If the decision went against the person, the money would promptly be returned on the pretext that Judge sahib had decided to return the money citing that the case was such a difficult one that he could not, under any circumstance, decide in their favour. When Inder Mohan learnt of this, he was aghast and immediately initiated disciplinary action against them. This disciplinary action caused a stir amongst the employees working under him, and this stir would manifest in unpleasant ways in the near future.

Contemporaneously, in early 1935, Inder Mohan, whilst stationed in Hoshiarpur, enlisted Sunder Das, a nephew of his wife, as subordinate staff in one of the courts under his control. In May 1935, as Inder Mohan was transferred to Multan, Sunder Das also petitioned to be transferred to Multan. Responding to the same, Inder Mohan appointed Sunder Das as ahlmad (a court employee) in August 1936 to one of the sub-judges under him, in an officiating arrangement.

The appointment of Sunder Das and the action taken against his other subordinates created its own tribulations. In April 1936, Inder Mohan went on a leave to England. One of the employees against whom action had been initiated influenced the incumbent, who had taken charge in Multan in his absence, to remove Sunder Das from his post. The idea was to ultimately put pressure on Inder Mohan to withdraw the disciplinary action taken against the other employees.

On October 22, 1936, Inder Mohan resumed charge as district and sessions judge, Multan. When he heard about the removal of Sunder Das and the reasons for his removal, he forthwith signed a proposal for Sunder Das to be appointed ahlmad at the sub-judge’s court in Leiah (now Layyah). On December 23, 1936, Inder Mohan passed an administrative order for the confirmation of Sunder Das in place of an official who had retired. This order would have had the effect of promoting Sunder Das over the heads of a number of subordinate officials senior to him. This act further brought more employees in acrimony against Inder Mohan, and they took steps to file a petition against the order.

Within three months of Sunder Das taking charge, aided and abetted by the recalcitrant employees, the clerk of court put up a note before Inder Mohan explaining that a mistake had been made and that the vacancy in which Sunder Das had been appointed actually did not exist and suggested the cancellation of his last order of appointment of Sunder Das. Inder Mohan was not going to bend under pressure. He proceeded to pass a series of orders, which included confirmation of Sunder Das as a paid candidate.

In the course of these actions, Inder Mohan was transferred to the NWFP and took charge as district and sessions judge on April 15, 1937. Before his transfer, Inder Mohan also passed a number of orders affecting some of the junior officials who had protested against the order of December 23, 1936 of appointment of Sunder Das. In an order of March 4, 1937, he directed the posting of one of them to Alipore, considered to be a particularly unpleasant station. By one of the orders made on March 22, 1937, he confirmed a proposal by the clerk of court to transfer two others from headquarters in Multan to Muzaffargarh and Khanewal as a disciplinary action. By another order, he reduced their seniority, and before he left Multan, he recorded adverse remarks in the service books of four of the persons who had protested.

A cocktail of trouble was brewing, and the cherry on top was his posting at the NWFP.

Excerpted with permission from At the Pleasure of His Majesty: IM Lall and the Case That Shook the Crown, Chander M Lall, Rupa Publications.

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