By Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist
Did you know the House of Lords set up a commission in India in 1938? The Lords Committee for Privileges was investigating a peerage claim and found that not all witnesses could travel to London - so they decided to hold proceedings in Bengal! The Parliamentary Archives contains a small treasure trove of items relating to this case, the peerage claim of Arun Sinha. Arun duly won his case and became the 2nd Baron Sinha.
The Sinha Peerage Case
Arun (or Aroon) Kumar Sinha (1887-1967) was the son of Sir Satyendra Prasanna Sinha (1863-1928), 1st Baron Sinha of Raipur, and his wife Gobinda Mohini Mitter. After his father died, Arun had to prove he was the eldest 'heir male of his body lawfully begotten' in order to inherit the Sinha peerage.
Ordinarily this would be straightforward. However, Arun had to go to great lengths to prove this and accumulate a wide range of documentation. The first thing he had to prove was that his father had actually been made a peer. This was achieved by getting a certified copy of the Patent roll - a handwritten copy, stamped and postmarked by the Royal Courts of Justice.
Arun then petitioned the King in December 1936. It was referred first to the Attorney General in January 1937.
The Attorney General, Sir Donald Somervell, wrote an opinion expressing doubt that Arun Sinha could establish his legal descent in peerage law from his father. Arun was born before registration of births and deaths in India, making it difficult for him to readily prove the circumstances of his birth. Furthermore, because his parents were members of the Hindu community, he was the offspring of a potentially polygamous marriage. There was no actual issue of polygamy - in fact, his parents had joined the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj sect, which did not allow polygamy. However the unique situation, presumably influenced by racial attitudes of the time, meant that the Attorney General thought further investigation was necessary.
Arun's case was then referred to the House of Lords Committee for Privileges in May 1938. He produced a new petition addressed to the Lords, setting out the facts of the case and what was required to prove them, including evidence from witnesses.
Proceedings in India
On 25 July 1938 the Lords decided to set up a commission to investigate in India:
Ordered.... that a Commission do issue to examine upon Oath viva voce Gobinda Mohini, Lady Sinha and such other persons as may be deemed necessary and to take down in writing their answers to the several questions set forth in several Interrogatories annexed to the Commission, and to report the same to the House: and that evidence taken before Mr Justice Biswas, a judge of the High Court of Calcutta, whom failing, Mr S M Bose, Standing Counsel to the Government of Bengal, be evidence so taken as to comply with this Order of the House...
The Interrogatories, or questions, to be asked of witnesses show the issues that concerned the Lords. The questions were designed to establish the facts about Arun's parents' marriage, their membership of the Hindu community and the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, the date of Arun's birth, and identification of him as their eldest son. One of the questions was targeted at whether there had been any polygamy: 'Did Lord Sinha during his lifetime take another Wife? How do you know?'
Proceedings duly took place in Fort William, Bengal, between 20 November and 6 December 1938. Eight witnesses gave evidence, answering each of the Interrogatories in turn. All had known Arun's parents as friends, relatives or neighbours, and were able to speak of the family situation from their own knowledge.
Perhaps most striking was the evidence of Srimati Ghosh, Lord Sinha's 77 year-old sister. The Commission proceedings record she gave her evidence 'from behind the purdah.'
This meant she spoke from behind a screen, so the judge and the solicitors could not see her. She was identified by her son's son, a respectable medical doctor, who confirmed that the lady behind the purdah was, 'My grandmother Srimati Kadambari Ghosh'. She did not speak English so the questions and answers were translated, although the judge and solicitors did speak and understand Bengali. Today her voice comes through to us loud and clear.
Srimati Ghosh testified about the family history, including how two of her brothers had gone to England in 1881 and they had found out by telegram: 'We had no idea that they would run away to England without telling anyone.' She took part in some of her brothers' marriage ceremonies and was present at Arun's birth. She spoke of how Arun's mother 'had ceased to observe purdah, and used to go about unveiled with her husband in open carriages' after they joined the Brahmo sect. She remembered the circumstances of her brother's death: 'I had come to Calcutta at the time to have my cataract removed.' And on the subject of polygamy, she was sure: 'If my brother had married a second time, I would have known it.'
The Commission duly reported their evidence back to the House of Lords, and it was sufficient: the Committee for Privileges upheld Arun Sinha's claim. You can read the judgement at: http://www.uniset.ca/other/cs3/19461AER348.html
Arun Sinha duly took his seat in the House of Lords. Once everything was finalised, the Committee for Privileges staff carefully gathered all the evidence together and had the key papers printed. The original documents were deposited in the Parliamentary Archives, where they remain today. They include four books about the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, presumably consulted by the Committee during their research.
Arun Sinha's father Satyendra, the 1st Baron Sinha, was the first and only Indian to be given a hereditary peerage. He was also the first Indian to become a Minister in the British government, serving in the war cabinet in 1917 and then as Under-Secretary for India in 1919-1920. You can read more about him in a book by Lord Sheikh, An Indian in the House. Satyendra Sinha is one of four trailblazers featured, along with Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree and Shapurji Saklatvala, who were all elected MPs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist
Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/DC/CP/4/165.
The Lord Sheikh, An Indian in the House: the lives and times of the four trailblazers who first brought India to the British Parliament (Mereo, published 2019).
All England Law Reports - Opinion of Lord Maugham LC dated 25 July 1939, in the proceedings before the Committee for Privileges on the petition of Aroon Kumar Sinha praying that a writ of summons to Parliament may be issued to the petitioner as Baron Sinha of Raipur.