Proceedings went on till the end of April. The chief concern of the plaintiffs was that Sir George was still at large and his counsel was pleading that his client be allowed to travel to England to appear for the insolvency petition filed there in connection with the affairs of the London branch. The plaintiffs were of the view that given Sir George’s clout, once allowed to travel he would never return. The judge allowed Sir George leave to travel based on what was even then felt to be a ridiculously small surety and the case was adjourned to August 15th.
However, on April 29th, the Government stepped in, with E.B. Powell, Public Prosecutor, instructed by M/s. Short & Bewes, Solicitors, filing information and complaints in three cases against Sir George in the Police Court, before the Chief Magistrate W.E. Clarke. The charges concerned “false statements…made to avoid returning the proceeds of the fixed deposit of Rs. 3,50,000 to Rajah V. Kishun Bahadur when it matured, misappropriation of money that was entrusted to
Arbuthnot and Co. and to Sir George by the Madras Equitable Assurance Society, and misappropriation of monies that belonged to the Arbuthnot Industrials Ltd. for his own benefit.” The accused was represented by his counsel Sir Henry King of the firm of King & Josselyn. Sir George was arrested, refused bail and hearing commenced on May 31st.
The prosecution, led by Powell, was strengthened by the addition of T. Narasimha Iyengar, High Court Vakil, an expert in commercial law. He was the only Indian to appear in the entire High Court proceedings before Chief Justice, Sir Arnold White. The counsel for defence was the redoubtable Eardley J. Norton. Almost a hundred years after the trial was conducted, Narasimha Iyengar’s grandson Dr. Rangaswami Srinivasan, a well-known research scientist in the U.S., picked up the trail of the court proceedings after an extensive search in the British Library and the Oriental and India Office Collection, London. Basing the account almost entirely on the reports that appeared of the trial in the English newspapers of the time from Madras, Dr. Srinivasan gives a fascinating day-by-day picture of the proceedings that went on till September 25th in his book, The Fall of Arbuthnot and Co., published by East West Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd., to mark the centenary of the great crash.
The author focusses on the role played by his grandfather Narasimha Iyengar, who appears in only about a third of the book. If there is a hero or central character in the book, it is Eardley Norton whose arguments and cross-examinations make fascinating reading. The book is as much a tribute to him as it is to Narasimha Iyengar. Norton is all over the trial, now raising points of law to confuse the prosecution, now intimidating the jury for which they once even rise up in protest, and now and then scoring points off the judge as well. There is palpable tension between the races as evidenced by Norton’s objection to an Indian vakil (Narasimha Iyengar) being asked to cross-examine witnesses. It would have been no surprise if Norton succeeded in getting his client let off, but a fairly negative summing up by the judge in his charge to the jury went against the feisty lawyer. Not cowed down, Norton then had the nerve to submit a charter of 19 points on which he felt that the learned judge had erred in law and to demand a full bench to consider them. The jury, which had by then retired to consider a verdict, however, returned a verdict of guilty on one count out of the three, based on which the judge sentenced Sir George to 18 months’ RI. The full bench appeal was thereupon not pressed. The insolvency case too wound up to a close by 1912. Sir George, released from imprisonment in December 1908, retired to England and passed away there in 1929.
The book reveals that the need to firm up Indian mercantile law, or at least several aspects of it, was pointed out for the first time in this case. The concept of trial by jury will appear unusual to several of the present generation, for it has long been done away with. The observances of court decorum, the polished language used and the sparring between the two advocates, with the Chief Justice intervening, are additional attractions. It is creditable that the author in no place expresses his own views and contents himself with factually recording all that happened a hundred years ago in this city. Over all, a must read for anyone interested in the history of Madras that is Chennai.