Why was colonial Judge John Paxton Norman assassinated in Calcutta (1872)? - its impact on the Raj


Acting chief justice, John Paxton Norman, Calcuttaagefotostock.com

During the East India company's rule in India till 1857 to 1858 from the late 18th century, the proxy government blessed by the ''British Crown'' Administration in London  had special military power to run their company  affairs as well as to administer the lands captured by them. They could use violence at will to safeguard  their commercial interest as well as British interest.  Never free from corruption, wheeling and dealing,  repressive rule of land and exploitation of  natives and their lands, the dishonest company officials and the justice department earned the ire and hatred of the natives.  The British  labelled  Indians as uncivilized and it impressed on the world, as a superior race, it was their  responsibility to civilize  and teach them the nuances of democracy!!  Former British PM and an avowed racist  Winston Churchill continued to insult  Indians till the early part of 1940s  and told the media  that, ''They breed like rabbits'', when millions were dying in  Bengal due to  severe famine. 


As for the rich Indian rulers - Maharajahs and Nawabs, they were equally frustrated with the EIC's crooked operations in India between late 18th century to the early 19th century. Grabbing of Indian rulers'  kingdom and their rich valuable treasures using  Doctrine of Lapse and Subsidiary Allowance  as  pretexts  added yet another thorn on the head of the wily officials.  It rendered  the rulers   landless and powerless.  To cajole them, the wily English gave them a piece of land, dole and fancy weird titles besides  extending  status like salute states ( 17 gun salute, 21 gun salute, etc.). The more they were at the service of the British,  the better benefits they could get from them. 

Opium routes between British-controlled India and China.ocw.mit.edu


The common Indian natives were treated like dirt. They already destroyed the cottage and textile industries. Leading exporters of world class textile fabric became importers of British goods. Agricultural lands were used to produce Indigo  and opium for export purposes. Tribal lands in the hills became tea plantations  to export tea.  Indigo production  continued in the early 20th century (1916)  till  Champaran (Bihar)  stayagraha by Gandhiji.   At one stage in the past their barbarity and inhuman treatment of Indians  led to the first war of independence called the Great rebellion (Sepoy Mutiny) of 1957-58.  Soldiers and the common men  came to-gather  in many  pockets of north Indian states and  went on  a rampage against the EIC.  The British casualty ran into a  few hundreds, but that of Indians, according to some historians, crossed over one million. Countless people were  hanged to death, shot dead at close range and many were blown away before cannons. 

Indian soldiers  in the British army were treated shabbily. In the army  Hindu soldiers  were further divided on the basis of  their castes.  The introduction of  new models  of ''Enfield rifles''  and the use of grease for the cartridges was a turning point. At  the  Meerut cantonment (Uttar Pradesh) the simmering   issue became a serious one when it was rumored that the grease  was mixed with pig's  and cow's fat.  Both Muslims and Hindu soldiers were furious  and subsequent   mishandling of protests  in the army by the colonial rulers led to the great rebellion of 1857.  During their long rule till then, they had  taken  away many Indian kingdoms. 

Toward the end of the rebellion at Delhi in September 1957, the EIC army treated the last Mogul heirs  - sons of Bhahadur Shah Zafar  badly. When the last three Moguls princes  were arrested and brought to Delhi, near the historical Khooni Gate they were forced to get off the cart. Captain  Hodson  executed  them on the spot.  He took a carbine from one of his troopers and deliberately, with his own hand, shot the unarmed  captives dead. Mogul ruler Zafar in his old age, now penniless and heirless was banished to Burma (Myanmar) till death.  The colonists  were good at keeping the Indian society divided by way of religion, castes and regions. When they ran into Indian revolutionaries and if they were Muslims they would tag them as Wahabis (1862-1871) and if they were Hindus they would  tell  the media reports as Hindu Conspirators. 

It took pretty long time  for the British military to put down the rebellion (1857)  by the  ex- Indian soldiers. Even though the rebellion was finally suppressed by 1858, its spill over effects did continue. Haunted by humiliation, pain and hatred,   a section of people took to violence as a way  to terrorize the British. That pain can not be won by pain and violence can not be won by violence has no effect on these disgruntled people. Vigilantism has room in a civilized society and serious social, civil and racial issues could be tackled only through negotiations. 

Unfortunately  in the cross fire of vengeance and violence between Indian natives and the British, it is pathetic  that some  British officials  became victims of their frenzy.

 Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William, c. 1786 en.wikipedia.org

Above image: The Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata), was founded in 1774 by the Regulating Act of 1773. prior to it the Mayor's Court of Calcutta  was British India's highest court from 1774 until 1862, when the High Court of Calcutta was established by the Indian High Courts Act 1861 Judicature Act of 1781  restricted the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to either those who lived in Calcutta, or to any British Subject in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, thereby removing the Court's jurisdiction over any person residing in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha that existed earlier. ...................

One such a victim was the officiating Chief Justice of the High Court, Calcutta,  the Honorable John Paxton Norman, who was called to the bar at Inner temple in 1862. In India he was a justice in the Supreme Court of judicature at Ft. William, Calcutta till 1871. He was on this way to assume his judicial functions in the court house, Calcutta.   On 20th Sept. 1871 after getting off his cart Norman ascended the steps in front of the Town Hall and had scarcely put his foot  within the vestibule when  a man rushed toward him and, in a whiff,  whipped up his knife and stabbed him in the abdomen. Taken aback and in  severe pain Justice Norman ran down  the steps tailed by the assassin who stabbed  again him this time  his back.  In great pain with blood bleeding in profusion,  he cried and ran toward the pillar and clung to it as he was unable to stand. 

Upon seeing the assassin  again coming at him, the judge  picked up  some broken bricks lying near-by and with little energy tried to flung at him to scare him.  Undeterred,  the assassin made another lunge at him and the knife fell short. Before the  assassin could make a final assault,  help came from  the people around him and finally with the  knife  wrested  from him  the assailant was secured safely upon the arrival of police. The judge told the police that he would die soon. Soon he was taken to a nearby commercial establishment where his wife  came to that  spot  to help her seriously wounded husband. She stoically  bore the cruel and painful  circumstances with fortitude. At midnight  ( 21 Sept. morning) judge Norman breathed his last. 

Following day the death of an honorable judge right in font of a court house and the public became a sensational news and the unfortunate tragedy had cast a  gloom on the  city. The flag at Ft. William was hoisted half-mast in honor of  Judge Norman  whose funeral was held in the ramparts of  Ft. William with full honors including 15 minutes of continuous gun-firing. According to E.C. Bayley a monument would be erected in the St. Paul Cathedral at Calcutta at the  Public charge.   

In the aftermath of this assassination of John Paxton Norman a pale of gloom set on the British community and it also created rising wave of panic among them  Since the major rebellion of  of 1857, the British government who never wanted to part with India had been  on high alert keeping their  tab on the prospective rebels or revolts. The British became paranoid over losing their cash cow- India that had  boosted their poor economy to a higher level of respect and status since the later part of the 18th century. .   

The judge was unpopular among the Wahhabis (Wahhabism: the Islamic revivalist movement within Sunni Islam to restore "pure monotheistic worship" by devotees)  as he came down heavily on them by way of imposing severe sentences on them if caught by the government.  In 1870,  Judge John Norman  sentenced a prominent  Wahhabi  leader  Amir Khan, revered by thousands of Muslims,  to the cellular jail, a penal settlement at Port Blair  in the Andaman Islands to be imprisoned. It is a notorious prison  camp surrounded by the sea  where the inmates were subject to cruel punishments. Irked over this incident, countless  Muslims were angry with Judge Norman;  the Intelligence authorities had  reported calls for revenge against his sentencing and expected possible backlash. 

As for the assassin, the heinous crime was committed by one Abdulla  who hailed from Punjab province. He who  had been living in a mosque  close to the Court in Calcutta  as a caretaker  for the last 2 years  and  did not like Judge Norman's biased judgements. 

On the day of crime  Abdullah was anxiously  waiting for the arrival of Judge John Paxton  Norman near the steps of Calcutta Town Hall.  His motive was quite clear the Judge was doing injustice to Wahhabis, so had to go. As soon as Norman  appeared  on the scene, he in a flash committed the horrible crime. Obviously, it was  a well-planned and  premeditated murder of the highest British  judicial official while on his way to perform his duty. So, before the Court of justice  he was tried, convicted, sentenced and  finally ordered to be hanged to death by Judge Gregory Charles Paul.

Abdullaassassin of judge John Paxton, Calcutta, British India..flickr.com

The British played their card of Divide and Rule well creating a rift between Muslims and Hindus and taking advantage of disunity among the Indian rulers, be they Maharajahs or Nawabs. The threat of  Wahabism was a yet another thorn  on their hat. Norman 's  severe  sentences on criminals linked with radical Islam became a serious subject of debate.  To confirm their suspicion yet another murder was committed on the Islands of Andaman,  In February 1872, Lord Mayo, Governor-General of India  was murdered in the same year  on a visit to the cellular jail there. Coincidentally, his assassin was  Sher Ali Afridi, a convict in the jail  who was the brother of Abdullah and a staunch Wahhabi.  What a quirk of destiny! 

Though they were acts of violence, according to many historians, they were acts of patriotism. But they  were given seen through the religious glasses by the colonial powers.  Countless people like these men  went  unnoticed  and unrecognized during the colonial misrule; but, they played a part in the struggle against British atrocities in India.


In Colonial India, under the direct Crown Administration  the assassination of Lord Mayo in February 1872  by life-term convict  Sher Ali  Afridi, a Wahhabi sympathizer at Port Blair  in the Andaman Islands  was taken seriously and it led to the  process of creating a civilian intelligence agency  to keep an eye on the  civilians or groups that would  target high officials to create instability in the land.  In independent India, SPG - Special Protection Group and NSG - National Security Guards were created only after the 1984 Indira Gandhi assassination.. In any country, the unexpected calamity making threats to the governments would create  opportunities  to introduce reforms in the area of security. In many countries special security measurements were mandated soon after   assassination of a national leader or an abortive  assassination attempt. .....................