The author calls it, “the case that shook the empire”. It was more like the case that should never have gone in appeal. But bureaucratic bloody-mindedness and a reluctance to admit defeat ensured that this case against the author’s grandfather worked its way through the courts even while World War II was raging. India had won its independence by the time the Privy Council in London (the highest court of appeal in that era) got round to pronouncing judgment on it.

Inder Mohan Lall, the author’s grandfather, signed up to fight in World War I and was dispatched to fight in Mesopotamia where the British suffered sharp defeats. But he returned to India determined to pursue his original ambition to become one of the ‘heaven born’, an ICS officer. In those days the ICS was the pinnacle of the civil service and only a handful of Indians had risen to these exalted heights. Inder Mohan had to make an expensive trip to London for the interview, but returned as an ICS officer. Since he had a law degree, he was assigned to the judicial side of the ICS and posted as an assistant commissioner and finally a sessions judge.

The author, Chander M Lall, speculates that his grandfather Inder Mohan fell out of favour with the British when he was posted in the North West Frontier Province and took the side of painter and writer Nicholas Roerich, who argued that many Gandhara-era statues there should be kept in India. The British had very different ideas.

Dismissal order

Later, Inder Mohan hired a relative to work with him, and some disgruntled staffers filed a complaint about this. It led to a series of inquiries followed by an order of dismissal. But Inder Mohan was not given a copy of an administrative report against him. The government roughly took the stand that civil servants like Inder Mohan held office “at the pleasure of his majesty” and that pleasure could be withdrawn at any time. Even the Privy Council did not accept this. Inder Mohan’s case was one reason why Article 311 of the Constitution lays out the rights of civil servants.

One of the most extraordinary chapters in this book is the story of the Partition and how Inder Mohan’s family managed to escape — by the skin of their teeth because Inder Mohan’s wife Dropadi insisted she would not leave Lahore until her husband returned from London where he was still fighting his case. Her son Amar Raj (the author’s father) too ignored their neighbour’s suggestion that the family should get out of the communal cauldron.

Finally, one of Inder Mohan’s younger sons and a cousin were packed off to Amritsar to find their former neighbour Budh Singh Bindra, who had tried to persuade the Lall family to leave with him. Bindra was the senior superintendent of police in Amritsar and organised the family’s escape from Lahore.

But the story doesn’t end there. Inder Mohan’s son Amar kept criss-crossing back and forth between the newly created Pakistan and India, mainly to bring back the family’s possessions they had left in their Lahore home but also to meet the friends he had left behind. During one trip he drove back the family’s Studebaker car which had been filled full of Kraft cheese. At the border he presented the illiterate border guard an official-looking government document and made it back to India. But during a later trip he was reduced to sleeping in a church and heard two people discussing that they might be killed because of him. He never went back.

This book is a quick look at the author’s illustrious grandfather and a look at how an affluent family made it through those difficult times. To say that this case shook the crown is a slight exaggeration. This book needed a bit more careful editing but still makes for an entertaining read.

Check out the book on Amazon.

Title: At the Pleasure of his Majesty : IM Lall and the case that shook the crown

Author: Chander M Lall

Publisher: Rupa Books 

Pages: 142

Price: ₹295