Colossus of Kathiawar [Parsiana, 21-March-2007]
I found this interesting article in the 21-March-2007 issue of Parsiana – Dara Acidwalla
Colossus of Kathiawar
Khan Bahadur Bejanji Damri introduced legal systems and brought good goverance to the district
The period of Bejanji Damri’s stewardship as mukhia karbhari (chief secretary) was considered a golden era. His services were requisitioned by the maharajas of different states in Kathiawar and the British Political Agent valued his loyalty, earning him the title of Khan Bahadur. Gondol prospered and became a model for the rest of Kathiawar. The British Government bestowed a number of titles on the Maharaja and elevated Gondol to a Class I state. In turn, a grateful maharaja promoted Bejanji to dewan or chief minister.
My great-great-grandfather from my father’s side, Bejanji was born in 1843 in Surat. His father, Mehrwanji, was a contractor for the Raj. In 1820, when the British Army marched upon Kathiawar, Mehrwanji accompanied them as their agent for supplies and maintenance. After defeating the Peshwas in Kathiawar, the British established a Political Agency to govern the district. Seizing the opportunity, Mehrwanji established his business in Rajkot and over the next few years with acumen and foresight expanded his interests eastward to Karachi and southward to Poona.
Extensive business-related traveling was stressful and took a toll on him. In 1850 he moved his family from Surat to Rajkot but since there were no good schools in Rajkot, his son Bejanji, who at the time was seven years of age, was left in Surat with his grandparents to avail of a formal western education. In the 1800s Surat was a progressive port city, a center for trade and commerce with western influences brought to bear by European traders who docked their ships in its harbor and established trading houses along its coast. Bejanji completed his education in 1863 and moved to Rajkot, but rather than join his father’s business, opted to work as an accountant for the British Political Agent for Kathiawar.
Bejanji Damri: trusted negotiator, adjudicator
Political Agencies were the governing arm of the Raj. They were made up of a confederation of princely states ruled by local maharajas. The Agency was headed by an Agent or a Resident whose prime responsibility was to oversee the functioning of the states. The princes were given autonomy in conducting their internal affairs as long as they swore allegiance to the Governor-General and the British Crown. In 1880 the Resident, seeing Bejanji’s administrative acumen, promoted him from chief accountant to assistant district officer and challenged him to find solutions to problems that had plagued the district since times immemorial. The main obstruction to peace and progress was the ongoing lawlessness and hostility between local princes and tribals (garasyas) over land ownership. Bejanji quickly devised a two-fold solution. The first phase would be to resolve this anarchy by implementation of proper governance and legal systems. The second phase would cover the introduction of good administration and welfare projects that would benefit the public.
Bejanji set about working towards his goal. As a first step boundaries between the states and tribal lands were negotiated and clearly defined and the cause of the anarchy and frequent disputes was weeded out. Courts of justice and a system of jurisprudence were established and given a mandate to resolve these disputes in all of Kathiawar. The resolution of land disputes automatically brought about a cessation of hostilities which had plagued the district for the longest time. That having been achieved, Bejanji moved into the second phase to introduce welfare measures and improve the administration. Roads and guest houses were built for travelers, hospitals were constructed, post and telegraph systems were established and transportation made a great leap forward with the construction of the first railway link to Kathiawar. The outcome was dramatic; with peace prevailing and visible progress on welfare measures, a sense of well-being and prosperity began to take hold. In a short period of four years Bejanji had achieved his goal for a total turnaround and his reputation as an able administrator spread.
In 1884 the Maharaja of Magrol, one of the princely states of Kathiawar district, requested the British Resident for Bejanji’s services. The Resident agreed and Bejanji was seconded for seven months as mukhia karbhari, Magrol State. In that short period he was able to replicate his model of good governance, administration and welfare in Magrol which gave a further fillip to his reputation among the local maharajas and their subjects.
In August of the same year, as soon as his assignment with Magrol was over, his services were requisitioned by the Maharaja of Gondol, Bhagwat Singhji Bahadur. At that time, Gondol was a “second class” state. (During the days of the Raj, each state was assigned a class. What benchmarks were used for this categorization is unclear.) Bejanji began to overhaul the infrastructure and the administration of Gondol. The railway line was extended from Magrol to Gondol, irrigation projects with canal networks were undertaken, hospitals, schools and colleges established, and administrative buildings constructed. Roads were improved in such large measure that they were far beyond compare for their times. The Maharaja, a highly educated and well-travelled gentleman, wished to turn Gondol into a model state. His grandiose plans were executed by a meticulous Bejanji with great attention to quality of workmanship and timeliness of completion.
With his accounting background, Bejanji then turned his attention to improving the tax structure. While taxes were levied for services provided by the state, the poor and indigent were exempted. These measures served to fill the coffers of the state and provided much-needed revenue to finance development projects and welfare schemes for the poor and for farmers. The police department was overhauled to make it functionally effective and efficient. As a result fear of tribals who continued to lapse into their plunder and loot activities, was dispelled and peace and prosperity reigned.
Regardless of whom he worked for, Bejanji spoke on the side of truth and justice, unafraid to challenge the British Political Agent when necessary. Because of his western education he had an excellent command of written and spoken English and was capable of holding his ground during discussions without being intimidated. Initially, this was not viewed favourably by the Resident who reminded Bejanji that for all practical purposes he was still an employee of the Agency and warned him that his attitude might jeopardize his secondment to the maharajas. This did not deter a determined Bejanji from speaking always on the side of justice with the interest of the common man at heart. His integrity and loyalty won him the respect of the maharajas and the Resident and the trust and gratitude of the public. By virtue of the faith reposed in him he became the ex officio arbitrator and negotiator between the maharajas and the British Government and continued to be called upon by both sides (even after his retirement) to adjudicate on contentious issues.
After 40 years of loyal service to the British Political Agency, Bejanji retired in 1903 at the age of 60. At the time of his retirement he was still on secondment to Gondol. For years of devoted service, the grateful Maharaja bestowed on him a pension of the royal sum of Rs 500 a month. Since Bejanji was entitled to a government pension he graciously turned down the offer even though Rs 500 was not a sum to scoff at in the early 1900s. He retired to a simple life in his ancestral home in Rajkot and spent the next 16 years devoted to charity and social work. Bejanji was actively involved with the affairs of the Rajkot Parsi Anjuman, first as its secretary and later as its president.
In 1910, seven years after his retirement, the British Government conferred on him the title of Khan Bahadur. Bejanji passed away on December 26, 1919. Since it was Boxing Day, offices and educational institutions were closed, but as news of his death spread, shops and businesses downed their shutters as a mark of respect. The entire district of Kathiawar mourned his passing. By the Governor’s decree the Union Jack was lowered to half-mast on all British Residency buildings. The Maharaja of Gondol held a public condolence meeting at which a message was read to the large gathering of mourners by the British Resident on behalf of the Governor, Sir Ivan Mackenzie:
“I am deeply grieved to hear of the sad demise of Khan Bahadur Bejanji Mehrwanji Damri who… began his government service with the British Political Agency in 1863… In recognition of his invaluable contributions to… the district of Kathiawar, in 1910 the British Resident conferred on him the title of Khan Bahadur. While Bejanji remained loyal to the Maharajas and the British Political Agency… at all times and in all matters he kept the interests of the subjects of Gondol state and Kathiawar district close to his heart. We mourn the demise of a noble man, known for his honesty and forthright views. As rulers or lay citizens, we owe Bejanji Damri a debt of gratitude for his unstinting service to the welfare of this district and its subjects.”
Bejanji’s portraits were placed in the Bhagwat Singhji Library at Gondol and in the Lang Library at Rajkot. Bejanji’s death marked the passing of an able administrator, an honest broker and a great Zoroastrian of his time.
The author is also attempting to piece together the Damri family tree. Any members of the community who can trace their ancestry to the Damri family from Kathiawar are welcome to send their details to the author at 2320 Highland Avenue, Falls Church, VA 22046, USA or to zenobia.panthaki@gmail. com