In 1773, a scandal of historic proportions engulfed the headquarters of the Maratha Confederacy in Pune. The ruling peshwa had been murdered at the behest of his uncle, who perceived his nephew less as a distinguished personage and more as an impediment to his own ambitions. The dead peshwa was the last of a generation of brothers, all of whom had met untimely ends: The eldest fell in battle, the second died of tuberculosis, and now the youngest was killed in cold blood.
But for all his pains, their uncle did not quite receive the reward he expected—though he set himself up as the peshwa, he was promptly ejected. While it was a party of courtiers that pushed the would-be ruler out of the capital, what lent moral force to their cause was the verdict of an upright judge. For soon after that sensational crime in the palace, the chief justice of the confederacy announced that the prize for such a heinous offence was not power but the sentence of death.
Ramshastri Prabhune was in his day nothing short of a legal celebrity. Born around 1720 near Satara, this Brahmin originally served the peshwas as an attendant—in 1739, he appears for the first time in the records as the recipient of a monthly salary of ₹40. Somewhere in the next decade, however, he fell out of favour and quit his master’s court for Varanasi. And having acquired formidable knowledge of Sanskritic legal traditions there, he returned, and was appointed in the early 1750s to a council of shastris in the peshwa’s court.
Before the end of the decade, he had established a reputation so outstanding that he became chief justice, with such “fearless independence" and “extreme truthfulness", in the words of a chronicler, that few “equaled Ram Shastri in the influence he wielded over the public and the respect he received from all". Indeed, even the ruling family treated him with deference: One peshwa referred to himself as Prabhune’s “disciple", and his 1759 salary of ₹1,000 per month was raised by the end of his life to twice that figure—a princely sum by the time’s standards.
Prabhune did not, to be fair, preside over a system that follows patterns appealing to our world today, though it did fit the realities of India in the 18th century. Instead of a single rulebook guiding legal wisdom across the board, much depended on custom, caste, locality, even the affluence of the persons involved. For instance, there was no single penalty for the same crime: A rich convict could be compelled to pay tens of thousands of rupees while a cowherd might be asked, for the same offence, to submit 20kg of ghee. What mattered was that the fine had to test each individual’s personal limits and cause material pain: In one case, a Hindu woman having an affair with a Muslim was fined ₹50 against the latter’s ₹7. The social station of a person also determined the quantum and nature of punishment. In the instance of a man accused of both drunkenness and adultery, the alcohol he consumed gave greater offence than the fact that he was in bed with a married woman—this because he was a Brahmin from whom sobriety was a basic expectation.
Hundreds were the judgements Prabhune issued in his decades-long career, and these ranged from sexual deviance and murder to caste disputes and succession. In one case where the exact position of a caste was in question—with the community claiming Kshatriya status and Brahmins refusing to grant them anything superior to Sudra rank—Prabhune went against much pressure and conceded the former claim. So too he frowned on games, as Rosalind O’Hanlon puts it, of “temporization and evasion" played by clever defendants. In a family dispute on property, for example, one of the parties initially refused to produce documents pertaining to their claim. When at last ordered to submit the relevant papers, the lady attempted to ensure that these would be perused behind closed doors. The judge refused: “We are not going to look at them in a corner, because then doubts will remain." “If we do not look at the papers before the assembly," he declared, “it will be nothing but the work of thieves"—an interesting argument in our time of opaque “sealed cover" jurisprudence.
Many are the tales also of Prabhune’s guidance in matters concerning his masters personally. One story relates how a peshwa became rather fond of spiritual pursuits, neglecting affairs of state. “Your duty," the chief justice said firmly, “is to attend first to the welfare of your people." And if spiritual urges were so overwhelming, “resign your throne…and pass your life as strictly as the Shastras enjoin a Brahman to do". The peshwa chose the material world, not god. Equally, Prabhune too was aided financially by the ruling house: In the late 1760s, and again in the mid-1780s, he received large sums of money from the government to clear debts he had mysteriously accumulated. Such munificence did not, however, make him a mindless lackey. After his conviction of the murdered peshwa’s uncle, Prabhune resigned in disgust, agreeing to return only after assurances that the next ruler would never interfere in the business of justice.
Of course, as in our times, even then such a principled stand was easier stated than taken. Prabhune certainly succeeded, till he died in October 1789, with his reputation intact. And into the seat of the chief justice came a protégé, equally learned and honest, but not firm enough to withstand political duress: The peshwa and his men meddled as they pleased, till the judge gave up and became an ascetic. It was an ominous turn, marking the beginning of the end—for soon enough, the same peshwa, son of the murderer Prabhune had years ago sentenced to death, made even greater political blunders, ringing the death knell of the independent Maratha state.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @unampillai