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The Covid19 pandemic and the lockdown thereof have people wondering whether this is a natural virus coming from animal source or artificially created albeit by accident in a science laboratory. There is a section of society who would like to categorize the Covid19 as bio-terrorism and they do have buyers of their theory.

My friend Indrajit Roychowdhury in his article on the subject (https://indroyc.com/2020/04/22/coronavirus-new-blueprint-for-bio-terrorism/) has highlighted the use of biological weapon that gave shape to epidemics and I quote him as under …

“By the fourteenth century, the idea that the immediate cause of epidemics was some sort of corruption in the air was widely accepted. It was believed that this corrupted air could gain entrance to the body by way of the lungs or through wide-open pores in the skin as a result of excesses, bathing, or heat. Also in the fourteenth century, additional prominence was given to the idea of contagion. In the theory of contagion, the “poison” was originally generated in man himself and spread person-to-person by contact with the sick or dead, or with their personal effects (fomites).

A report by the Italian chronicler Gabriel de Mussis of the siege of Caffa (1345–47) is often credited as describing an early deployment of a “biological weapon”, thus triggering the “Black Death” in Western Europe. He reports that Mongol troops threw plague victims into the city with catapults, thus contaminating the inhabitants. However, re-evaluation of historical, biological and epidemiological data indicates that the spread of the disease was probably an inevitable consequence of the intense trade relations along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Therefore, the alleged catapulting of infected corpses would rather have been a marginal contribution to the diffusion of the disease (if it took place at all). The infection was subsequently spread by refugee ships via ports at Constantinople and along the Mediterranean trading routes and harbours towards Genoa, Marseille and Venice, thus initiating the Plague in Europe.”

However, this story is closer home in India and happened in the last century. This is perhaps the very first murder committed using biological weapon in India. We are aware of numerous cases of murder by poisoning but those were poisons with single or limited use like curare or cyanide etc. but this is one for mass killing used for a single murder. Read on….

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26th November 1933, Howrah Station: The Prince of Pakud (now in Jharkhand State) Royalty Shri Amarendra Chandra Pandey along with his sister Princess Bonbala Devi were walking on the crowded platform towards their train coach having bought their tickets for the journey to Pakud. Their elder brother Prince Vinayendra Chandra Pandey has come along to see them off and was walking a little distance behind trying to dodge the oncoming disoriented crowd.

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“Auch” cried Prince Amarendra holding his arm in pain. “What happened brother” asked Princess Bonobala Devi. “I collided with a person and felt a sharp pricking pain in my arm” replied Amarendra still holding his affected arm. Bonobala turned around to see who could have collided with her brother and could get a glimpse of a beggar wrapped in dirty shawl looking back at them. By now Vineyandra too joined them and enquired “Hey, what happened? Let me see.”

Vineyandra took his brother on the side away from the crowd and Amarendra took his shirt off to show where it hurt. There was a small pinhole and instead of blood it had a yellowish drop of fluid.

“Let’s go to a doctor right now, I am very scared dada”, insisted Bonobala. But Amarendra laughed at the suggestion and said, “Huh, it is hardly any injury warranting a visit to the doctor.” Vineyandra suggested to checking with the doctor once they reach Pakud to which Amarendra agreed.

Once they were on way to Pakud, Bonobala again said, “Dada, I am very scared. I now remember having seen that guy at the cinema hall near the ticket counter… same clothes and the dirty shawl!!”

You are getting paranoid, sister, retorted Amarendra. However, after 6 hours of train travel upon reaching Pakud, Amarendra’s arm had swelled up and he was running high fever. Next day Bonobala along with their family friend Kamalaprasad took him back to Kolkata for consultation with Dr. Naliniranjan Sengupta.

After checking him the doctor said, “He is suffering from Septicemia.” Dr. Sengupta clarified that septicemia is a contagious infection that spreads to body parts very fast and is lethal. To confirm whether the infection is viral, the doctor sent Amarendra’s blood sample for culture and at the same time started the treatment to contain the infection. However, before the blood culture report could come, Amarendra at the young age of 20 years passed away on 4th December 1933. His last rites were performed by his elder brother Vineyandra.

When the blood culture report finally came, Dr. Naliniranjan Sengupta was dumbfounded. The report said, “Growth of Yersinia pestis.” In other words, it is a virus causing plague… it could be bubonic, pneumonic but instead it was septicemia. Since the body of Amarendra was already cremated, postmortem could not be done but the suspicion remained.

The following day, Dr. Sengupta, Bonobala and Kamalaprasad went to see the Deputy Commissioner of Police. At first the DCP was not convinced about any foul play but at the persistence of Bonobala and Dr.Sengupta agreed to get the matter investigated. He gave the charge of the case to seasoned detective inspector Sharatchandra Mitra but warned him that it was a sensitive high profile case and therefore the image of Calcutta Police should not get tarnished.

The very next day Inspector Sharatchandra along with Bonobala and Dr. Sengupta went to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine situated at Central Avenue. In those days, the institute was amongst the pioneers in the field of tropical and viral diseases. They with the director of the institute and asked him a direct question, “Can Septicemia happen if the plague virus comes in direct contact with the blood of the victim?” The answer was “Yes, if it comes in contact with an infected or injured part of the body.” Sharat Babu asked Bonobala if there was any such injury on Amarendra’s body. She hesitated and then said, “No, not any injury as such but he collided with a person at the Howrah Station and he felt sharp jab on his arm. It seemed like some injection needle had pierced his upper arm.” Dr. Sengupta confirmed having seen such a mark on his body.  Inspector Sharatchandra turned towards the director once again and asked, “Can this virus be injected in the body?” The director said, “It’s very strange and I haven’t come across such cases but yes, it is a possibility.” “Are there any cases of plague in the country reported?” Sharat Babu asked. “No, there are no reports of any plague anywhere in India. We would have known if there was any.” replied the director of the institute.

Coming out from the institute, Inspector Sharatchandra asked Bonobala if she can describe the person who collided with Amarendra so that a sketch can be made. She agreed but even after the sketch was circulated across all police stations, the man couldn’t be traced.

Inspector Sharatchandra went back to the Tropical Institute for another chat with the director. “Other than the infected body of the victim, where else can one find this virus?” he asked. “Well, the Halfkine Institute in Bombay is working on a vaccine for the plague, they will have the bacillus for research purposes”, replied the director.

The very next day, Inspector Sharatchandra left for Bombay to meet the director of Halfkine Institute. He had a list of questions…. (1) Where do you keep the plague bacilluss? (2) How secure is the place and who is in charge of the security? (3) Are all the units of bacillus safe and not pilfered in the last couple of months? “The security for such deadly virus is absolutely secure and no, not a single phial is missing” replied the director.

As Inspector Sharatchandra got up to leave, the director said, “I just remembered an instance that happened few weeks back… a diploma holder from Tropical Institute, Calcutta had come asking for sample of the virus for his research project. Since his project was not govt sanctioned, we refused him the sample. Then again he came back with letter of recommendation of two doctors of medicine. But we refused once again as none of those doctors were government authorized. I don’t know how far this information is useful to you.” Inspector Sharatchandra smiled at the director and said, “Please give me the details of those three people from your records.”

The records revealed the names; the diploma holder was Dr. Taranath Bhattacharya and the doctors who had given the reference are Dr. Durgaratan Dhar and Dr. Shibapada Bhattacharya, all three of them are residents of Pakur!! Moreover, Dr. Taranath was the official doctor for the Royal Palace of Pakud. However, further investigation confirmed Dr. Taranath Bhattacharya to be a fake doctor having some work experience as a bacteriologist at some laboratory in Calcutta. The other two were genuine doctors of good repute.

Inspector Sharatchandra announced to the DCP, “Sir, please issue the arrest warrants, I have found the culprits.” The following day all three were arrested from Pakud and brought to Calcutta for interrogation. Under extensive interrogation, Taranath accepted that he had gone to Halfkine Institute for the bacillus of plague because he needed it to confirm the efficacy of antidote he invented, but they refused. Both the doctors, Durgaratan and Shibapada confirmed his story and said they had given the reference letter in good faith.

The police couldn’t deny their logic and had to release them on bail. The two doctors had no motive behind the murder but Taranath being the house physician was not fully above suspicion. His claim of finding the antidote for plague and therefore needing the virus sample sounded too convenient a story. Inspector Sharatchandra started looking at all the clues right from the beginning…

    1. Amarendra died of plague
    2. However, there’s no plague pandemic anywhere in the country
    3. Therefore, the virus must have come from the laboratory

But how? As per the director of Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine, the plague virus bacillus is available only at the Halfkine Institute, Bombay. Therefore, it must have come from there only by some means!!

Inspector Sharatchandra once again met with the director of Halfkine Institute. “Have you given the plague virus bacillus to anyone in the last few months for any kind of research?” he asked the director. “Well, Infectious Disease Hospital, Arthur Road had requisitioned few phials of plague bacillus which we supplied to them.” Came the reply from the director of Halfkine Institute. Inspector Sharatchandra rushed to the Arthur Road hospital and met with the directors, Dr. Mehta & Dr. Patel and asked, “Where are the phials of plague bacillus that you requisitioned from Halfkine Institute?” The answer was not only shocking but astonishing too…

“A young man from Bengal had come to do research on plague vaccine. He claimed to have developed a vaccine for plague and needed the plague bacilli to test the efficacy on rats. So we arranged for the bacillus from Halfkine Institute. However, his vaccine was a failure as all the rats died. But he left for Calcutta sighting personal emergency even before the results were confirmed.”

“Can you confirm if the research scholar used all the samples or have taken out a phial with him?” Inspector Sharatchandra asked. “We have no clue about that” replied the director duo in unison.

“Is this the person?” Sharat babu asked showing the picture of Taranath. “Yes” confirmed Dr. Mehta & Dr. Patel.

“Isn’t it a bit irresponsible on your part to allow an outsider to play with such deadly virus without any background checks?” Inspector Sharatchandra admonished the directors. “What can we do? He came with recommendation from a very influential person. We have the letter of recommendation in our files.” Dr. Mehta replied.

Dr. Patel took out the personal file of Taranath and showed the letter of recommendation. The letter was signed by none other than Vinayendra, the elder brother of the victim Amarendra. Inspector Sharatchandra called up his boss, the deputy commissioner of police immediately and said, “I have cracked the case, Sir. Please arrange for the arrest warrants….”

Vinayendra alongwith Taranath were arrested and confessed to their crimes. The plot was hatched to eliminate Amarendra so that all the wealth of Pakud Royalty would belong to the elder stepbrother and he can splurge it on gambling and womanizing.  The idea of using plague bacillus was ensure that the death would be treated as natural cause; which probably would have but unfortunately for them, there was no epidemic of plague anywhere in India at time and thus the cause of death became suspicious.

The case in Calcutta High Court was famously followed by the press as well as public at that time. Both the culprits were found guilty and sentenced to death. However, on appeal, the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at “Kalapaani – the Cellular Jail at Andaman’s”.

The actual murderer – the man at the railway platform & the weapon – the hypodermic syringe with plague bacilli were never found.

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