The Missing Minutes of Calcutta’s Supreme Court


The Supreme Court of India and the Nehru Memorial.

1911 is the last date that the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Fort William, which was British India’s highest legal body from 1774-1862, are known to exist. They were transferred out of the Court, some to the Victoria Memorial. It has been my goal to find them. I believe they contain records of the trials of James Augustus Hicky, the founder of Asia’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.

I got my visa extension on Monday, August 4. On Tuesday I bought a train ticket to Delhi. On Wednesday I left, and on Thursday I arrived, dropped my bags at Johnny and Raj’s Green Park apartment and went straight to the Supreme Court of India, armed with my letter requesting permission to research in their archives.

What I found was much different than the High Court of Calcutta. In Delhi you can’t enter the Supreme Court of India’s premises without being invited in by someone inside, so I couldn’t submit my “humble petition” to the registrar personally. And therein lay the second problem: which registrar would I submit my letter to? The Supreme Court has 8+ registrars, double that number sub registrars and additional registrars to boot. Where was my letter to go and who in the Court is supposed to have authority for overseeing it?

Nevertheless, I submitted my letter and documentation to the clerks outside, and called the next to see if anyone had received it. I had already called a friend of a friend (Thank you Abhishek) who’s relative is a powerful bureaucrat and who assured me if I have any problems to let her know.

In India, there are two ways of doing anything. There’s the by-the-books follow the rules, and there’s the “who do you know.” There’s a hindi word for this “jugaar” which means “get it done.” Doesn’t matter how.

By Saturday it became apparent that no one had my letter. It was lost somewhere in the warren of paper. And on Monday, when the Court reopened I got creative. After an hour on the phone and numerous missed connections later, I was on the line with the Director of the Supreme Court’s library.

“Sure you can come in,” he said.

“But, sir, I need a photo ID pass as a guest, and I have been refused it.”

“That is no problem. Go to the Public Relations Officer and he will make you a pass. I will call him now and he will get it done.”

I arrived, the PRO summoned his officers over, they did the work quickly, and that was it. I was in.

Not knowing which way to go—for there are no signs in the Supreme Court—I picked the first staircase on the right, when up a flight, turned left, and there I was, right in front of the Library. I met with the director. He said they didn’t have the minutes.

“Is it possible to visit the archive personally?” I asked.

“No” he said

So I left, took another flight of stairs up and wandered to the end of a dead-end hallway where I saw a sign that said, “Deputy Registrar (Research). Should I go in? I thought.

I knocked and opened the door, and was greeted by an oxford educated lawyer who the Court had just brought in last month to make the process easier for researchers. This is the guy I’m looking for, I thought. A couple of phone calls later, we had the Archive/Records Room director on the line.

“Sure” he said, you can come and visit the archives.”

I went down below Court Room 5, He had my letter in front of him when I arrived. He said that the Court throws out all of its records every year, and digitizes them. Moreover, they have no records before 1937. And no records were ever transferred to the Supreme Court. (Neither the National Archives, nor the Nehru Memorial, where I also went this week have them.)

So the search for the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Fort William continues.