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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session I. A. The Foundations of the Present: Understanding Calcutta

Addendum A. An Immature Metropolis?

Nirmal Kumar Bose

Texte intégral

1As a true metropolis, Calcutta, the capital city of the empire, then a major economic centre, grew by constant immigration. The influx of population into the former British settlement, which began some three centuries ago, owed much to Bengal (both West and East) and the neighbouring States of Bihar and Orissa. However, in spite of its predominance, the role of eastern India was not exclusive: Punjabis, Gujaratis and South Indians also swelled the population of the city while a moderate mingling of races created an Anglo-Indian community. In such an extraordinarily diversified country like India, races, castes, religious communities and professional groups conglomerate according to certain practices and customs which, on the whole, have created a mosaic rather than a melting pot. Each group, each community, tends to preserve its identity for reasons which are social, cultural and economic.

2This fascinating social puzzle was the subject of a very detailed, ward by ward study, in 1964 (at that time Calcutta had 80 wards as against 100 today), by a team headed by Nirmal Kumar Bose, one of the great Indian anthropologists. It seems useful to quote here, with the kind permission of the publishers, Laivani Publishing House, Bose's concluding remarks, as this is one of the most important works ever done on the society of Calcutta (J.R.).

Document: Colonialism, Capitalism, Hinduism and the Social Structure of Calcutta1

Nirmal Kumar Bose

3"The city of Calcutta arose out of the needs of British commerce and trade. All the services could never be manned by the colonists from Great Britain, and the empire-builders therefore relied considerably upon local assistance for promoting their own interests...

4As trade advanced and some new industries arose, while fairly large-scale migrations took place from the country into the city, it failed to keep pace with the growing demand of employment which arose among the migrants.

5Some of these migrants came from the surrounding districts, some from Bihar and some from Uttar Pradesh. The commercial classes came from more distant lands. Gujarat, Delhi, Rajasthan, each sent large quotas of men who came to Calcutta to seek their fortune. In the competition, the commercial Bengali castes like Gandhhanik or Subarnabanik sometimes fared very badly. Some of them consequently drifted towards bureaucratic professions, others timidly bid for security by Investments in zamindari, government secundes and the like, instead of venturing upon new enterprises in commerce or industry...

6The net result was that there was not enough mobility of labour. A man who came from Bihar tried to gain the help of his comrades from home in order to find employment. A Rajasthani supported a Rajasthani more than any one else while competition was harsh. This low order of opportunities which left many people unemployed even while they were eager to work made everyone seek to support of his co-villagers or his caste-men, or even only of those speaking his own language rather than venture upon the open sea of competition on the basis of his own individual worth.

7The trade unions or professional organizations, or employment agencies which could have assisted had not grown up in sufficient number. Or they were so much involved in their battles of idealism that there was hardly time left for the more constructive aspects of trade Organization. Thus social identities which ought to have dissolved if employment opportunities had been constantly on the increase, became re-affirmed. This was basically not the fault of the Indian social System, but the fault of a native capitalism which tried to thrive under the shadow of a colonial economy. It drove men into retaining even in the city some of the features of their small-scale rural culture.

8Calcutta had thrown up new occupations which had nothing to do with caste. Yet, some communities preferred particular set of occupations. There is something like caste in the residential concentration of language groups as well as in their preference for particular ways of making a living. Unlike caste, these new occupations are not actually ranked into high and low, although one class of occupations may be regarded more respectable than another. In spite of this growth of classes, Calcutta has thus developed a kind of rural arrangement which is strongly reminiscent of caste in the villages...

9Some exceptions are, of course, noticeable. But these do not substantially alter the prevailing arrangement of population. We have already noted how the Rajasthani rich, for instance, have of late been migrating from the congested neighbourhood of Wards 21 to 27 in the north-west to the open reaches of south Calcutta. But the number is not yet sufficiently large, and their contact with the neighbouring Bengalis or South Indians, for instance, does not yet find an expression in new voluntary institutions where all communities living in the neighbourhood participate in common...

10A castelike segregation in residence as well as preference for occupations thus persists in Calcutta even when the city has thrown up many new occupations of various kinds having no relationship with traditional, hereditary occupations. This separateness of communities is further augmented by some features in their ways of living, dress, religion as well.

11Under caste, Hinduism grew up into a federation of many kinds of beliefs and faiths. Pluralism was encouraged in contrast to the Semitic forms of religion, whose gods are exclusive and jealous. In later times, this desire for unity or sameness has also been a feature of the religion of nationalism. Caste went a different way. And the tradition has been so strong in Hinduism, that in the city of Calcutta, or for that matter in Bengal, there has been no demand on the part of Bengalis upon others to suppress their own languages in schools and elsewhere...In the nineteenth Century, the first Hindi newspaper as well as Urdu newspaper were printed and published in Calcutta, and one of them was by a Bengali editor.

12The point is that this superstructure of cultural pluralism has persisted in the civic community of Calcutta, and has perhaps helped indirectly in maintaining communal differences. Whether this is good or bad is not the question. But the fact remains that a separateness fostered by restricted economic opportunities has thus been reinforced by a feature of Hindu civilization which, in itself, is commendable.

13May be with increasing opportunities of employment, when trade unions or numerous civic or professional associations grow in number, and their membership cuts across various communities, the citizen's life in Calcutta will become more urbanized, and freed from some of the narrowness to which it is still subject.

14At present, we are still living in a state of immature or imperfect urbanization".

Some maps: a comment

  • 2 A. Biswas, P. Chatterjee, S.K. Chaube: "The ethnic composition of Calcutta and the residential pat (...)

15By simply examining the maps illustrating the study of Aurobindo Biswas, Partita Chatterjee and S.K. Chaube2, one is struck by the importance of community characteristics. Against a Bengali and Hindu background (64% Bengalis and 84% Hindus in Calcutta in 1961) concentrations stand out, either linguistic (Hindi, Bihari, Gujarati, Punjabi and south Indian languages) or religious, and these are in their turn often connected with particular languages (Muslims: Urdu; Anglo-Indian Christians: English; Jains: Gujarati and Rajasthani) which tend to support the feelings of one's own identity.

Fig. A.1. The Bengali population of Calcutta in 1961

16Calcutta is certainly a Bengali city, but it is difficult not to stress the central void of Map A.1 which does not concern the open space of Maidan alone. The Gujarati tradesmen (many of them Jains) control the Central Business District, where immigrants from Hindi and Bihari speaking areas also conglomerate: Wholesale and retail merchants, contractors and transporters who employ other immigrants, especially coolies from Orissa.

17Around Chowringhee is a concentration of Christians. Most of them are Anglo-Indians who live where the Europeans lived in the nineteenth Century. More to the south are the Punjabis of Bhowanipore (many of them transporters, taxi drivers and mechanics) and the South Indians of Bhowanipore and Rash Behari Avenue (Tamilians and Keralites of reasonable professional level).

18Calcutta is certainly a Bengali port, but it is difficult not to stress the void of Kidderpore in Map A.l: the dockers are mainly Biharis, Telugus from the south and Muslim immigrants.

19One could thus guess how complex the System of social relations is (Maps A.2 to A.4). Basic socio-economic factors create communities, each community often characterized by a particular profession (Gujarati tradesmen; Bihari and Oriya dockers and coolies, Muslim artisans of Taratolla and Raja Bazar). History, its heritage, its upheavals, are also to be taken into account. Historical factors clearly explain why today one finds Anglo-Indians around Chowringhee; Muslim tailors at Kidderpore, where the deposed Nawab of Oudh settled in the nineteenth Century; Bengali refugees in the outer wards of the city.

Fig. A.2. The two main religious communities of Calcutta in 1961

Fig. A.3. Hindi and biliari speaking population in 1961

Fig. A.4. Wards with highly concentrated minorities, 1961

20Finally everybody's attachment to his own community or culture is a contributing factor: Bose has stressed this eloquently (Fig. A5).

Fig. A.5. Religions and mother tongues in Calcutta in 1961

21Twenty years later, the demographic expansion, the economic crisis, the political awareness of the masses, the evolution of the real estate market, and the operations of urban renovation have certainly accelerated the dynamics of the city and its population, as S.K. Chaube shows below. But on the whole, beyond the figures (which underline decade after decade the dwindling of the Bengali population as opposed to the increased ethnie diversity), everything seems to validate Bose's major conclusions: though less compartmentalized than before, Calcutta remains nevertheless a city with a strongly divided society, where rural and urban heritages shape the difficult transition from tradition to modernity (J.R.).

Notes de fin

1 Extracts of the conclusion of Calcutta 1964: A Social Survey. By courtesy: Lalvani Publishing House, Bombay, 1968 (J.R.).

2 A. Biswas, P. Chatterjee, S.K. Chaube: "The ethnic composition of Calcutta and the residential pattern of minorities". Geographical Review of India. Calcutta. 38-2 June 1976, pp. 140-166 and 38-3 September 1976, pp. 307-310.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. A.1. The Bengali population of Calcutta in 1961
Fichier image/jpeg, 234k
Légende Fig. A.2. The two main religious communities of Calcutta in 1961
Fichier image/jpeg, 167k
Légende Fig. A.3. Hindi and biliari speaking population in 1961
Fichier image/jpeg, 179k
Légende Fig. A.4. Wards with highly concentrated minorities, 1961
Fichier image/jpeg, 163k
Légende Fig. A.5. Religions and mother tongues in Calcutta in 1961
Fichier image/jpeg, 175k

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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