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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session 2. A. A Metropolis in Crisis

Addendum G. Violence in Calcutta

The Politicization of Social Tensions

Jean Racine

Texte intégral

1August 1947. The Great Calcutta Killing leaves 50,000 perhaps 1,00,000, dead during the Partition. 1969-71, the revolutionary terrorism of the Naxalites is matched by the bloody retaliation measures taken by the police... The story of modem Calcutta is certainly not free from severe violence. On a very different level, the communist and trade union movements have contributed to give the city an image —often exaggerated— of constant tensions. The same could be said in fact of anti-communist organizations as well. In spite of the Leftist Government which came to power in 1977, West Bengal is still a stronghold of labour demonstrations, with for the State alone, 45 per cent of working days lost in India owing lo strikes and lockouts in 1977 and 1978.

2But one must make a clear distinction between the common place peaceful processions, with red flags in front and police behind, and the localized and violent confrontations between small groups which occur because of mere gang rivalry, or, pretty often, because of manipulation of a fragment of demonstrators by agents banking on severe tension for political gains. The frenzied politicization of life in West Bengal and in Calcutta in particular does not arise solely from committed, individual choice on ideological and political grounds. Various other factors also often confuse the issues. These are:

  • The close links between trade unions and parties, a demonstration launched by a pro-Congress trade union easily turns into an anti-Communist movement and vice versa, depending upon the government in power.

  • The nature of the union and political adherence makes one see in one's trade union or one's party —either Communist or Congress— a protective body from which one expects a lot, especially for one's own employment and for the employment of one's relatives.

  • The links are too often established between militants and the under world from where hired men are sometimes recruited.

3A fascinating sociology of labour and political life in Calcutta would be required to explain more adequately these day-to-day realities, and particularly the relationship between massive unemployment, poverty, political affiliation and political manipulation of workers or job-seekers.

  • a The following two documents are reprinted by courtesy of The Statesman in which they were first pub (...)

4Without going further and without contradicting the conclusions of S.K. Chaube, emphasizing that Calcutta is not more violent and tense than any other Indian city, we give here two precise and concrete illustrations of politicization of social tensions. The first shows how a demonstration against the increase in the tramway fare and bus fare degenerates into public violence because of the joint action of the youth wings of parties opposed to the present government whether from the right or from the left. The other example shows how urban gangs lay down their law on the unprotected population of a bustee, making the most of their political support, here again either from the right or from the left. The two examples given here are not exceptional reports. The activity of gangs is ever present, the Street battles are quite frequent and not a month passes without some makeshift bombs wounding or killing a few people. This is daily life... The big city creates particular type of violence and tensions which should be analyzed once again in terms of the Calcutta socio-economic realities, with due attention paid to the group ethos peculiar to the citya.

Document 1: A violent anti-CPI(M). agitation on the occasion of the rise in bus and tram fares

The Statesman 24 January 1981


By a Staff Reporter

Eight people were injured in a bomb explosion and an attempt was made to set fire to a tram on Bidhan Sarani in Calcutta on Wednesday, when a series of demonstrations were held and roads were blocked in different parts of the city in protest against the rise in bus and tram fares. In all, 28 people were arrested in connexion with the incidents till evening.

  • b The list of parties testifies for the importance of splits in Indian politics. The Congress Urs and (...)

Student and youth wings of four political parties —West Bengal Pradesh Congress (U), Communist Party of India, Congress (I) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)— took part in six agitations in south and central Calcuttab. Traffic in various parts of the city was severely disrupted. Mr. Mohammed Amin, Transport Minister, however told reporters at Writers Building during the day that passengers were not protesting against the rise in fares. He felt that the agitation would gradually die down once the common people understood the situation. The Minister pointed out that the sale proceeds of the Calcutta State Transport Corporation and the Calcutta Tramways had gone up which indicated that the people in general were not against the fare increase. According to him the sale proceeds of the CSTC was Rs. 4.27 lakh on Tuesday against Rs. 3.92 lakh the previous day. The tramways had sold tickets totalling Rs. 1.71 lakh on Tuesday against the average daily sale of Rs. 1.40 lakh.

Supporters of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress (U) organized demonstrations and set up roadblocks at two areas. One at the Crossing of Prince Anwar Shah Road and and Deshapran Sashmal Road and the other at the intersection of Taratolla Road and Diamond Harbour Road. Both the demonstrations lasted about two hours, disrupting traffic severely. The demonstrators dispersed when chased by the police. Twenty-six people, including Mr. Saugata Ray, Congress (U) leader, were arrested from Prince Anwar Shah Road and Deshapran Sashmal Road. They were produced in court and released on bail.

Three demonstrations were held and roadblocks put up for many hours in and around College Street in the afternoon. Members and supporters of the Democratic Studente' Coordination Committee staged a demonstration at the Crossing of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Bidhan Sarani at about 1.15 p.m. and blocked traffic there. Police chased them away and removed the blockades. They however denied the allegation that lathi-charge was made on the committee members.

Supporters of the Chhatra Parishad (I) organized a meeting at the Calcutta University gate. Later they squatted on Bidhan Sarani around 2.25 p.m. Police dispersed them and alleged that the supporters, while retreating along Surya Sen Street, hurled two crackers and bricks at them. In a Statement issued later in the evening, the West Bengal Chhatra Parishad (I) alleged "police atrocities".

Soon after the incident a group stopped a Shyambazar-bound tram in front of Medical College Hospital and tried to set fire to it. Tram services were stalled in the section for several hours.

Meanwhile some people tried to block traffic near the Crossing of Bidhan Sarani and Premchand Barai Street. With the arrival of the police they dispersed. A number of crackers were burst. Bomb sprinters injured eight people including two Press photographers. The injured were taken to the Medical College Hospital.

Later, police arrested two persons.

Supporters of the CPI squatted on the tram tracks outside the Rajabazar tram depot. They however withdrew their agitation at the request of the police, according to a police spokesman. Mr. Kamal Mazumder, Deputy Commissioner (Headquarters) of Calcutta Police, said that six police pickets had been set up at different bus and tram terminals. Mobile patrols had also been arranged to maintain peace. Traffic jams were most severe on B.B. Ganguly Street, Lenin Sarani, S.P. Mukherjee Road, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road and Prince Anwar Shah Road, he added.

The Transport Minister said that private buses did not ply in Howrah during the day. The district magistrate, he said, had been asked to arrange for tracks to help commuters. If the situation did not improve. Mr. Mazumder added he would meet representatives of private bus operators of Howrah on Thursday to discuss the issue.

Mr. Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, President of the West Bengal Pradesh Committee (U), in a Statement issued on Wednesday, appealed to the Sute Government to review the issue of fare rise. He said the State Government should not treat the matter as a prestige issue. It should convene a meeting of all the political parties in West Bengal to find a solution.



1. Stalin on the wall. Reformist in its Government practice, the CPI(M) has not however banned the reference to a harsh class struggle line. Beliaghat Road, East Calcutta. March 1983.

2. A CPI(M) wall painting denounces a pro-Congress bomb attack against a non-striking bus. A boy and a woman died in the incident. New C.I.T. Road, East Calcutta. March 1983.

3. A procession of striking workers, with red flags and banners goes by the Grand Hotel, Chowringhee, Central Calcutta. March 1983.

Document 2: The political patronage of gang warfare in a Calcutta Bustee

The Statesman 29 January, 1981


By a Staff Reporter

A violent atmosphere lingers around the slums of Kasba —the scene of protracted clashes between criminal gangs for years. Though clashes are primarily precipitated by disputes over spoils, inquiries show that gangs often seek and get the protection of political parties. This patronage sustains the gangs and their feuds.

The sprawling clusters of huts and shanties of Panchanantala, Gobardanga, Jagannath Ghosh Road, A. T. Chatterjee Road, Dhakuria, Kalupara and Benibag on both sides of the Sealdah-Budge and Sealdah-Canning railway lines house more than 10,000 people. Many of the huts are illegal encroachments on land owned by the Railway. The majority of the slumdwellers originally belong to the south 24 Parganas. Refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and some people of a neighbouring state also stay there.

The living conditions in these slums are conducive to the growth of criminal tendencies. The huts are small and dingy. Most of them are one-roomed. The lanes are narrow. Most of the huts have no electricity and the Street lighting arrangements are hardly adequate.

Police sources explain that the slums themselves have very little attraction for the criminals. The residents are poor. The men work mainly as vendors, hawkers and daily labourers. Most of the women are maid servants. Robbery and snatching inside the slums do not yield large sums. There are a number of dens where illicitly distilled liquor is consumed. But no such distillation is done in the slums. Drunken brawls in the evening are not uncommon. Police sources say that the alcoholic content of the illicitly distilled liquor is as high as 80%, while the percentage in ordinary liquor is usually not more than 40%. Consumption of such liquor, however, cannot by itself be a reason for sustained disturbances.

Though there are railway tracks in the area, wagon breaking is not a problem at the moment, though it was so more than five years ago, when the residents of the slums had organized resistance parties to control the menace. A resident of the Panchanantala Bustee said that they had formed such parties because the railway police used to make indiscriminate arrests in search of criminals.

The sources say that most of the criminals residing in the slums are snatchers, highway robbers and dacoits who operate elsewhere. They also smuggle rice. Forcible extortion of money is said to be a problem in the Dhakuria Bazar area. The criminals, once arrested, have to meet the court expenses. They go out on bail and commit fresh crime to meet the dues of lawyers. The sources alleged that some lawyers do "business on credit" with such elementi. They arrange for bail of criminals on condition that they would be paid later. While unemployment breeds crimes, it is said that the leader of a gang in the area is an expert mechanic and was once employed in a garage.

Members of a gang often fall out over the share of loot and the gang splits. Clashes between gangs over supremacy in an area are also common. A resident of 32, Panchanantala Bustee, recounts a clash between members of a gang over the spoils of a robbery near the stand of bus 17A in Dhakuria. The gang split, one group went to the Congress (I) camp for protection and the other approached the CPI (M). Most of the criminals belong to rival camps. It is said that one group has greater hold in the Panchanantala Bustee while the other holds sway in the slums of Jagannath Ghosh Road and Gobardanga. Damaging bustee huts and attacking the dwellers is usually the result of political vendetta. It is alleged that on the night of November 11 and 12, criminals owing allegiance to one camp broke tiles of huts belonging to a rival group and criminals belonging to the rival camp retaliated by damaging the others' dwellings and threatening the residents.

There have been cases of criminals being given shelter in party offices and the police being pressurized to release arrested persons. Calcutta police arrested a man allegedly with a chopper in hand during the disturbances on November 12, but had to release him on bail on the same day. The police have to think twice before searching the office of a political party. The police find it strange that a man, injured in police firing in the area on November 12, later told Mr. A.K. Mazumdar, the Commissioner of Presidency Division during the hearing on the Kasba Bring that a prominent leader of the area knew about his injury but did not ask him to report to the Commissioner. The police had to search him out and produce him before the Commissioner.

It is alleged that during the elections, the political parties utilize the criminals who had been given protection. Leaders of a gang wield considerable authority over residents of their stronghold and can intimidate people to vote for a particular party. It is easy to enlist names of false voters in the voters list in slum areas. Authority over criminals facilitates such enlistment.

A number of residents of the slums while deposing before the Commissioner of Presidency Division, alleged that some policemen were in league with the criminals. Some middle class residents of Banerjee Para also express similar views. They say that police pickets in the slum areas come into dose contact with the criminals and tum friendly towards them.

While it is true that police pickets are housed in huts and improvised bamboo structures inside slums and the men have to stay near criminals, officials argue that the pickets are changed frequently and there is little chance of "contamination".

Notes de fin

a The following two documents are reprinted by courtesy of The Statesman in which they were first published on 24 and 29 January 1981 (J.R.).

b The list of parties testifies for the importance of splits in Indian politics. The Congress Urs and the Congress Indira were opposing each other, the second one, with Indira Gandhi as its leader, being much more prominent than the other one. The CPI (M) in power has split from the old pro-Soviet CPI (favouring some agreement with the Congress I), before the pro-Chinese ultra leftists broke again and create the CPI (ML). From the Centre right to the ultra left, all parties of importance in Calcutta then choosed to agitate violently against the CPI (M).

Table des illustrations

Légende 1. Stalin on the wall. Reformist in its Government practice, the CPI(M) has not however banned the reference to a harsh class struggle line. Beliaghat Road, East Calcutta. March 1983.
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k
Légende 2. A CPI(M) wall painting denounces a pro-Congress bomb attack against a non-striking bus. A boy and a woman died in the incident. New C.I.T. Road, East Calcutta. March 1983.
Fichier image/jpeg, 112k
Légende 3. A procession of striking workers, with red flags and banners goes by the Grand Hotel, Chowringhee, Central Calcutta. March 1983.
Fichier image/jpeg, 223k


Born in 1946 in Northern France, carne in India for the first time in 1968. He spent most of the last fifteen years in India and stayed long in the South and in Calcutta, where he headed the French Cultural Centre from 1977 to 1982.

Since 1982, he is Fellow in Geography, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), based at the Centre for Studies in Tropical Geography, Bordeaux. Currently, he is with French Institute of Pondicherry.

A Ph.D from the Sorbonne University, he published his first book Tradition and Modernity in South India: Two Rural Studies in Tamil Nadu (in French) in 1976. He is presently carrying on a long-term research on "Territory, Civilization and Development in South India", focussed on a Tamil district, and heads an Indo-French research project entitled "To Migrate or to Stay? A Study in Rural Change, Mobility and Retention of Village Population in India. The case of South Karnataka".

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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