ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment Crime and Urbanisation: Calcutta in the 19th Century by Sumanta Banerjee; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxiv+150, Rs 295.


Crime and Punishment

Crime and Urbanisation: Calcutta in the 19th Century

by Sumanta Banerjee; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006; pp xxiv+150, Rs 295.


umanta Banerjee is a competent analyst of contemporary socio-political events. He wields a facile pen, and his lucid narration, often laced with sarcasm, offers good reading experience. The sarcasm is stimulating at times but alerts a serious reader about the line the analysis would take. Sumanta is nothing but candid. He is bold and frank about his affiliations. The chaff thus that sometimes appears however does not reduce the value of the grain that is numerous and of high quality.

I was attracted to read his latest monograph, partly of course by the author’s name, but more by the book’s title. All the three elements it contains have relevance to my own professional and academic experiences. Hence the blurb on the book’s jacket did not detract me; I took it as the publisher’s attempt to highlight the salient features of the book. Instead I went straight to the 16 pages of the ‘Introduction’. Now I know better. The blurb is an excellent summing-up of what is really interesting. The presentation of selected material events in the six chapters has been arranged with skilful organisation. The analytical parts however do bear evidence of some deliberate oversights and avoidable omissions.

In Sumanta Banerjee’s own words, (p xvi) the central objective of the book is, “To examine criminal acts and penal measures in colonial Calcutta as innovative responses within a symbiotic relationship in a new socio-economic environment”. This much is comprehensible. For this reviewer, the “take-off” point and the “focus” created problems. Banerjee is free to use Marx’s maxim of the innovative creativity of the criminal as his springboard. But should not he have explained how he reconciled the different ways of Durkheim and Marx in enunciating the “functionality” of crime? We do understand – Durkheim and Merton are indispensable in any study of this nature. But they cannot supersede Marx, even when the “jottings” were only part of a thought process towards something else.

Towards the beginning of his ‘Introduction’, Banerjee proposes to “cope first with fundamental questions that challenge given concepts of ‘crime’ and criminals”. In the questions he frames he also hints at the varying concepts of crime in the context of changes in the historical and societal environment. Perhaps he means criminal acts or acts of crime. But for the reader’s benefit, he could have clearly retained the fine conceptual distinction between the two. For in the newly developing urban environment of Calcutta with its new attractions and opportunities, it is the methods, techniques and targets of criminals that changed. Not the basic nature of crime. All the incidents of crime that Banerjee has compiled were also crimes under the Muslim Law and even under the Manusmriti. The local and migrant residents of Satgaon Sarkar, the Mughal administrative division within which the three leased villages to the English belonged, were aware of and had known all these crimes long before the English arrived.

Law-making in the 18th Century

Omission of any mention of the concepts, practices and procedures on crime and criminals in pre-British, British and post-Plassey Calcutta deprives the study of valuable inputs. The Muslim criminal law and procedure continued practically unaltered till the 1780s but for some occasional contrived tinkering with the English law, as was engineered for personal vindictiveness of Hastings and Impey, in sentencing Maharaja Nand Kumar in the 1770s (and on few other insignificant occasions). Any additions and modifications to existing laws were initiated in 1782 by the first British-Indian law-making body, the governor-general in council, presided over by the poacher turned gamekeeper, Warren Hastings. The Indian Penal Code of 1860 was still a far cry.

Banerjee however practically avoids any examination of the legal and administrative changes during the 80 years from 1782 to 1860. He does take notice of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as an “excellent illustration of the workings of European colonialism” and as the culmination of innovations and experimentations with “methods of sophisticated but cruel punishment” during the preceding years, in response to the creative functionality of the heroes of the underworld. This is how he practically sums up the legal changes of 80 years. He comes back to the IPC in course of his subsequent narrative and also in his concluding pages. The references are disdainful and can be contradicted in any debate. But as a reviewer, I am more concerned with Banerjee’s deliberate oversight of the contents of the IPC. The loss is Banerjee’s and his proposed scientific analysis. The readers can compensate with the chronicles so laboriously collected and competently narrated as promised in the blurb.

I can neither attempt an alternative monograph nor can I suppress a wistful thought as to how much Banerjee’s study would have been enriched by some perceptive examination of the events of 1757 to 1782, and the changes in the administration initiated in 1782 in consequence. The so-called “heroes” of the Calcutta underworld little displayed any innovative or creative functionality here. It was Robert Clive, his minions and their greedy followers thereafter who wielded power without responsibility during the deliberately induced administrative vacuum and chaos from 1757 onwards. They ran a rapacious regime that saw a plunder of the province for remitting the maximum surplus profits to London during 1761 to 1771 following which one-third of the people of the province perished in course of the great Bengal famine. And the men representing this rapacious regime were challenged by “social rebels” from amongst the same fleeced and famished peasantry who made the remittances from the interiors to Calcutta extremely difficult.

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath and Devi Chaudhurani were based on the core historical phenomenon of “social banditry” by rebel peasants roaming the countryside with fakirs and sanyasis at their vanguard. The plunderers wielding power in Calcutta were challenged by counter-plunderers in rural Bengal. How insecure the roadways and waterways had become, has been aptly cited by Banerjee from the despatch of the Midnapore official he cites. The East India Company was compelled by this situation to assume responsibility to restrain its officials and to change the methods of exploitation under the veneer of a moral and legal system initiated in 1782. Hopefully, Banerjee would agree with me that both Marx and Durkheim in their different ways would have been happy to cite the above developments as a bright illustration of “functionality” of crime. To be fair to Banerjee, I admit that he does cite extensively the events but appears to have missed the analysis.

It seems that Banerjee was more interested in establishing some generic links of Calcutta’s subsequent patterns of criminal acts with Anthony Weltden of 1710 who was governor (not of Bengal, as Banerjee puts it) of the East India Company’s establishments in the three-leased villages of lower Bengal. The impressions Banerjee attempts to give are historically invalid and the significance he attaches to pre-Plassey Calcutta is not tenable. Weltden and Govindram were no doubt the typical Company officials of 18th century Calcutta. The Weltdens, afraid of the inhospitable environs and fearful of their vulnerability to tropical diseases wanted to “grab” whatever possible within the shortest possible time and return home quickly as a wealthy household. For his part, Govindram Dutta was the crafty, unscrupulous Bengali adept in utilising the gullibility of the greedy English officials like Weltden. The administrative changes from 1782 eliminated the Weltdens in the 19th century and reduced opportunities for the likes of Govindram. The reason is simple: a king, ruler or corporate chief even the most unscrupulous ones would tolerate dishonest subordinates only if the latter provides advantages of cost. This phenomenon occurred and recurred in history before and after Weltden.

The fact is any interpretation in the light of the social sciences has to be based on history and geography as well. The pattern of urbanisation in the Ganga valley and delta was particularly dependent on geography and so were commerce, wealth generation and crime. Calcutta in the 18th century was growing as a successor to the highly silted Satgaon and the adjacent Hooghli; it indeed grew at a faster pace after Plassey. It had a native population of weavers and textile merchants in Sutanuti and the initial migrants were job and favour seekers, native and multinational merchants from Satgaon-Hooghli and the moneylender community – the suvarna-baniks. The paintings, sketches and writings of the Dutch visitor, F B Solwyns who was in Calcutta from the last decade of the 18th century bear testimony to this. The lifestyle of the wealthy, after the pattern set by Murshidabad and the other preceding urban centres demanded also the upkeep of a large household and domestic retinues to service their every need. The opportunists who rose from rags to riches, also added to the demands of menials, and thus the impact on urban influx is obvious.

But Calcutta did not come up in a desolate wilderness. Towards the north, the banks of the Hooghli on either side had fairly old urban and semi-urban settlements. Towards the south, was the distributary known as the Adi-Ganga, which was also known to the British as “Tolly’s nullah” after attempted excavations of silt by the engineer of that name. Forests in these parts provided a habitat to wild animals and also served as a hideout for criminals. But these were mostly away from the riverbanks that housed old farming communities with their craftsmen and priests. As the history of Indian urbanisation bears out, large-scale Indian settlements have developed along river courses; these settlements developed up and down a river course and were nowhere more than a mile or two in width depth but often stretched 10 to 13 miles in length as was 19th century Calcutta or even ancient Pataliputra 2,200 years earlier. What then would be the distance of the ‘baithak-khana’ (present Sealdah station), the jungle hideout of the dacoits from the banks of the Hooghli river, the venue of shipping and commerce?

Banerjee’s description of eviction of the poor from the Maidan and Chowringhee and their destitution is not well brought out. The present Fort William and the Maidan came up in 1780. A rich Bengali had his palace and the gardens at the site of this fort and sold the same following the sack of Calcutta in 1756 by Siraj-ud-daulah. He was the ancestor of the illustrious Tagore clan of Jorasanko. By 1790, as one can see from contemporary paintings the city had extended towards Budge-Budge along the riverbanks in the southwest from Bagh Bazar in the north but not beyond 10 miles in the east.

In about 1787, a native philanthropist got a census done of the city’s destitute and found them to be less than 500. He submitted a scheme to the governor-general for their rehabilitation (S N Sen’s article in the monthly Bharatvarsha, reprinted in Collected Articles of Bharatvarsha, published by Gurudas Chattopadhyay, Calcutta, June 1999, p 435). This Bengali zamindar, Jainarayan Ghoshal of Khidirpur (the English name of Kidderpore was after an Englishman’s name) and his father Krishna Chandra, visualised a scheme for their rehabilitation, something that Mother Teresa put into practice two centuries later. Ghosal’s census of the destitute goes against Banerjee’s description of the influx of impoverished people to Calcutta. He is however correct that weavers lost their vocation due to the company’s unfair trade practices and swelled the ranks of the have-nots. But the influx of famine-struck destitute in and shortly after 1770 as Banerjee mentions is not acceptable.

Growth of a City

Banerjee could have given us some information about the rate of growth and size of Calcutta’s population at a few turning points during 120 years from 1757 to 1876. He correctly cites the first-ever census figure of 1876 as 5.76 lakhs. This growth from a few thousands in 1757 and the city areas as seen in the only map provided in the book, would not convince the alert reader of the authenticity of Banerjee’s description of the topography of the Calcutta underground in chapter 3. The map also does not contain any mention of its authority, source and year of relevance.

I also have some reservations on some of the contents of “structuralisation of crime” in chapter 4. Banerjee’s deep sympathies for the underdog is appreciated but he could have balanced his comments in the light of the administration’s concern about sanitation and public tranquillity in a growing city. The police officials he has quoted in connection with restrictions on prostitutes gave a factual description of the state of affairs along with administrative reasons. Would any forwardlooking national administration have done otherwise? About the practice of ‘charak’, I would just observe that what

Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

the government did was entirely in line with the prohibition of ‘suttee’ several decades earlier. The sketches and writeups by several European visitors in the early decades of the 19th century bear enough testimony of the sheer obscenity to which charak descended at times and these justify the restrictive measures.

Finally, I must go back to the Indian Penal Code that was drafted by British jurists inspired by liberal European thought, not colonial motives, flowing from the French revolution. It was modelled after Code Napoleon and Livingstone’s Louisiana Code and was far more advanced than what obtained in England itself. The drafting commission studied Hindu and Muslim criminal laws and practices and introduced a system of classification of offences with graded penalty for graver manifestations of the same offence; each of these was again precisely defined with clear phrasing such as “criminal knowledge”, “knowingly” or “with intent”. The four gradations of “wrongful gain”, “wrongful loss”, “dishonesty, and “fraudulently” defining the categories of offences can hardly be surpassed in their clarity.

Banerjee’s account of “criminalisation” of the poor people for their innocent or “habitual” defecation in public, passing obscene utterances in public, etc, would evoke derision after one checks the maximum penalty prescribed. It would not be necessary for anyone to bother to know if these offences in the nature of a public nuisance are “cognisable” or otherwise and even the fact that “maximum” implies a “ceiling”, i e, the magistrates usually sentence “imprisonment” till the court next met in case the criminal found it unable or avoided paying the token fine on the spot to the mobile court.

Banerjee’s outrage at the aforesaid “cruelties” is not surprising. But this is an old game to confuse the real target. How about that old episode of “Govindalal and Rohini” in the novel, Krishnakanta’s Will by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee? Chatterjee wrote this novel barely 20 years after the passing of the Indian Penal Code. It is the story of the zamindar Govindalal who seduced a young widow Rohini, and finally murdered her. Madhabinath, his wealthier father-in-law with the help of a greedy lawyer, cunningly manipulated the defence, purchased and fixed the witnesses and secured Govindalal’s acquittal. Are these incidents not being repeated even 60 years after the departure of the colonial masters and more than 125 years after Krishnakanta’s Will was written? There is, were sincere but aborted. These are but a I would argue, nothing wrong with the law, few contradictions in a book that for its but with those implementing them. The narrative grace and interesting anecdotes attempts of the colonial lists that included offers real reading pleasure. many Indian lawmakers, to establish equality of law through the IPC in India Email:


Economic and Political Weekly December 16, 2006

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top