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History of Kolkata

Kolkata (Bangla: কলকাতা; formerly named ) is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is located in eastern India on the east bank of the River Hooghly. The city is a colonial city developed by the British East India Company and then the British Empire. The city was the capital of the British Indian empire till 1911 when the capital was relocated to Delhi. Kolkata witnessed a fast rise as the second city of the British Empire in the 1800s accompanied by the development of a culture that was a coalescence of European philosophy with Indian tradition. The city is also noted for its revolutionary history, ranging from Indian struggle for independence to the leftist Naxalite and trade union movements. Labelled the "Cultural Capital of India", "The City of Processions", "The City of Palaces", and the "City of Joy", Kolkata has also been home to luminaries such as Rabindranath Tagore, Subhash Chandra Bose, Mother Teresa and Satyajit Ray. Problems related to rapid urbanisation started to plague the city from 1930s and still the city is an example of an urban hotbed of the developing nations.

Name and origins

The rent-roll of Akbar, a sixteenth-century Mughal emperor, and the work of a Bengali poet, Bipradas Pipilai, of the late fifteenth century, both make mention of the city's early name being Kolikata, from which Kolkata/Calcutta are said to derive..

There is lot of discussion on how the city got its name. There are different views on the issue. The more popular one is that the city got its name from the Hindu goddess Kali and the original name was Kalikshetra, meaning the place of Kali. Other theories abound like:

  • The name derived from the location of the original settlement beside a khal (which means canal in Bengali)
  • According to another theory, the place was known for the manufacture of shell-lime.And the name derived from lime (kali) and burnt shell (kata).
  • Another opinion is that the name is derived from the Bengali term kilkila (meaning, "flat area"), which is mentioned in the old literature.

The area where the city is now located was originally inhabited by the people of three villages— Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindapur. However, the boundaries of the three villages gradually became less distinct, and before the battle of Plassey, the city could be divided into four different sub-areas – European Kolkata (Dihi Kolkata), a residential village with some sacred spots (Gobindapur), a traditional Indian market (Bazar Kalikata or Burrabazar) and a riverine mart concentrating on cloth trade (Sutanati). After the battle of Plassey in 1757, the British started rebuilding the city with the notions of making it the capital for their Empire.

The Calcutta High Court recently ruled (May 16, 2003) that Job Charnock, the Englishman generally believed to be the founder of the Calcutta is not the founder of the city and that hence Calcutta has no birthday. According to the Court, the city owes its genesis in the Maurya and Gupta period and it was an established trading post long before the Slave Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, the Portuguese, the French or the British established a modern township there. References to the existence of an ancient riverine port (named Kalikata) exist in the travel journals of Chinese scholars and Persian merchants dating from centuries BCE . The Hindu epic Mahabharata, lists the King of “Vanga”, as having fought alongside the Kauravas in the great war.

The English East India Company chose the place for a trade settlement. In 1698, the East India Company bought three villages (Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur) from a local landlord family of Sabarna Roy Choudhury. The next year, the company began developing the city as a Presidency City. In 1727, as per the order of King George I, a civil court was set up in the city. The Calcutta Municipal corporation (recently renamed as Kolkata Municipal Corporation) was formed and the city had its first mayor.

Journey from British rule to independence

The three villages, in particular Kalikata, where Calcutta is located, came into the possession of the British East India Company in 1690 and some scholars like to date its beginnings as a major city from the construction of Fort William by the British in 1698, though this is debated (see the court ruling in "Name and origins" above). From 1858 to 1912, Calcutta was the capital of British India. From 1912 to India's Independence in 1947, it was the capital of all of Bengal. After Independence, Calcutta remained the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal.

The fall of Calcutta to Siraj ud-Daula

When the Seven Years' War broke out, owing to their constant rivalry with the French, and the fall of Madras to the forces of Dupleix, early in 1756 the British authorities in Calcutta began repairs to the fortifications of old Fort William, which were extremely decayed. This irritated the new Nawab of Bengal, Siraj Ud Daulah, who viewed it as a threat to his sovereignty. Enraged still further when the British granted asylum to one Krishnaballav, who had embezzled money from the dewani of Dhaka, Siraj ud-Daula first attacked and captured Cossimbazar, and then Calcutta, which fell after a short siege on 20th June, 1756), during which the Governor and many other officials escaped down the Hooghly River, leaving the remainder of the garrison and the Eurasian population of Calcutta to their fate. This is now known as the Siege of Calcutta. It is said that 123 Britons later died in the Black Hole of Calcutta after his victory, but recent evidence calls into question the numbers involved, and suggests that the Nawab himself was probably unaware of what transpired. He renamed Calcutta Alinagar after the previous Nawab, and his maternal grandfather, Alivardi Khan. Having installed Manikchand as the ruler of Alinagar, Siraj returned to Murshidabad. Soon (on 2nd January 1757) Watson and Robert Clive retook Calcutta with a force of Company sepoys and the assistance of the Royal Navy. Hearing the news, Siraj ud-Daula moved to attack Calcutta, but fearing an attack from Ahmad Shah Abdali, after a few days of war he signed the Treaty of Alinagar with the East India Company, giving them permission to build the fort.

Alhough Siraj ud-Daula conceded temporary defeat in the Pact of Alinagar, he once again began scheming with the French against the British. Meanwhile, the Third Carnatic War was starting in the south. Also at this time, nobles such as Jagat Seth, Mir Jafar, Rai Durlav, Omichand and Rajballav were plotting against Siraj ud-Daula (a principal reason being the Nawab's arrogance, well attested to in contemporary sources ) and they invited Clive to take part in their plans. Clive seized on this plan to get rid of two enemies at once. Citing non-existent reasons, he attacked Murshidabad, having previously reached an agreement with Mir Jafar to install him on the musnud of Bengal. On the fateful day of 23 June 1757, 23 miles away from Murshidabad in the mango groves of Palashi, the armies met at the Battle of Plassey. The British army consisted of 800 European soldiers and 2,200 Indian soldiers, while the Nawab's army was made up of 18,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry. At the start of this seemingly impossible battle, generals Rai Durlav and Iar Latif held their armies together, but in an act of treachery Mir Jafar led his troops away from the battlefield, and the remaining army led by Mirmadan and Mohanlal was defeated. Siraj ud-Daula escaped but was later caught and killed by Miran, the son of Mir Jafar. Mir Jafar was made the new Nawab, and the British had effectively seized control of Bengal. In 1765, after defeating the next Nawab, Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Oudh and the Mughal Emperor at the Battle of Buxar, there was no one to stand in the way of the British and their dominance in North India. Thus, British imperialism began in India with the conquest of Bengal, a game in which a main pawn was the great city of Calcutta.

Calcutta also had an indirect but important influence on the battles of the Carnatic Wars. When Madras fell to Dupleix, the British were still able to direct the war from another of their strongholds, Calcutta. They also used the wealth of Bengal to defeat the French. As Dr. R. C. Majumdar stated in An Advanced History of India, "The Battle of Plassey may be truly said to have decided the fate of the French in India."

Capital of British India

Kolkata was named the capital of British India in 1772. A contemporary description refers to the splendid sloth and languid debauchery of European society, when great men rode about in State coaches, with a dozen servants running before and behind them to bawl out their titles. It was during this period that the marshes surrounding the city were drained and the government area was laid out along the banks of the Hooghly River. Richard Wellesley, the Governor General between 1797-1805, was largely responsible for the growth of the city and its public architecture which led to the description of Kolkata as 'the City of Palaces'. Miss Emily Eden (the sister of the Governor General, who gave her name to Eden Gardens), in 1836 wrote of Calcutta: "Depend upon it, Calcutta is the finest place in the world. I know there are towns with far larger and grander buildings; but then they are not half so clean, and new, and beautiful, as this bride-like city. I have been standing on the roof of the house the last half-hour for air, and, as it was midnight, had an opportunity of seeing all the gay company - returning from an entertainment at the government-house; and I assure you I never witnessed any thing that could compare with the splendour exhibited." By the early 19th century, Kolkata was split into two distinct areas — one British, one Indian, known as 'Black Town'. Even at the time, the poverty of the 'Black Town' shanties was considered shocking. The city underwent rapid industrial growth from the 1850s, especially in the textile and jute sectors; this caused a massive investment in infrastructure projects like rail roads and telegraph by British government.

18th century Scandals

One of the most notorious incidents of the latter part of the century was the trial and execution of “Nuncomar” or, more correctly, Nanda Kumar (d. 1775), who had been the governor of Hughli in 1756. in 1764 he had been appointed collector of Burdwan in place of Warren Hastings, which resulted in a long-standing enmity between the two men. In 1775, when Hastings was Governor-General, Nanda Kumar brought accusations of corruption against him, accusing him of accepting bribes and other abuses of power. These were taken up with enthusiasm by Hastings’ rivals on the Governor General’s Council, led by Philip Francis. Whilst this matter was still awaiting investigation Nanda Kumar was indicted for forgery of a deed, condemned and executed. There was a strong suspicion that the charges had been invented by Hastings, and that he had put pressure on the judges to pass sentence of death. At this date it was far from clear whether or not English law applied in Calcutta, and it was extremely rare for the death penalty to be applied for forgery even in England. Furthermore, Nanda Kumar was a Brahmin, and his hanging caused widespread dismay and outrage in Calcutta . Warren Hastings and Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice, were both impeached, and were accused by Edmund Burke and afterwards by Thomas Babington Macaulay of committing a judicial murder .

Five years after this incident, in 1780, relations between Warren Hastings and Philip Francis deteriorated to such an extent that the two fought a duel in the grounds of Belvedere (now the National Library) on the road to the suburb of Alipore. Francis was severely wounded, but Hastings escaped unscathed .

Opium trade

After territorial conquest of Bengal in 1757, the British East India Company pursued a monopoly on production and export of opium in India. The company bought opium from local traders and later directly from farmers, and sold it at auction in Calcutta. From there much of it was smuggled to Canton in China, eventually leading to the Opium Wars.

Social and intellectual life in the 18th century

In 1772, Calcutta became the capital of British India, a decision made by Governor General Warren Hastings. In 1779, Hickey's Bengal Gazette or the Calcutta General Advertiser became the first newspaper to be printed in India, and is an invaluable chronicle of the social life of Anglo-Indian society in Calcutta. Contemporary memoirs such as those of William Hickey record the consumption of enormous meals, washed down by copious quantities of claret, port, madeira and other wines, followed by the smoking of Hookahs . After the death of his English wife, Charlotte, (who is buried in Park Street Cemetery) Hickey married a Bengali girl called Jemdanee, who died in childbirth in 1796, prompting him to write in his journal that "Thus did I lose as gentle and affectionately attached a girl as ever man was blessed with" . Such unions between Europeans, English, French and Portuguese, and local women, both Hindu and Muslim, were common throughout the 18th century in Calcutta, and are the origin of the city's substantial Anglo-Indian (or Eurasian) community today: by the early 19th century, however, increasing racial intolerance made marriages of this kind much rarer.

Calcutta's intellectual life received a great boost in 1784 with the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Sir William Jones, with the encouragement of Warren Hastings, himself no mean Oriental scholar. Jones worked closely with the pandits of the Kalighat Temple, together with the local ulema, in translating and producing new editions of rare and forgotten texts. His study of Sanskrit with Pandit Ramlochan at Nadiya led him to posit the existence of the Indo-European family of languages. Many distinguished scholars, English and Bengali,such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, James Prinsep and Pandit Radhakanta Sarman would grace the Society's meetings and publications over the following century, vastly enriching knowledge of India's culture and past .

The Baboo/Babu Culture and the Bengal Renaissance

During the bygone days of the British, as the capital of undivided India Calcutta was regarded as the second city of the British Empire (after London) and was aptly renamed "City of Palaces" and the Great Eastern Hotel was regarded as the "Jewel of the East". During that bygone era, Calcutta was famous for its "Baboo Culture" --- incidentally a cross-fertilization of English Liberalism, European fin de siecle decadence, Mughal conservatism and indigenous revivalism inculcating aspects of socio-moral and political change. This culture was fostered in its wake by the Zamindari system, the Daebhaga System the Hindu Joint Family System, the Mitakshara System, the Muslim Zenana System, the Protestant spirit of free capitalist enterprise, the Mughal-inspired feudal system and the Nautch. This also fostered the Bengal Renaissance, an awakening of modern liberal thinking in 19th century Bengal, and which gradually percolated to the rest of India. Like the Italian Renaissance, it challenged orthodox social convention to usher in an era of humanistic idealism.

Growth

The centre of Company control over the whole of Bengal from 1757, Calcutta underwent rapid industrial growth from the 1850s, especially in the textile sector, despite the poverty of the surrounding region. Trade with other nations also grew. For example, the first U.S. merchant ship arrived in Kolkata in 1787. In fact, the U.S Consulate in Calcutta is the U.S. Department of State’s second oldest Consulate and dates from November 19 1792.

Despite being almost totally destroyed by a cyclone, in which 60,000 died, on 5 October 1864, Calcutta grew, mostly in an unplanned way, in the next 150 years from 117,000 to 1,098,000 inhabitants (including suburbs), and now has a metropolitan population of approximately 13.2 million.

Contribution to the independence movement of India

Historically, Calcutta was the centre of activity in the early stages of the national movement of independence. Exactly a hundred years after the fall of Bengal in the Battle of Plassey, Calcutta saw the beginning of what is often called the First Independence Movement of India. It should be noted here that it is also just as often not referred to as a War Of Independence, and as one historian put it, "The so called First National War of Independence was neither First, nor National, nor a War of Independence". In the suburbs of Calcutta, at the Barrackpore military barracks, sepoy Mangal Pandey sparked off a huge revolt that shook the foundations of the British Empire. This movement is sometimes also called the Indian Mutiny, although recent evidence goes against using this name and suggests the Revolt of 1857 as better and less controversial choice.

In 1883, Surendranath Banerjea organised a national conference — the first of its kind in nineteenth century India. This conference heralded the birth of The Indian National Congress. The first native president of the Indian National Congress Sir Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee and the first Congress president to advocate self rule by Indians, Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea (referred to by the British as "Surrender Not") were early eminent Calcuttans, who provoked and influenced nationalist thinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Other societies based on nationalist or religious thoughts were started, like the Hindu Mela.Revolutionary organisations like the Jugantar and the Anushilan Samiti were formed with a goal to use force against the British rulers. Among early nationalist leaders, the most prominent were Sri Aurobindo, Indira devi Chaudhurani, Bipin Chandra Pal. The early nationalists were inspired by Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of the Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna and helped by Sister Nivedita, disciple of the former. The rousing cry that awakened India's soul was penned by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, now the national song of the nation, an ode to the land of Bharat (India) as the Divine Mother, Vande Mataram.

The Elgin Road residence of Subhash Chandra Bose in Calcutta was the place from where he escaped the British to reach Germany during the Second World War. He was the co-founder of the Indian National Army and the Head of State of the Arzi Hukumate Azad Hind, formed to counter and combat the British Raj in India and was renamed Netaji by poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore. He is regarded by many as perhaps the most prominent and influential freedom fighter in Indian history and is venerated in many Bengali households even today.

Muslims were also involved in the nationalist movement, most notably Fazl Huq who from Calcutta in the 1930s attempted to organise a non-communal peasant party to agitiate against the British and the wealthy Indian landowning class. The fact that many of the Hindus in this latter group were linked to the local Congress organisation and dominated the mainstream nationalist movement in Bengal from Calcutta led to attempts to thwart Huq's activities and fed into the tragic decline in communal relations that savaged Calcutta in 1946 and 1947 (see Kenneth McPherson, "The Muslim Microcosm: the Muslims of Calcutta 1918-1935", Steiner, Wiesbaden, 1973).

After the Independence

The partition of India also created intense violence and a shift in demographics - large numbers of Muslims left for East Pakistan, while hundreds of thousands of Hindus would flee into the city. Kolkata had received millions of refugees from what became East Pakistan without receiving substantial assistance from the central government.

Over the 1960s and 1970s, severe power shortages, strikes and a violent Marxist-Maoist movement — the Naxalites — damaged much of the city's infrastructure, leading to an economic stagnation. In 1971, war between India and Pakistan led to the mass influx of thousands of refugees from what became Bangladesh into Kolkata resulting in a massive strain on its infrastructure.

In the mid-1980s, Mumbai overtook Kolkata as India's most populous city. Kolkata has been a strong base of Indian communism as West Bengal has been ruled by the CPI(M) dominated Left Front for nearly three decades — the world's longest-running democratically-elected Communist government.

Kolkata became plagued by power outages, labor unrest, disappearing industry, and violence from the Naxalite movement. In 1985 Rajiv Gandhi referred to Kolkata as a "dying city" because of the social and political traumas.

The city's economic recovery gathered momentum after economic reforms in India introduced by the central government in the mid-1990s. Since 2000, Information Technology (IT) services revitalized the city's stagnant economy. The city has also experienced a growth in the manufacturing sector. Following similar moves elsewhere in the country, the state government changed the city’s official name from Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001; this act was seen largely as a political ploy.

Notes

References

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