Had the Centre been closer to the margin, could we have avoided alienating the Northeast? Ruchir Joshi traces the history of India’s twice-spurned capital, Calcutta (now Kolkata)
THE MASSIVE epidemic in 1932, and then the increasing unrest in Punjab forced the British to shift their capital back to Calcutta in 1934. The city still had its old armature and soon became used to being the capital again. In December 1941, the Japanese landed in Malaya and reached the gates of Singapore. In Calcutta, serious preparations were made to move the administration to Lucknow, but eventually this proved unnecessary. Singapore refused to fall and the siege consumed a lot of the Japanese resources. Their army’s northward thrust did manage to capture Rangoon but they couldn’t cross the Irrawaddy, where a tattered British Indian force dug in for three years.
As Partition approached, Calcutta was at first deemed too close to the border. Manoeuvring by Patel ensured that three Muslim-majority districts, Shatkhira, Khulna and Jessore, remained with India, providing a buffer for the capital. In the months before Partition, a ‘quarantine ring’ was thrown around Calcutta and the refugees from East Bengal ‘channelled’ to Burdwan, Dur gapur and Murshidabad. The resentment of the original residents of these towns pales in comparison to the fury Delhiwallas still keep stoked at the preferential treatment given to that “malaria-colony on the Hooghly”. As Calcutta survived, Delhi fell into the deepest, long-term misery. ‘New Delhi’ went from being a pestilential ghost town to being inundated by refugees. Cartier-Bresson’s images of destitute masses camping in the shells of the gracious bungalows built by Lutyens are some striking photographs of the period, and the Pathe footage of the Hindu-Muslim riots that destroyed half of Connaught Place is familiar to everybody.
Jinnah extracted revenge for the three eastern districts when the Pakistanis captured Srinagar and took control of Kashmir. The border we now have at Jammu, Himachal and Leh was not the elegant crown projected by Indian leaders. As Nehru began to rule India from Warren Hastings’ old residence, the newer buildings designed by the British in Delhi took on surreal roles: Parliament House became an impromptu market and mandi for the tent-city around India Gate, while the Viceregal Palace, with its grand North and South Blocks, was improvised into the largest hospital in north India.
In Calcutta, a new capital came up in 1955 on reclaimed marshland east of the old city. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the great German architect, the sleek modern buildings were the pride and joy of the new nation for a short while. Within two years, Calcutta’s monsoons began to have their way with the steel and glass. By 1960, the cracking concrete towers tilting into the soft soil became a symbol of a struggling nation that had over-reached itself.
When Nehru’s health forced him to retire in 1961, leading him to move to Dehradun with his daughter Indira, many suggested he went earlier than necessary because his northerner’s soul wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and “that enervating Bengali fishmarket”. After the great man’s death in 1963, there was some talk of Indira re-joining politics but she chose instead to move to England, where she lives privately in Wiltshire, now ailing somewhat at the age of 94.
LAL BAHADUR Shastri took over from Nehru and he lacked nothing in terms of energy and a stomach for a fight. His first major challenge came in 1962. The effective repulsion of the Chinese attack was possible because Shastri, heeding the field commanders rather than the brass at Fort William, managed to put three whole Corps into (what was then called) NEFA, thus dissuading the Chinese from launching their main assault in Arunachal. Documents now reveal Shastri’s insistence that the Chinese never be allowed to threaten the capital. Areas were lost in Leh but, overall, India avoided a military disaster. Shastri’s next triumph was the quick integration of the Northeast into the Indian mainstream. The proximity of the country’s capital to the north-eastern states helped; one can only imagine what would have brewed had the Centre been in some far off place such as Delhi. With the Chinese rebuffed and the Northeast energetically connected, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head in East Pakistan.
The Great Bangla Revolt of 1967 led to the splitting up of Pakistan and the ‘recapture’ of East Bengal after 20 years. It was Shastri’s sagacity that stopped the jingoistic Bongo Mohashobha’s plans of annexing the province into India. Retaining three wide corridors connecting with the Northeast, Shastri supported the formation of Bangladesh, (or, as the wits would have it, ‘Zebrengal’, referring to the stripes of the east-west corridors). The price for Shastri’s eastern bias — Nehru had kept looking longingly north — was that China and Pakistan had a free hand in Balkanising Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Internally, the development that naturally accrued around the capital meant that by the late ’50s communism was a spent force in Bengal, its chief nursery. While the Leftists made minor gains in the south and in Bombay, the Jan Sangh/Bongo Mohashobha stayed alive around the ‘secular stronghold’ of Congress’ Bengal. This extra-virulent strand of Bengali-Marwari-Bhaiya Hindutva (or ‘Hindutto’ as its Bangla leaders pronounced it) strengthened once Shastri died in ’73, and briefly threatened to take power in the late ’70s.
Prime Minister Ray’s alliance with Ronald Reagan, and the opening up of the economy to the West in 1982 cut the ground from under the saffron brigade. After the stagnation of the ’70s, the Calcutta-Jamshedpur- Patna-Bhubaneswar quadrant began to catch up with Bombay economically, thanks to Ray ensuring that foreign investment came East first. By the time the first Wal-Mart opened on Rashbehari Avenue in 1987, the Congress was already being challenged by the Bhartiya Republican Alliance (BRA). A newly-formed party that could be recognised as a conventional conservative force, BRA began to challenge the old eastern hegemony from its base on the far side of the country in Bombay, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Led by the two strongmen of Maharashtra, Pawar and Antulay, with the utterly ruthless young Gujarati Modi being the No 3, BRA’s aim was to dismantle the old-style Congress secularism and the backward-looking Hindutto of the Jan Sanghis and replace both with their semi-fascist ‘pro-business’ party. One of their first demands was the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to the town they insisted on calling by its old name, ‘Pune’.
Joshi is the Kolkata-based author of Poriborton: An Election Diary.