Sunday 10 March 2013

When a High Court changed the course of a City's history

Rarely if ever has the judiciary has been called upon to adjudicate a dispute over the founding of a City. And it is equally rare for the judiciary to  give a direction in this regard and more importantly direct the State Government and the school authorities to erase the name of a man who was credited with having built the city.
Not only this, the court also directed the State Government and the education authorities to erase the name of the man as the founder of the City. In effect, the court had ordered rewriting of history.
The City was Calcutta, its founder was Jobe Charnock and it was the Calcutta High Court which gave the landmark judgment.
It was January 31, 2003 and it will go down in the history of Kolkata today as a red letter day. The court opened a secret document which had been submitted to it by experts who had gone into the issue of  founding of Calcutta City which is generally credited to Jobe Charnock in 1690.  
The High Court had been hearing what is now popularly known as Calcutta Birthday case. It had appointed a five member team of historians as part of the expert committee to go into the issue and submit a report.
The committee submitted its report to the High Court on November 11, 2002 and it was read in public by a Division Bench comprising the Chief Justice, A.K Mathur, and Justice Jayanta Kumar Biswas.
The nine page report concluded that Charnock was not the founder of Caclutta and that the City existed before him. It said, in the “final analysis, neither Job Charnock can be regarded as the founder of Calcutta nor the claim that Calcutta was born on 24th August, 1690.
Calcutta does not have a birthday. Its origin is a part of a general process of rural settlement, clusters of which agglomerated in the last decade of the 17th Century, into the English Company's trading factory. This grew into the town in the 18th Century. No one year marks its date of birth”.
The historical judgment dismissed the myth about birthday of Calcutta and Charnock as its founder. The Bench also ordered deletion of the name of Charnock as Calcutta’s founder from text books. The then West Bengal Government informed the Court that they would no longer follow the baseless history of Charnock and that they would  change all documents and texts where the same had been included.
What the judgment means is that Charnock will be regarded as a mere servant of the East India Company who had come to India for trading. The Court agreed with the committee view that a highly civilized society and an important trading centre had existed on the site of Calcutta long before the first European settlers came down the Hooghly. They also found the place then called Kalikatah was an important religious centre due to the existence of the Kali temple in the adjacent village of  Kalighat, which today is a part of the city.
The first literary reference to the site is found in Bipradas Pipilai’s magnum opus Manasa Mangala which was written in 1495. Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari in 1596 also mentions the place. Another hole in the Charnock theory is that the Sabarna Roy Choudary family was granted the Jagirdari of Kalikatah by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1608.
The report by the experts stated that Charnock's name was just the first of those, including Eyre, Goldsborough, Lakshmikanta Majumdar, the Sett Bysack families and Sabarna Choudhuries, that could be credited for developing the city.
The court held that Charnock ought not to be regarded as the founder of Calcutta. It directed the State Government to purge his name from all text books and official documents containing the history of the founding story of the city.
The judges said that no one person could be said to be its founder.
History books recorded Charnock's landing and his purchase of three villages - Kalikata, Sutanuti and Govindpur - from landlord Sabarna Ray Choudhury, thus giving birth to Calcutta.
Nine people, including descendants of  Sabarna Choudhury, filed a petition in the High Court challenging Charnock's status as the founder of Calcutta and the day of his landing as the city's founding date.
The court then set up an expert committee under noted historian Nemai Sadhan Bose to look into the issue

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