The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Calcutta must be the only city whose past requires the sanction of its high court. Historical controversies are not for the judiciary to resolve

India must be the only country where the judiciary is asked to decide on questions of history, and Calcutta the only city whose past needs the sanction of its high court. The sociological background of this phenomenon needs to be considered, since it points to a certain fragility of civil society as well as a waste of valuable time on the part of the judiciary. The case regarding the birthday and founding of Calcutta came out of a public interest litigation filed by one of the oldest families of Calcutta. The high court appointed a committee of historians to look into the matter and on the basis of the committee’s recommendations, gave its verdict on Calcutta’s past. The committee’s recommendations merely restated the obvious and what is well known to most students of history. If Calcutta grew out of the three villages of Govindapur, Sutanuti and Kolkata, it follows that there were settlements here and people lived and thrived here. What is well known is that certain trading families and communities traded from here: the very name Sutanuti suggests that. There is good reason to assume that Job Charnok, when he was driven out of Hughli, came to Sutanuti because it was a mart. What the committee did not underline — possibly because it was not within its brief — is the process through which the three villages grew to be a city in the 18th century. This was largely the work of the English, especially the growth in the areas which were previously Kolkata and Govindapur.

Knowledge about history cannot spread through either state or judicial fiat. It has to percolate from the researches of historians and enter popular consciousness. In the case of Calcutta, the state government has decided the proper name of the city and a group of historians, appointed by the court, has pronounced on the city’s obscure past. What should have been the business of historians, to be debated and discussed in seminars and learned journals, has been brought into the ambit of the judiciary. This only burdens an already overburdened judiciary and clogs the wheels of justice.

It is time perhaps that the judiciary should, for its own smooth functioning, have a look at the system of PILs which deflects it from what should be its principal concern. The chief function of the judiciary is the implementation of the law of the land and the meting out of punishment to those who violate those laws. The judiciary should not involve itself in matters relating to historical and technical controversies which are best left to experts and specialists. It can be nobody’s argument that considering Job Charnok the founder of Calcutta is illegal. It can be a distortion of history but more serious distortions abound in government-sponsored textbooks. By allowing the judiciary to appropriate the space that belongs to civic-social institutions, the courts are becoming surrogates for the failures of civil society and the executive. This is disturbing the equilibrium between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, which is so necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

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