|In Chupke Chupke, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1975 comedy, botany professor Dharmendra, during an excursion in the hills, disguises himself as the bumbling chowkidar of the guest-house to cover for the real watchman who has gone to visit his ailing grandson. Sharmila Tagore, a student at the excursion, sees through his act and is charmed by the chowkidar-prof.
Calcutta, June 24: The bumbling chowkidar, long retired from service barring bit roles in Bollywood that perpetuate his cliché-ridden persona, is eyeing a comeback in Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal as a smarter and more responsible employee.
The chief minister has just cleared a proposal to appoint one chowkidar each for the 3,341 panchayats in the state, promising to vest them with more responsibility and dignity than any previous employer — in real or reel life — had.
It isn’t clear whether the chowkidars would still be required to shout “jaagte raho (stay awake)” through the night as depicted in films and popular literature, but the chief minister seems determined to make them an integral part of the law and order machinery.
“The basic job of the new-age chowkidars will be to gather intelligence and report any crime in their areas of operation. Gathering intelligence will be their prime duty,” a senior home department official said.
Mamata is apparently keen to implement the proposal as soon as possible. “At a recent dinner with IPS officers, she said that our state’s performance in gathering intelligence at the grassroots-level was not up to scratch. That’s where the proposed Village Level Volunteer Force comes in,” the official said.
Apart from being the eyes and ears of the police, the chowkidars will be entrusted with the task of maintaining a register of births and deaths. They will also be required to report any suspicious social or political activity or unlawful gathering in a panchayat area.
The chowkidars will be in blue uniform and armed with a torch, a cane and a cellphone each. For their efforts, they will get a proposed daily allowance of Rs 310 each.
Home department sources said the police recruitment board had already been asked to work out the modalities for forming the Village Level Volunteer Force. “Advertisements will be out soon. The required qualification for the post of a chowkidar would most likely be the same as that for a constable. The candidate should be a matriculate and have the stipulated fitness level,” an official said.
Historian Goutam Bhadra said the concept of chowkidars dated back to the Raj era, when the Chowkidari Act was passed shortly after the Sepoy Mutiny. “At the time, the responsibility of village vigilance was on the zamindars, who would in turn employ chowkidars. Several reports on the performance of chowkidars as well as inquiries into complaints of excesses by them are on record.”
Under the British, chowkidars were far from the harmless and often ridiculous characters Bollywood audiences would be familiar with. Among other things, they had the powers to beat up or impose fines on anybody for defecating in the open.
“Villagers had to pay a certain amount as chowkidari tax. Another kind of tax called pituni tax used to be imposed on all the villagers if any crime took place in a village and the residents did not co-operate with the chowkidars in identifying the culprits,” Bhadra said.
India abolished the chowkidari system after Independence, but posts like chowkidars and dafadars remained in the Group D staff list until 1994. “They used to fill vacancies of Group D staff in the rural areas,” said an officer of the panchayat and rural development department.
In some parts of the state, the Village Defence Party or National Volunteer Force currently does what chief minister Mamata wants the chowkidars to do once they are appointed. In many other areas, local clubs form night vigil teams to make up for the lack of police patrolling.
“Night patrols by local police stations aren’t effective. Each rural police outpost covers a huge area with limited manpower,” a home department official said.
So is the return of the new, improved chowkidar the answer to this law-and-order vacuum? “The idea is undoubtedly interesting, more so because of the Raj connection. Vast stretches of rural Bengal remain virtually unguarded, which is why even the erstwhile Left Front government had once thought of recruiting a fresh batch of chowkidars,” a panchayat department official said.
If there is any apprehension, it is about the Village Level Volunteer Force becoming a Trinamul army by another name. “Whether one chowkidar can keep vigil on an an entire panchayat, comprising not less than four villages, is anybody’s guess. Also, who will guarantee that this won’t be just another job bonanza for Trinamul supporters?” the official said.