The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is a truism that intentions behind human actions and their consequences do not often match. Similarly, right decisions often emanate from wrong reasons. That Calcutta does not have a birthday, neither does it have a founder, are facts that are somewhat obvious. The development of a city is a process, it is somewhat impossible to pin it down to a specific date or even to a particular event related to the life of an individual. When Job Charnock in the late 17th century fled from Hughli to Sutanuti, he had no idea that the village in which he arrived would one day become part of a city. The Armenian and Indian merchants who operated out of Sutanuti and its environs, and the family of Sabarno Roy Chowdhury who owned much of the land in the area, had no intention of building a city around their property and activities. Human habitation and trading activity in the three villages — Sutanuti, Kolkata and Govindapur — predated the arrival of Charnock and the English East India Company. These are undisputed facts. Thus the expert committee which declared that Calcutta has no birthday and Charnock is not the founder reiterated the obvious. Their findings have the merit of challenging the best-known lore about Calcutta’s history.

The more interesting question relates to the issue of why a committee of experts was called upon to state what is obvious to any student of history. The committee was appointed by the high court after the Sabarno Roy Chowdhury Parivar Parishad filed a petition demanding the formation of a committee to ascertain whether Job Charnock could be named its sole founder and whether August 24 could be celebrated as the city’s birthday. The premise of the petition was that the city’s past stretched well beyond the coming of the English traders. Implicit also was the assumption that naming Charnock as the founder made Calcutta a city with only an English past. This assumption underplayed the contribution made to the history of Calcutta by families like that of Sabarno Roy Chowdhury. It would not be unfair to suggest that embedded within the entire exercise is the attempt — visible in other spheres as well — of ridding the city of its colonial past. Most historians, including those in the expert committee, would agree that the city of Calcutta, as distinct from the village of Kolkata, is a product of British rule. This has nothing to do with whether Charnock was the founder or not.

Calcutta no longer has a birthday, if it ever had one. It is only in India that a court has to decide such an issue. But students of contemporary history will probably agree that Kolkata has a birthday since Kolkata was born out of a definite government fiat on January 1, 2001. Other major cities — London, Paris, Delhi and so on — do not have birthdays but Kolkata has one. There is thus this peculiar paradox: Calcutta has no birthday, Kolkata has one. Charnock is not the founder of Calcutta but Calcutta does have founders, the group that campaigned for a change of name. But may be Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would like to go down in history as the founder of Kolkata.

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