Inventing extraordinary criminality: a study of criminalization by the Calcutta Goondas Act

Chapter 7
Inventing extraordinary criminality

A study of criminalization by the Calcutta Goondas Act

Sugata Nandi


This chapter is a study of the production of the hooligan through the exercise of police power in twentieth-century colonial Calcutta. In 1923 Calcutta became the first city in British India to have a unique law, the Goondas Act (hereafter GA).1 At the time of its ratification the Bengal legislature described it as an extraordinary measure for the ‘extraordinary badmash’ (i.e. miscreant/criminal).2 The GA kept the term goonda undefined and described him as a rough equivalent of the hooligan of European cities who was necessarily male.3 It empowered the Commissioner of Calcutta Police to deport any person from the city without trial by a court of law.

The social image of a typical goonda depicted him as a lone male, a recent migrant to Calcutta from its vast rural hinterland of Bihar and the United Provinces, and belonging to the working class. He was primarily a property criminal operating on the streets and preying on the propertied. His motive was necessarily selfish pecuniary gain and never noble or political. What set him apart from ordinary habitual offenders was his ability to generate fear in the part/s of the city where he committed crimes. He could silence witnesses against himself with threats of violent reprisals, and so it became impossible for the police to gather incriminating evidence to prove him guilty in court. The GA, therefore, contained no provision for trial and punished by deportation or ‘externment’. As the goonda was imagined to be a migrant, his externment meant sending him back to his ancestral home in a small town or in the countryside. Deportation in this sense was an individual’s relocation in his primordial social setting which was expected to lead to his going back to the honest and hard-working life of his ancestors. The avowed objective of the act was thus a lofty one.4 Underneath that, the police merely aimed at abrupt removal of a handful of individuals from within its jurisdiction and instilling fear of police authority among would-be goondas. The GA, in this sense was a remarkable innovation. It enabled deterrent policing at no additional expense.

Given sweeping powers under the Act, the police were able to implement it in a way that meant the law did not seem arbitrary, and that made deportation seem justified. They created a set of procedures and strategies for this purpose. Instead of a comprehensive evaluation of all available police dossiers on goondas, this chapter enquires into the structure, function and unstated strategy of the Act on the basis of a few typical cases.


Two epochal changes constituted the background to the GA. The first was the beginning of mass politics in India. The second was demographic change in Calcutta due to the influx of poor migrants mainly from neighbouring provinces of Bihar, Orissa and the United Provinces. The Indian census of 1921 emphatically noted that migrants were no longer a minority in Calcutta; they alone accounted for the mass of casual labourers in the city and ‘mill-hands’ in the surrounding industrial belt.5 The first mass movements in India, the Khilafat and Non Cooperation (1919–22), witnessed the unforeseen and decisive participation of the urban poor in anti-colonial protests. In Calcutta these movements owed their success to the city poor, who were predominantly of migrant origin.6 Consequentially, the poor became a common source of anxiety for the colonial administrators and the English educated Hindu Bengali bhadralok (i.e. gentlefolk/respectable). The administrators perceived the necessity of crafting weapons to intimidate the poor into subjection. The bhadralok elites, who were highly educated and dominated the provincial legislature, felt the need to preserve their waning privileged position of leadership in politics from the city poor who seemed to overwhelm the political realm with their sheer number and spontaneity.7 As such anxieties intensified, wealthy Marwari traders of Calcutta, who hailed from Rajputana in western India and settled in the city in search of business opportunities, petitioned repeatedly for police protection against street criminals whom they called the goondas.8 They alleged that goondas robbed them in broad daylight inflicting immense monetary losses. In the name of suppressing an abnormal spiral of goonda crimes, European colonial bureaucrats of the Bengal Government moved to enhance the arbitrary powers of the Calcutta Police as a deterrent against the increasing assertiveness of the poor. Bhadralok politicians supported them, looking for a legal mechanism to protect their privilege of elitism in politics.9 The result was the GA, a law that deprived the Calcutta poor of their right of self-defence in a court, and made them vulnerable to abrupt deportation from the city where they earned a living. Deportation was a penal weapon typical of British colonialism from the nineteenth century.10 In the GA it became the mechanism by which the colonial administrators and bhadralok elites could retain supremacy over a city where the migrant had come to enjoy numerical superiority and political significance.

Hooligans and criminality

The hooligan emerged in urban respectable imagination at the end of the nineteenth century when, in place of stern policing, the bourgeoisie of European cities were seeking to turn the poor docile by educating the children and adolescents of that strata. By that time the idea of the ‘criminal class’ was in decline and universal school education appeared as the mechanism for ensuring stability and hierarchy in bourgeois societies. Studies on hooligans in London and St Petersburg suggest that the hooligan emerged as the imagined binary opposite of the bourgeois. Between 1880 and 1918 urban space in such cities underwent rapid transformation according to the perceived needs of bourgeois capitalism. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century the European bourgeois saw themselves as the antithesis of the disorder and criminality that the hooligan embodied.11 The hooligan in their view could be distinguished from the common criminal by the style of dress and by the way they turned common crimes into spectacular acts of street bravado, thereby effectively resisting the imposition of bourgeois social order.

The word hooligan entered the legal administrative lexicon in 1898 during a riotous August Bank Holiday celebration in London in which a crowd of the poor belaboured police constables. In his iconic work on London hooligans, Geoffrey Pearson states that the nineteenth-century ‘respectable’ middle class imagined the hooligan to be the culmination of their fears of the working class.12 In the eyes of the respectable, the workers were ‘criminal, heathen, drunken and Chartist’, and stood in the way of the coming of liberal democracy. Being adults they were beyond redemption. Their children, however, could be reformed through religious and moral training to be readied for ‘willing obedience’ to the liberal bourgeois social and political order.13

Neuberger notes that in early nineteenth-century St Petersburg, hooliganism was a contest for control over public behaviour in the main streets which the respectable classes of the city considered their exclusive zones of thoroughfare. The educated middle class and professionals of St Petersburg described hooligans as those ‘who never developed any inclination to work or to take part in respectable working class society’.14 Between 1900 and 1905 a number of self-styled bourgeois philanthropists, social reformers and criminologists called for moral education of the children of the working class.15 Neglecting the sombre reality of crippling poverty, the middle class reformers viewed petty crime committed by working class children and their ‘pervasive fatalism’ as caused by their weak moral development or lack of imagination. The reformers felt that moral reform was the only way to prevent them from becoming hooligans by adulthood.16

In both cities fear of the hooligan resulted in a spate of philanthropic activities to ameliorate the conditions of working-class children by means of religious or moral training. These projects failed to attain their lofty objectives but they created a powerful imagined trajectory that described the progress of a typical working-class child from a dysfunctional poor family taking to petty crimes in childhood and turning into a hooligan at the beginning of youth.17

In India the urban poor en masse emerged as a source of disorder in the eyes of colonial rulers towards the end of the nineteenth century. Indian cities that owed their origins and growth to colonialism, such as Calcutta, Bombay and Kanpur, witnessed the rise of a working class, different from that of Europe as Indian workers were casually employed, often tied to the villages of their origin and segmented along lines of primordial loyalties such as religion, language and caste. Colonial civil servants and police officers viewed them as footloose, volatile and violence prone. Their anxiety was acute and they used arbitrary criminalization to subdue the poor.18 The GA was the legal weapon used to achieve that.19

In the only scholarly work on the goondas of Calcutta, Suranjan Das has studied how the city police created that category of offenders by use of the GA.20 Unlike in the west the Calcutta goonda was meant to be subjected and controlled rather than reformed. Das shows that in the police view the goonda originated from ‘outside the sphere of normal society’. Police reports on those charged by the GA partially reveal that poverty, the influence of hardened criminals in slums and poor neighbourhoods and sudden adversities such as riots or being framed with the charge of serious crimes along with a susceptibility to criminality appear as causative factors behind the future goondas’ uptake of crime.21

The useful comparative insights that emerge from these studies suggest that around 1900 the middle class in London and St Petersburg invented the hooligan as a working class youth or adolescent criminal in the context of imposing a universal bourgeois social order while retaining rigid social hierarchy and subordination of the poor. A typical hooligan was a moral degenerate who represented an anarchic antithesis of bourgeois social order. His degeneracy turned his common crimes into sources of uncommon fear as these amounted to brazen exhibitions of defiance of the law. Self-styled middle-class social reformers and philanthropists traced the roots of the degeneracy to the way working-class families brought up their children. Ignoring the impact of poverty, they deplored the dearth of education and religious/moral training of the children, and drew an imagined trajectory in which their becoming hooligans by late adolescence was due only to those reasons. While the European bureaucrats of the Calcutta Police of the colonial period and the Indian elite politicians of Bengal evidently knew about the hooligans of the West, the anti-hooligan law they authored, the GA, was without a precedent. The Calcutta Police viewed the slums and poor neighbour-hoods as sites of moral degeneracy infested with criminals who influenced the suggestible young of poor families to take up crime and turn into goondas with the passage of time. The way they imagined this transformation merits enquiry.

Police dossiers on goondas and the primacy of the criminal biography

In 1920 a small establishment, christened first the Goondas Department and then the Goondas Division was established in the Calcutta Police to gather information and prepare dossiers on persons who were to be punished by the GA after its ratification.22 Perusal of a number of dossiers prepared between 1923 and 1947 reveals that these documents acquired a uniform format. The first document in a typical dossier was a letter from the Commissioner of Police or a district magistrate which said that the person reported against was ‘a goonda’ who ‘habitually frequents Calcutta’ to ‘commit non-bailable offences against person and property’ and he was ‘a danger to’ or ‘cause(d) alarm to the inhabitants or any section of inhabitants of Calcutta’. Appended with it was the ‘Heads of Charges’. This was a very brief chronologically ordered list of the laws under which the individual had been arrested and convicted in the past. It was followed by the History Sheet and the Criminal Biography. The History Sheet was a two-part form. Its first part contained four different kinds of information on the individual – familial, anthropometric, occupational and legal. It started with the name and aliases of the accused and his parents. It always had two of his addresses, one for Calcutta, signifying a place of temporary sojourn, and the other, a country address, as the ancestral home, implying permanent residence. Anthropometric details included height, weight, complexion, colour of eyes and hair, build, gait and other ‘peculiarities’. The last part listed the total number of convictions suffered by the accused and the names and addresses of associates in the city who had acted as his accomplices in crime at different points in time. The list of convictions offered chronologically arranged information on the number of times the accused was arrested, the specific police stations where charges were framed against him, the court that pronounced him guilty, the law under which he was punished and the nature of punishment, which usually was rigorous imprisonment.23

Up to this point the dossier on the accused did not explain why a person, arrested and convicted in the past under existing laws for ordinary offences, qualified as an extraordinary badmash in the eyes of the police. The History Sheet showed that he was a known criminal but did not argue for his expulsion, leaving that for the Criminal Biography.

The Criminal Biography (hereafter CB) was the lengthiest document of the goonda file. It combined the literary genre of biography with the legal requirements of the GA. A typical CB started by projecting the accused as a migrant to Calcutta or the Presidency Area. To do so it claimed that the person in question had migrated to the city himself or his family had settled there in the very recent past. It traced the origins of his proclivity to crime from boyhood and described him as a recidivist by late adolescence. Punishment had no restraining effect on him; each successive instance of crime would be more serious than the earlier one. As an adult he would typically be a lone male in Calcutta without any intention of taking to legitimate means of livelihood, without a family and fixed abode. Towards its end the CB typically cited cases of violent crime that stood out as incontrovertible evidence that he was a serious threat to the physical security of law-abiding citizens. It always ended with the statement that the person in question had turned into ‘a menace from which inhabitants of the city deserved to be protected’, implying that the only way to attain that was to oust him from the city. The events selected in the CB established a trajectory that would present an individual moving in linear progression from petty crimes and culminating in fear-generating violent offences.24

In the absence of the provision of trial by a court of law, two advising judges deliberated on the case on the merit of the CB only. In a very few cases they examined witnesses, and did so without informing the accused. In his defence the arrested person usually offered a verbal statement to the judges. It was written down by a policeman and retained in the goonda file as a prisoner’s petition. Very rarely was he allowed to summon witness/es to support his claims, and when allowed to do so the judges attached little or no importance to their statements.25

Only when defending himself did the accused learn from the judges the offences attributed to him in the CB.26

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