The Caste Court Of Calcutta

Anindita Mazumder

The term “kul” referred to clan and kulins were those who belonged to the upper echelons of prevailing castes. It is said Ballal Sen formalised kulinism in Bengal society; the existing families are the descendents of the five kulin Brahmins and kayasthas who originally came from Kanauj and settled in Bengal.

Every kulin family had its genealogical chart and if one failed to adhere to the norms like marrying his children into similar kulin families it would lead to loss of social rank prestige and also expulsion from kulin society. Thus kulinism led to a stratum of elite lineages within the prevailing castes- Brahmin, Kayastha and Vaidya divided in innumerable subdivisions and came to represent the pinnacle of status, prestige and respect within their respective groups.

However, in the late 18th century with easy money flowing, thanks to trading or conniving with the foreign rulers there came a trend of upward social mobility. This was achieved mostly by bribing the Brahmins and ghataks (kulacharyas) who had the genealogical records. This period also saw the rise of caste politics when the rich and the well heeled assumed leadership of each caste giving way to intense rivalry. Hence Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of Fort William established a separate court for resolving disputes over castes among Hindus in 1776. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we delve into the history of Bengal’s caste rivalry

The late 18th century was a transition period for the society in Bengal which witnessed intense social changes as well as political changes. By this time the British had established themselves to be the rulers of Bengal and a number of people saw their fortunes swell under their rule. They were primarily banians, traders trading with the British or dewans and munshis in the service of the new masters. The moneyed class were at the head of the society and “barnakoulinya” or elitism of caste became subverted to moneyed elite. Caste became an instrument of harassment for many; it became difficult to ascertain the caste of the people. There were instances where people whose fortunes were on the upswing would include themselves among the upper castes even if born low, after bribing the pundits and Brahmins on their pay roll. On the other hand they even conspired to push an enemy down the caste ladder with the help of unscrupulous ghataks and kulopurohit.

In the late 18th century, the city’s two caste groups were primarily led by Nabakrishna Deb and Madanmohun Dutta. Between 1820 and 1850 the number swelled to five led by Radhakanta Deb, Ashutosh Day, Tagore Family, Biswanath Motilal and Kalinath Munshi. Their primary tasks were to increase the number of members, resolve caste disputes, protect group members from social attacks by other groups and grant permission for social activities. For this purpose they also kept Brahmins on their payroll.

The bitter rivalry between various groups over caste led Hastings to set up the Caste Court. The first president of this court was Hastings’ trusted man Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar who used to run it from his residence. He was the President throughout his lifetime save once or twice when Krishnakanta Nandy (Kantababu) of Cossimbazar became the president or chief justice. Incidentally, since the majority were particularly annoyed with the Brahmins its chief justice was never a Brahmin. Deb was a kayastha and Nandy a tili by caste. The court had a president or chief justice, a few assessors to arbitrate on the caste related disputes.

How caste rivalry rocked the boat can be gauged from an incident involving Kaliprasad Dutta. When Nabakrishna’s neighbour, Churamani Dutta died, the Brahmins boycotted the shradh ceremony (because of a conspiracy by the rival group led by Nabakrishna) and only Santosh Roy Choudhury of Sabarna family attended the funeral with his followers, partaking in the feast. A grateful Kaliprasad, son of Churamoni donated funds for rebuilding the temple at Kalighat. Kaliprasanna Sinha also touched upon the caste issue in his Sketches by Screech Owl (Hutom Pyancha) where he mentioned about Padmalochan Dutta (Hutom’s pseudonym for Gorachand Dutta of Thanthania ) who similarly bribed his way up the social ladder and got his elder son married to a kulin family. Hutom’s satire was at his best when he observed that since the bride’s family is a kulin its genealogy is registered in the great “Register of Ballal” but that of Padmalochan needs to be “contrived” by the ghataks.

The Caste Court although an important institution at its inception slowly lost its relevance as religious reform movements began in Bengal. According to Radharaman Mitra the Calcutta Municipal Corporation erroneously named a portion of the street behind Sovabazar- residence of Deb as Old Mayor’s Court instead of Indian Mayor’s Court in response to a plea from the local residence to preserve the memory of this unique institution.