How Anglo-Indian community in Kolkata comes together on Christmas despite NRC scare, broken family ties
Apart from the Bow Barracks, there are several other ghettos of the Anglo-Indians in Kolkata. Ripon Street, Elliot Road and Park Street are among other prominent neighbourhoods, however there are hardly 4-5 Anglo Indian families present in these areas
Clad in a denim suit over a black high neck T-shirt along with faded grey jeans, 72-year Edward finishes decorating the Christmas tree outside the gate. "How does it look?" he asks. Edward stays on the third floor of one of the red buildings of Bow Barrack, Kolkata. He stays alone here. His wife died two years back and his daughter stays in Canada. "She always tries to come here during Christmas but there are lots of travel restrictions right now, therefore, I am alone this winter," he says.
Edward is not the only one. Bow Barracks, the home of over 100 Anglo Indian families of Kolkata has similar stories at every house. The families are breaking. But these families have organised a community Christmas celebration this year too, like every year.
After around 50 years finally, the West Bengal government under Mamata Banerjee and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation have done the renovation work of the area. Now the houses wear dark red colour and this was their first Christmas after the renovation.
"Renovation of Bow Barracks has been our lifelong demand but no government has done this work. Finally, CM Mamata Banerjee took the initiative and we are happy that the work got completed before Christmas. The houses look so fresh now," says Angela Govindraj, the general secretary of Bow Barracks Residents Welfare Association.
While travelling from Esplanade through Chittaranjan Avenue which is popularly known as CR Avenue a narrow lane in the left leads to Bow Barracks. This lane is in between Hare Street and Bowbazar police station. The main road of Bow Barracks has red coloured houses on both sides. On every floor in these houses, there are several single or double room flats where these families stay. Bow Barracks is situated in Central Kolkata.
Bow Barracks was built to accommodate soldiers during the first world war end later these accommodations were converted to housing facilities for the Anglo Indians by the Calcutta Improvement Trust. Every year, during Christmas these families come together to celebrate Christmas. Generally, the celebrations begin during the week before Christmas. The local residents decorate this whole place with Christmas trees, all festive lights, stars and bells. Every flat here has a shining star on its balcony or window this time.
Origin of Anglo Indians in Kolkata
There have been several stories regarding the origin of Anglo Indians in Kolkata. In an interview published at the Indian Express, Melvyn Brown who has documented the history of Anglo Indians in Kolkata said. "The Anglo-Indian community developed as a result of the operations of the British Raj, where the father was European and the mother Indian. The East India Company went to the kings of princely states in the Indian subcontinent and offered their expertise in weapons training and warfare, and took advantage of the inter-kingdom rivalry and mistrust. Brown says the Company then sought permission from the princely states and called in British soldiers to the subcontinent to provide military training to armies in the princely states, all of which happened years prior to the start of the First World War."
Similarly, Tulika Biswas and Sourav Banerjee published a paper named PAIN OF WHITE IDENTITY: A REVIEW ON ANGLO-INDIAN COMMUNITY where the researchers have observed: A close insight into the history shows that except for a short spell, their history is one tragedy, injustice and indifference and a story of intracommunity strife. This together has resulted in the social alienation faced by them. The many complex and perplexing problem with which the community is faced today is the a direct outcome of its historical development as a "minority community" within the rich and conflicting diversity of the Indian national scene and its close connection with the.
The research observed, "British people who were not directly responsible for its advent but for many of its characteristics which distinguish it from the other elements of which India is composed. The community is said to have owed its genesis to the advent of the Europeans, the British in particular, in India. When the Portuguese came to India, they followed a more or less conciliatory policy in respect of the local people. To subserve their commercial interest and to strengthen their newly acquired territory in India, the British encouraged the marriage between their menfolk and the native women."
"There is no future of Anglo Indians in India"
"We have grown up listening to the stories that the American soldiers refused to stay in these one-bedroom or two-bedroom flats and they decided to remain put at the Fort William's. That is the time when our families moved in here. There was no system of lease and we just came in," says Janice a 45-year-old woman.
She says that her father was a Parsi and her mother was a Filipino. She was married to a Muslim man and has three children. One of her children is married to a Chinese the other one is married to a Bengali. "Our culture is really cosmopolitan. Cross marriage has been a distinguished character of our society. This is how we have survived but our acceptance is decreasing every day in the city," says Janice.
Sitting at a small one-bedroom flat with books, clothes, old photographs and a piano 86 years old Michael Ali offers some non-alcoholic homemade ginger wine and fruit cake. "My wife has made these. We make these every year and as you are visiting us during Christmas, you will have to share these. This is our ritual," Ali says.
In the area, all the boys have gone to the same school which is St George's located some lanes away. But with time these families have been breaking down. "There are lots of issues our community has been facing. These areas are getting encroached on by other communities and we do not feel safe here anymore. Our children are also not getting jobs. Today, we feel there is an atmosphere of discrimination which earlier we have never witnessed," says Ali.
For the past several years the new generation of Anglo Indians prefer to move out of the country. Most of the new generations have been shifted to Canada and Australia.
Fear of losing citizenship
In January 2020 the Parliament passed the Constitution (126th Amendment) Bill and removed provisions for the nomination of Anglo-Indians to Lok Sabha and certain state Assemblies. According to a report published in the Indian Express regarding this amendment, " Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claiming the community has only 296 members in India. These figures were called inaccurate by the community and Derek O’Brien, issued a lengthy speech in rebuttal. Though the community’s numbers are dwindling, by no means are their numbers as low as that claimed by Prasad, say community leaders in Kolkata."
After this bill was passed the community members got scared. Then the whole debate of the CAA and NRC also made them fearful about citizenship.
A 73-year-old man with the condition of anonymity says, "We are very much Indians. Look at our history and you will see how this community have always been a true nationalist. Many people from our community have represented India in front of the world as writers, movie makers, artists and actors. But today we feel that no one is bothered about our existence. The way the Central government is pushing this citizenship issue we feel that there will be a day when the government might decide to throw was out of this country. We do not have any other country to go to because we are Indians."
How migration within Anglo Indian community started in Bengal
Researchers based in Kolkata who has been walking on through Anglo Indian communities have observed that the property developers generally offer them a large amount of money and promise flats at other parts of the city which has been one of the key reasons why the Anglo-Indian communities are leaving their old ghettos. For this reason, central Calcutta which has been the home of the Anglo Indians has been witnessing a significant decrease in the number of families for the past several years.
"Today the structure of Bow Barracks has absolutely changed. The number of families who have been staying from the origin of the barracks has come down drastically. In the barracks right now we have several families of Goans, Chinese and Muslims. These families take part in the celebration but there are some gaps because of differences in the rituals and other issues," said says Robert Patel a resident of the neighbourhood.
Vanished neighbourhood of Anglo Indians at Ripon Street
Apart from the Bow Barracks, there are several other ghettos of the Anglo-Indians in Kolkata. Ripon Street, Elliot Road and Park Street are among other prominent neighbourhoods, however there are hardly 4-5 Anglo Indian families present in these areas.
After walking along the lanes and by-lanes of Ripon Street finally, one such family was found. "I am 82 years old and was born in this place. I am born and brought up in this area. Earlier we used to have a mega Christmas carnival but now everything has changed. All the families of Anglo Indians from this area have moved out of this place. Now they stay in the picnic Garden area of Kolkata. The key reason is that we are not any more majority in this area and the Muslim population has increased over the years. There are no conflicts but some of the families felt that it is not comfortable for them anymore." says Morris.
She and her son are one of the few families remaining in this area. "Every family here had their own reasons to move out. We did not move out because I am old enough and want to spend the remaining days of my life where I was born," she says.
With broken family ties, fear and the COVID-19 pandemic the lives of the Anglo Indians in Kolkata have changed drastically over the years. But, amid all the negativities they wait for Christmas to come. Their family members from across the country and world return to the ghetto of Bow Barracks. This community sells their own homemade cakes and wine during this time. Many people from across Kolkata visit Bow Barracks during this time and enjoy the community Christmas here every year. Beyond religion, caste and class this festival has been an iconic celebration of the city of joy. But amid all this joy, there is a sense of growing insecurity and fear that maybe after a few more years there will not be many people to hold on to this celebration anymore.
The author is an independent journalist and former policy research fellow with Delhi Assembly Research Center who writes on policy and politics.
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