I'm standing on Calcutta’s (Kolkata) Nimtala Ghat Street taking photographs of the building known as Duff College (now Jorabagan Police Station) when suddenly I hear a voice behind me say, “I see you've found our heritage forest”. The cheeky humour and sarcasm, as well as the voice itself, make me turn around. This is the voice of a man who is used to commanding people. The only equivalent that comes to mind is Bengali actor Kamal Mitra whose portrayal of tough father-in-law characters would make people quake in their boots. The source of the voice turns out to be advocate and author Guru Biswas. “You should upload this photograph with the caption, Is this a heritage forest?”, he chuckles, and he isn't very wrong. The building is completely overgrown with weeds and trees making it impossible to get a clear shot. Mr. Biswas takes me inside the Jorabagan Police Station, which now occupies a modern building behind Duff College, and I manage to get a few shots of the northern side of the building as well. But ever since I saw photographs of this building in INTACH’s book on Calcutta’s built heritage, I have wanted to find out exactly what this massive structure was, and how it was connected to Scottish Missionary Alexander Duff. Let us begin with Duff himself.
ALEXANDER DUFF AND THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY’S INSTITUTION
Born on the 15th of April, 1806, at Auchnahyle, in the parish of Moulin, Perthshire, Scotland, Alexander Duff, a farmer’s son, would go on to study theology at the University of St. Andrews. Ordained in the August of 1829, Duff became the first Scottish Missionary to India. He arrived in Calcutta on the 27th of May, 1830, after having been shipwrecked twice on the way. After inspecting the local Bengali schools and Christian missions, Duff concluded that the one gap he could address, which would help him spread the cause of Scottish Presbyterianism, was education, and he made a decision which continues to affect education in India to this day. That decision was to promote English as a medium of instruction for the natives. This, he reasoned, would open up the whole world of Western thought and sciences to Indians, and would allow them to climb the social ladder and find gainful employment once they left the school.
With this in mind, Duff started his school in 1830 in Feringhi Kamal Bose’s house at 51 Upper Chitpur Road, in the Jorasanko area. The famous Bengali social reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy managed to procure for Duff two rooms in the house for a modest rent. The present address is 228, Rabindra Sarani, but the house no longer exists. Here Duff began his school on the 13th of July 1830, with only 5 students. Although Duff would have to return to Britain in 1834 thanks to poor health, his school continued to prosper, expanding into a college and moving, in 1836, to Gorachand Bysack’s (Basak) house in the Garanhata area, where the Oriental Seminary now stands. The college, later named The General Assembly’s Institution, would eventually move to a purpose built building at Cornwallis Square (now Urquhart Square). The foundation stone was laid on the 23rd of February 1837, and the building was completed by Burn & Co., in 1839 at the cost of 60,000 rupees. But only six years later, events in faraway Scotland would force Duff to leave the institution that he had founded.
THE DISRUPTION OF 1843 AND THE FREE CHURCH INSTITUTION
In spite of being the national church of the Scottish people, the Church of Scotland had always claimed some amount of independence in running its own affairs. However, the right of patronage, that is, the right of a rich patron of the church to appoint a minister of his choice into a parish, became a point of contention, with rejected Ministers appealing to the courts, which was seen as an unacceptable interference of the state in church matters. After 10 years of conflict, on the 18th of May 1843, 121 ministers and 73 elders left the Church of Scotland General Assembly, to form the Free Church of Scotland. Alexander Duff sided with the Free Church, and, therefore, could no longer continue to serve the institution which owed its allegiance to the established Church of Scotland. The Reverend Lal Behari Dey, once Duff’s student and later a missionary and minister for the Free Church of Scotland writes, “Just one week after the close of the session of 1843, the missionaries heard that the established Church of Scotland had refused to give them the use of the buildings in Cornwallis Square. Duff was naturally incensed at this decision…as it was chiefly through his own personal exertions that the money for the buildings had been raised”. Duff and those of his colleagues who agreed with him, left to form a new school. The name General Assembly’s Institution comes from the General Assembly, the highest court under the Presbyterian Polity, a method of governance followed in the Church of Scotland. So it was only natural that the new institution, which was run by a man who had sided with the Free Church, would be called The Free Church Institution.
The Free Church Institution opened on the 4th of March 1844. For his new school, Duff managed to rent “a magnificent house” on Nimtollah Street (now Nimtala Ghat Street) “in the heart of the native town”. This was the garden house of “Baboo Mothur Mohun Sen”, aka Mathur Sen. Mathur Sen and Omichund’s two garden houses have given the area the name Jorabagan, which literally means a pair of gardens. The rent for the house was some 200 rupees a month and substantial monies were spent in repairs and alterations. But support for Duff in the form of donations poured in from all over the world, and they were able to purchase the adjacent property very soon, for the price of 18,000 rupees and it is here that the building we know as Duff College today was constructed. The Free Church Institution operated out of Mathur Sen’s garden house from March 1844 to March 1857, the year the new building was completed. The Duff College building is clearly marked in Simms’ 1857 map of Calcutta. The new building had 28 rooms accommodating 1200 students. There were 3 halls, two of which had galleries accommodating 450 and 700 students. There was a library and a laboratory as well. The new Free Church Institution continued functioning much like its predecessor, imparting both Biblical education as well as teaching a wide range of secular subjects. With the Governor General, Viscount Hardinge announcing in 1844 that government jobs would be open to all those who had studied in Duff’s or similar institutions, many of its students would go on to find employment in the colonial government. Among the school’s most illustrious students, was pioneering Indian political leader and freedom fighter Surendranath Banerjee, who the British nicknamed Surrender-Not-Banerjee because of his uncompromising attitude. When the University of Calcutta was established in 1857, the Free Church Institution became one of its earliest affiliates.
THE UNION OF 1908 AND THE END OF DUFF COLLEGE
Alexander Duff left India one last time in 1863. He would go on to work in Africa and the Middle East before returning to his native Scotland, where he died on the 12th of February, 1878. After his death, both the institutions he helped found would continue to run simultaneously. Between 1903 and 1908, Duff College had no permanent principal and during this period, negotiations began to unite the two institutions that Alexander Duff had founded. In 1908, the year before the United Free Church of Scotland began discussions with the established Church of Scotland for a reunion, the Free Church Institution and the General Assembly’s Institution merged, forming The Scottish Churches College. With the formal union of the established Church of Scotland and the Free Church in 1929, the college came to known as Scottish Church College. This was the end of Duff College and the new institution, now in possession of the properties of both schools, found they had far more assets than they needed. The decision was taken to sell the Duff College building on Nimtala Ghat Street to the authorities, and in 1920, it was turned into (and still remains) the Jorabagan Thana (or police station).
JORABAGAN THANA – BOMBS AND TORTURE
At this point, our story takes a macabre turn. It seems parts of the old Duff College were turned into torture cells. While, to the rest of the world, India’s struggle for independence is synonymous with Gandhi and non-violence, Bengal has a long tradition of armed revolution. Calcutta’s notorious British police officer Charles Tegart turned parts of the old Duff College, now under him as the Jorabagan police station, into torture chambers, where revolutionaries, classified by the British as terrorists, could be “interrogated”. So a building once meant to give Indians an education so they could better their lot in life, now turns into a place where every attempt is made to deny them their freedom! How ironic! But that is nothing compared to the bomb incident of the 1970’s.
Mrs. Manisha Kayal (née Das) lived in a house across the road from Jorabagan Thana before her marriage. She can recall playing inside the Duff College building as a child. In fact, even Guru Biswas, who is a resident of the area, remembers flying kites off the building’s roof. If that seems unusually jolly for a police station, it is because the building was being used for multiple purposes after independence. The ground floor served as the thana, the first and second floors were residential quarters for the police staff, including the Officer in Charge, or OC, while, on the roof, several rooms served as a sort of girls’ hostel or mess. In the 70’s, Calcutta was rocked by the Naxalite Revolution; armed communists, hell-bent on overthrowing the state, unleashed murder and mayhem on the streets. During this period, there were three notorious anti-socials who organised three large Kali Pujas in the vicinity of the Jorabagan Thana. Pujas in Calcutta always end with the idol being immersed in the Ganges, and a procession normally accompanies the idol for the immersion. If any two of these three processions happened to be on the same street at the same time, violence would inevitably ensue, so the cops would always be on high alert on the evening of the immersion. In the winter of 1971-72, on the evening when all these processions were making their way to the river, the Jorabagan Thana received a tip that in one of the processions, a large number of bombs were concealed under the Kali idol. As soon as the procession entered Nimtala Ghat Street from Central Avenue it was intercepted and a search was conducted. The information turned out to be correct, and around two cartons filled with bombs were found. Arrests were made, and the bombs were confiscated and stored in the police station, to be produced in court later as evidence.
The bombs, in this case, happened to be Bengal’s famous (or should I say infamous), “Peto” bombs. Peto, from the Bengali word for stomach, pet, is an almost affectionate reference to the bomb’s rotund appearance. Petos consist of a paper bag filled with gunpowder and splinters, wrapped tightly with jute thread. They are set off by friction; throw it against something and it will explode when it hits its target, but are notoriously unstable, and can explode in the hands of the bomb maker if he applies a tiny bit of extra pressure when wrapping the thread around it. The confiscated petos had been stored in a room in rear, or North, on the 1st floor of Jorabagan Thana. Then came the day when the bombs had to be produced in court as evidence. The standard procedure for defusing a peto is to dunk it in water, and police stations usually store petos in water-filled buckets. But for some reason, that procedure had not been followed here and as the policemen were taking them out of the store room, the entire lot, two cartons full of bombs, exploded!
The gigantic explosion seemed to shake the very foundations of the building and shattered window panes in almost every house in the neighbourhood. Mrs. Kayal’s father rushed into the police station to find a gory scene. Several policemen, including officers and constables, had been present in the room when the bombs had gone off and the explosion had blown them all to bits. Pieces of charred flesh were stuck to the walls and blood was cascading down the wooden staircase. The explosion had blown a hole right through the roof of the building! But in spite of this mishap, the Duff College building continued to serve as the Jorabagan Thana for more than a decade. It was finally abandoned in 1988 when it was declared unsafe and the thana moved to a new building to the North of Duff College from where it still functions.
LOOSE ENDS - THE MISLEADING PLAQUE AND THE COURT THAT NEVER WAS
I had to do all kinds of contortions to get this shot, but here is the plaque on the Southern wall of Duff College, facing Nimtala Ghat Street…
What it says is this – “In this place stood the General Assembly Institution (present day Scottish Church Collegiate School) from 1830 A.D. to 1844 A.D. This plaque was unveiled on the occasion of the 150th foundation day celebrations of Scottish Church Collegiate School by the Honourable Minister for Public Works, Sree Jatin Chakraborty on the 6th of July, 1980”
I have no documentary evidence that the Scottish Church Collegiate School ever operated from these premises. All evidence points to a school started by Alexander Duff in 1830 in Chitpur (or Chitpore), which moved to Garanhata and eventually to Cornwallis Square. The school eventually expanded to a school and a college, but surely there would be some reference if Alexander Duff was forced to buy the same house his old school had once used, for a new one. The only reference confirming what the plaque says is in a Wikipedia entry, which seems to be a verbatim reproduction of the school website’s history section. If the Scottish Church Collegiate School was indeed operating out of this building, why would they ever need to move?
Even more intriguing is the rumour about the court. A member of the Hatkhola Dutta family has been quoted in a recent newspaper article as saying that there was once a court operating out of the Duff College building. Both Guru Biswas and Mrs. Manisha Kayal say the same thing. The source of this rumour seems to be a lecture delivered in the Duff College building on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the school, in 1980. A speaker happened to mention that a court operated out of the building, and this has firmly planted itself in collective memory. The timeline for Duff College has no gaps, so if a court did operate out of the building, when was it? Even if it was after the building was sold, surely a police station and a court could not be operating out of the same building? There is a word in Bengali for such absurd propositions. Dhop. The closest English equivalent would be rubbish, and that plaque needs to go. I would be much happier if it was replaced by the plaque honouring the memory of the police officers who were killed in the blast. After all, these are men who had laid down their lives in the line of duty.
DUFF COLLEGE – DESTINED TO REMAIN A HERITAGE FOREST?
I could never get Guru Biswas’s phrase out of my head. Heritage forest seems a very apt description for the Duff College building right now. Several websites say that the house is haunted, although I think the only things haunting the building right now are snakes and bats. The Jorabagan police station is now using the building as a place to dump impounded vehicles. Trucks, cars and all manner of decaying, rusting and outdated modes of conveyance may be seen rotting away in the grounds. But the question is what is to happen to the building? Thankfully there is good news. Multiple press reports say that the building will be restored and will be used to promote tourism. The city police have been restoring several buildings of late, among them Limelight, the headquarters of the wireless division. I can only hope that some intervention happens at Duff College before it is too late. She is a grand old lady. Even in this dilapidated state, her Tuscan style columns and projecting porch look magnificent. Duff College is also one of the few surviving examples of Calcutta's Scottish heritage. It would be a pity to see her go.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
- Many thanks to Mrs. Manisha Kayal and her son Souvik for their cooperation.
- This post was written in collaboration with my friend and fellow blogger Soham Chandra. Please do check Soham’s blog here.
- Thanks to author, artist and filmmaker Brian Paul Bach for his suggestions. Check out Brian’s Goodreads page here and his blog here.
Dey, Lal Behari - Recollections of Alexander Duff: And of the Mission College which He Founded
Smith, George - The Life of Alexander Duff
Mitra, Radharaman - Kolikata Darpan
Clarke, Amy - Scotland in Kolkata: Transnational heritage, cultural diplomacy and city imageSen, Asit Kumar - Scottish Church College: Gilmpses of College History
Lal, Nilina Deb - INTACH: Built Heritage Today