ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Class, Crime and Fear: The Goondas and Respectable Fears in Colonial Calcutta, 1920-1947




36 – Interrogating Deviance and ‘Crime’ in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia


 In 1923 the goondas came into being as a criminal category in Calcutta with the passage of the Goondas Act, the first such law in India. The Act deliberately did not define the term ‘goonda’ as who a goonda was said to be common knowledge with no room for ambiguity. Armed with the knowledge the Calcutta Police was empowered by the act to arrest and deport, without trial, from the city anyone who they labeled a goonda. The police used the act to deport a small number of lower class men from Calcutta every year, and justified their deportation stating that they were a menace to the law abiding people of the city. Fearsomeness, thus, was the prime marker of the goonda. This paper interrogates the fear of goonda as a social phenomenon. It argues that anxieties or ‘respectable fears’ of the colonial officials, Indian elites and propertied classes felt acutely at times of mass upsurges, which witnessed participation of the urban underclass, found embodiment in the goonda. A typical goonda, therefore, was a lower class man who refused to be submissive, openly transgressed the boundaries imposed on him by the upper and middle classes and often flouted the authority of his social superiors with violence. His crimes were seen as ushering in a Goonda Raj, where violent criminals would take over the state and unleash anarchy, fear of which gripped Calcutta thrice – in 1920-21, 1926 and in 1946-47, occasions of epoch making political change brought about by underclass participation.