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Bow Barracks Forever?

The Anglo-Indian community of Kolkata is concerned after their special representation in Parliament is abolished

The lanes of Bow Barracks
The lanes of Bow Barracks (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

A set of three-storeyed apartments stand next to each other on the yellow and red by-lanes of Bow Barracks in central Kolkata. Narrow cemented staircases lead to the upper floors. Each floor houses about two-four Anglo-Indian families. The walls outside are plastered with electric meters, their thick black wires entangled. The main doors of these houses are often left open. With Christmas and new year celebrations over, families are busy seeing off their outstation guests. The white paper lanterns and the Christmas trees lining the streets have lost their sheen after a spell of unseasonal rain. There’s an unusual calm in the air. The habitually sanguine Anglo-Indians who reside in the area look worried, as if someone has just broken news of a huge personal loss. “We fear that we would be targeted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They would throw us out of the country gradually," says 66-year-old Michael Chang, a resident of Bow Barracks.

Michael Chang, a resident of the area
Michael Chang, a resident of the area (Photo: Sonia Sarkar)

Chang believes he has reason to worry—Anglo-Indians no longer have any representation in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. In December, the Lok Sabha passed a Constitution (Amendment) Bill seeking to abolish the community’s representation in the lower house of Parliament and 13 state assemblies, a privilege guaranteed under Article 334(b) of the Constitution. The Bill was passed on 10 December. Nomination of Anglo-Indian members to the Lok Sabha and state legislatures ceased from 25 January. Introducing the Bill, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the community’s numbers have reduced significantly from 111,637 in 1951 to 296 according to the 2011 Census. According to media reports, Prasad said the doors were not shut on the issue and it could be “considered" later by the Centre.

The community describes the move as “humiliating". “They are giving us an indication that we are not wanted any more," Chang says.

Michael Shane Calvert, the nominated Anglo-Indian member in the West Bengal legislative assembly, says there are about 30,000 Anglo-Indians in West Bengal alone, concentrated in Kolkata, while a handful live in Kharagpur, Santragachi, Asansol and Adra.

According to Article 366(2) of the Constitution, “an Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only". When the Constitution was framed in 1950, the community was given representation in Parliament because it had no state of its own. West Bengal remained a home for years as Kolkata, or erstwhile Calcutta, was once the capital of British India.

After independence, over the years, the community began moving to other cities. A large number of Anglo-Indians, however, also migrated to the UK or Europe, unsure of their position after the British left. “Even though they were offered blue-collar jobs in the UK or Australia, they would prefer to go there than work hard in India," says 54-year-old Jason Pote, a member of the community who runs a travel company in Kolkata.

In India, however, those who stayed back initially had the advantage. “As English was their mother tongue, they had an edge over their peers in the other communities as far as their communication skills were concerned. Post colonization, they were more likely to be hired in a job which didn’t require much technical knowledge because of these skills than anyone else who lacked the knowledge of English," says Kolkata-based Errol O’ Brien, 80, author of The Anglo-Indian Way: Celebrating The Lives Of The Anglo-Indians Of India.

Errol says that till the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of the educated Anglo-Indian men were employed in the Central Board of Excise & Customs, Indian Railways, airline companies, police, schools and colleges, while the women worked as teachers, operators in telephone exchanges or as personal secretaries in private companies.

But over the years, while other communities focused on education and technical knowledge, a large section of the community “took it easy", says Pote. “Many Anglo-Indians thought English-speaking skills would be enough for them to grab good opportunities. They never thought to bring themselves on a par with other communities, which were producing academics, doctors and engineers by late 1980s and the 1990s. So we lost our way in the race with the rest of the country," he says.

The community did produce a mid-level workforce for BPOs, airlines and schools, says Pote. Some also work as domestic help and rickshaw pullers. “What our representatives in Parliament could have done is pushed for jobs—for deserving candidates in any government sector," he argues.

Barring parliamentarians such as Frank Anthony, Neil O’ Brien and Beatrix D’ Souza, not many who occupied the reserved seats did much to uplift the community, says Chang. But some believe the presence of one of their own in Parliament at least gave their community a voice.

Angela Govindraj, the 56-year-old general secretary of the Bow Barracks residents’ welfare association, says the loss of this privilege is worrisome: “It is like making our community invisible in one stroke". The fact that there is no official data on their numbers add to the community’s concerns.

Barry O’Brien with members of Kolkata’s Anglo-Indian community at his residence.
Barry O’Brien with members of Kolkata’s Anglo-Indian community at his residence. (Photo: Arijit Sen/Mint)

A section of the community claims there are about 350,000-500,000 Anglo- Indians in India. All the organizations representing the community across the country now plan to collect the data and consolidate the numbers. “We are certainly not 296, as stated by law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in Parliament—several lakhs is more correct," says 56-year-old Barry O’Brien, president-in-chief of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association.

George Baker, a former Anglo-Indian member of Parliament of BJP, terms this figure “ridiculous". Baker, 74, claims that he wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind in May to renew the quota for Anglo-Indians in the Lok Sabha and the 13 assemblies for another 30 years (so far, the quota was renewed every 10 years). A month later, he even handed over a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an amendment to extend the reservation of these seats for the next 30 years. In return, Modi asked Baker to send five names he could consider for the 17th Lok Sabha, Baker says. “I did so and I was hopeful that the seats will be renewed for at least 10 years if not 30, following the usual practice. But I was shocked to see they did away with the seats," says Baker.

When Baker sent an email to the Prime Minister’s office again in December, he was directed to Union home minister Amit Shah, who hasn’t responded to his emails. “Clearly, the government is not in a mood to listen to the concerns of the community," Baker laments.

Patrick Walsh, a member of the executive committee of the Calcutta Anglo Indian Service Society (CAISS), wants the government to explain the decision.

On 6 January, over 150 politicians, heads of educational institutions, retired officers of the Armed Forces and youth leaders of the Anglo-Indian community met in Kolkata. Prominent members of the community, including ex-MPs and ex-MLAs, hope to meet Modi to appeal for a reconsideration of the decision. On 28 January, a delegation led by Barry met law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to request an extension of seat reservation for another 10 years.

“A constitutional advisory team has also been formed to look into all matters regarding our rights and assurances given to us in the constitution," Barry says.

In the Kolkata meeting, Baker says he had to confront angry members of the community who asked if he was afraid of the current situation in the country. “I admitted, yes, I am," Baker says.

Anglo-Indian schools are apprehensive that the government may force its representatives on to their governing bodies or make the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (Cisce), the board with which most Anglo-Indian schools are affiliated, redundant. A team of representatives of Anglo-Indian educational institutions has been formed to safeguard the autonomy of schools and colleges.

Errol fears that the BJP may like to “radically Hinduize" the Ango-Indian education system. “The saffron forces always had a disdain for the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community," Errol says, sitting in his living room, adorned with photographs of family weddings, birthday celebrations and foreign trips.

What is feeding their fears is the stereotypes about their community. They are often labelled beef and pork eaters and drug addicts with low moral character who love to party, he says. Their patriotism is always questioned, he adds. Recently, Union minister Giriraj Singh said children who go to missionary schools lack “sanksar (values)". Thirty-seven-year-old D.F., who works with an IT company in Kolkata and does not want to be identified, recalls that when non-Anglo-Indian friends come home for cake and wine, they make him out to be not Indian enough.

In the letter Calvert wrote to Modi, asking him to reconsider the decision, he stressed that Anglo-Indians are “proud Indians", that India is “their motherland" and that the community “will continue to work towards the progress" of their “beloved" country.

The community can certainly boast of achievers such as former vice-chief of air staff Air Marshal Michael McMahon, hockey player Leslie Claudius, educationist Frank Anthony andNeil O’ Brien, who is considered India’s first quizmaster, among others.

Over the years, they have also been trying to integrate into society and have picked up regional languages. Like the rest of the country, yellow rice and mince ball curry and pork vindaloo have made way for pizzas and pastas on their dinner tables.

To blend into a polarized India, there is a constant effort to “Indianize" Anglo-Indians, says an Anglo-Indian teacher in a prominent boys’ school in Kolkata. For example, most Anglo-Indian schools in the city have directed young women teachers not to wear dresses, as was the practice till a few years ago, and take to salwar kameez with dupatta.

Pork or beef are no longer packed for school lunches. “My daughters even dress up in saris during Saraswati Puja and perform to Rabindra Sangeet," D.F. says.

But D.F. is still not sure if all this makes his children “secure" in India. Errol O’Brien believes such fears may prompt more members of the community to leave the country. “A whole new generation would migrate out of India to feel safe, something we witnessed soon after independence," he says.

Sonia Sarkar is a journalist covering South and South-East Asia.

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