Kolkata and its people had a complex relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, especially before he was accepted as the leader of the nationalist movement against the British.
The first documented arrival of Gandhi in Calcutta, as the city was then known, was on July 4, 1896. In his research paper ‘Reporting Gandhi’s Visits to Kolkata: Mahatma in Contemporary News (1896-1902)’, Dr. Raj Narayan Pal, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Mahadevananda Mahavidyalaya, Barrackpore, writes that Gandhi’s first visit to Calcutta was a result of a new job — that of a barrister — in Natal, a former colony in modern-day South Africa.
After starting work in Natal on June 5, 1896, Gandhi departed for Calcutta on board the SS Pingola, a steamer that docked in the city’s port a month later. During his first visit, Gandhi stayed in Calcutta for two weeks. He did not know anyone in the city and found little with which to occupy his time there. At the end of the two weeks, Gandhi boarded a train for Bombay and departed from Howrah Station.
However, as his association with the struggle for independence from British rule slowly developed, Gandhi made several subsequent visits to Calcutta. to liaise with political leaders and freedom fighters.
Many sites in the city associated with Gandhi continue to exist today, some less known than others.
Albert Hall; Indian Coffee House
Indian Coffee House, more popularly known as ‘Coffee House’, is a Kolkata institution, known for having been the meeting place for the city’s intelligentsia for decades.
During India’s struggle for independence from British occupation, Coffee House served as a meeting place for freedom fighters in the city, who were often students of nearby colleges in the College Street area. Before the building turned into a coffee house, it was originally built in 1890 to commemorate the visit of Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria to Calcutta and named ‘Albert Hall’.
Prafulla Chandra Ray, a scientist and freedom fighter, was influenced by Gandhi and was particularly taken by his recounting of the challenges that Indians in South Africa were facing at the hands of colonial oppressors. Ray wanted Gandhi to shed light on the plight of these overseas Indians in a public setting, so that more Indians in the subcontinent would be aware of their oppression.
Hence, on January 19, 1902, in an initiative supported by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, another leader of the Indian Independence Movement, Ray organised a public meeting at Albert Hall that was presided by Narendranath Sen, a freedom fighter and the founder-editor of the newspaper, Indian Mirror. At this meeting, Gandhi gave a public address to draw attention to the difficulties Indians were being subjected to in South Africa, and urged public support for them.
Great Eastern Hotel
Before the 1902 visit, Gandhi had come to Calcutta in 1896, and tried creating awareness about the problems Indians were facing in Soth Africa. In the city, Gandhi made several visits to editorial offices of prominent newspapers, but few paid heed to him.
Ramchandra Guha, in his book ‘Gandhi before India’ writes that “this lack of enthusiasm may have been because there were fewer Bengalis in South Africa. Or it may have been a manifestation of arrogance.”
During his two weeks in the city, Gandhi stayed at the Great Eastern Hotel located opposite the Raj Bhavan, formerly known as Government House, the residence of the Viceroy of India. The Great Eastern Hotel was established in 1841 and was the oldest hotel in the British Empire.
During his stay at the hotel, Ramchandra Guha writes, Gandhi was “less busy than in Madras or Bombay. He had his hair cut, his clothes washed, and sent plenty of letters and telegrams. He also went one evening to the theatre, where he watched a Bengali musical”.
It would take Gandhi a few more years to find sympathetic ears in Calcutta for his cause of championing the rights of Indians in British colonies.
The 17th annual session of the Indian National Congress was held on December 26, 1901, in Calcutta and coincided with Gandhi’s visit to India. Gandhi decided to attend this session in Calcutta, making it his first appearance at an Indian National Congress gathering.
The session was presided over by Dinshaw Wacha, a founding member of the Indian National Congress, who was also the organisation’s president in 1901. To attend the session, Gandhi travelled from Bombay to Calcutta, where he learnt of the presence of other nationalist leaders on the same train, on their way to the same meeting.
In his paper ‘Reporting Gandhi’s Visits to Kolkata: Mahatma in Contemporary News (1896-1902)’, Dr. Raj Narayan Pal writes that on the train journey, Gandhi disembarked from his compartment and went to that of Pherozeshah Mehta “to inform him about (the) South African issue and got (Wacha and Mehta’s) consent to raise the issue in the Congress.”
The train reached Howrah Station on December 23 and Gandhi was provided accommodation at Ripon College in Calcutta. Also staying at Ripon College were other nationalist leaders, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
Ripon College was founded by Surendranath Banerjea, a Bengali nationalist and scholar, in 1884 and was originally called Presidency School and then Presidency Institution. In 1884, the institution was renamed Ripon College after George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, who served as Viceroy of India from 1880-1884, and was brought under the affiliation of the University of Calcutta.
According to the College archives, the institution was renamed Surendranath College after its founder in 1948-49. The college continues to be in operation today.
In the 1901 session of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi’s first public address was at Beadon Square, where the Congress had gathered. At this gathering, Gandhi highlighted the racism and discrimination that Indians were being subjected to in South Africa and found a more willing and receptive audience than during his last visit to the city.
Gandhi was more well-known now and his association with Gopal Krishna Gokhale brought him and his causes recognition in a way that Gandhi had not been able to independently achieve.
In his book ‘Gandhi before India’, Ramchandra Guha writes that the “Indians in South Africa were deeply attached to their homeland; when asked to help famine victims in Bombay, they had raised £2,000. Gandhi urged reciprocity.”
A little-known building in the Beliaghata neighbourhood of Kolkata is Hyderi Manzil, a property where Gandhi stayed at in August 1947 and from where he witnessed India gain it’s independence. Very few public records of the building are available and it is not known how Hyderi Manzil got its name.
Following communal killings on Direct Action Day in August 1946 in Calcutta in the name of religion, and the Noakhali Riots in Bengal in October 1946, nationalist leaders gathered in the city in May 1947 to discuss the future of India.
Gandhi returned to Calcutta on August 9, 1947 with the intent to travel to Noakhali, but was persuaded by Hussein S Suhrawardy and others to stay back in Calcutta, and Hyderi Manzil became Gandhi’s last known address in the city.
Facing angry demonstrations against him in Calcutta, Gandhi took up temporary residence in Hyderi Manzil on August 13, 1947, where he remained on the eve of the Independence of India. It was Gandhi’s last visit to the city of Calcutta.