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Past Lives

A dark New Year


Gloom descended on Kolkata a hundred years ago. The decision to shift the capital to Delhi, the assassination attempt on Viceroy Hardinge and news of an impending 'great war' led to a bleak New Year in 1912-13.

The exuberant revelry of Kolkatans at a bedecked Park Street to usher in the new year is in stark contrast to the darkness that enveloped this city exactly a century ago. The city had gone into a collective depression in 1912 after having lost its status as the capital of British India to Delhi. Calcutta, as the city was known as then, was also in shock over the failed assassination attempt masterminded by a Bengali, Rash Behari Bose, on the then viceroy, Lord Hardinge, in Delhi on December 23. The dark clouds of World War II were looming dangerously over the horizon, what with the first Balkan war having already started in October that year. And the city's cup of woes brimmed over with sharp showers on December 31 that year.

Just a year ago, King George V had announced that the capital would be shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. The surprise announcement by the monarch at the grand Delhi Durbar on December 12, 1911, took Calcutta by storm and despite passionate protests by people of Bengal province, the shifting started in earnest from early 1912. By December 1912, most offices of the colonial government had shifted to temporary quarters in Delhi even as British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were making the blueprints for the grand edifices in that city.

The final stamp on the capital shift was to have taken place on December 23, 1912, with Lord Hardinge formally inaugurating his new Delhi durbar that day. But while he was riding on an elephant with his wife at the head of a grand procession to his new durbar, a clutch of revolutionaries led by Rash Behari Bose hurled a crude bomb from the terrace of a building at Chandni Chowk, injuring the viceroy and his wife. Though Lord Hardinge survived with moderate injuries, that day marked the end of Calcutta's days of glory as the 'second city of the (British) empire'.

The shockwaves that the assassination attempt generated were felt the most in Calcutta. The turmoil in Europe and the talk of an impending 'great war' made things darker for the city. Naturally, there was little for Calcutta and its residents to celebrate as 1912 came to an end.

Newspapers and journals that year recorded the dejection that the city faced in their pages. The Statesman, in its editions of December 1912, carried reports of low-key Christmas and New Year's-eve parties. One report stated: "While the year 1912 would go down in the annals of this city's history as a sad one, there is nothing to look forward to in 1913 as well". The Calcutta Review carried a report in its December 28, 1912 edition that compared the "conspicuous absence of cheer" at X-Mas with years preceding 1911. Many planned New Year's-eve parties, especially those that were to have been hosted by Indian royals like the Maharaja of Burdwan and the Maharaja of Coosimbazar, were cancelled after news of the bomb attack on Hardinge spread.

The Indian Review carried many letters from its readers, both European and Indian, lamenting the shift of the capital. The front pages of all the newspapers and journals were plastered with news of Lord Hardinge's condition and medical bulletins for nearly a fortnight and the progress of police investigations into the case. There were many reports of condemnations of the bomb attack from various quarters, including the Indian National Congress, that were given generous space in the publications.

A front-page article in the December 30, 1912 edition of The Star Of India headlined 'Annus Horribilis' talks of 1912 being the worst in the city's history with waves of street protests and other forms of agitations rocking Calcutta. The December 23 assassination bid, the article noted, was the direct fallout of the decision to shift the capital to Delhi and was carried out by 'native outlaws' to protest the decision. "So it is not surprising that the people of Calcutta will have nothing to celebrate this season and even the joyous occasion of Christ's birth was observed perfunctorily by His dejected people, " said the piece, which added that even the "lavish and grand" parties at the city's clubs were very low-key affairs.

The Bengalee, in its December 27, 1912, issue reported that while the Viceroy's condition was nearly normal, the news had brought little cheer to the "disheartened people of Calcutta, nay Bengal, who can never come to terms and accept the totally unjust and unjustifiable decision to shift the capital of the country to Delhi". Calcutta, the report asserted, had "stood loyally" by its rulers till (the viceroy) Lord Curzon's "ill thought-out move" in 1905 that partitioned Bengal.

The Amrita Bazar Patrika's editorial in its December 31, 1912 edition noted that Calcutta will usher in 1913 with "a mix of deep sorrow and fear, sorrow at the events of the past year and fear over what future disasters the English may cast on the city". The Hindu Patriot reported that many public Christmas and New Year's celebrations, including the grand balls at the Great Eastern Hotel and the Grand Hotel, were cancelled after the attack on Hardinge. The Calcutta Chronicle puts it best in its January 1, 1913 edition: "Even the heavens cried at the Calcutta's sad plight, " said a report on the sudden showers that drenched the city on December 31, 1912 and January 1, 1913.

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