Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Old Dog Race Course in Behala

Approaching Taratala from the south, one might notice on the left-hand side of the road a curious white-on-blue sign-board, which reads "Old Dog Race Course Housing Estate." In Kushanava Choudhury's The Epic City, this is where Manoj grew up: "a compound with dozens of uniform low-rise apartment buildings that stretched for perhaps a quarter of a mile from the main road."

The name of P. Banerji of 24 Parganas Rural South is justifiably forgotten in Kolkata's urban history. But it was he who, as a member of the Legislative Council back in the mid-1930s, had attempted to legalize dog racing in the city.

Dog racing has a much longer history in Britaindating back to the late 18th-century at leastbut between the wars, they imported from their US counterparts, a game-changing (literally) piece of technology: the electric hare. The rest of England waited impatiently as Manchester became the first city in 1926 to witness the Greyhound Race 2.0. The hare and the electric traps grew popular across British cities. "By 1933," according to Higgins and Williams (2006), "there were over 220 [tracks], many running three days a week." By one estimate, this was thrice the total number of horse-racing tracks in London! The races in Manchester were hosted at the Belle Vue and White City stadiums. Their popularity in London is evidenced by the fact that Wembley, Stamford Bridge and West Ham Stadium introduced them soon after. Watch this film by Pathe, showing an electric hare:


It is possible that the aforementioned P. Banerji hailed from Behala, where the nominal vestige of the race course can be seen today. His non-official bill proposing to legalize dog-racing was heard by the Council but, no thanks to his rambling manner of arguing, it lost by 47 "Noes" to 8 "Ayes." Why did he think this a good idea?

According to the only speaker who appears to have supported Banerji's motion, the reason for proposing the legalization of dog-racing was, at the core, noble. Taxes had been increased by the government and this was affecting adversely poorer sections of the society. The proposed bill aimed to tax an upper-class pastime, comparable to horse-racing. Thus, Shanti Sekhareswar Ray argued that if the Government were to increase the tax on racing to 10% from the existing 2.5%, it could easily meet the budget deficit without increasing taxes generally. "This will be," he asserted, "an acid test for Government, and they will have to make their position clear whether they want money from those who can afford to pay or money from those poor people who perhaps would have to pay under compulsion."

In principle, this was acceptable to some members of the Council. But one S.M. Bose came up with with the following bizarre argument:

"I would support this Bill if in place of 'dog' he would agree to substitute the word 'donkey. Many of us, Sir, have seen a donkey race, but none of us has seen a dog race."

Banerji's case was presented rather haphazardly. He had started out with a general tirade against gambling, drawing the Council's attention to its rampant abuse in the city. For some inexplicable reason, he specifically implicated the Chinese community in Calcutta:

"I may just state for the information of the house," (completely uncalled for) "that in the Chinese quarters in Calcutta gambling is going on every day. To come to the incident to which I was referring on the 4th of this month, that is on the Chinese New Year's Day, the Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, allowed certain clubs, e.g., the Toong Tung Club..." Unsurprisingly, he was cut short.

More pertinently he cited an act that was passed in England in November 1934, legalizing dog races under section 3(b), whereby a license tax had been imposed on the races. The Hon'ble R.N. Reid, a member of the Executive Council, argued justifiably that the case of England and India were completely different, since in England dog-racing was prevalent. He felt no need to encourage something that had only just started by according it a legal status.

Shanti Sekhareswar Ray was quick to point out, that a dog race had recently been seen to take place in a "well-known institution in aid of perhaps some charity." This, ironically, turned out to be under the auspices of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ray claimed that he had seen "a big advertisement on one of the buses belonging to that institution."

The clinching argument against Banerji's bill came once again from Reid. He pointed out the contradiction in Banerji's articulated moral position and accused him of being "quite prepared to debauch the populace by dog racing in order to raise money." But Banerji was adamant. He alleged, in turn, that the "members of the Government are members of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club," and it was their personal interest in removing a potential rival to their income, which motivated them to shoot down his proposal.

It is unclear to me as of now when this was legalized, but we are told that it was "subjected to heavy taxation by the Bengal Amusement Tax (Amendment) Bill, 1939" (Biswadeb Chatterjee, 1997), but was later abolished entirely.

The next time I pass by the spot, I'll try and take a closer look.

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