In a state where unplanned urbanisation and unrestricted pollution has taken the soul out of the century-old district towns and small cities, Midnapore is striving to stand out, but only with moderate success.
The green cover and serenity that greet you make it difficult to believe that not very far from here police and paramilitary personnel are fighting Maoists. Locals still take pride in the town’s history and the role sons of the soil played in the freedom struggle.
Almost every street corner and road intersection is adorned with statues of freedom fighters who made undivided Midnapore district their base. Many armed revolutionaries such as Khudiram Bose grew up in this town and became martyrs when they were still in their teens. Between 1931 and 1933, three district magistrates were even killed by members of the armed movement.
Khudiram, a disciple of Satyendranath Bose, studied at Midnapore Collegiate School, where Rajnarayan Bose, grandfather of Sri Aurobindo, was the headmaster. Some historians believe Bankim Chandra Chattopadhayay also studied at the college, now known as Midnapore College.
Midnapore has come a long way since Independence. Today, modern life thrives within the folds of past glory. The town is the administrative headquarters of West Midnapore. The divisional headquarters of South Eastern Railway is located at Kharagpur, which also houses the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious engineering colleges of the country.
With population on the rise, the number of cars, two-wheelers and rickshaws has multiplied in the past three decades. So has the number of buildings. Construction of multi-storeyed apartments has taken a toll on the greenery.
An interesting feature of the town is its demographic character. A large chunk of the people who settled here in the last two years migrated from villages in Maoist-infested Lalgarh. Similarly, a large number of people moved into Midnapore town in 1998-1999 when turf war between Trinamool and CPI(M) supporters at Keshpur and Garbeta reached its crescendo. To them, Midnapore town is like a safe house where they can breathe in peace instead of living under the shadow of death.
Few seem to have a clear idea about when the town was set up or how it got its name. Though Midnapore Municipality was established in 1865, many people claim that the first settlers arrived at the end of the 17th century or beginning of the 18th century.
There are many theories and counter-theories on the origin of the name, Midnapore. Some claim the town was named after Medini Kar, a king from Orissa who ruled here. Others say the name came from Medini Mata, the goddess who protected the town. And then there are some who think that the early settlers wanted to use the identity of Madani Baba or Madani Pir, a local saint.
“In his book Ragubansha, poet Kalidas mentions a river called Kapisa, which is believed to be today’s Kangasabati or Kasai, that flows by the town,” said Tapas Maity, a writer who lives at Kuikota and has done some research on the history of the district.
Local history also says that during the Mughal period, there was a strong fort in the town to resist attacks from the bargis, the name local people gave to Maratha cavalrymen who rode across state borders and returned overnight after plundering villages and Mughal installations in Bengal.
Times have changed and Midnapore strives to be a modern township. Infrastructure has developed and roads and electricity are not a problem any more. But in some areas, for example, the stretch between Keranichati Sepurbazar Road and the School Bazar, encroachment by shopkeepers has become a menace. “The administration should take steps to take care of the traffic congestion,” said Maity.
Politically, Midnapore Town has gone anti-Left with the Congress and Trinamool now in charge of the municipality. But the Marxists are still in control of the assembly and parliamentary seats. Many people seem to be unhappy with the performance of the municipality. “Though the city has grown in size, not enough has been done to improve drainage and water supply in many areas,” said Tarapada Das, a businessman and resident of Mirzabazar area. “The municipality delivers little. Some roads get inundated after a short spell of rain because of the poor drainage system.”
Cultural activities have also been hit and the town stands only as a centre of administration and business. The famous Midnapore Club was founded in 1913 as a gift to the town by the Raja of Jhargram. The club is not only a symbol of status for eminent citizens but it also hosts tennis tournaments and a dog show every year.
Nazim Ahmed (64), a social worker, has seen how the town change over the years. Even in the 60s, there were jungles in the heart of the town where many animals found home. But they disappeared as the population increased.
“New buildings are coming up but building rules are not followed. It is not possible to widen existing roads in old parts of the town but in the new areas roads should be built after proper planning. And if the encroachments are not removed traffic will continue to be hampered. All this development will have no meaning,” said Ahmed.
The city that was once home to freedom fighters is now a favourite spot for real estate promoters. “No one bothers about neighbours anymore, a clear sign of degeneration. But Midnapore is still a peaceful town where life is slow. I feel unhappy when I see people wasting their time instead of getting involved in cultural activities,” said cultural activist Kamalesh Nanda.
Rahul Ghosh, a resident of Golkua Chawk said, “I am proud to live in a town with a rich history. There are many buildings that carry memories of great personalities. These should be conserved.”
“Earlier, there used to be three cinemas and we used to watch movies with our families. But two of them have been demolished,” said homemaker Shrabanti Maity.