After 172 years of its commissioning, the authorities of Kolkata Police, it seems, are eager to reinvent the role played by the mounted police of the city. Uniformed men on horseback were hitherto known for their skills to tackle rowdy football fans that thronged the Maidan area to watch their favourite teams play. The fans would go back to their homes happy had their team won. But a loss would turn them violent, so much so that they wouldn’t think twice before indulging in vandalism. They would ransack and damage buses and other public properties that would come in their way. And the mounted men were the chosen one to bring the unruly mob under control. The warring supporters were, and still are, afraid of them. Their very sight would instil fear in the mind of an erring football fan.
“The sawaars on tall dark horses were the only one who could win over the warring football fans psychologically,” said Chandi Charan Panda, officer-in-charge (OC), Kolkata Mounted Police.
These mounted men can reach remote spots in the Maidan in real quick time, where no police jeep can reach, and disperse warring football fans in style. And it is this very skill of the mounted men that the authorities want to use now. Their could be no better force than these mounted men to scatter rioting men they think and thus want to employ them as riot police in future.
The mounted men have played an important role in the Maidan to keep crowds under control. They would man the long queues of football fans that came to buy tickets for the big matches.
With the big matches now shifted to the Salt Lake stadium, detractors of Kolkata mounted police feel that taxpayers’ money is ill spent to maintain a force which has no utility today. But they may as well be wrong.
“Though the big matches have been shifted to Salt Lake, there are many lower division clubs in Maidan. Supporters come to watch them too. These supporters pick up fight with each other over trivial matters during or after the matches. Often referees are beaten up both by the players and the supporters. We have to tackle these situations with our forces,” said the OC of the Kolkata Mounted Police.
Apart from that, according to Panda, Kolkata Mounted Police is assigned to guard the cricket pitches in open fields. If these pitches were damaged there would be no cricket match in Maidan, he said.
The mounted police also play a big role in keeping the Maidan area free of antisocial elements. “There are many instances when criminals were nabbed by our men and handed over to the Maidan police,” Panda said.
According to the earliest record, the mounted police began its operations in 1840 with only two ‘sawaars’ under a dafadar (head officer) who worked as messengers and informed the harbour master whenever any ship was sighted. In 1842, arrangements were made for the mounted policemen to patrol the Maidan area.
Later, the strength of Kolkata Mounted Police was increased. In 1850, an outfit comprising six sawaars, six syces and seven horses was allowed to be inducted in Kolkata Police force. The superintendent of the police was authorised to incur monthly expenses for the development of Calcutta Mounted Police, which by then was ranked as one of the three major mounted police forces in the world, the other two being in London and Montreal.
From the early-20th century, football became the most popular game in the city after Mohun Bagan’s victory over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911. Bengalis started gathering in Maidan and supporting the native teams against the European clubs. The mounted police became the most effective weapon to control the football fans. The tradition continues.
“Presently we are given duties of escorting different religious processions in the city. Even during the idol immersions in the city, we are deployed at different ghats,” said Panda.
Equipped with 67 horses now, the mounted police are likely to be given more assignments in future, other than crowd control at the Maidan during football matches.
Till 1965, Calcutta Mounted Police bought its horses from Australia and England. Today, most of its horses are half-breed and bought from Army Stud Farms at Saharanpur, Pune, Delhi and Haryana. The Royal Calcutta Turf club also gifts horses to the mounted police.
The mounted police are engaged in a range of law and order duties today. But its basic difference from the other sections of the Kolkata Police force is that the mounted police are not allowed to do night patrol even today.
But, if the top cops at Lalbazar finally decide on using this police force for riot control apart from the crowd control at Maidan, it would be a feather in their cap. “If this assignment is given to us, we will be able to show that we could be effective not only in the Maidan area, but anywhere in the city to maintain law and order,” said Panda.