History lessons: The story behind Bombay’s hawaldar
What’s in a name? Tradition. Seventy years after Independence, there are terms and ranks that continue to survive in the Mumbai police, unofficially
When Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1995, the Bombay police became the Mumbai police. But though they shed the Raj name, the change has not erased some of the institutional terms that the police force has inherited from the colonial era. Many practices and terms continue to survive, thrive and get passed on in the corridors of the city’s 93 police stations, 22 years after the city was rechristened, 70 years after Independence.
Take the word ever self-respecting Mumbaiite knows: Hawaldar.
Officially, the term, the rank, does not exist.
The term is a by-product of the Raj era, when a head constable was called the hawaldar.
Let’s this a step further. Police personnel commonly use the term ‘district hawaldar’. Again, this does not exist in the official lexicon. Its evolution can be traced back to the British era when the hawaldar used to accompany the Superintendent of Police (SP) during the ceremonial parade. The constable would clutch the baton under his left armpit while marching alongside the SP. This privilege gave the hawaldar a position of eminence beyond his rank, and he was respectfully referred to as the ‘stick hawaldar’.
The stick hawaldar shot to prominence in the British era when SPs used to head a division — the city was divided into six divisions, and each division had five to six police stations under its jurisdiction.
Even today, the term ‘stick hawaldar’ continues to hold a place at police stations, albeit it’s been corrupted to ‘district hawaldar’.
It’s not just the term that has been passed down, the respect that comes with it remains, too. A visit to any of the city’s 93 police stations will make it clear that the ‘district hawaldar’ continues to occupy a high position. Again, not officially.
No one knows how stick became district, though the origin of many other colloquial terms used in the colonial Bombay police are well-documented. “The origin of the term district hawaldar, seems to have been deleted from the pages of history,” said noted police historian Deepak Rao, who speculated that it could have been just a spelling mistake. “But that has not made any dent in his position,” he added.
The district hawaldar is the first constable at the police station to attend to complainants, and it is only after his verification that a complainant meets the Station House Officer (SHO), to register the offence.
“The district hawaldar performs several key functions in the police station,” said Shivaji Kolekar, former assistant commissioner of police (ACP). “From maintaining records and the police station treasury to keeping an account of the people in custody and the armoury, the district hawaldar has a 24x7 duty,” he explained.
Other terms such as ‘thana jamadar’, ‘faujdar’ and ’commander” also continue to be part of everyday usage at police stations.
Rao said that while terms such as district hawaldar is the continuation of a tradition in the Mumbai police, other terms entered the force following the merger of the Bombay city police with the district police.
Four years after Independence, the Greater Bombay police was merged with the Bombay district police. In 1964, divisional SPs were redesignated as assistant commissioners of police, and later, to deputy commissioners of police. The Greater Bombay police eventually became the Mumbai police.
“Traditionally, the Bombay police were always a suave force with a distinct identity, with English-speaking officers, mannerisms and style,” he said. The colour of the uniform for the constabulary in Bombay was blue, while the force in the rest of Maharashtra wore khaki. Even the assistant sub-inspector (a rank above head constable) wore full blue pants in the Bombay police, and the ranks were called out in chaste English.
“In the districts, a sub-inspector was called faujdar, but not in the Bombay police,” Rao said, explaining that the use of district ranks was a by-product of the merger.
In the city police, jamadar refers to the assistant sub-inspector (ASI), owing to his job profile which is supervisory in nature. “The ASI was the police equivalent of a sergeant major in the army platoon. He wore blue full pants. From making constables parade in the morning to ensuring each one of them was properly shaven, the ASI was tasked with the overall administration of the constabulary,” Rao said.
Similarly, commander is a term used widely among the police to address head constables. A senior Mumbai police official said the term has more to do with the seniority of the constable rather than any functional significance attached to the rank. “It is a mark of respect to an elderly person who becomes a head constable after more than 20 years of service,” the official said.
The senior inspector at a police station is referred to as ‘Peter’ in the wireless code, so the head constable who accompanies him in his vehicle is referred to as the ‘Peter hawaldar’ by the rest of the station staff.
“These terms are more like an oral tradition that has been continuing from the Raj days, passed down generations at police stations. They are not used in our written communications, but no one can say how long they will continue to be used,” Kolekar said.