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Respectable Anxiety, Plebeian Criminality : Politics of the Goondas Act (1923) of Colonial Calcutta

Sugata Nandi


With the Goondas Act of 1923, Calcutta conferred on its police executive powers of deporting virtually any man from the city without a trial under the pretext that he was a violent criminal of migrant origin. The Act deliberately did not define the goonda, as it was ‘known’ to all in the city who he was. Fear of violence by the migrant poor was felt in Calcutta earlier, but since 1920 the goondas assumed special significance, as a new and commonly accepted social image. From this year, the goonda was invented through : the Marwari traders’ search for higher social status ; the demands by the police for powers to subdue the migrant poor who constituted the mass ; and the Bengali Hindu English-educated gentlefolk’s perceived necessity to retain an honest an idealist political self-image at the time of tumultuous mass politics.

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Full text document will be published online on December 2018.


The Goondas Act (1923)
Fear of the poor migrant
1920-23, The Goondas Anew

First lines


The archetypal modern urban criminal of South Asia is the goonda, often taken to be a rough equivalent of the hooligan. The term ‘goonda’, a slang of obscure etymology, came into common parlance in colonial Calcutta around 1900. Till 1918 it connoted a lowly looter who surfaced during heights of tumult and disappeared as soon as order was re-enforced. In 1920 the goonda appeared in a new avatar, that of a fearsome violent robber who lurked in the streets of some north-Calcutta neighbourhoods and preyed upon wealthy Indians or those loyal to them in broad daylight. He struck such terror among his victims and other law-abiding people that the police found it difficult to find witnesses against him. The fear of the goonda assumed such proportions that European police officers of Calcutta, who were obsessed with maintaining order at the time of the then ongoing anti-imperial mass movements, Non-Cooperation and Khilafat, swung into action to draft a new law against goondas an...

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Electronic reference

Sugata Nandi, « Respectable Anxiety, Plebeian Criminality : Politics of the Goondas Act (1923) of Colonial Calcutta », Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [Online], Vol. 20, n°2 | 2016, Online since 01 December 2018, connection on 19 June 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/chs.1672

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About the author

Sugata Nandi

Assistant Professor in the Department of History, West Bengal State University, earned his PhD entitled Crime Politics and the Law in Colonial Calcutta, 1918-47 : Goondas, City Politics and Police Surveillance in Colonial Calcutta from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has published three articles : ‘For Sake of a Better City : Early Activities of the Calcutta Improvement Trust’ in Combating Disasters ; ‘Constructing the Criminal : Politics of Social Imaginary of the Goonda’, Social Scientist, 38, 3-4, March-April 2010 ; ‘Inventing Extraordinary Criminality : A study of Criminalization by the Calcutta Goondas Act’, in John MacLaren and Shaunnagh Dorsett, Legal Histories of the British Empire : Laws, Engagements, Legacies (London, Routledge) 2014. -

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