From revolution to emancipation: Chronicle of a college with a unique legacy

Chandernagore College—an institution that transformed from a centre of anti-British revolutionary activities to a prestigious modern college.

Published : Jun 01, 2024 21:42 IST - 5 MINS READ

Chandernagore College, built in 1862 by the French.

Chandernagore College, built in 1862 by the French. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The histories of educational institutions in India, in general, are neither marked by momentous upheavals driven by socio-political changes nor closely associated with the evolving history of a particular town so as to merit a book-length study. It is in this aspect that Chandernagore College remains unique. Founded by the French priest Magloire Barthet as Ecole de Sainte Marie in 1862, and formerly known as College Dupleix, the Chandernagore College was once closed for a period of 23 years (1908-1931) owing to the involvement of its teachers and students in the armed struggle against the British Raj in India.

It is this fascinating story that has been vividly documented in College Dupleix to Chandernagore College: The Journey from Revolution to Emancipation. Authored by Debashis Sarkar, Abin Chakraborty, Saikat Neogy and Soumabrato Dasgupta, this remarkable book also carries a foreword by eminent historians such as Peter Heehs and Edward Ulrich. In seven chapters, it chronicles the history of a protean institution that embodied the growth of English education in 19th-century Bengal as also the courage of educated Bengalis who were prepared to take up armed struggle against British authorities.

College Dupleix to Chandernagore College: The Journey from Revolution to Emancipation
By Debashis Sarkar, Abin Chakraborty, Saikat Neogy and Soumabrato Dasgupta
Dasgupta & Co
Pages: 239
Price: Rs.2,000

Chapter 1 documents how Ecole de Sainte Marie first took shape as a government school thanks to the combined efforts of Jesuit priests, the French colonial administration, teachers and local patrons. It was later developed into College Dupleix, a centre of collegiate studies. The First Arts (F.A) course commenced in 1891 under the aegis of the University of Calcutta.

Chapter 2 chronicles a setback. The early era of growth and development soon came to an abrupt halt when College Dupleix was closed in 1908 on account of “subversive activities” against the government. This is vividly illustrated through history sheets, confidential reports, notes and various other archival documents which showcase the turn of events faced by the college and the individuals associated with it. The mode of presentation, which relies less on narration and more on documentary evidence, grips the reader’s attention.

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From the charismatic figure of Professor Charu Chandra Roy, the erstwhile Deputy Director of the college, to revolutionaries like Motilal Roy, Sreesh Chandra Ghosh, Rash Behari Bose and Kanailal Dutta, several freedom fighters were students of College Dupleix. Significantly, the book not only portrays the exploits of various revolutionaries and their inspiring acts of courage and sacrifice but also explores the ideological context of such anti-imperialistic ideals which can be traced back to cultural and religious stalwarts such as Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita. This exploration further validates the popular identification of Chandernagore as one of the seats of revolutionary movements.

Chapter 3 focusses on the efforts of several members of civil society to reopen the College through a series of complicated negotiations with the French authorities. It is these negotiations that ultimately led to its reopening in 1931. The authors have highlighted the irony of how Charu Chandra Roy, who was so involved in the revolutionary activities that led to the closure of the college was also instrumental in orchestrating its reopening.

The book documents the important contributions of several educationists and teachers in sustaining the institute’s drive towards academic excellence. It also details how the governance of the college went through different phases in quick succession as India gained independence. Chandernagore became a “free city” with substantial autonomy, and was formally handed back to India by the French to be finally integrated with West Bengal.

“From the charismatic figure of Professor Charu Chandra Roy, the erstwhile Deputy Director of the college, to revolutionaries like Motilal Roy, Sreesh Chandra Ghosh, Rash Behari Bose and Kanailal Dutta, several freedom fighters were students of College Dupleix. ”

It is these processes of change which finally turned College Dupleix into the Chandernagore College of today, a higher education institution (HEI) run by the Government of West Bengal which caters to around 3,000 students enrolled in 19 undergraduate courses and 3 postgraduate courses. These details are meticulously presented in Chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 5 showcases the recent infrastructural development of the college, the enhancement of academic facilities, increase in co-curricular activities and various measures of sustainable growth that are on a par with nationally accepted parameters of educational excellence.

Rich social, political, and cultural heritage

In Chapter 6, we learn that Chandernagore College has recently established a Centre for Heritage Studies for the preservation and promotion of its unique legacy. At a time when national educational policies are repeatedly talking about the contribution of HEIs to their local communities, Chandernagore College has taken a significant step by establishing this Centre, taking cognizance of its rich social, political, and cultural heritage. The Centre has already organised heritage walks and visits to sites of architectural importance, conducted painting and photography competitions and seminars to spread awareness among students and citizens on the identification and protection of local heritage. It is heartening to learn that, based on a proposal submitted by the Centre for Heritage Studies, the West Bengal Heritage Commission has declared a significant stretch of the Chandernagore Strand area, from Rani Ghat to Patalbari, as a heritage precinct.

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The establishment of the Chandernagore College Museum, described in Chapter 7, further adds to This distinctive aspect of Chandernagore College has further flourished with . The museum showcases numerous photographs, sculptures, archival documents, and installations that showcase the history of Chandernagore, its architecture and culture, the efforts and sacrifices of its revolutionaries, as also the growth and development of Chandernagore College itself over the years.

At a time when the educational scenario in Bengal is mired in distressing reports of corruption, incompetence and administrative inattention, the College’s unique history and the determined attempts to preserve and enrich its distinction, project a rare silver lining in an otherwise dark sky. The book under review attempts to bridge the past and the present by documenting how the riches of the past are being conserved in the present. Anyone interested in history and modern education in India is sure to read this book with profit as well as pleasure.

Pabitra Sarkar is an educationist and former Vice Chancellor, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

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