The original version of this article was first published in The Scribbler Magazine on 12th January, 2016.
Present day West Bengal doesn’t have the best reputation for doing business in a country with a 6000-year history in cross-border trade and commerce. Various Communist Governments, in 34 years at the helm of the affairs of the state, presided over the decline and fall of industry and transformed Bengal from a go-to business destination to a region governed by politically backed trade unions and unreasonable government regulations. This is the state where well-established business houses first took root, including the Dalmias, Birlas and Goenkas.
Incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee came to power in the state in 2011, bringing with her the hope of a resurgence of Bengal. While she regularly hosts a Global Business Summit to promote Bengal as an attractive investment destination, there are few takers. This is in part due to her All India Trinamool Congress (AITC/TMC) Party’s inability to control their own cadres who regularly terrorize locals, and the poor press that accompanied the Singur debacle. Add to that regular violent protests and you’d hardly compare Bengal to a state as investor-friendly as Telangana or Gujarat.
Despite this, even as a Non-Resident Bengali, there is a great sense of pride that accompanies Bengal’s attempts at establishing a place for itself at the commercial high table. India’s much talked about economic growth has given impetus for its various regions to make the conduct and establishment of commerce easier. Bengal at one point looked to be on the right trajectory but has hit a roadblock thanks to the manner in which the state is being administered.
Once Upon a Time in Bengal…
It is easy enough for people to forget, or for more recent generations to not know at all, that at a point of time, Bengal (and particularly Calcutta) was perhaps the most important commercial centre in the country. It was the hub for the surrounding jute and tea industries, a port from where the British used to conduct their trade with China, and the starting point for a number of great business houses in the country. This added to the already cosmopolitan nature of Calcutta, which boasted of numerous business communities within its environs including the Marwaris, Punjabis, British, Chinese, Baghdadi Jews and, perhaps less notably in this field, Bengalis themselves.
In more recent times, business (or what was left of it) in Bengal came to be associated with the Marwari community, who were the only real survivors of the modern period of ‘deindustrialization’ in the state at the hands of the Left. Marwari families such as the Goenkas and the Neotias continue to dominate the commercial landscape of Bengal. Some say it’s because of a Marwari’s inherent sense of business and hard work. Others say it’s simply because the Bengali people were characterized by their laziness, unwillingness to work and general demeanour which was not conducive to lasting business concerns. This latter notion only emerged during Communist rule, where trade unions held companies and industries to ransom. Moreover, the history of Bengal reveals that far from being lethargic, Bengalis too had commanded competence in trade and commerce, particularly in the early years of the 20th century.
The Renaissance of Bengali Industry: The Swadeshi Movement
Lord Curzon’s decision to partition Bengal in 1905 had unwittingly set into motion a chain of events that would change the face of the national movement. Rather than looking for the political means to protest the decision of the Viceroy, the people of Bengal looked to a new kind of strategy — economics. By promoting Swadeshi (locally manufactured) products, Bengal sought to hit the British government where they felt it would hurt the most — in their coffers.
“Economic boycott” was preferred to agitation as scores of people set fire to British-made cloth and took to donning indigenous products. The movement cut across barriers of class and even sex, as women were often the leaders of such agitations.
In such a climate, Bengal also witnessed a unique event — the establishment of indigenous industry. With the dissemination of greater scientific knowledge to the people of Bengal, there emerged from the rank-and-file a number of individuals who set up companies in Bengal to meet the growing demand for Indian-made products. These included Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceutical Works, Bengal Potteries, Bande Mataram Match Factory, Duck Back Waterproof etc.
An interesting illustration was the case of one such entrepreneur, K.C. Das (not to be confused with the famous Calcutta sweet-maker), who was the son of Indian judge Rai Bahadur Tarak Chandra Das and Mohini Devi, herself an important figure in the Swadeshi Movement and a stalwart in Gandhian circles in Bengal. Coming from an already politically-conscious family, K.C. Das, who at the time was a lecturer, became influenced by the strain of revolutionary thought that was in vogue in Bengal and was said to have been involved in the planning and execution of numerous incidents during the revolutionary movement in the region. His father was advised by an English friend to send his son overseas to study in order to prevent his arrest and possible incarceration. Taking the advice of his friend, he sent his son abroad.
K.C. boarded a ship in 1904 and set sail via Japan to the West Coast of the United States, holding a scholarship that was provided by the Indian Society for the Advancement of Scientific Industry. He, along with a group of other Indian students, first enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, but in 1907 transferred to rival Stanford University, citing better opportunities and instruction as the reason. During this period, he and another student, S.M. Bose, started the California Branch of the Indian Independence League, which would have links with the Ghadar Party in later years.
In 1910, K.C. Das and S.M. Bose graduated with degrees in Chemistry — possibly the first Indians to graduate from Stanford University (in Chemistry at least!). Subsequently, as the story goes, Das and Bose went over to Japan in order to study the science of pharmaceuticals and waterproofing respectively. Returning at the height of the Swadeshi movement, they established two companies that would become famous in Bengal as well as in India for Swadeshi products. Bose set up Bengal Waterproof Ltd., which would eventually be renamed ‘Duckback’, famous till date for the production of rubber and latex products, in particular, the Duckback Hot Water Bottle.
In 1916, K.C. Das, along with B.N. Maitra and R.N. Sen, founded the Calcutta Chemical Company, a pharmaceutical company that would become one of the foremost symbols of Swadeshi enterprise in Bengal. It became famous throughout India for two of its product lines — the neem products for the masses (such as Margo Soap), and lavender products for more upmarket clientele (Lavender Dew Powder being the most well-known example).
‘CalChemiCo’ was a highly successful company through most of the 20th century, and it was propped up largely by the hard work and ideas of K.C. Das, who used his foreign education and entrepreneurial spirit to propel the Swadeshi cause forward. Up until his death, he would manage the company’s affairs himself and was lauded by his contemporaries for his unwavering dedication to the promotion of Bengali enterprise.
His family members recall that it was at his funeral that they truly understood the full magnitude of his determination, where hundreds of people unknown to the family had shown up for the service. It turned out that on his regular morning walks around the lake in South Calcutta, K.C. would often encounter Bengali youths hanging around with nothing to do. When he asked them why they were whiling away their time, they said, “It is because we do not have chakri (service, or employment).” He would retort by saying, “What do you mean? Why would you want to be in service? That would make you a servant. You must go and make your own way in the world, start something of your own, no matter how small. I will fund it myself.” These same men became a generation of new entrepreneurs, funded by a man who had the greatest belief in entrepreneurship. They turned up at the funeral service to pay their last respects to the man who showed them the way out of idle living and into the realm of entrepreneurship.
Like this, K.C. funded numerous young Bengalis and, no matter how small their business ambitions were, gave them support along their journey. These young men often became nothing more than hawkers or street vendors, but they were proud that the enterprise was their own. Such was the spirit of Bengali enterprise that individuals like K.C. Das fostered. Somewhere along the way, Bengal faltered, and the decades of Left rule sapped the spirit out of a state, which, once upon a time, was at the forefront of business activity.
Mamata Banerjee had a great opportunity to usher in a new age for Bengal. However, in playing appeasement politics, having a willful disregard for the Central Government’s initiatives, and doing nothing about the undercurrent of violence that is now more prominently veering its ugly head, she has reigned over the further collapse and stagnation of a once prosperous region. The recent setback for the TMC in the 2019 General Elections and the rise of the BJP in a state where it earlier had no real presence is a testament to the fact that Bengal has begun to wake up. The spirit of Bengali entrepreneurship has lain dormant for decades. The time seems right for the aspirations of an erstwhile prosperous region to rise up and seek change. K.C. Das and S.M. Bose’s passion was driven by a sense of nationalism. It remains to be seen whether that same nationalism will once again come to the fore.