Cut money: A centuries-old colonial tradition

Cut money: A centuries-old colonial tradition

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stirred a hornet's nest by raising the 'cut money' issue

It is the early days of the British Raj. A ship arrives at the port city of then Calcutta. Before the passengers ‒ mostly from England ‒ disembark, a Bengali gentleman boards the ship and enquires about a certain Thomas Hardley, an English gentleman. When he is brought to Mr Hardley, the native gentleman introduces himself: "Saheb, welcome to Calcutta. My name is Nabakeshto Pal. I am your Sarkar. I have rented a beautiful bungalow for you in the European town, bought two well-bred Weller horses and a carriage and appointed your cook, khansama, peon, hookabarder, sahis, kochowan, dhobi, gardener and myself. You will have no difficulty in settling down here."

Mr Hardley is taken aback. He says, "But Babu (an honorific for native gentlemen), I don't even know you."

Babu Nabakeshto replies, "You don't have to know me, Saheb. This is the dastur (practice) here in Calcutta. Now, please go through this list of monthly salaries of your employees."

Mr Hardley goes through the list and says, "But there's no mention of your salary here, Babu."

"Saheb, I won't take any salary from you. I have appointed your staff and will do shopping for you. I will get my dasturi (commission) from both the other employees and shopkeepers. That will be enough for a poor man like me."

The story may sound bizarre, but it was indeed the dastur during the colonial rule of the British. Several of these poor babus ‒ who barely managed to speak some broken English ‒ made so much money that they were able to buy vast tracts of land and rise to the ranks of the nobility in the new pecking order. No eyebrows were raised. No one challenged their integrity. For, that had been the dastur for centuries in Bengal.

The word dasturi is Persian and it became widely popular as Persian was the court language during the Pathan-Afghan-Mughal occupation. The first colonialists' courts functioned on the principle of greed and the policy of 'give and take'. The aim was to get the powerful indigenous intelligentsia involved in a corrupt system so that no one would ever challenge the authority of the invaders.

The system continued well into the regime of the British and dasturi worked as a magic word in courts, government offices and, of course, life in general. Interestingly, the British transported to Bengal by East India Company to rule the region found the system convenient and let it survive, because many of them too were involved in illegal personal trade. The other reason for allowing dasturi to thrive was that it made the native babus ‒ by then a loyal class, called compradors in Marxist parlance ‒ always feel morally and ethically inferior to their British masters.

The system has never ended and continues till date at different levels. Each time the ruler of the day tries to end it (the Left Front actually did for some time), it comes back in a new avatar, because rulers come and go but the middlemen in the pecking order remain forever. This time, it's being called ‘cut money’.

New coinage, old currency

Bribery changed its name several times after Independence and finally settled on an English word, ‘commission’ ‒ a word both innocent and classy and so, legitimate. The latest coinage, however, was gifted ‒ among other things ‒ by Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. At a district administrative meeting she introduced the name ‘cut money’ for the first time to describe the money her party men demand and take from people in exchange for the doles they are entitled to under different government schemes.

Banerjee has admitted that the poor did have to pay Rs 200 for getting the government dole of Rs 2,000 paid whenever a member of an under-privileged family passes away. Nothing, the Opposition parties claim, moves in rural Bengal unless one pays ‘cut money’ to TMC men. The chief minister has also admitted that most of her party leaders at the local level were involved in the racket. However, TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee later claimed, in an attempt at damage control, that 99.99 per cent of TMC men were honest gentlemen.

Banerjee did not realise that by raising the cut money issue, she was stirring a hornet's nest. As she asked her people to return the money to the people after her poor show in the Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made it a big political issue. The BJP is now organising demonstrations in villages to confront mainly panchayat-level TMC leaders and make them return cut money. Maybe the CM's intention was noble, but it has resulted in her party being exposed as a corrupt mob ‒ even at the trinamool (grassroot) level.

All this while and before Banerjee inadvertently created this mess, hapless citizens simply paid the cut money, but didn't make any noise about it, knowing that no one would ever own up to taking a bribe. Plus, it's a centuries-old dastur. So, it's wise to pay and get whatever is left of the government largesse.

What's more interesting is that bribe or commission or dasturi or cut money probably existed even before the arrival of the first colonialists in India. But, obviously, it did not have any social sanction and governments of the day treated bribe takers as criminals.

The great teacher and jurist of ancient India, Chanakya or Vishnu Gupta, wrote in his treatise, Arthashastra – roughly dated second century BC – that those who take bribes dwell in deep waters and it's not easy to identify and catch them.

Professor Nihar Ranjan Roy wrote in his book, Bangalir Itihas (History of the Bengali-speaking people) that the standard of ethics was definitely different in ancient Bengal. A stone tablet was found in the western part of Bengal, which commemorated the king gifting a piece of fertile land to Brahmin Halayudh (Brahminical surnames were unknown in those days) so that he might be able to teach his pupils without having to bother about a livelihood.

But what was most interesting was the fact that the price of the land was paid to the exchequer by the king himself. Even the king did not have the right to use tax payers’ money to show favours to a certain Brahmin teacher, let alone splurge it to buy goodwill.

(The author has experience across three decades and more and has had leadership roles in the print, television and online media in three metropolises. He writes on politics)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.