With a bit of luck and the helping hand of an amicable director general of police, I found myself at the fascinating police museum in Kolkata—a gem of a museum which, although it is open to the general public, falls slightly off the tourist track. Because it is located some distance away from the more popular attractions, it is easy to miss if one is doing Kolkata in the jaded manner of been-there-done-that travellers.
It isn’t all that hard to find. Just take a taxi to 113 APC Road and you’ll spot it on your left before the Manicktala Crossing. The heritage building has its own history—it used to be the home of the great Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who sold it to the government when he left for England in 1829, after which it was used as a police station first and then as the commissioner’s office. Today you may bump into the knowledgeable deputy commissioner of police (north division) at the museum, who interacts with many of the scholars who come to do research in the police archives.
For anybody who has even the slightest interest in crime and detection, this ought to be the No.1 destination. The manner in which the museum has been designed and the unique forensic collection on display puts it among the best, although it may be a little smaller than the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) visitor centre in Washington, DC, where the main attractions are weapons used by Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde, or the American Police Center & Museum—where you can try out an electric chair (I made sure that the power was off before I sat down). But the just over a decade-old Kolkata Police Museum nevertheless ranks as one of the world’s finest special-interest museums.
Reservoir: (clockwise from left) The parade uniform of yesteryear policemen; the museum; and old weapons. Photographs by Zac O’Yeah
Here you will find out everything you wanted to know about real police work in India, both its history and its present. The Kolkata police department is among the older police forces, set up as a Watch and Ward Unit in 1704, employing then about 68 people (compare that with the 26,000 employees today)—and it is thereby approximately contemporary with the police forces created in countries such as Russia and France (England and the US seem to have put a modern professional police system in place only in the 1800s).
Apart from write-ups on case stories, you get to see the actual weapons confiscated in some of the most infamous crimes in Indian history—such as the Alipore Bomb Case of 1908, following which Aurobindo Ghosh was arrested (but later acquitted), bomb fragments pertaining to the failed assassination attempt on the viceroy Lord Hardinge in 1912, and even the swords and a machine gun laid down at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi by repentant rowdies and rioters during his Kolkata sojourn in the 1940s. Furthermore there are copies of books proscribed by the British Raj, modern-day pirated goods such as videos and printer cartridges, Naxalite manuals, various tools confiscated from master burglars, a display of drug samples, police badges and uniforms, including a bomb disposal outfit worth Rs 4 lakh, an actual bomb built into a book, and a menacingly huge Japanese bomb dropped on the city during World War II (which luckily didn’t go off).
On display are also some really scary items of forensic evidence collected during high-profile criminal investigations, including the remains of a corpse hidden inside a wall by relatives of the murder victim. So if you want to learn about the gruesome things policemen have to deal with in the line of duty, and hear stories that rival anything a fiction writer could cook up, then this is the place for you.
In fact, the museum is like an encyclopaedia that describes how the police are organized and the range of things they do—from detective work to rescue efforts, traffic policing and VIP protection, combating terrorism and cyber crime. You’ll also get to know the basics of DNA technique and fingerprinting.
Fingerprinting was the most important identification method prior to DNA, and the technique was, incidentally, first experimented with in Bengal around 1858. Later it was put to more systematic use during Edward Henry’s tenure as inspector general of police here in 1896 (he would later become the Criminal Investigation Department, or CID, head at Scotland Yard), although actually the development of the “Henry Classification System” ought to be credited to the Bengali inspectors Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose who did most of the work (but unfortunately don’t find a mention in general forensic handbooks).
Today the original Footprint & Fingerprint Sections have merged in the scientific investigation wing of Kolkata police.
The museum also houses a huge archive of some 7,000 important case files spanning about a century, accessible to scholars and historians from Indian universities and abroad. For us general tourists there is—like in all good museums—a shop, which is small but worth its while. The lavishly illustrated must-have book Evolution of Kolkata Police is very affordable at Rs 250 and there’s other cool memorabilia to adorn your bookshelf of detective novels. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm, and, as an additional benefit, entry is free.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org