On Kolkata’s old streets, the neighs have it

Four times a day, a part of the busy SN Banerjee Road in the heart of Kolkata comes to a stop while a dozen-odd thoroughbreds and their uniformed riders walk leisurely to and from the Maidan.
The Kolkata Mounted Police (KMP) has been accustomed to such regal treatment over the 180-odd years of its existence. It was already active in 1840 – six years before Calcutta Police got recognised as a separate organisation. And it might have existed for some years prior.

“Official documents from 1840 mention the existence of a force of two sowars (riders) under a dafadar (head officer) whose job was to inform the harbour master whenever a ship was sighted on the Hooghly,” says inspector Abhra Kisore Chatterjee, who is in charge of the KMP.
“The true predecessor of today’s KMP was formed in 1842, when mounted policemen were asked to patrol the Maidan. Those days, as today, the mounted police kept the Maidan free of thieves, thugs and criminals who frequented it,” says Chatterjee, adding, “our job does not end with patrolling the vast Maidan or maintaining law and order at football matches. We are equally involvedin various ceremonial duties – including parades – and reining in organised protests. Our horses have also performed exceedingly well in equestrian competitions. ”

Police forces in Mumbai, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Chennai and Hyderabad also have mounted units. In Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, these units are regularly pressed into service. And as Chatterjee says,“It is the legacy of the mounted police that we are trying to cherish. ”
Horse whisperers may apply

“To work here, it’s not enough to be an animal lover and a skilled rider. You should be able to read a horse’s mind with mere eye contact,” says an officer who has spent 16 years with the force.

The mounted police have a sanctioned strength of oneinspector, one sergeant-major, 12 sergeants, one JCO, five head sowars, 85 sowars and 98 syces. But as the vacancies aren’t filled promptly, there are only 38 sowars and 60-odd syces at present.

“We also have 23 armed police constables working on deputation as sowars after undergoing the necessary training,” said an assistant commissioner at the city police headquarters at Lalbazar.

Finding the right mounts

As for the horses themselves, there are 40 in the SN Banerjee Road stables and 18 in a stable at Alipore Bodyguard Lines. The selection of the horses involves an elaborate process.

“A team of experts from the department handpicks horses aged 3-5 years for their fitness, agility and height, which should be above 14 hands (one hand is 4 inches),” said an officer. The mounted police prefer single-coated horses to maintain symmetry during parades and other ceremonies.

“Although the SN Banerjee Road stable is betterknown because it sees activity all day long, the Alipore Bodyguard Lines stable is unique as it is a combination of nursery and old-age home. The new colts are trained here for up to six months, while the old horses lead a retired life. Several horses with us are over 15 years old,” a policeman at the stable told TOI.

Go-getters and shirkers

Like children, the horses can be good or bad students. “At present, we have two exceptional performers – ‘Always Welcome’ and ‘Dancing Prince’ – who excel at everything, including jobs at football games, escorting, parading, the regular Maidan patrolling, and even participating at equestrian events,” says Chatterjee.

Old-timers warmly recall their experiences at the Maidan. One of them beganas sergeant in 1988 and is now a deputy commissioner in the traffic department. “We were controlling the crowd at the Mohammedan Sporting Ground ticket counters when the crowd began to get out of control and the trouble threatened to spill over onto the adjoining Red Road. We saw men actually trying to slash at our horses with blades or burn them with lighted cigarettes. But our animals didn’t flinch and stuck to their duty. ”
The unit’s history is replete with such accounts, so it was a fitting tribute when former police commissioner, Somen Mitra, opened a museum for the mounted police a couple of years ago at their SN Banerjee Road base.

“The aim is to show why and how the unit was created by the British in 1840, as also to highlight the work we have done so far,” said an officer. “The unit played a major role in controlling city traffic in the European quarters at the time of the Raj. Our role during the Maidan football duels is also recorded in history. Rare photographs in our archive have been scanned and horses that won laurels for Kolkata Police find a mention. All the uniforms – including those for special occasions – are on display. ”

Their days start early

The day starts as early as 4.30am at both stables. The horses are given a nibble before being prepared for their morning duties – whether patrolling or working out at the paddock, or rolling (walking with the syces) within the KMP compound. Later in the morning, after they have been scrubbed and bathed, they get another meal. Then it’s time for a nap in the cool confines of the stables fitted with fans.

This summer, the department prohibited horse duties from 11am to 3pm to protect the animals from heat and changed their dietary chart to ensure they got enough liquids.

The morning routine is repeated in the evening, the only difference being that more horses are on patrol.
“That’s when most of the football matches are played. But now, the biggest assignments come around Eden Gardens – the IPL matches and the day-night cricket matches featuring the Indian team. We are preparing for the multiple matches scheduled at Eden Gardens when India hosts the one-day cricket World Cup during the festive season,” a senior officer told TOI.

When a horse says cheese

You can tell a horse’s age by a study of its 12 front teeth, called incisors, nippers and corners. The central pairs above and below are called centres, pincers, or nippers. The four teeth adjacent to these two pairs are called intermediates, and the outer four teeth are the ‘corners.’

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