The turmoil lasted for 4 days from the 16th August to the 19th August of 1946. The expression “The Great Calcutta Killing” was first used in an editorial of the premier newspaper “The Statesman” when it resumed publication on restoration of normalcy in the city of Calcutta, the then capital of undivided Bengal, ruled by the Muslim League Ministry headed by the Prime Minister- Hasan Shaheed Suhrawardy – who is widely believed to have engineered “The Great Calcutta Killing” through meticulously planned misuse of Government machinery on a colossal scale.
The Congress leadership which swore by “ Freedom for Undivided India” literally panicked after the occurrence of “The Great Calcutta Killing”. Gandhiji who pontificated that India could be divided only over his dead body kept mum and did not come out with any statement giving his reactions to the unprecedented Calcutta riots. Jawaharlal Nehru was pre-occupied with the formation of the Interim Government at the Centre in September 1946, in collaboration with the Muslim League. Neither Gandhiji nor Nehru cared to visit Calcutta to see the plight of the citizens after the holocaust of August 1946.
During the days preceding August 1946, the political atmosphere of the country was agog with confabulations between the Congress and the Muslim League about the political future of the country. The Muslim League pressed for the creation of Pakistan. As the Congress verbally rejected the proposal, the Muslim League headed by Md. Ali Jinnah held out the threat of achieving Pakistan through force – the slogan “Ladke lenge Pakistan” spread far and wide among the Muslims.
The Muslim League in pursuance of its demand for Pakistan announced that it would observe “Direct Action Day” on the 16th August 1946 throughout India. Bengal being the only province in India under Muslim League rule was apparently chosen by the Muslim League leadership as the suitable place for “demonstrating” Direct Action. The general public was vaguely apprehensive but nobody had any idea what-so-ever about what was going to happen on the Direct Action Day of the 16th August 1946.
The eye-witness was at that time a student of Rangpur Carmichael College in North Bengal of undivided Bengal. The eye-witness, a 20-year-old youngster, had graduated in 1946 and was to proceed to Calcutta in August 1946 to get himself enrolled as a student of MA class in Calcutta University. He left Rangpur on the 14th August 1946, reached Calcutta on the morning of the 15th August 1946. The riot started on the 16th August 1946.
The eye-witness account is given below in the first person:
I arrived in Calcutta from North Bengal on the morning of 15th August 1946 and travelled all over the city to carry out my assignments namely to enrol myself as a student of Calcutta University and the Law Department of Ripon College (now Surendranath College) as also to meet my relations in South Calcutta. I put up at our house located in North East Calcutta, the address being 59B Upper Circular Road. The house faces the palace of Raja of Kasim Bazar, located on the opposite side of the road. The railway terminus – Sealdah station – is a few furlongs away to the south and the Muslim locality of the Raja Bazar lies to the North, a few furlongs away from our house.
When I was returning home by a tram car on the evening of the 15th August I overheard the conversation of two fellow passengers who were discussing in a hushed voice about their forebodings regarding the Direct Action Day to be observed by the Muslim League the next day. On the next morning, after having breakfast, I went out to have a look at Upper Circular Road. It was 8 am. The road was deserted with empty tar drums strewn across the road to serve as roadblocks aimed at obstructing traffic. There were a few persons on the footpath and the atmosphere was peaceful. I did not sense any tension in the air. I had decided to spend the day indoors relaxing, having already done the important work on the previous day. Had bath and lunch and lay down for a midday siesta.
When I got up at 3 pm I was startled on hearing the alarming news of what happened on Upper Circular road while I was asleep. A neighbour gave the details of a huge procession of Muslims – all armed with long knives – that came out of Raja Bazar area at around 1 pm and travelled along Upper Circular Road, looting all the wayside shops and killing their occupants. There were two shops on either side of the entrance to our locality. The shops were looted and the shopkeepers were killed. Fortunately, the marauding mob did not enter the blind allay inside our locality. The riotous mob went ahead towards Calcutta Maidan to join the Direct Action Day Rally.
Apparently, the law and order machinery had broken down. Later I learnt that the famous cloth emporium – Kamalalaya Stores – located on Dharmatala Street (now Lenin Sarani) – was also looted by the mob from Raja Bazar and goods (costly sarees, shawls) worth millions of rupees were carried away by the looters. An atmosphere of gloom and tension had set in. The elderly people of the neighbourhood got together in the late afternoon to deliberate upon the measures to be taken to defend ourselves in the event of an attack on our locality by Muslim miscreants. A dilapidated cowshed was demolished to collect brickbats which were carried to various corners of the locality for being used to repel the attackers.
Volunteers were posted at vulnerable points of the locality to keep a watch on the developments. In the evening ominous silence prevailed. Instructions were given to the youngsters not to shout any slogans and to desist from any provocative action, keeping in view the Muslim hinterland of our locality.
In the evening, suddenly our locality was surrounded by Muslims displaying flaming torches. We all became tense, picked up brickbats and held them in our hands waiting with bated breath for the imminent attack. We did not shout any slogans. The torch-carrying mob kept standing for a few minutes without making any further move and finally dispersed. We heaved a sigh of relief. The terrace of our 3-storied house served as a watchtower from where the volunteers, including myself, kept a watch on the night sky of the city.
Our locality is situated on the eastern fringe of the city and the Hooghly river lies to the west of the city. The densely populated heart of the city lies between Upper Circular Road on the east and Hooghly river on the west. That the turmoil that started at midday today continued with unabated fury throughout the night was evident from what we saw from our watch-tower. The night sky over the heart of the city was illumined by the long tongue of flame licking the sky. Apparently, Muslim arsonists were having a field day, setting fire to residential buildings and factories. We saw about a dozen rings of fire – with leaping flames dispelling the darkness of the night. It was not possible for us to identify the places where huge fires were raging.
The Muslim festival month Ramzaan was on. Muslims were observing Roja. The morning of the 17th August was quiet and peaceful. The front road was however deserted. Vehicular traffic was not resumed. I could feel that as the day advanced, tension gradually grew in the atmosphere. In fact, the 17th August – Day 2 (the 16th August being Day 1) turned out in retrospect to be more eventful than Day 1.
At around 12 noon, a young neighbour rushed to me to give the alarming news that a Muslim miscreant carrying a spear was waiting outside the ramshackle gate at the entrance to our locality. I had a look at the gate and saw the lance-head glittering in the Sun. The lance was carried by a well-built Peshawari goonda who was apparently trying to force an entry.
Suhrawardy the Muslim League Leader had gathered Muslim marauders from all over India in Calcutta for observing Direct Action Day. My neighbour and I kept a close watch on the miscreant, holding brickbats in our hands. The Peshawari goon hesitated and finally left the place. It was a tense moment for us. An hour later, we heard the slogan shouting from a distance.
For the first time after 16th August, we heard slogans of “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram” indicating Hindu resistance amidst the so far one-sided Muslim aggression. Apparently, clashes were taking place at the crossing of Mirjapur Street and Harrison Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) near Purabi Cinema Hall. Later I learnt that a Muslim mob attacked the big hostel inhabited by Hindu residents who fought and succeeded in driving back the mob.
We heard on Day 2 the slogans were shouted by the Hindus who fought to defend themselves. There was a flutter in the early afternoon when a truck carrying a body of Sikhs, turban-less and wielding drawn swords, appeared on Upper Circular Road. It was time for Muslims to get panicky. There was no sign of Muslim miscreants of Raja Bazaar and we saw Muslim householders in our neighbourhood lift brickbats to the terrace of their houses as a measure of their self-defence. The truckload of Sikhs came from South Calcutta to check up the hapless condition of the Hindus about whom rumours were afloat, by daring to penetrate the Muslim area for the purpose.
The truck proceeded upto Science College where Hindu dominated area starts and returned to South Calcutta. As soon as the truck carrying the Sikhs disappeared the Muslim miscreants who hid so long came out and started gesticulating towards the departing truck. An elderly neighbour, Police Officer, wore his uniform with a belt equipped with a revolver, made bold to go out on the front road and came back with the good news that military tanks would soon start patrolling on Upper Circular Road, ensuring that there would be no trouble from the roadside.
The evening of Day 2 set in. We heard loudspeaker announcement by Muslim leaders cautioning Muslims of our area not to go out on the street as “Shoot at Sight” orders had been issued. We were startled in the evening when we heard the slogan shouting by a mob. We feared that an attack was imminent from the rear of our locality where a Muslim hinterland was located. We watched the situation for a few minutes and realised that Muslims, instead of going out on a “looting” spree and facing the risk of being shot, were instructed to indulge in slogan shouting from rooftops. The slogans were “ Allah Ho Akbar” “Quaid E Azam Zindabad” “Ladke lenge Pakistan” “Nara e Taqdeer”.
We gradually became used to the continuous sound of the slogan shouting and stopped attaching importance to it. Meanwhile, military tanks started patrolling the front road, The tank driver was signalled to stop in front of our locality. The Tank Commander- a British soldier, was requested to visit our locality. He acceded to our request and entered the blind lane leading to our house. He went upstairs to the terrace accompanied by three Garwahli soldiers. We pointed to the Muslim hinterland from where we apprehended an attack. The Garwahli soldiers held aloft their guns and aimed them at the Muslim hinterland. We were elated on seeing the aggressive posture of the soldiers and made a request to the Tank Commander to station the soldiers in our locality to keep a night-long vigil for our protection. The Tank Commander pleaded his inability to do so but assured us that in course of patrolling the area the tank would halt in front of our locality at hourly intervals throughout the night and he would personally check up our security status. The 17th August- 18th August night passed off smoothly thereafter without any incident.
On the next morning- 18th August- Day 3- there was a welcome development. “Relief Cars” started coming from South Calcutta to the riot-torn North East and Central Calcutta to pick up stranded Hindu residents who spent the past two days in a “marooned” condition, with a view to shifting them to a safer area.
Two buses halted on Upper Circular Road in front of the blind lane leading to our house. A decision was taken to shift the ladies and children in the first instance. The turn of the adult males would come later. The two buses got filled up quickly and left for South Calcutta. I stayed behind along with other male neighbours in our beleaguered locality. We could not stir out on the front road. Military tanks kept on patrolling the area throughout the day. We felt somewhat relaxed and Day3 passed off without any untoward incident. We, however, kept a night long watch on the Muslim hinterland situated in the rear of our locality.
On the morning of the 19th August- Day 4, we got ready for quitting our houses and awaited the arrival of the “Relief” buses. Buses came and all the remaining neighbours got together before boarding the buses, making sure that nobody was left behind in the abandoned locality. During the past three days, we were virtually in a marooned condition, having little contact with the outside world.
As the buses proceeded towards Raja Bazaar, through the riot-ravaged area, shocking sights greeted our eyes. Piles of bodies were heaped on hand driven carts placed at the entrance of almost every lane and by-lane. We had no idea about the extent of the carnage that took place during the past few days. Even on day 4, half burnt bodies were lying scattered on the road near Raja Bazaar uncared for. While travelling by bus through the Riot-torn area the realisation dawned upon us that we were fortunate enough to survive the holocaust that took place on an unprecedented scale in the city of Calcutta during the past three days. Our Buses halted at various places to pick up stranded residents before returning to South Calcutta.
My elder brother, a student of Bengal Engineering College Shibpur, met me a few days later. From him, I learnt about the massacre that took place on Day 4 (19th August) at Metiabruz, a Muslim locality located on the bank of the Hooghly river. Shibpur College is located on the opposite bank of the river. More than 500 labourers hailing from Orissa were residing in a Basti at Metiabruz. During the turmoil, they locked themselves up in the Basti and kept the lock outside the entrance door to create an impression that the Basti was vacant. Their presence in the Basti was however detected by the Muslims who butchered all of them and threw the bodies in the Hooghly river. The bloated bodies of the victims were seen floating on the river by my brother and his colleagues. The massacre took place on Day 4.
The city of Calcutta limped back to normalcy from 20th August onwards. During the 4 day turmoil from the 16th August to the 19th August, the city was completely paralysed. The trains did not move. Newspapers were not published. Civic amenities were disrupted. On re-opening, after the 4-day closure, the “Statesman” newspaper came out with an editorial captioned “The Great Calcutta Killing”.
The extent of the carnage was variously estimated. The estimated number of people killed ranged from 4000 to 10000. People coming from all corners of India especially from Bihar and Orissa congregated in the city for earning a living. These innocent and unwary people became victims of the Muslim marauders who gathered in thousands on Calcutta Maidan on 16th August 1946 enjoying the patronage of the Muslim League Government under the leadership of Muslim leader Suhrawardy.
The maidan meeting was attended by Jyoti Basu- the leader of the Communist Party of India which supported the creation of Pakistan. He ran away when the situation tended to go out of control. The protagonists of Pakistan pounced upon the Hindu citizens as they were presumed to be the votaries of undivided India.
The victims who lost their lives during the Direct Action Day turmoil which lasted for 4 days should be looked upon as patriots who opposed the division of India and creation of Pakistan. The 16th day of August should, therefore, be observed as the Day of National Mourning every year and the supreme sacrifice made by the votaries of undivided India should be gratefully remembered.
(This article was originally published on Bangodesh.com. The author, Sri Amitabha Ghosh, IA&AS, was born in the Ghosh Dastidar family. He is the son of Acharya Debaprad Ghosh, an Indian mathematician, linguist, lawyer, journalist, educationist and statesman. After completing his M.A. in Statistics, he joined the Indian Accounts and Auditing Service. He was the Accountant General of Bihar in his outstanding career)