There are some moments in history which are etched across memories for all eternity. The moments not only impact those living through the tumultuous times but the lives of generations and generations are affected even after centuries have passed.
Terrible things can last for mere days but their impact continues to reverberate for decades, if not centuries. Such moments become a platform for collective sorrow, guilt and serve as the foundation for national mourning and share memory.
One such tragedy was the Direct Action Day. 75 years have passed since the terrible events of 1946 but still, a day does not go by when it does not impact current events. Indeed, there is simply too much tragedy embedded in those memories for them to be forgotten so lightly.
It was on the 16th of August, 1946 that Mohammed Ali Jinnah gave a call for nationwide protests demanding the creation of Pakistan. It led to the 1946 Calcutta Killings and the genocide of the Bengali Hindu community. Soon, it spread to the rest of the country and culminated with the Partition and the terrible partition riots.
After all these years, the 16th August is to be celebrated as ‘Khela Hobe Divas’ by Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress. One would have expected a Bengali Hindu of all people to be aware of the tragedy that marks the occasion but Mamata Banerjee, clearly, has other plans.
The fates of every single Indian has been affected by the events of that era, either directly or indirectly, and it has shaped and continues to shape the destiny of Independent India. Children lost their parents, mothers lost their sons, husbands lost their wives and the sacred land of Bharata was soaked with the blood of the innocent.
Direct Action Day also culminated with the greatest migration of population in modern history. And the impact of that migration on Indian history could not ever be overestimated. For instance, the Naxalbari Movement that began in West Bengal was the consequence of a series of violent protests and riots led primarily by the migrant Bangladeshi Hindu community that had crossed over to India in the aftermath of evidence, who were treated as trash by the then Nehru Government.
Lal Krishna Advani, one of the core figures of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, has his roots in Sindh. The Northeastern region of the country witnessed a significant influx of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees and with that, the linguistic battles and terrorist movements in the region received a significant boost.
There are other ways in which the events of Direct Action Day has definitively shaped the history of India but most of all, the contribution of the horror that Hindus had to suffer during those dark times still impacts their political inclinations and their social life.
The paternal grandparents of this author himself crossed over to India right after independence. During the last days of my late grandmother, when her cognitive abilities had significantly declined, she would often say that she wants to go home. And we would tell her that she was home. But she would remain adamant and nothing would convince her otherwise.
It was only later that we realised that she was referring to her home in Bangladesh, a home that she was forced to leave and she could never return to. When I shared the particular story on social media, I realised that the phenomenon appeared to be far more common that I previously assumed it to be.
Quite a few others, mostly from the Bengali Hindu community, recounted how they experienced the same with their grandparents. Nevertheless, the point is, there were horrors Hindus experienced during that era and the memory of an ancestral land one could never return to has molded the national conscience.
Under such circumstances, it is especially important to trace the events that led to Direct Action Day. Such events are not borne in a vacuum but are the climactic end to a kinetic force that has been building momentum for years and decades. It is the crescendo of a cacophony of delirious tragedy that sparks endless misery and a horror that does not cease to be. Thus, it is important to trace it to where it all began, the beginning of the series of events that cascades into a genocide.
Direct Action Day: The Two Nation Theory
Unlike what has become the dogma of the Indian Secular State, historical divisions between Muslims and Hindus have existed since the very first encounters between the two communities. There was a very distinct feeling of ‘otherness’ that existed between both sides.
The Islamic invaders could not ever comprehend the Hindu faith in the multiplicity of the divine and Hindus could not ever consent to the other’s predisposition towards iconoclasm, consumption of beef and their way of life. Conflict was inevitable, and not merely a conflict that was limited to land resources. It was a conflict over theological differences, cultural expressions and religious faith. It was a War for the Gods.
However, even after centuries of warfare, and the inclination of Islamic invaders to spread their faith through the edge of their swords, a sentiment that was largely alien to Hindus, Islam could not definitively conquer the heartland of Hindudom. Whatever Hindus lost, they won it back and the damage was largely limited to the peripheries of Hindudom.
The entry of the British in the civilizational warfare between the two communities created a third front and that third front eventually came to dominate the Indian subcontinent. But even that third front was not enough to remove the differences between the two historically divergent communities.
Thus, the independence movement essentially represented three forces going against the British Empire. The Indian Independence Movement was not a ‘secular’ movement against the British regime. There were essentially three forces vying for power over the Indian subcontinent.
There was the Hindu Right, there was the Anglophile senior Congress leadership and then there was the Islamist faction seeking their share of the pie. Unfortunately for the Hindu Right, the most popular Hindu leader of the time, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was securely on the side of the anglophiles and thereby, their position was significantly weakened.
We know this to be true because of the events of the past. The transfer power eventually occurred between the British regime on one hand and the anglophiles and the Islamists on the other, thus leading to the creation of the Indian Secular State and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Syed Ahmad Khan: The founder of Aligarh Muslim University
The origins of the Islamist faction can be traced back to the Islamic Empires that existed before, and it is the accomplishment of the invaders that the Muslims of the late 19th century and early 20th century still relied on for inspiration. Similarly, the Hindu Right can be traced back to the Hindu Empires and Kingdoms of yore, the Marathas and the Rajputs and others.
Of course, the ‘first war of independence’ in 1857 were fought between the descendants of these kingdoms and empires against the British. Thus, the memory of those empires significantly contributed to the vision that these factions harboured for themselves and their position in history that they deemed to occupy.
Such a worldview, of two different nations, was first articulated by Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University. He said as far back as in 1876, “I am convinced now that Hindus and Muslims could never become one nation as their religion and way of life was quite distinct from each other.”
Seven year later, he said again, “Friends, in India, there live two prominent nations which are distinguished by the names of Hindus and Mussalmans…To be a Hindu or a Muslim is a matter of internal faith which has nothing to do with mutual relationships and external conditions…Hence, leave God’s share to God and concern yourself with the share that is yours…India is the home of both of us…By living so long in India, the blood of both have [sic] changed.”
Of course, it has now become fancy among ‘secular’ political circles to deny Syed Ahmad’s proclamation of two nations and attribute it to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar instead, so that the Islamist contribution to the events of Direct Action Day can be whitewashed.
The Partition of Bengal
Prior to the Partition of India along religious lines, one province of British India was already made to undergo such a partition four decades ago. We are obviously referring to the Partition of Bengal, 1905.
While Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, claimed that it was purely administrative reasons, he soon let the cat out of the bag when he pointed out to the citizens of East Bengal that he saw the newly created province as ‘Muslim’.
Indeed, Bengal was split into two and East Bengal was joined with Assam and West Bengal with Bihar and Odisha. It had a two-fold impact. It created a ‘Muslim’ state, according to the words of Lord Curzon himself, and simultaneously, it made Bengali Hindus a minority in their own land, as they were then outnumbered by Biharis and Odiyas.
The Bengali Hindu elite, or Bhadraloks as they were called, was one of the most influential communities in the political circles of that era. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, one of the most formidable foes the British had to face, was a quintessential ‘Bhadralok’.
‘Bhadraloks’, although it means ‘Gentlemen’, has traditionally referred to the landed Hindu elites of Bengal. While the term is often misconstrued as a caste-specific term, the fact of the matter is that since the initial days, the term has undergone great changes in its meaning and now it simply means just that, ‘Gentlemen’.
It is the elite class of Bengali Hindu society that every Bengali aspires to, regardless of their caste. And the term is used for everyone who occupies the elite class of Bengali Hindu samaj, regardless of their caste.
The Partition of Bengal, by reducing the Bengali Hindu community to a minority in the Bengal province, was designed to undermine the influence of Bhadraloks. As such, there was great resistance against the same and soon, it turned into a resistance at a national level.
After much resistance, which often employed violence as a tool against oppressors, the British regime had to roll it back six years later. Muslim leaders of the time had enthusiastically supported the partition while Hindus opposed it. And the reversal of the same caused much anguish to the Muslim leaders of yore.
The Success, and Failures, of the Partition of Bengal
After the rollback of the Partition of Bengal, the capital of British India was transferred to Delhi, which was perceived to be more secure than Kolkata. Historians have noted that had the Brits refrained from pushing through the harebrained scheme, then they could have avoided a lot of trouble that came their way.
The move also meant that the Bhadraloks of Bengal adopted a hardline stance towards independence and issues between Hindus and Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims who espoused the two-nation theory, and that was practically every Muslim leader of the time with influence, tasted their first success which would only galvanise them in the future.
Also, the national movement against the Partition of Bengal meant that the Muslim leaders concluded that the Indian National Congress was a vehicle for Hindu interests and that their desire for supremacy will not be accommodated within the Congress fold.
It is only a few years after that we see a clear wedge appearing between the Congress and the Muslim leaders of the time.
The next phase of events that led to Direct Action Day
The next phase of events, which led even the Hindu Right to conclude that the differences between the leadership of two communities could not be reconciled, began with the abolition of the Caliph of the Ottoman Caliphate.
The Khilafat Movement, which was launched in India, to demand the restoration of the Ottoman Caliph, gained widespread support of the Indian Muslim community. The movement exacerbated the already existing differences between the two communities and made Hindus intrinsically aware of the threat of Islamic radicalism.
Soon after, there was the Moplah genocide of Hindus as well. Undoubtedly, although the official demand for a separate Islamic state was made much later, there were sufficient indications it was a distinct possibility since the 1920s.
The momentum culminated with the Pakistan resolution of 1940 but there were a lot of events that happened between 1918-1940 that deserve much greater elaboration.