Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Madan Mohan Malaviya: how a four-time Congress president became a BJP icon

Many of the Right’s pet issues today, from “reconversion” to the cementing of an aggressive Hindu political identity were initially championed by Malaviya in British India

The Bharat Ratna has always been a political award and this year was no different. The Modi government has conferred India’s highest civilian award on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Vajpayee was, of course, the first prime minster from the BJP and easily the party’s tallest leader. Born more than 150 years ago, Malaviya’s link with the BJP and its ideology is somewhat less know.

Madan Mohan Malaviya was born in Allahabad in a Brahmin family highly respected for its learning and knowledge of Hindu scriptures. Financial circumstances forced him to take up a job as an English teacher in a local school after graduating from his BA. From these humble beginnings, Malaviya was able to branch out into a somewhat bewildering number of fields and leave his mark on them.

He started his political career in 1886 with a widely appreciated address to the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. Malaviya would go on to become one of the most powerful political leaders of his time, managing to be chosen Congress President on four occasions. Impressed by Malaviya’s 1886 address, an Awadh taluqadar, Raja Rampal Singh, offered the editorship of his Hindi newspaper, Hindustani to Malaviya. Later on, Malaviya would go on to rescue the Hindustan Times from financial ruin and launch its Hindi edition. He would serve as the Hindustan Times’ chairman for more than 20 years, building it up to be the foremost nationalist newspaper of its time.

Linguistic Politics

In spite of his achievements in politics and journalism, maybe Malaviya’s greatest impact lies in the sphere of language. The late 1800s saw mobilisation around the issue of Hindi and Urdu—till then, the courts and bureaucracy of the Raj used Urdu written in the Persian script as the official language. Malaviya submitted his famous Memorandum (“Court Character and Primary Education in North-Western Provinces and Oudh”) to the Lt Governor of what is now Uttar Pradesh. The Memorandum was masterfully framed and was one of the principal arguments which convinced the British Raj to pass an order in 1900 which permitted the use of Nagari characters alongside Persian in the courts of the North-Western Provinces.

While his overall achievements are obviously a factor, the primary reason this BJP government feels the need to honour Malaviya is of course his contribution to the Hindu nationalist cause. Malaviya was a staunch conservative both socially and politically. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Independent India’s first woman cabinet minister) writes that Malaviya “would never take food or drink from the hands of anybody other than a Brahmin of his own caste”. He set up a Hindu university in Banaras which along with “Aligarh Moslem University” would produce men “true to their God, their King and their country”. As the reference to the King shows, politically, Malaviya believed in constitutionalism and was one of the few major Congress leaders to oppose Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Carrying on with this strand of thought, the party Malaviya founded, the Hindu Mahasabha did not participate in the Quit India movement of 1942.

Malaviya’s position on the integration of Dalits in order to prevent their conversion to other religions, formed the basis of how the Hindu Right saw this issue and is played out till today in instances like the Shivpuri conversions and the fact that the Indian state takes away “scheduled caste” status from any person who converts away from Hinduism. Malaviya also played an important role in introducing the concept of “reconversion” to Hinduism, an issue which seems to be on the top of the Sangh Parivar’s agenda today. A fear of reduced Hindu numbers—a pet peeve of today’s Hindu Right—drove his thinking on “reconversion”.  Presiding over a Hindu Mahasabha convention in 1932, Malaviya argued: “When now we are so badly treated with a numerical strength of 22 crores, what would be our condition in future with a much reduced Hindu population, if we allow this rate of conversion from Hinduism and do not allow reconversion into Hinduism?”

Muscular Hinduism

Malaviya also championed a muscular Hindu identity which often jostled violently for space with urban India’s Muslim minority. In Allahabad, the annual Ram Lila procession was organised by the Malaviya family. In the fractious politics of North India, this procession would often trigger off communal violence, the immediate catalyst being music being played outside mosques. When the British demanded that the procession stop playing music whenever it passed outside a mosque, Malaviya refused, arguing that this would make it a “mourning procession, not a Ram Dal”. As a result, the British banned the Ram Lila procession in Allahabad and it was only resurrected in 1937 when a Congress government came to power in UP under the 1935 Government of India Act.

Organisationally, Malaviya also had a seminal role to play in the Hindu nationalist movement. He set up the Hindu Samaj in 1880 in reaction to what he thought were Christian missionary attempts to stop the annual Magh Mela. But of course, his biggest contribution was the setting up of the Hindu Mahasabha along with Lala Lajpat Rai in 1915. The Mahasabha was the largest Hindu nationalist party in British India. Mahasabha leaders such as Savarkar played a key role in crystallising Hindu nationalist thought and one of the party’s tallest leaders, Syama Prasad Mookerjee would go on to found the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the ruling BJP today.

Given how Malaviya contributed, both ideologically and organisationally, to the Hindu nationalist cause, it is not surprising that the BJP now seeks to honour him with a Bharat Ratna.

Four facts about Patel that Modi would find disappointing

First published in

Modi idolises Patel and pushes him as a counter to Nehru’s legacy. However Patel’s wariness of the RSS’ capacity for violence or his opposition against using force to settle the Babri Masjid dispute might leave the Prime Minster in an awkward spot

Already preparing for a long reign, Modi has started to press history into service, building up the political capital needed for an extended stint in the PM’s chair. Grabbing at past icons rather indiscriminately, the Prime Minister has referenced the staunchly secular Nehru, his dynasty-loving daughter, Indira and socialist, Jai Prakash Narayan. Gandhi’s vision of cleanliness was bought on for the Swachch Bharat campaign, quietly setting aside the Sangh Parivar’s disagreements with the Mahatma’s legacy. Less oxymoronically, Modi has also called upon more right-wing icons such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madanmohan Malaviya.

Even in this crowded firmament, the brightest star from Modi’s point of view is obvious: Vallabhbhai Patel. Modi has fashioned himself closely after the Sardar, right from his days as Chief Minister. He promised to build a statue of Patel which would be the tallest statue in the world and is estimated to cost a whopping Rs 2,500 crore. Not surprisingly, Modi seems to have chalked out big plans for Patel’s birthday (which is today) declaring it to be "Rashtriya Ekta Diwas" or “National Unity Day”.
Of course, historical figures are complex three dimensional characters and often, the Patel that Modi or the larger Sangh Parivar might imagine, would differ quite a bit from the historical Sardar. Here are four such instances when the real Patel might leave Modi cold:

Patel loved/hated the RSS

The Sangh Parivar has claimed ideological kindredship with Patel for some time now. In 1966, M.S. Golwalkar, supremo of the RSS wrote in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, “We were fortunate that we had in Sardar Patel a person with an iron will to face the reality in those days”.

Modi, who considers Gowalkar a “guru worthy of worship” naturally has a similarly positive view about the Sardar. Liberals, on the other hand have tended to discredit the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to invoke Patel. Ramchandra Guha, for example, thinks it is ironic that Patel is being claimed by the BJP when he “was himself a lifelong Congressman”.

No matter his being a Congressman, as a conservative, Patel certainly had common ground, ideologically, with the RSS. Three weeks before Gandhi’s assassination, Patel warmly invited swayamsevaks to join the Congress: “In the Congress, those who are in power feel that by the virtue of authority they will be able to crush the RSS. You cannot crush an organisation by using the danda. The danda is meant for thieves and dacoits. They are patriots who love their country. Only their trend of thought is diverted. They are to be won over by Congressmen, by love.”

Things changed sharply after Gandhi’s assassination, however. While the direct involvement of the RSS was never pursued in a court of law, the fact that the RSS’ ideology was responsible for motivating Godse was quite clear. In his letter of July 18, 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee after Gandhi’s murder, the Sardar wrote:

“… as [a] result of the activities of these two bodies[the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha], particularly the former, an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible. There is no doubt in my mind the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasbha was involved in this conspiracy. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State.”

Patel banned the RSS just after Gandhi’s assassination but also unbanned them after a year and a half. However, wary of their proclivity towards of violence, Patel ensured that this unbanning would come with a rider:  the RSS would not take part in politics. Within a year, however, the RSS had broken their promise, pushing the Jan Sangh as its political arm. Later on the Jan Sangh would morph into the modern-day BJP.

Patel deserved to be Prime Minster but Nehru stole his crown

It is often imagined by the Indian Right that Patel was the “rightful” Prime Minster but was somehow cheated out of it by Nehru. Modi himself skirted with this thought when, back in October last year, he attacked Nehru, bemoaning that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster. More recently, Subramanian Swamy had a more detailed take on the matter:

Gandhiji took a vote of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) presidents in 1946, and only one of the 16 PCC Presidents voted for Nehru. The other 15 voted for Sardar Patel. But Gandhiji asked Patel to withdraw in favour of Nehru for practical politics — to hasten British departure.

This is, of course, as many of you might know, an extremely popular tale on the Internet across a number of blogs. As you also might know, PCCs voting to elect the Prime Minister is an absurd proposition—a bit like Modi getting elected by BJP state units.

A variant of this conspiracy theory is that the PCCs were electing the Congress president (and not the Prime Minster). The Congress president at the time of independence would somehow become Prime Minster (the exact process is never explained). Problems here too: PCCs don’t elect Presidents, AICC delegates do. Moreover, Nehru was not the Congress President when India gained independence, JB Kripalani was. Tragically, no one informed Kripalani of this mechanism and he remained bereft of prime ministership right until his dying day.

The simple reason as to why Nehru became PM was that he was, by far, the Congress’ most popular politician (after Gandhi, of course). Right from the 1937 provincial elections, Nehru was the party’s star campaigner, enthralling crowds with his Hindustani oratory. Patel had an iron grip on the Congress party itself but he was many a mile behind Nehru as a popular leader. The Sardar himself conceded this: at a massively attended Congress rally in Mumbai, he told American journalist Vincent Sheean, “They come for Jawahar, not for me”.

Thus, in 1946, when the Viceroy formed his interim government, Nehru was, unsurprisingly, given the highest post. Later, on 15 August 1947, he naturally took office as Prime Minster, without the least opposition from anyone in the Congress.

Nehru is often blamed for Partition by the Sangh Parivar but Patel never is

The most recent espousal of this theory came via the RSS’ Kerala mouthpiece which put forth the argument that Nathuram Godse should have targeted Jawaharlal Nehru instead of Mahatma Gandhi since he was responsible for Partition.

Whatever be the rights and wrongs of Partition, this was a decision taken jointly both Nehru and Patel. In fact, if anything, Patel was far more receptive to the idea and Nehru only came around much later and far more reluctantly. VP Menon, the architect of the Partition Plan, informs us that as far back as December 1946, Patel had accepted the division of India while Nehru would only acquiesce 6 months later. Abul Kalam Azad, a staunch critic of Partition right till the very end, was disappointed with Patel’s support and writes in his memoir, India wins Freedom, that he was “surprised and pained when Patel in reply [to why Partition was needed] said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India.”

Patel did not want the Babri Masjid demolished

The birth of the BJP is inextricably linked with the movement it led to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and have a temple constructed in its place. Modi himself was a part of the movement, albeit as a low-level functionary. In December 6, 1992, frenzied mobs even demolished the mosque, as top BJP leaders hugged each other and distributed sweets. Till today, the BJP has the construction of the Ram Temple on its manifesto.

The BJP would, therefore, be surprised to know that Patel did now share their enthusiasm in this matter. In 1949, a mob descended upon the Babri Masjid and, after chasing away the muezzin, installed the idol of Ram Lalla in order to claim it as a temple. Within a month of the incident, Patel shot of a letter to the then CM of Uttar Pradesh, GB Pant warning that “there can be no question of resolving such disputes by force”.  Differing even more starkly from the final outcome of 1992, Patel opined that “such matters can only be resolved peacefully if we take the willing consent of the Muslim community with us”.

Monday, December 8, 2014

How a dispute identical to the Babri Masjid played out in colonial Lahore

The Shaheedganj Mosque dispute from the Lahore of the 1930s shows us that claims drive by faith are best handled by enforcing rule of law
First published on

22 years ago to this day, frenzied mobs set upon the Babri Masjid and tore it down. The incident set off massive riots, the largest the subcontinent has seen since Partition.  In Mumbai alone, around 1,000 people are said to be have been massacred.

Today, matters have cooled down. The BJP, which used the agitation to rise exponentially, now holds an absolute majority in Parliament. The legal dispute itself is over. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court passed a judgment splitting the land 3 ways. And while the BJP is yet to deliver on its promise of building a “grand” ram temple, the spot where the Babri Masjid once stood does function as a Hindu place of worship.

Interestingly, Lahore in the 1930s saw a remarkably similar dispute. While in the 1990s, Hindu politicians claimed that a mosque stood over what was once a temple, in Lahore of the 1930s, Muslim politicians claimed that a gurdwara stood over what was once a mosque. It was, to use AG Noorani’s words, “Ayodhya in reverse”. However, as we shall see, the final outcomes of the two cases were rather different.

The Dispute

A year after the British occupied the Punjab in 1849, a Lahori citizen named Nur Ahmad filed a case against Bhai Jiwan Singh and Ganda Singh, who held possession of the Shaheedganj Mosque. This mosque had been in control of a group of Sikhs for at least two and a half centuries now and in the same compound there also existed a gurdwara. The suit was dismissed since Ahmad did not have possession of the structure—the expected legal outcome. Ahmad was not deterred and filed at least 3 more cases but all of them fell through. At around the same time, in the 19th century, a very similar legal process was actually followed in the case of the chabutra, or platform, outside the Babri Masjid. Hindu groups sued for ownership of the chabutra but lost on grounds of not having possession (claims to the Babri Masjid structure itself, would be made later)

Back to Lahore: in 1927, the Shaheedganj Mosque was formally passed into the care of the newly formed Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Immediately, there were objections from Muslim groups and after a protracted series of legal cases, the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of the SGPC on the grounds that the mosque had long since ceased being used for Muslim worship and had passed into Sikh hands since at least 1852. To compare, the Babri Masjid site had been in Muslim hands since at least 1528, a time period more than 300 years longer than Shaheedganj.

Soon after winning the case, the SGPC decided to the clear the compound of all “un-Sikh like deviations and non-Sikh usages”. On the night of July 8, 1935, the Sikhs in control of the compound demolished the mosque, placing Lahore on communal tenterhooks. Just like in 1992, the majority community, fired by religious fervour, wanted control over a place of worship that they had no legal claim to.

By October, 1935 we were seeing a familiar pattern: Muslims had started a programme of civil disobedience, trying to take the property by force. By October 1935, Lahore had seen Sikh-Muslim riots over the issue. 

How it was resolved

Here, however, things start to diverge from Babri. Unlike in Uttar Pradesh, Lahore’s colonial administration was extremely strict with protestors.  It opened fire on agitating Muslim crowds when they tried to take the compound by force and wantonly arrested leaders of the agitation, at one time even barging into the city’s biggest mosque, the Badhshahi Masjid to apprehend Maula Bakhsh and Yasub-ul-Hasan, the main leaders of the civil disobedience at the time.

One more difference was that the movement was confined to minor politicians—unlike the BJP in independent India, the big wigs of the time never took up the case of Shaheedganj. At the time, the premier of the Punjab was Fazl-i-Husain, who led a pro-British, cross-communal party of landlords, called the Unionists. This sort of grassroots communal agitation was harmful for the Unionists, who had within them Muslim, Hindu as well as Sikh zamindars. Fazl-i-Husain, therefore, quite explicitly advised Muslims to give up claims to Shaheedganj. He writes in his diary:
Various people came to me about the Shahidganj Mosque. I advised them to drop the matter, and then something may transpire to improve matters, but that there was no advance possible at this stage. They protested that this meant defeat. I told them that they have been defeated in this matter at all stages and my advice is to court no more defeats.
Herbert Emerson, then Governor of the Punjab, invited Jinnah over to Lahore to further calm matters. Jinnah was largely a non-entity in Punjab at the time but the Muslim League did have some influence over the urban population of Lahore who were the main party in this case.

Khalid Guaba, a local Punjabi politician who chaperoned Jinnah around, has left us a humorous portrait of the visit. On being asked to go to the Friday prayers at the Badshahi Mosque, Jinnah initially refused. As it turned out, Jinnah did not know how to read the namaaz. Gauba claims he gave Jinnah “a few lesson as to the posture he had to make” while praying, however at the mosque, unable to physically go down on his knees, Jinnah simply squatted down on the floor of the mosque with “his knees and hands folded”.

This aside, Jinnah’s visit proved successful. He set up a peace board with representatives of all communities.  During a speech, Jinnah lamented that nowadays there were no cross-community leaders and recalled his mentor from Bombay, saying, “Give me more Gokhales”. BR Nanda writes that Jinnah was successful in “securing the revocation of civil disobedience by Muslim firebrands, and lowering the communal temperature.”

Shorn of political oxygen, the movement for the Shaheedganj Mosque collapsed. Soon enough, the SGPC constructed a gurdwara at the site of the now demolished Shaheedganj Mosque.

The legal side of the issue dragged on till 1940 when the case was discussed in the Privy Council—the court of ultimate appeal in British India. Unlike the Allahabad High Court in 2010, however, the Privy Council did not get bogged down with medieval history or religious belief in order to decide what was essentially a property dispute. In line with lower court judgements, it simply dismissed the Muslim side’s claim, citing the statute of limitations, noting that the property has been under Sikh control for a sufficient length of time.

This ended the matter. The Shaheedganj Gurdwara, constructed at the site, still exists in Lahore today.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


The still-fairly-new BJP government has managed to drop some rather interesting statements with respect to science and rationality. First, a person no less than the prime minister opined that ancient Indians invented plastic surgery and reproductive genetics, producing as clinching proof, the examples of Karan from the Mahabharata and the elephant-headed god, Ganesh. Later on, the home mister, Rajnath Singh decided to switch tracks from biology to physics and claim that Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty is based on the Vedas.

People occupying high government office and holding irrational views, however, is not something that India is totally unaccustomed to. Back in 1950, India was to be declared a republic on 26 January in order to commemorate the Congress' 1930 Purna Swaraj resolution. However, one person disagreed with the date: Rajendra Prasad, the current president of India. Prasad had been elected President with Patel's backing largely because of his conservative views (Nehru supported the liberal Rajaji but was outmanoeuvred by Patel). True to his conservatism, Prasad opposed the date because he thought it would be astrologically inauspicious.  Nehru, of course, ignored this line of reasoning and in reply shot off this caustic, withering letter.

Source: Jawaharlal Nehru Vol.2 1947-1956 By Sarvepall Gopal

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Communal Chief Ministers

As the Goa CM, Manohar Parikkar, quits in order to join the Union Cabinet, an internecine fight has broken out in the Goa BJP over who is to succeed him. While the deputy chief minister is Francis D' Souza it is, however, fairly certain that Laxmikant Parsekar is to be the new chief minister.

Unsurprisingly, allegations of communalism are being floated about. Support for CMs also seem to be arranged along religious lines. This Economic Times report for example say that "D'Souza has the support of at least five catholic MLAs in BJP who would join with him if he rebels"[emphasis mine]

This situation is remarkably similar to an incident as described by Abul Kalam Azad in his biography, India Wins Freedom. The incidents pertains to the Congress choosing its CMs along communal lines after the 1937 provincial elections in Bombay state. This is an excerpt describing the Bombay incident:
One incident happened at the time which left a bad impression about the attitude of the Provincial Congress Committees. The Congress had grown as a national organization and given the opportunity of leadership to men of different communities. In Bombay, Mr Nariman was the acknowledged leader of the local Congress. When the question of forming the provincial Government arose, -there was general expectation that Mr Nariman would be asked to lead i t in view of his status and record. This was not however done. Sardar Patel and his colleagues did not like Nariman and the result was that Mr B. G. Kher became the first Chief Minister of Bombay. Since Nariman was a Parsee and Kher a Hindu, this led . to wide speculation that Nariman had been by-passed on communal grounds. Even if it is not true, it is difficult to disprove such an allegation.
As a result of his allegations, Nariman was expelled from the Congress party. However, as maybe a small consolation, Nariman Point--Bombay city's poshest piece of real estate--was name after him.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Nehru-Patel Bhai-Bhai?

In response to the furious appropriation of Patel by the BJP, liberal commentators have launched a vigorous counter-offensive. One prong of the attack consists of downplaying differences between Nehru and Patel.

Writing in The Hindustan Times, Ramchandra Guha argues that:
Because of such partisanship, many Indians have come to believe that Nehru and Patel were personal rivals and political adversaries...Nehru and Patel were in fact not rivals but comrades and co-workers. They worked closely together in the Congress from the 1920s to 1947; and even more closely together thereafter, as prime minister and deputy prime minister in the first government of free India. [emphasis mine]
Personally, I found this a bit odd since 'rivals' and 'co-workers' are hardly antonyms. That Nehru and Patel, part of the same cabinet and party, were 'co-workers' is a tautology. As anyone who has even a passing interest in politics will be able to confirm, party men and co-workers being bitter rivals is hardly unprecedented.

Later on, Vidya Subrahmaniam writing in The Hindu launched an even more sincere almost Pollyannaish defence of Nehru-Patel bhai bhai:
What is the truth? Nehru and Patel often disagreed, and furiously so. But such was the beauty of the relationship that they rarely kept a secret from each other. They wrote to each other almost every other day, expressing their doubts and differences honestly and openly, and concluding in the end that their mutual affection and regard outweighed any difference they felt with regard to state policy. In their letters, the two great men agonised over the rumours surrounding their relationship and the constant attempts to create a divide between them.
Here is an excerpt from Nehrua biography of our first Prime Minster by Benjamin Zachariah which provides a maybe more level-headed appraisal of the tensions (Zachariah uses the phrase 'Cold War') between Nehru and Patel.
Through all this, the ‘duumvirate’ was engaged in what effectively was an internal Cold War. There was a brief thaw after Gandhi’s assassination in which Nehru and Patel appeared to stand together on the issue of communalism and to have overcome differences: in his address on All-India Radio, following Nehru’s, after Gandhi’s assassination, Patel referred to Nehru as ‘my dear brother’.But this was illusory. Patel, the man who increasingly felt in control of the Congress’s organisational politics and who had done so much to set up the continuity and functioning of the institutional mechanisms of the new Indian state, wished to have a larger say in political matters. Representing the Congress right, he also commanded the allegiance of a large section of the party, possibly, he believed, the majority; especially after he had engineered the transformation of the Congress into a more disciplined party, had engineered the exclusion of the CPI from the Congress after the war, and had seen the secession of the socialists in 1949. Nehru was definitely indispensable to the Congress as the most popular and recognisable figure both on a world stage and within India that the Congress could present in public. But the attempted disempowerment of Nehru in terms of day-to-day practical politics was to continue, if possible. Patel hoped he could work Gandhi’s old trick of placing Nehru in a position of formal responsibility from which he could not exercise power. 
Gandhi, however, had been able to work this tactic because of Nehru’s undoubted reverence and respect for him. Patel could command no such respect from Nehru, who would publicly praise him when necessary, but made no particular secret of their differences. Nevertheless, Patel was firmly in control of the Congress organisation and the leader of the right wing of Congress, supported by surviving members of the ‘old guard’ such as Rajendra Prasad, who if anything was more anti-Muslim than Patel himself. These members of the Congress right, increasingly sensing their potential for achieving effective power, no longer felt it necessary to hide behind the legitimating rhetoric of Gandhism. Genuine Gandhians, whose discomfort with a centralised state apparatus and large-scale industry as envisaged by Nehru had long been apparent, now withdrew to the background. J.B. Kripalani, who had been the Congress president at independence, resigned his presidency in November 1947, raising uncomfortable questions about corruption in the party and in the civil service inherited from British rule, and warning of the dangers of ‘investing the State with the monopoly of political and economic exploitation, which is what happens in the centralised economy of a communist or a fascist state’.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Meet the icons of India's refurbished history: Mukherjee, Upadhyaya, Malaviya

With India’s medieval history irrevocably communalised, the rise of the BJP now portends a steady reworking of modern history to suit its Hindutva agenda

[version of this piece was first published on]

When well-meaning people protest history being politicised, it’s a bit like complaining about water being wet. Nineteenth century ideals of positivism, of history being an objective science seem to still be extremely popular. Of course, there is nothing perfectly objective about the writing of history—subjectivity in interpreting facts is a necessary part of the discipline. This also means that history can be, and often is, utilised by politics for its own needs. After all, whoever controls the past tends to controls the future.

It is in this light that we must see the flurry of activity in the usually sedate world of academic history ever since the Modi government assumed power with an absolute majority on May 16. Most recently, the Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), a historical research organisation with ties to the RSS, held a symposium to celebrate Hemu, the so-called last Hindu king of Delhi, who controlled the city with his Afghan forces for exactly 29 days. Unfortunately, like so much of Hindutva “history”, the core facts of the argument were simply made up and, in one rather hilarious example, scenes from the Bollywood movie Jodha Akbar were screened as part of a “documentary” on the period.

Medieval history has already been communalised

The ABISY might have made a hash of things, but it must be noted that at the popular—and political—level, the object of politicising medieval history has already been realised. Publicly, India has disowned the Muslim rulers who governed most of the subcontinent. Delhi and Agra might have been the capitals of the vast Mughal Empire but Mughals today are absent from the city’s roundabouts where you’re far more likely to find a statue of Shivaji, who ruled a kingdom 1,500 km away. On the Internet, there are many rants about roads named after Mughals in Delhi, but the fact is that in independent India, street nomenclature has scrupulously avoided medieval Muslim monarchs: the existing “Aurangzeb Road” and so on are parting gifts bequeathed by the British builders of Lutyens’ Delhi. In Lucknow, there is a road named after Maharana Pratap of Mewar but, ironically, Wajid Ali Shah, the tragic last nawab of the city itself, has been ignored by Lucknow’s civic planners.

Medieval therefore being won, the real fight is in more recent history. And some headway has already been made there, starting with attacks on Nehru, whose liberal policies make him a special hate figure in the Sangh Parivar. Modi set the ball rolling right at the campaign stage where he opined that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster than Nehru, echoing his guru, M.S. Gowalkar who greatly admired the Sardar as well.

However, communalising modern history isn’t going to be as easy as medieval history was. The latter has been undergoing this process since the time of the British who found it convenient to silo India’s history into “Hindu” and “Muslim”. The communalisation of modern history, though, is something which is far more recent. This explains the paradox of Modi, quite suddenly, calling upon the legacies of Nehru and Gandhi as he tries to build political capital for his schemes. Nehru as a political icon is no pushover and while Modi might love to snap his fingers and have the Pandit airbrushed from the scene, currently he will have to compromise with the past in order to secure his future.

India’s potential new icons

This does not mean an abject surrender to the Nehruvian version of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but a steady erosion of it. Sure enough, the previous budget had social schemes named after Right-Wing stalwarts such as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya. All three are relatively unknown in the popular discourse but hold a special significance for the BJP as well as the larger Hindutva movement.

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a party he started with the backing of the RSS in 1951 after falling out with Nehru. He persuaded the RSS to involve itself directly in political affairs. Till then the RSS had avoided politics, preferring to direct its energies towards Hindu society instead. The current BJP is, of course, the direct successor of the Jana Sangh. For its position on Kashmir and Article 370, the BJP takes direct inspiration from Mukherjee, even as it ignores the fact that he was a party to the disastrous decision to refer to the Kashmir issue to the UN.

Organisationally, however, Mukherjee had a limited impact on the Jana Sangh since he died within only two years of its founding. After that, Deendayal Upadhyaya took up the task of building up the Jana Sangh and had a seminal role to play in shaping the party’s ideology. His philosophical tract, Integral Humanism still has a key impact on the BJP, even being named in several manifestos. In it, Upadhyaya lays out the Hindutva view of India, rejecting Individualism and even Capitalism, both of which he characterised as Western imports alien to India and supported an “organic” form of the caste system which he felt would lead to a harmonious society. His social agenda has survived more or less intact in the BJP till this day. Upadhyaya’s Swadeshi economic agenda is less popular but rears its head every now and then as was demonstrated by Modi’s protectionist decision to reject the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.

Madan Mohan Malaviya is, of course, a Congress leader having been the party’s president on two occasions (1910 and 1918). But, like Patel, Malaviya’s religious and social conservatism endears him to today’s BJP. Additionally, he is also one of the early leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, which during his time, functioned as a Hindu nationalist pressure group within the Congress (it would delineate itself as an independent party in the late 30s under the leadership of Savarkar). Malaviya founded the Banaras Hindu University with the aim of upholding Hindu tradition, including a hereditary caste system, even as he strongly opposed untouchability, correlating it to Muslim and Christian conversion, a strain of thinking which strongly influences the Hindu Right.

Fairly or unfairly, depending on your own political proclivities, Nehru, Gandhi and then Indira and Rajiv have dominated our public airwaves, as the Congress tried to cement its rule with help from its past icons. With the verdict of May 16, a realignment of the historical stars is on the plate. Already the BJP’s chief Twitter intellectual Subramaniam Swamy, never one to miss a chance at medievalism, has called for the books of Nehruvian historians to be “burnt in a bonfire”. “It is important to resize the stature that Nehru enjoys in Indian history,” said Swamy later on in an op-ed in The Hindu. Slowly the BJP will push its own icons to replace the old Nehruvian ones. This will include fellow ideological travellers such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Madan Malaviya, Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda but will also include people such as S.P. Mukherjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya who have contributed organisationally to make the BJP what it is today.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shivaji, Afzal Khan and the Assembly Elections

The Shivaji statue inside the fort,
inaugurated in the '50s by Nehru

The Shivaji-Afzal Khan encounter is Maharashtra’s most evocative tale and was used to the hilt in the Assembly Elections. In the midst of the polls, Tarikh par Tarikh travels to the venue of the battle and discovers the history that still lives and breathes there.

[An edited version of this piece was first published in the Hindu Business Line]

The recently concluded Maharashtra assembly elections saw an interesting intra-saffron contest, as the BJP and Shiv Sena ended their 25-year old alliance. Break-ups, though, are hard. So bitter was Uddhav Thackeray over being dumped, he even compared the BJP to the army of 17th century Bijapuri general, Afzal Khan. This might not seem like much at first glance, but if you’re acquainted with Maharashtra, you’ll know that Khan is the state’s most-hated villain.

His unpopularity stems from the fact that he was the main antagonist in the Battle of Pratapgarh against Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire. The status of Shivaji in Maharashtra has no parallels in any other part of the country. Every school child in the state learns of his heroic exploits and the traditional histories of Maharashtra (called bakhars) treat Shivaji as a quasi-divine figure, often inspired directly by the Goddess Bhavani. Each town in Maharashtra will have an equestrian Shivaji statue in its main square and in the capital city of Mumbai, its airport, its largest train station, largest park and principal museum, are all named after the Chhatrapati. Not surprisingly, the story of Shivaji’s encounter with Afzal Khan is known throughout the state and is one of its most enduring tales.

The Battle Site

The town closest to Pratapgarh fort today is the colonial-era hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Situated on a plateau, Mahabaleshwar has various “points” which overlook the valleys below. At Bombay Point, once I had zoned out the boisterous families, the valley that stretched out before me appeared gorgeous. Everywhere the eye could see, there were rolling hillsides of lush monsoon green interspersed with large splashes of canary yellow, courtesy the Graham’s Groundsel, a flower that’s aptly called the sonki (golden) in Marathi. If you were at Bombay Point on 8 November, 1659, however, a less pretty sight would have greeted you. In the Radtondi pass below, you would have watched the massive Bijapuri army rumble by, headed to the Pratapgarh fort where Shivaji was.

For a long time, the Bijapur Sultanate—the Deccan’s most powerful state—had been forced to ignore Shivaji, as the Maratha captured one Bijapuri fort after another in the Sahyadri hills. Bijapur’s internal strife and conflict with belligerent Mughal prince, Aurangzeb meant that Shivaji got a free hand. Finally in 1659, Bijapur dispatched one of its top generals, Afzal Khan, to confront Shivaji. To note one of the many ironies of that period, Shivaji’s father, Shahji, one of Bijapur’s most powerful nobles, had served alongside Afzal Khan in 1641, as Bijapur endeavoured to crush an uprising of rajas in Vellore.

As Afzal Khan marched to Pratapgarh, he decided to adopt a policy of intimidation of the worst possible kind by destroying a number of Hindu temples on the way, the most important of which was the Vithoba Temple in Pandharpur. Today it is probably Maharashtra’s most popular temple, a status it had even in the 17th century.  Furthermore, as Stewart Gordan points out, “this behaviour was unprecedented for a Bijapuri force” given the kingdom’s past history of syncretism.

Not only was this act morally unconscionable, it was also highly impolitic since it served to alienate the bedrock of Bijapur's civil and military bureaucracy, Marathi Brahmans and Marathas. In the end, the strategy behind the destruction, that of forcing Shivaji to come down from the hills was also a failure. Shivaji knew his forces would be no match for Bijapur’s well-equipped army on the plains and, wisely, did not budge.

Khan, on the other hand, rashly, decided to pursue Shivaji, who then immediately retreated to his fort at Pratapgarh. Like many Deccan forts, Pratapgarh is perched on top of a hill. When I drove up to the fort, it loomed up sharply, its sheer black stone walls enclosed in mist, making it look ominously beautiful. As was obvious at first glance, the fort would be impossible to break into.

Afzal Khan was therefore forced to wait at the foothills of the Sahyadri in Wai. Time however was running out both for Shivaji, who had limited food supplies in the fort, and Khan whose massive army needed to be fed.  Khan therefore sent his envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar to promise that Shivaji would be treated with respect and rewarded if he surrendered. Shivaji agreed to meet with Afzal Khan, but at the base of Pratapgarh fort, deep in the ghats. In this terrain, Bijapur’s heavy artillery would be useless and Shivaji’s men, who knew the Javli forest around Pratapgarh intimately, would have a tactical advantage over the Bijapuris.

The Encounter

Greatly underestimating Shivaji, Khan accepted this stipulation. He moved his massive army within a few miles of Pratapgarh in the village of Par, deep inside the Sahyadri hills.

Par is today a small village of about 30 shingle-roofed houses and one convenience store. The store stocks five-rupee bags of potato chips, Coke, hair oil and fairness cream. Unfortunately, I arrived just after lunch time and found the attendant asleep at the counter. The rest of the village was deserted, the afternoon siesta apparently being a popular Par tradition. Gingerly, I woke the attendant and asked him about Afzal Khan. Thankfully, he was a good-natured chap and didn’t mind his nap being interrupted. “There is an old mazaar from that period. Ramzaan is the caretaker,” he said, pointing me to Ramzaan’s house. In gratitude, I bought a bag of chips and a small tube of fairness cream.

Ramzaan, a man of about 70, and his wife were the only two Muslims in Par. The mazaar, he informed me, was the tomb of Amir Shah Bijapuri, the maternal uncle of Afzal Khan. Amir Shah had died the day the Bijapuri army reached Par and was buried there on top of a hillock. Unfortunately, by now, nothing remained of the original tomb, which had collapsed around 50 years back and a new modern structure built in its place. It was surrounded by graves, which, Ramzaan claimed, were of the Bijapuri soldiers killed in the battle.

As I chatted with Ramzaan, I discovered he knew an incredible amount about the history behind the battle. He rattled off the names of the Bijapur sultans, the names of Afzal Khan’s entourage and even the exact date of the battle itself (in the Islamic calendar). Amazed, I asked him how he knew so much. As it turned out, Ramzaan was a descendant of one the aides of Amir Shah, or so he claimed. “I am the 15th generation of my family to act as caretaker of this dargaah,” he informed me, a note of pride creeping into his voice.

While Amir Shah is not mentioned in the histories of Pratapgarh, it is recorded that Afzal Khan waited for two days in in Par before going off to negotiate terms with Shivaji. The two were to meet in private, unarmed, at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and discuss the terms of Shivaji’s surrender.
What happened next, however, is a Rashomon-like tale which depends greatly on which source you believe. In the Marathi bakhars, it is recounted that Khan resorted to treachery, attacking Shivaji with a hidden kataar (dagger). Parrying his blow, Shivaji hit back, disembowelling Khan with a hidden weapon of his own: a set of tiger claws. In the Persian accounts of the Mughals and Bijapuris, however, historians such as Khafi Khan claim Shivaji attacked first.

No matter the means, the end result was that Shivaji ended up killing Afzal Khan. As soon as Khan was dead, Shivaji’s forces attacked the unsuspecting Bijapur army in Par. The ensuing Battle of Pratapgarh was short and decisive as Khan’s leaderless troops were routed. This would be one of many instances in the career of Shivaji when his intelligence combined with his remarkable personal bravery would result in an improbable victory.

Modern Politics

Shivaji had Afzal Khan buried at the base of the Pratapgarh fort and, chivalrously, even had a tomb constructed for his vanquished opponent. As time passed, the local Muslims of the area, as is common across the subcontinent, started to treat the tomb as a mazaar. All this came to grinding halt in 2004 when, just before the General Elections, the VHP made the existence of the tomb into an issue. They even threatened to demolish the structure. It was a tense time and “for months no tourists came to Pratapgarh because of these politicians,” angrily remarked my Pratapgarh fort guide, Tanaji.

The police at the time managed to protect the tomb but, bowing to pressure, closed it to visitors and it remains shut to this day. I had barely walked up to within 50 metres of the tomb when 3 policemen all but pounced on me and forced me to leave the area. Amazingly, a garrison of 30 policemen has been maintained outside Afzal Khan’s tomb for the past decade in order to guard against further trouble.

After the VHP’s shenanigans, there is much sweet irony in the fact that today its close partner, the BJP is being associated with Afzal Khan. Of course, both incidents indicate how the history of this period has been completely distorted, being moulded, twisted and contorted into shapes which conform to the politics of the 20th century, either as a Hindu versus Muslim contest or a Maharashtrian versus non-Maharashtrian one.

Both Bijapur’s and Shivaji’s armies contained a mixture of faiths as was the norm in the Deccan at the time. Shivaji’s military commander-in-chief was Nurkhan Beg and the Maratha handpicked a Muslim, Sidi Ibrahim as one of the ten trusted commanders who were his first line of defence at the meeting with Afzal Khan. And while Shivaji’s army was largely Maratha so was Bijapur’s, the composition reflecting the martial traditions of the Maratha castes since the time of Malik Ambar and had nothing to do with a 17th century “sons-of-the-soil” policy. Similarly, on the Bijapuri side, religious identity was delinked from political loyalty. Afzal Khan’s trusted envoy, Krishnaji Bhaskar was a Marathi Brahman. Analogous to Shivaji’s faith in his Muslim soldiers, Khan had no issue in trusting his life with a Hindu and Bhaskar was one of the ten Bijapuri commanders at the meeting. In fact when Bhaskar saw his general rush out, severely wounded, he immediately sprung to Khan’s defence only to be cut down by Shivaji’s men.

Our politicians may not care much for history but this is one comparison that Uddhav Thackeray might regret making. Afzal Khan’s army came to Maharashtra only to be soundly defeated — the BJP, on the other hand, has swept the state.

Afzal Khan's tomb

The Pratapgarh fort 
The Pratapgarh fort

The Pratapgarh fort 

The Pratapgarh fort 

The mazaar of Afzal Khan's uncle

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gandhi Jayanti Special: Rafi Sings the Life of the Mahatma

In 1948, some time after Gandhi was assassinated by an RSS worker named Nathuram Godse, the composers Husnlal-Bhagatram teamed up lyricist Rajinder Krishan to write a song as a tribute to the Mahatma.

Called Bapu Ki Amar Kahani, it spanned a rather substantial 12 minutes and narrates in surprisingly detail the life of Mohanlal Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. As a surprise bonus, it's sung by none other than the man himself: Mohammad Rafi.

Listen to it on Gandhi Jayanti to get a quick, lyrical recap on the life of the Father of the Nation.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

From Tawaif to Item Girl

A short cultural history of the item song

 - This piece was first published in Motherland

“I know you want it but you never gonna get it, tere haath kabhi naa aani.”

And so begins what is arguably one of the most popular item songs in recent history, Sheila Ki Jawani. The video opens with Katrina Kaif writhing on a rotating pink bed as a scrum of rather ripped men circle her, giving visual expression to Sheila’s boast that the whole world is head over heels for her. Apart from the catchy music and the gorgeous Katrina Kaif, what is remarkable about Sheila Ki Jawani is just how comfortable Sheila is with her sexuality. She knows that “nobody got body like” her, and so Sheila, supremely in control, announces that she really doesn’t need anyone else—she can love herself just fine.

Lead female characters in Indian cinema rarely exhibit this sort of unapologetic raunch, and in fact filmi heroines are fairly demure little things. Sexuality isn’t part of their coquettish repertoire, and when it does make an appearance in a Hindi film, it comes via the male lead, who steers it. Yes, Sheila Ki Jawani does seem to break the mould, but on closer examination, things aren’t really all that different.

Kaif’s sexy posturing is only given a platform via the cinematic device of the item song. And as anyone who’s had the misfortune of watching Tees Maar Khan would know, the person expressing her sexuality in Sheila Ki Jawani isn’t the female lead—Anya Khan—at all. Sheila Ki Jawani is a film within a film, and it isn’t Anya who sings of her erotic charms, it’s a fictional character, Sheila. A textbook example of the utility of the item song in Bollywood today, Sheila Ki Jawani provides a sheltered alcove, a safe, impermeable bubble in which women can freely express their sexuality, speak of their desires, seduce people—in short, act like men—without upsetting the set order of society, something that the heroine, playing her conventional role, must never do. Anya would never flaunt her body to a bunch of random men, crouched down on all fours, but Item Girl Sheila can.

Bollywood is probably the single greatest display of what, in psychoanalytic literature, is referred to as the Madonna-Whore Complex. Coined by Freud, the term refers to the idea that men silo women into two mutually exclusive categories: saintly “Madonnas” (the Mother of Jesus, not the Queen of Pop) and debased “whores”. Madonnas are “good girls”: virtuous, pure, innocent and, like their namesake, virginal, almost to the point of being asexual. Given their almost childlike nature, “Madonnas” almost always are subservient to men, who protect and care for them. “Whores”, on the other hand, are independent, sexual beings not afraid to aggressively express their desires and, curiously, have a temperament very similar to that expected of men.

Even though the term was coined a mere century ago, the notion has existed since time immemorial, and is such a common cultural trope that oftentimes it goes entirely unnoticed. But cultural tropes aren’t born in a vacuum, and to understand the item song, we must locate the source from which Bollywood borrows this paradigm.

The language of Bollywood is Hindi-Urdu, and so the industry takes a large part of its cultural heritage from North India, where, coincidentally, in the decades just before the Indian film inddustry was born, a Madonna-Whore complex was at play in salons—kothas—in which courtesans—tawaifs—plied their trade. It is in this incongruous, crumbling Indo-Islamic milieu that that we find what might be the roots of today’s item song.


As the Mughal Empire went into terminal decline in the 18th and 19th century, it heralded the rise of a class of elite North Indian entertainers who might, depending on a range of factors, also sometimes provide sexual services. These courtesans were given the name “tawaif”, a word with Arabic roots that refers to bands of itinerant musicians. Its root word, taif, ironically, also refers to someone who performs the circumambulation of the Kaaba at Mecca. In the twilight of the Mughals, these tawaifs were patronised by courts across the length and breadth of a rapidly crumbling empire.

Invested in the institution of a kotha or nishatkhana (literally, ‘pleasure houses’), tawaifs were no ordinary prostitutes, with many being highly skilled practitioners of the arts, which included singing, dancing, poetry and literature. Umrao Jan Ada, the celebrated Urdu novel which purports to tell the story of a real-life courtesan, describes in great detail the cultural grounding that a tawaif would receive. The courtesans started their training as children, with instruction in classical Persian and Arabic—the novel mentions works such as Gulistan of the 13th century poet, Sadi. The finest training in Hindustani classical music and dance would be imparted to them by the best teachers in the city. Umrao Jan herself is portrayed as being an accomplished poet, far more talented thant any of her patrons.

All this meant that kothas were the throbbing nerve centre of social life in the city. In Muraqqa-e-Dehli (Album of Delhi), a description of the city set in the 1730s, a Muslim nobleman from the Deccan, Dargah Quli Khan, gives us a fascinating account of the city in which tawaifs were clearly the superstars of the day. Of these, Nur Bai was the most famous, her popularity causing an elephant “traffic jam” every night outside her house as Delhi’s glitterati queued up, desperate for an audience with her. Ms Chamani, Khan writes, met regularly with the emperor and her voice was as sharp as a pair of scissors. Even courtesans much past their prime such as Asa Pura and Chak-Mak Dahni, were sought after for their singing, underscoring the cultural role tawaifs played.

Their proximity to the state’s elite meant that, in some cases, tawaifs went beyond even the arts and into the world of politics, a remarkable feat for a woman at the time. In 1803, Begum Samru, a tawaif of Kashmiri descent, became the ruler of Sardhana, a small principality near Meerut, inheriting the title from her European mercenary husband. Abdul Halim Sharar also wrote of the political influence that the tawaifs held, in Guzishta Lakhnau, his description of pre-1857 Lucknow. The book gave the account of a prime minster of Awadh, Hakim Mahdi, who owed his success to the financial backing of a courtesan named Piyaro. Commenting on the influence that tawaifs had, Sharar wrote, “it is said that until a person had association with courtesans he was not a polished man.”

The tawaif’s talents meant that the sharif (upper class) man found the amorous and cerebral pleasures of the kotha far more interesting than his home, where his wife was usually illiterate and lead a cloistered life, rarely stepping out of her zenana (or women’s apartments). At mushairas, for example, one segment was often devoted to humorous poetry which used the unpolished speech of the zenana for comic effect, showcasing the gulf between the intellectual world of the sharif men and women. Indeed, this gave the tawaif a unique position. Veena Talwar Oldenberg in her celebrated essay, Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, has argued that the life of a tawaif, her independence and power, her ability to parley on equal terms with men (unlike the woman of the zenana) meant that the kotha acted in conflict to patriarchal values. The essay argues, convincingly, that tawaifs are “independent and consciously involved in the covert subversion of a male dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are part.” Liberated from husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, tawaifs are masters of their own fate and, unlike sharif women, “their way of life is not complicitous with male authority”.

But, and here’s the rub: in spite of being in every which way, more accomplished than the zenana woman, the tawaif actually occupied a social status that was inferior to them. The deal here was that the tawaif, with her individuality and lack of male dependence, had now been slotted as the archetypal “whore”. Men would rather spend time with them than their chaste and pure “Madonna” wives, but given that tawaifs were now “debased”, men would, in a breath-taking display of doublethink, also treat the kotha as inferior to the zenana. For example, in the Urdu novel Umrao Jan Ada, Khurshid, a tawaif who has a “face like a fairy”, made the mistake of falling in love with a certain Pyare Sahib. When she insisted that Pyare take her home so that she could make the transition from tawaif to wife, he refused, fearing social opprobrium. For marriage, only a sharif lady would do.

Tawaifs could be smart and urbane; they could provide men with intellectual company but as “whores” they would always remain distinct from the “Madonnas” of the zenana. Even a system as highly developed as the nishatkhana, when all was said and done, ended up being just a sophisticated showcase for the Madonna-Whore complex.


The Rebellion of 1857 dealt a body blow to the entire culture of North India, including the institution of the kotha. Not only were their clients ruined but tawaifs were penalised for their assistance to the rebels. Additionally, as India came under direct British rule, Victorian notions of morality gained ascendance. The British, who had actively patronised the kotha before 1857, now derided it as a decadent oriental institution. In 1875, a tawaif entertained the Prince of Wales to a dance recital during his visit to India. In just 15 years, however, the growing “anti-nautch” movement ensured that when, in 1890, Prince Albert Victor partook of similar entertainment there were indignant protests against the poor man for this “immoral” act. The post-1857 Indian petit bourgeois class, influenced by English education, had also imbibed these Victorian ideas of morality, leaving the tawaif in rather dire straits.

While modern notions of ethics ruined the tawaif, modern technology came to her rescue. At a time when the institution of the kotha was on its last legs, the recording/radio industry and, then a few decades down the line, the film industry acted to absorb tawaifs.  The first singers to be recorded in India were tawaifs (who had now started calling themselves ganewalis or singers), the pioneer there being Gauhar Jan of Calcutta. Later on, it is said, inspired by her, a certain tawaif, Akhtaribai Faizabadi also took to recording her songs under the screen name, Begum Akhtar. Large numbers also made it to the new film industry, the best example being one of Gauhar Jan’s students, Jaddan Bai, who, remarkably, was a music composer, singer, actress as well as a director. She is today, though, better known as the mother of Nargis, and via her grandson, Sanjay Dutt, ensured that the tawaif “blood line” continued in Bollywood till 2013, cut short only by the Arms Act.

This influx of tawaifs as well as the preponderance of people from the heartland in the film industry meant that Bollywood naturally took the ethos of the kotha system, the Madonna-Whore complex, the purity of the zenana, the debased “masculinity” of the nautch girl and included them in its films, using, of course, the device of the item song.

The phrase “item song” might be of recent origin (from local Bombay slang, “item”, meaning an “attractive woman”) but the phenomenon is as old as the talkies themselves. India’s first item girl was a half-German, half-Indian lady, Anna Marie Gueizelor, better known by her somewhat inexplicable screen name, Azurie. Making her debut in 1934, Azurie was the dancing star of the time, acting in over 50 films, right up to Bahana in 1960. Her only starring role, though, was in in the movie Maya (1936), where she plays a spoilt, rich socialite who pursues the hero. The hero, wisely, avoids this sort of forward woman and falls in love with the pure Maya, instead, much to the chagrin of Azurie who uses every trick in the book to get them to break-up, unsuccessfully of course.

As can be seen from Maya, the tropes of the bold tawaif and the demure zenana woman, were born fully-formed in Hindi Cinema. Dishonour and being sexually provocative, goodness and being reserved, it’s all there and the newly formed film industry, catering to the tastes of its audience, faithfully reproduces them.

The conventions set by Azurie—the nautch girl cum vamp—would be carried on by Cuckoo Moray. Making her debut in 1944, Cuckoo was really the first superstar item girl of B-town. With Shamshad Begum as her playback voice (to be mirrored by the Helen-Asha pair in some time) Cuckoo’s lithe frame was ubiquitous throughout the 40s and early 50s. In most movies, her role was limited to that of the item song, suitably sexualised, as in Awara (1951) where she sings “ek do teen, aaja mausam hai rangeen” in a bar, paying special attention to a sullen Raj Kapoor, who after a while, tired of this nonsense, literally pushes her to the ground. The paying public, though, were far more receptive to her charms and, consequently, distributers made sure that movies at the time did carry Cuckoo’s item song, an anecdote to be remembered the next time someone drones on about how the Sheilas and the Munnis have “trashed” Bollywood nowadays.

Cuckoo also popularised Cabaret in films, a form of risqué entertainment popular in the more elite hotels and restaurants of the time, the acts being performed by European troupes. Interestingly, the fact that Indians vamp-ised the exotic Western Cabaret dancer bears interesting parallels to the treatment of the tawaifs by the British. In both cases, a strong display of sexuality by the Other Woman was given a moral colour. The anti-nautch movement held up the tawaif as symbol of Eastern decadence compared to the upright British woman and 50 years later, Cabaret dancers, symbols of Western licentiousness, were contrasted with pavitra Indian girls, the suitable wife, with whom the hero would live happily ever after.

Cabaret hit its peak, as is well known, under Helen. Of Anglo-Burmese descent, Helen was initiated into Bollywood as a backup dancer by Cuckoo herself. In 1958, Helen and Cuckoo starred together in what is possibly Bollywood’s greatest mujra number, Hum Tumhare Hain, as part of the “super-hit” Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. This song was when, if you’ll allow me to be a bit filmi, pupil became master. Dancing alongside Cuckoo, Helen outshone her guru and with the success of Mera naam chin chin choo (Howrah Bridge), later in the same year, Bollywood had a new dancing queen.

Hum Tumhare Hain also tells us that Bollywood, at the time, saw the mujra as unmitigated evil. To use Jerry Pinto’s phrase, the kotha (as well as the nightclub) provided the filmmaker with “instant debauchery”. Hum Tumhare Hain is a dance performed for the villain of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, played deliciously by KN Singh. Shots of Singh reclining on a settee, a thin lecherous smile across his face, are interspersed during the song, firmly reminding the viewer that this is a place of sin and depravity. This Victorian demonisation of the mujra would continue for a few more years till the ’70s, after which Bollywood yoked the tawaif to the stock character of the “hooker with a heart of gold” with movies such as Ek Nazar, Muqqaddar ka Sikandar, Pakeezah, Umrao Jan and Tawaif. This, of course, did not mean that Bollywood had erased the anti-nautch movement. Those Victorian values still remained but were now more patronising than directly hostile. For example, the character of Umrao Jan in the movie is significantly different from the novel. The original Umrao was fairly cavalier about romance, famously declaring, “I have never really been in love with anyone, nor anyone with me”. Decades of accumulated guilt about the kotha probably made this frankness disconcerting for the filmmakers, who changed the character to make her fall in love with one of her patrons and pine for him faithfully till the very end, like a “good” woman should.

The 70s saw another significant trend and one that continues till today: the fading out of stock item girls, like Helen and lesser performers such as Bindu, Aruna Irani and Padma Khanna. Breaking many taboos, mainstream heroines took their place, dancing and, to use that utilitarian Bollywood term, “exposing” in order to provide the titillation that the audience demanded. That said, this was hardly a jettisoning of the Madonna-Whore complex, more a reworking of it. Mostly, the heroine could perform erotically only for the hero, a good example being Sridevi’s wet sari act in Mr India. Allowances were also made when singing or dancing was a result of some pressing compulsion, such as Madhuri singing Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai? to trap the film’s villain. The “Madonna” could become the “whore”, temporarily, but only if the circumstances absolutely demanded it; never willingly.

For all that progress, therefore, the spirit of the Madonna-Whore complex was still maintained. Recently, in both Fevicol se and Beedi Jalayile, mainstream actors Kareena Kapoor and Bipasha Basu perform in item songs, not as the female lead but playing dancing girls only for the duration of the song. On the other hand, Aishwarya and Kareena sing Crazy Kiya Re and Chhamak Chhalo as lead characters, but only in the presence of their heroes.

And another change seen in the past decade or so is that the mujra has been stripped of its moral baggage. Songs like Kajra Re and Jhalla Wallah (Ishaqzade) have tawaif performances which are neither markers of evil nor drowned in pity. Of course, this change is largely superficial because modern audiences, cut off by a century from anything resembling a real kotha, have no cultural resonance with the tawaif any longer. The kotha’s deeper, more enduring contribution to Bollywood—the restrictions on the sexuality of the pure Madonna-like heroine and the propping up of a bold, independent “whore” as a counter—remains alive and kicking and so does its principle vehicle: the item song.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five Things You Didn’t Know About India’s Independence Day

First published on

How come South Korea and India share their independence day? And who became the King of India after independence?

India’s Independence Day is an extremely important event in modern history, freeing a fifth of the world’s population from colonial rule and indeed heralding the end of imperialism.  While reams have been written about the day, here are 5 things that you might not have known about the 15th of August:

1. The date of independence was chosen to satisfy Mountbatten’s vanity

What is often forgotten in the nationalistic histories of the day is just how chaotic independence was. After 200 years of holding on to India any way they could, the British, wrecked by World War II, wanted to get out as fast as possible. Important decisions—such as the exact date of transfer of power—were therefore chosen using less than ideal methods. When the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was asked why he chose the 15th of August, this was his reply:

“The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was the master of the whole event. When they asked: had I set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then—I thought it had to be about August or September and then I went to the 15th of August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender.”

15 August 1945 was when Japan—pulverised by two nuclear bombs—surrendered. The date, therefore, had a personal appeal for Mountbatten as he had been Supreme Allied Commander of South-East Asia Command and, in Singapore, had accepted the Japanese surrender himself.

South Korea—at the time colonised by Japan—also celebrates this day as their Independence Day. Thus, not only do Seoul and Delhi celebrate their Independence Day on the same day but, in an improbable coincidence, both countries reference the same event: Japan’s surrender.

Of course, the fact that Independence Day for one-fifth of humanity was chosen extempore and to flatter the vanity of our erstwhile Viceroy should give you a small indication as to why things went so wrong.

2. The 15th of August was Independence Day but Partition actually took place 2 days later

It was well known that the Punjab was a tinderbox and splitting it would almost certainly exacerbate the situation. One way to keep things under control was to announce Partition before Independence, thus giving advance warning in case anyone wanted to migrate. Thus, we have Evan Jenkins, the Governor of the Punjab writing frantic letters to Mountbatten to have the Boundary Award published before 15 August.
Given this urgency, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, working in record time, actually had the boundary ready by 9 August. Shockingly, though, Mountbatten refused to publish the award till the 17th. On the morning of the 15th, therefore, while Punjabis had ceased being subjects of the Raj, surreally, they did not know which country—India or Pakistan—they belonged to.

The reason for this delay was to make sure that the British did not have to bear any responsibility for the Punjab holocaust, since now the killings would take place after the Raj had ceased to exist. In a report to the Secretary of State for India on 16 August, Mountbatten writes:
“…it had been obvious all along that the later we postponed publication [of the Punjab boundary award], the less would be the inevitable odium react upon the British.”

As expected, this criminal delay played its part in greatly increasing the panic in the Punjab, especially since any minority population transfers would now need take place under “hostile” governments rather than under the Raj, which was seen to be largely neutral. Thus, when the boundaries were finally announced, the Punjab simply exploded into violence. The raula that followed was unprecedented and saw both halves of the province empty themselves of their minorities.

3. Pakistan changed its Independence Day to 14 August

Even though Pakistan observes its Independence Day on 14 August, technically, the day it achieved freedom is the same as India. The Independence of India Act is quite clear when its states that “as from the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan”. In fact, the first postage stamps that Pakistan printed have on them “15 August 1947” as the date of independence.

In Pakistan, however, this date was changed to 14 August in 1948. Some think this was because Mountbatten delivered the King’s message of independence on 14 August 1947 in Karachi. Others postulate that it was because 14 August 1948 was extremely holy in Islam (it was the 27th day of Ramzan), hence the small shift. Or maybe, Pakistan just wanted to be a day ahead of India.

Whatever the reason, it lead to an incongruous situation where twins ended up with different birth dates.

4. India didn’t achieve purna swaraj till 1950

In the Congress’ iconography, its Purna Swaraj resolution of 1930 occupies a special place. It was the first time the party had declared complete independence as its goal, moving on from dominion status.

Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that when India eventually acquired freedom on 15 August, it actually became a dominion: a constitutional monarchy with King George VI (styled ‘King of India’) as its head of state in much the same mould as Australia or Canada today.

Unlike those two countries, though, India abolished the monarchy, becoming a republic on 26 January 1950. Pakistan remained a dominion right till 1956; consequently, in 1953 when Elizabeth II was sworn in, one of her titles was ‘Queen of Pakistan’.

5. Independence Day, inexplicably, saw an outpouring of affection for our departing colonisers

Massive crowds thronged Delhi on 15 August for the ceremonies relating to the transfer of power. The people hailed Gandhi and Nehru, as would be expected, but also, puzzlingly, cheered on Mountbatten as well. This was described by the Indian Army’s journal, Fauji Akbhar, in its account of the day’s events:

“On both occasions the Governor-General, when he drove in his State coach, was acclaimed as no other Governor-General of India within living memory has been greeted. Cries of ‘Mountbatten Zindabad’ and ‘Lord Sahib Zindabad’ were heard.”

The day’s programme originally included a ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack. On a request from Mountbatten, however, Nehru agreed to skip this since it could “offended British sensibilities”.

Overwhelmed by this reception, Mountbatten writes, “The 15th of August has certainly turned out to be the most remarkable and inspiring day of my life”

As the cherry on the cake, British troops departing for the UK were given a very warm send off in Bombay as well. Mountbatten estimates that there were “several hundreds of thousands” in reception with chants of "England Zindabad" and "Jai England" for, what was till yesterday, a colonial army of occupation.

In a way this reception for the departing colonisers, even as Indians were butchering each other elsewhere, captures the many contradictions and, indeed, realties of a post-colonial society.

On this note, here’s wishing you a happy 67th Independence Day.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Great Calcutta Killing: Two Accounts

"What we have done today is the most historic act in our history. This day we bid good-bye to constitutional methods. Throughout…the British and the Congress held a pistol in their hand, the one of authority and arms and the other of mass struggle and non-cooperation. Today we have also forged a pistol and we are in a position to use it."

Jinnah's statement on the Muslim League’s ‘Direct Action’ resolution, 29 July, 1946-

"This (The Calcutta Killing) will be a good lesson for the League, because I hear that the proportion of Muslims who have suffered death is much larger"
  Patel writing to CR Rajagoplachari, 21 August 1946 -

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946. The fury of this massacre changed the course of Indian history and made the partition of Bengal and, by extension, the Punjab inevitable. Yet, paradoxically, the event has almost been forgotten, both in the academic as well as the popular space. There is no history book exclusively devoted to the Killing nor is a single movie or novel based it. In fact, so prickly is this event, that even official histories have mostly steered clear of it.

From what I’ve read, the two most comprehensive summaries of the event are by Joya Chatterji and Claude Markovits. Both are reproduced below.

I. TheCalcutta Riots of 1946 by Claude Markovits

The Calcutta Riots of 1946, also known as the “Great Calcutta Killing,” were four days of massive Hindu-Muslim riots in the capital of Bengal, India, resulting in 5,000 to 10,000 dead, and some 15,000 wounded, between August 16 and 19, 1946. These riots are probably the most notorious single massacre of the 1946-47 period, during which large-scale violence occurred in many parts of India. However, the “Great Calcutta Killing” stands out somewhat in the history of Calcutta, given that it was by far the most deadly episode in the recent history of the city. Although it received its name very soon after the events, it remains a very controversial episode, and different views or interpretations of it were put forward from Britain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While there is a certain degree of consensus on the magnitude of the killings (although no precise casualty figures are available), including their short-term consequences, controversy remains regarding the exact sequence of events, various actors’ responsibility, and the long-term political consequences.
A- Context
The event must be situated in two different, yet interrelated contexts: firstly the all-India context, and secondly the Bengal one. The former was marked by growing tension between the Congress Party, the main Indian nationalist organization with a base mostly (but not exclusively) among the Hindu population of the country, and the Muslim League, the main organization representative of the Muslim minority, which comprised almost 25% of India’s population. Tensions were largely due to the fact that both groups were gearing up for a transfer of power from the British, which Prime Minister Clement Attlee had announced in March 1946, without fixing a date, however. Each group had very different ideas regarding the future shape of the subcontinent. In 1940, the Muslim League passed a resolution in favor of the creation of Pakistan. It was not clear, however, whether it was meant to be a separate Muslim state or a part of a confederation with the rest of India (Jalal, 1985). The British still hoped that a partition of India could be avoided and were trying to come to an agreement with both the Congress and the League. In a statement on May 16, 1946, a British Cabinet Mission proposed a plan for the formation of an interim government composed of representatives from the Congress, the League, and other forces. This plan gave the Congress one more seat than the League. After weeks of behind-the-scene negotiations, on July 29, 1946, at the prompting of its leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim League adopted a resolution rejecting the May 16th plan and called on Muslims throughout India to observe a “Direct Action Day” in protest on August 16.

The announcement of a transfer of power in the near future had further exacerbated a situation that was already very tense in India. It intensified a growing polarization between the two main political parties and the two major religious communities. In the 1945-46 elections, both at the national and at the provincial level, Congress had won most of the seats in the Hindu majority areas and the Muslim League in the Muslim majority areas. The League had not, however, been able to gain a majority in the Punjab, the richest Muslim majority province, and therefore was tempted to use extra-constitutional means to reach its goals. Given that the country had a long history of “communal” riots flaring up regularly since 1926 between Hindus and Muslims, there was understandably great fear of an outburst of violence, but the presence of the British Army in relatively large numbers, although resented by most, seemed to offer some guarantee of a peaceful transition. However, it was not to be, and the August 1946 events in Calcutta were to play a major role in triggering a whole spiral of violence that would engulf parts of India for many months.

The situation in Bengal was particularly complex. In the province, Muslims represented the majority of the population (54%, as against 44% of Hindus) and were mostly concentrated in the Eastern part (present-day Bangladesh). As a result of this demographic structure and specific developments, this province was the only one in which a Muslim League government was in power (under a regime of provincial autonomy introduced in 1935), in coalition with Europeans, and in the face of strong opposition from the Congress Party and from a Hindu nationalist party. The latter, the Hindu Mahasabha was supported by many members of the rich Marwari trading community, composed of immigrants from Rajasthan, who largely dominated the economy of Calcutta and of Bengal (although European capital was still important). The leader of the Muslim League in Bengal and Chief Minister of the province was  Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy, a rival of Jinnah for the leadership of the League, was a controversial, albeit colorful personality who became very unpopular amongst large sections of the Hindu population for his alleged responsibility in the great Bengal famine of 1943, which had resulted in the death of two to three million people. However, he was idolized by many Muslims in Bengal, particularly by the Urdu-speaking Muslims from Northern India, who formed the majority of Calcutta’s Muslim population (Bengali Muslims, who accounted for the bulk of the Muslim population in the province, were mostly concentrated in the countryside). Calcutta itself had a clear Hindu majority (73% of the population according to the 1941 Census) and a significant Muslim minority (23% of the population). Given the tendency of the population in urban areas to congregate in neighborhoods dominated by one community, most Muslims lived in areas of Northern Calcutta, while Central and Southern Calcutta were almost exclusively Hindu (with a sprinkling of Europeans). Another characteristic of Calcutta’s Muslim population was that it was largely composed of poor people, mostly artisans, factory workers, rickshaw pullers and domestic servants. The Muslim middle class in Calcutta was small, in contrast to the much larger Hindu middle class. Big Muslim merchants and capitalists were few, and could not compete with the rich Marwari Hindus. Although Muslims were clearly a minority in Calcutta and occupied a peripheral position in the economic, social and cultural life of the city, the capital was the only large city in the province, and therefore occupied a privileged position in all provincial politics, whether Muslim or Hindu. Suhrawardy had a particularly large following amongst the poor Muslims of the city, and was also rumored to have close links to the Muslim underworld, which played a significant role in the parallel economy, based on smuggling, gambling and prostitution, which flourished in the great port-city.

Jinnah had called for peaceful demonstrations all over India on Direct Action Day, and most of India, including the Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Sind (in the latter the Muslim League was part of a coalition government) remained calm. In Bengal, however, and specifically in Calcutta, the events took a violent turn, and quickly spun completely out of control.
B- The Instigators
Controversy still rages about the respective responsibilities of the two main communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, in addition to individual leaders’ roles in the carnage. The dominant British view tends to blame both communities equally and single out the calculations of the leaders and the savagery of the followers, amongst whom there were criminal elements (Tuker, 1950). In the Congress’ version of the events (Bose, 1968), the blame tends to be squarely laid on the Muslim League and in particular on the Chief Minister of Bengal, Suhrawardy. The view from the Muslim League side, nowadays partly upheld in Bangladesh, the successor state to East Pakistan, is that in fact Congress and the Hindus used the opportunity offered by Direct Action Day to teach the Muslims in Calcutta a lesson and kill them in great numbers (Rashid, 1987). Thus, the riots opened the way to a partition of Bengal between a Hindu-dominated Western Bengal including Calcutta, and a Muslim-dominated Eastern Bengal (nowadays Bangladesh).

There is an explicit accusation in pro-Congress accounts (partly upheld in British sources) that Suhrawardy’s attitude overtly incited violence. The two main points emphasized are:
  1. Suhrawardy positioned himself with his cronies in the Police Control Room, and thus prevented the Police Commissioner, a British national who was technically in charge of law and order, from attending to the trouble with a free mind;
  2. at the meeting held in the Maidan, a vast open space in central Calcutta, Suhrawardy told the Muslim League crowd (estimated to have been at least 100,000 strong) that he had taken measures to “ restrain” the police, which was interpreted by many in the crowd as a license to loot and kill.
Suhrawardy’s apologists (Taukdar 1987) answer:
  1. that his presence in the Police Control Room was an attempt to get a better hold on law maintenance operations and not meant as a hindrance
  2. that in the absence of any transcript of Suharawardy’s speech (due to the fact that the Police Special Branch did not have an Urdu stenographer on hand, which in retrospect, seems to have been an incredible oversight), the accusations regarding his inflammatory language cannot be substantiated.
The main accusations leveled at Governor Burrows in pro-Congress accounts are:
  1. that he allowed Suhrawardy to interfere with law and order operations while his reserve powers allowed him to prevent Suhrawardy from doing so;
  2. that he took too long to realize the extent of the trouble, and called the troops in when things had already gotten out of hand; an earlier intervention by the military might have been able to save the day.
To these reproaches, Burrows’ answer was:
  1. that he could not have prevented Suhrawardy from interfering without triggering a major political crisis with country-wide repercussions, at a particularly delicate moment;
  2. that he called the troops in as soon as he had enough of them available to make a difference.
C- The victims
Their exact number is not and will never be known. Authorities have compiled various official estimates on the basis of a rough body count, but none appear too reliable. The most widely accepted figure of dead is situated between a minimum of 5,000 and a maximum of 10,000 (Chatterjee, 1991), and the number of wounded is generally put at around 15,000, but it is not clear on what this figure is based, apart from guess work. In any case, such uncertainty is a common feature of most massacres in India. The reasons for this uncertainty are complex, ranging from the low degree of penetration of State institutions in society, to the absence of reliable registration of deaths. To these structural reasons, we must add a more temporary factor, the disorganization of public administration in a period of rapid political change and turmoil.

Three points need to be emphasized. The first one is the particularly savage manner in which the killings were executed. Not only were victims brutally killed, they were also grotesquely mutilated. This kind of grisly “ritual” was very much part of the repertoire of communal killings in India; what was new in Calcutta was the sheer scale of the phenomenon. Secondly, most accounts mentioned cases of rape, which were not part of the usual gamut of communal riots in India, but were to figure prominently in accounts of communal violence around the time of Partition, which in retrospect, makes the Great Killing a sad harbinger of horrors still to come. Though women and children figure among the victims, they were not as prominently represented as it was the case in the Punjab massacres a year later, however, and most of the Great Killing victims were adult males. The third point, difficult to verify, but plausible in view of the general “social ecology” of massacres in India, is that, while the perpetrators often belonged to the so-called “underworld,” the victims themselves were overwhelmingly poor and defenseless. This links with a final, very important point: according to most accounts the majority of the victims were Muslims; however, due to the absence of reliable figures this can never be demonstrated. Since most Muslims in Calcutta were poor, there seems to be a certain coincidence between the religious and the social content of the massacre. Few rich Hindus or Muslims appear to have been targeted, although Muslim crowds attacked the houses of some rich Hindus, from which their owners had absconded. Thus, the massacre could be described as the combination of one large pogrom against poor Muslims by Hindu toughs, with one smaller pogrom against poor Hindus by Muslim toughs. A number of people must also have been killed in the crossfire between the two communities, and quite a few killed by police and Army fire, adding to the complexity of the massacre.
D- Witnesses
Many people witnessed the massacre, but there are few reliable testimonies on which to draw. In August 1946, the Government of Bengal appointed an enquiry commission presided by the Supreme Justice of India, Sir Patrick Spens. Although the commission interrogated many witnesses, its conclusions were never published. These findings have nonetheless been widely used by a Bengali historian (Das,1991). The memoirs of Lieutenant General Sir Francis Tuker, then in command of British and Indian forces in the Eastern sector of India, provide a fairly detailed, although heavily biased, first-hand account (Tuker, 1950). These memoirs embody a British view of the events which tends to distribute blame more or less equally between the two communities, but nevertheless displays a slight pro-Muslim and a strong anti-Congress bias. A few other British witnesses have left written accounts. There is a wide array of personal reminiscences by inhabitants of Calcutta who witnessed the events, published in Bengali, but they have not been the object of a systematic study.

Apart from the official enquiry report that was never published, no effort seems to have been made at collecting testimony from direct witnesses. It is not too difficult to understand why. Narratives of the event became very much part of identity politics in a city which remained seriously divided until the middle of 1947, when Gandhi’s “peace mission” brought in a respite which eventually became lasting. Thus, nobody was interested in a “true” account, and witnesses were considered necessarily partial if they were either Hindus or Muslims. With regard to the British, they faded from the scene after August 1947. Rather than comparing witnesses’ accounts of various origins, it became a question of “our” witnesses versus “theirs.” In the period between August 1946 and August 1947, if you were a Hindu, you believed in one narrative that blamed Suhrawardy and the Muslim League entirely, and saw the violent acts by Hindu crowds as simply a matter of self-defense, and you could quote plenty of “witnesses” to support your claim. If you were a Muslim, you tended to adopt a discourse of victimization and to point to the fact that most of the victims were Muslims, hinting at a dark Hindu plot to wipe out Muslims in Calcutta. After independence and partition, when the two communities had perforce found a way of living together more or less peacefully (since few Muslims left Calcutta for East Pakistan), a heavy silence descended on the event, and it remained buried in that silence for decades.
E- Memories
In a paradoxical way, one could say that on the one hand, the Great Calcutta Killing is very much an object of living memory; narratives are handed down from one generation to another within practically all the families who lived through it. On the other hand, it is conspicuously absent from the official memory of Bengal, particularly on the West Bengal side, but also, in a more surprising way, on the Bangladeshi side. The disjunction between private memory and public and official memory is not unique to this particular event. This disjunction occurs with most traumatic events. For example, the Holocaust in the immediate post-war period, before the outset of the era of commemoration in the 1960s, is a case in point.

Given the lack of study on this aspect, one can only point to some of the possible reasons for the absence of an official memory of the Great Killing. On the Indian side, political expediency is the most plausible. Following independence, dwelling on past events was seen as a diversion from the task of building a new country, free from colonial shackles. Besides, as already mentioned, most Muslims stayed in Calcutta after Partition; only some rich merchants and middle-class people emigrated to East Pakistan; the mass of the poor had to survive in the new context and harping on the memory of the massacre was likely to bring them no benefit of any kind. In regard to the Hindus, who had had the better in the fight, they found it preferable to adopt a low profile and to play the appeasement card. On the Pakistani side, the question was complicated by the fact that, from the early 1950s onwards, Bengalis in East Pakistan felt increasingly alienated from their West Pakistan compatriots and were nostalgic for the time when Bengal had been united. Therefore, they were not interested in reviving old wounds. The same attitude persisted in 1971 after Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan with the help of India. Although there was a change of regime in 1975 and a worsening of relations with India, there was no significant attempt at creating a memory of the 1946 killings. One of the reasons probably was that Suhrawardy, who was Mujibur Rahman’s political mentor, is considered a kind of national hero in Bangladesh. This said, his admirers are not keen to dwell upon his role in 1946. Thus, there was a kind of conspiracy of silence which only began to be lifted in the 1990s, when the advent of a new historiography in India led to reconsideration of a whole part of the Indian past, that had previously been believed to be better off forgotten. Yet the Great Calcutta Killing, or rather the Calcutta Riots of 1946 (the expression most often used) remain a marginal episode in the dominant narrative of the history of Bengal.
F- Interpretations
In the scholarly literature about the event, which is scarce (there is no book or article specifically devoted to the Great Calcutta Killing), two main strands of interpretation can be discerned. One tends to emphasize continuity, showing that the 1946 riots were mostly a culmination of trends towards growing inter-communal violence in Bengal, but did not represent a radically novel development. The other places the violence more specifically within the context of the Partition and stresses its instrumentality to the goals pursued by certain actors, in particular Hindu politicians.

The first strand is represented in particular in Suranjan Das’s book on communal violence in Bengal, which includes a substantial section devoted to the 1946 riots. Das’s overall argument revolves around a distinction between what he calls “elite communalism” and what he calls “mass communalism.” He argues that communalism was originally more of an elite phenomenon, born in the intelligentsia and the middle classes, but that it tended to spread to the masses if certain circumstances were favorable to that. To him, the Great Killing is a spectacular instance of the spread of elite communalism to the masses. This leads him to pay particular attention to the participation of ordinary people in the violence, using police and court records, as well as some of the unpublished witness testimonies to the Spens Inquiry Commission (Das, 1991). He mentions that clashes between the two communities took two different forms: on the one hand, open street battles between large crowds, and on the other hand, sporadic acts by small roving bands. The latter often targeted passers-by, and their acts had a random character which contributed to giving the impression that things had gotten completely out of hand, while in fact part of the killings appear to have taken place in large-scale confrontations between “organized” crowds. Amongst Muslims, Das is able to show that some professional groups were particularly represented: butchers seem to have been prominent and they came with their meat-choppers which, in experienced hands, could be a lethal weapon (this is reminiscent of the original meaning of the old French word “massacre,” which refers precisely to the butcher’s chopper). Amongst Hindus, dharwans (janitors), who often had links to criminals, also figured prominently, giving the violent crowds a plebeian aspect, which is not really very surprising in the urban milieu of Calcutta. In many ways, this city was still pre-industrial, even though there were large concentrations of factory workers in the suburban industrial belt (some of whom also appear to have been involved in the rioting).

The second strand is represented in particular by Joya Chatterji’s book (Chatterji, 1995). Her central argument is that the partition of Bengal mostly resulted from the actions of Hindu elite politicians, who were opposed to the rule of the Muslim majority. In this perspective, she instills great importance in the episode of the 1946 riots, which allowed the Hindus to take physical control of the city. She therefore tends to dwell upon the role played by different Hindu organized groups (mostly linked to the Congress Party and the Hindu Mahasabha) in the violence. She gives particular importance to one such group, called Bharat Sevashram Sangha, close to the Mahasabha. These groups had many middle-class members and some of them were very active during the riots. Chatterji sees elite manipulation of Hindu crowds as an essential aspect of the violence, but she is less interested in exploring the nature of Muslim violence.

Both authors stress the active participation of those more or less criminal elements of the population who are known in India under the appellation of “goondas.” One particular difficulty is that there is no generally accepted definition of the word “goonda.” The term can refer to a local tough, a dada (“elder brother”) who terrorizes a neighborhood and extracts protection money from it, but who also does “protect” it against outsiders and the intrusions of State authorities. This person is often connected to a political party. The term can also refer to a member of an organized gang of the vast Calcutta underworld engaged in various dubious activities such as prostitution, gambling or smuggling. While dadas by and large reflected the religious composition of their neighborhood (for instance in a Hindu neighborhood, you had Hindu dadas, and in a Muslim neighborhood Muslim dadas), the underworld was generally more mixed: Hindu and Muslim gangsters and pimps are known to have operated largely across religious barriers. It is plausible nevertheless that, in the atmosphere of extreme communal tension such as the one prevailing in Calcutta in 1946, even gangsters and pimps felt the strong pull of religion and community. It is among those “criminal” elements that one finds some of the few conspicuous participants, who attracted attention because of their particular efficiency at killing and their capacity to inspire crowds to violent action.

To the question as to why the killings took such a savage form, much beyond what had been witnessed in previous “communal” riots (but less than what was witnessed during the Partition massacres in the Punjab), none of the authors formulate a very convincing answer. By default, they seem to settle for a response couched in Durkheimian terms, stressing anomie and the breakdown of societal links in a situation of extreme tension between the two major communities of the city. Although infinitely superior to the standard explanation in terms of the “animal” passions of the crowds or the innate sadism of the “goondas,” it seems lacking nevertheless. In fact, there may have been very rational calculations at work on the side of the instigators and perpetrators of the killings. It was actually a fight over who was to be master of Calcutta. By organizing huge demonstrations, occupying the Maidan and using whatever State power it had at its disposal, the Bengal Provincial Muslim League was trying to stake its claim to Calcutta as the capital of a Muslim Bengal, which would be part of Pakistan, whose shape was still hazy at the time. A massacre was probably not the League’s goal (although one pamphlet circulating amongst Muslims warned of a “general massacre” of Kafirs, infidels, i.e. Hindus), but the League’s supporters did not shrink from using violence on a significant scale to advance their objectives. Although the use of violence by a minority against the majority could appear irrational to us, in the mindset of many Muslims at the time it was not so, because they considered the Hindus cowardly and effeminate, and thought they were no match for Muslims in an open fight. As for the “Hindu” political parties, both Congress and the Mahasabha were bent on making a counter-demonstration of their superior muscle power. Therefore, they were not adverse to large-scale killings to decisively defeat the Muslim League’s attempts to impose its dominance. The massacre was the result of the clash of two wills, between which no compromise was possible.

II. An excerpt from Joya Chatterji’s book, BengalDivided – Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947

[Tarikh Par Tarikh note: Joya Chatterji's book, like almost all history on the issue, does not focus directly on the proximate dynamics of the Killing. It does, however, provide a great background to it and, especially, describes the environment which enabled such an event to occur at all.]

The idea that partition might be preferable to Muslim rule had already occurred at least to some Hindus from West Bengal. When C. Rajagopalachari had argued in 1944 that Congress should accept a Pakistan comprising only the Muslim-majority districts, a handful of Calcutta Hindus had welcomed the proposal. Implicit in the Rajagopalachari Formula was the partition of the Punjab and Bengal. In 1944, when Shyama Prasad launched a campaign to denounce the 'C. R. Formula’, one Bengali Hindu from Howrah wrote to him urging him to see the wisdom of the plan: 'What is the alternative that can meet the challenge to India held out by the Viceroy? ... [The Formula] has given a more natural and abiding solution on the basis of Independence for the whole ofIndia'. In the highly charged atmosphere of the summer of 1946, when talks between the Cabinet Mission and Indian leaders in Delhi raised speculation to a fever pitch, Hindus in Calcutta and in the West Bengal heartland began to look with favour on the idea of partitioning the province and in this way creating a new Hindu state of West Bengal. As the prospect of remaining under the 'permanent tutelage' of the Muslims grew increasingly intolerable in the months that followed this solution found favour with more and more Hindus in the Hindu-majority districts of western Bengal. More significant, perhaps, than Suhrawardy's declaration of 16 August as a public holiday (the proposed day of ‘Direct Action ‘by the Muslim League) was his public statement less than a week before in which he threatened to declare Bengal's complete independence from the centre. Reacting to the creation of the purely Congress Interim Government at the centre, Suhrawardy warned:

“A probable result of putting the Congress in power adopting the tactics of by-passing the League, would be 'the declaration of complete independence by Bengal and the setting up of a parallel government... We will see that no revenue is derived by such [sic] Central Government from Bengal and consider ourselves as a separate state having no connection with the Centre.”

The Hindu press reacted by interpreting this statement as a threat to Pakistanise' the whole of Bengal forthwith. 'Pakistan' had come to mean, for Hindu Bengalis, the permanent loss of political sovereignty and their subjection to the will of the Muslim majority. The crude and heavy-handed measures adopted by Suhrawardy's ministry in its first months in office ensured that this was a future that many Hindus were determined to avoid. Calcutta Hindus saw Direct Action, therefore, notes a mere tactic in the long drawn out and distant negotiations at the all-India level to do with interim governments and constituent assemblies, but a threat much closer to home against which they were ready to fight to the death.

This was the context in which the Great Calcutta Killing took place. The rioting, in which at least 5,000 died, was not a spontaneous and inexplicable outburst of aggression by faceless mobs. Both sides in the confrontation came well-prepared for it. Four days after the killing began, The Statesman informed its readers:

“This is not a riot. It needs a word from mediaeval history, a fury. Yet 'fury' sounds spontaneous and there must have been some deliberation and organisation to set this fury on its way. The horde who ran about battering and killing with 8 ft. lathismay have found them lying about or bought them out of their own pockets, but that is hard to believe.”

Another eye-witness saw that the Calcutta Killing was 'not a riot, but civil war':

“There was cold-blooded killing on both sides. The riot was well-organised on both sides. Suhrawardy organised the riot ruthlessly to show that... [the Muslims] will retain Calcutta. On the Hindu side, it was part of the campaign for the Partition of Bengal. Its organisers included members of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress, particularly old terrorist Congressmen who had not joined the Communists. The Marwaris helped a lot, they gave finance and collected funds for the campaign for partition. The campaign hadn't then officially started, but everybody knew it was for that.”

Direct Action Day in Calcutta was not a flash in the pan but a product of developments which had long been coming to a head. In part it was the outcome of the growing arrogance of the leadership and rank and file of the Muslim League, heady with their success in the recent elections and confident of their ability to get for Bengal some form or other of Pakistan; and in part it flowed from the determination of Hindus to resist what they regarded as 'Muslim tyranny'. Suhrawardy himself bears much of the responsibility for this blood-letting since he issued an open challenge tithe Hindus and was grossly negligent (deliberately or otherwise) in his failure to quell the rioting once it had broken out. By the time order was restored, thousands on both sides had been brutally slaughtered; ten days after the killings began, more than 3,000 bodies lay on the pavements of this City of Dreadful Night. The city's normal burial and cremation services could not cope with the number of corpses, and the government had to hunt out low-caste Doms to collect bodies and dump them into mass graves.

Suhrawardy's culpability is by now a well-established tradition. But Hindu leaders were also deeply implicated, a fact which is less well known. More Muslims than Hindus died in the fighting, and in characteristically chilling style, Patel summed up the hideous affair with the comment; ‘Hindus had the best of it.' The preparedness of Hindus in 1946 for this ugly trial of strength is not surprising if it is recalled that since the late thirties and early forties, Calcutta and the mofussil towns had seen the establishment of a plethora of Hindu volunteer groups, whose professed aim was to unite Hindus but who devoted much of their energy to encouraging physical fitness and pseudo-military training among bhadralokyouths. Perhaps the largest and best organised among these was theBharat Sevashram Sangha, the volunteer wing of the Hindu Mahasabha. Ostensibly a society for social service, from the start the Sangha adopted a martial style and urged Hindus to train themselves in the arts of self-defence. At a meeting of the Sangha in September 1939, at which Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee presided and which was reportedly attended by 2,600 people,

“the speakers referred to the Communal Award, which was designed to curb the Bengali Hindus and stated that they should organise Akharas with the help ofPulin Das and Satin Sen, ex-convicts, and develop their physique[s] and raise a thousand of lathis if the Hindus were attacked. ... Posters in Bengali were displayed of which one was entitled 'Give up the idea of non-violence now, what is required is strong manhood (pourasha)'”

At another meeting of the Sangha two months later, Bengali placards with the inscription, 'Hindus, wake up and take up the vow of killing the demons', were displayed in the pandal. The following year, this theme was developed with the use of Saivite religious imagery

On the 7th [of April, 1940], a Hindu Sammelan ... was held at Maheshwari Bhawan under the auspices of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. Mr B. C. Chatterjee presided. A large picture of Siva with a trident was exhibited ... Speeches were delivered urging the Hindus to develop a martial spirit ... Swami Bijnananda observed that Hindu gods and goddesses were always armed to the teeth in order to destroy the demons. Swami Adwaitananda ... remarked that he came with a lathi to serve the Hindus. The enemies of the Hindus should be beheaded, he said. Pointing to the picture of Siva with a trident he stated that his followers should come forward armed at least with lathis ... Swami Pranabananda wanted to raise a defence force of five lakhs ... he appealed to the Marwaris to help with money... Harnam Das urged every Hindu to become a soldier. A resolution [was passed]approving the proposal of the Sangha to form a defence force of five lakhs of Hindus, noting with satisfaction that 12,000 had already been recruited.

From the outset the Bharat Sevashram Sangha was closely associated with the Mahasabha. But in the forties, the Sangha, and other organisations like it, began to attract wider bhadralok support. Members of the Calcutta bhadralok intelligentsia, including Mrinal Kanti Ghose of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, Hemendra Prasad Ghosh, the editor of the vernacular paper, Dainik Basumati, and Ramananda Chatterjee, the editor of the Modern Review, were present at its meetings. By 1947, even establishment figures made no secret of their association with the Sangha. It was announced that Sir Bejoy Prasad Singh Roy, who had been a member of the Indian Civil Service and a minister in government would open the session of the Hindu Sammelan organised by the Sangha and that P. N. Banerjee, Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, would preside. The Congress Party, which had several volunteer organisations of its own, often took part in the Sangha's programmes. In May 1946 when the Sangha organised a public meeting to 'protest against the desecration of the Chandranath Shrine', it was presided over by Sasanka Sekhar Sanyal, a Congress member of the Central Assembly. The following year, at a procession organised by the Sangha to celebrate the birth anniversary of Swami Pranabananda, a Congress contingent was conspicuous ‘clad in white shirts, shorts, Gandhi caps, . . . they carried a Congress flag [and] ... posters urging Hindus to unite and to gather strength following the ideals of Shivaji [and] Rana Pratap'. Moreover, organisations such as the Sangha, with their programme of militant and aggressive Hinduism, were able to attract the remnants of the old terrorist organisations which had stayed outside the communist movement. Pulin Das and Satin Sen, both former Jugantar members who had been arrested in the past for 'terrorist' offences, now became the Sevashram Sangha's experts in 'martial' arts, and in Madaripur the local branch of the Jugantar Party took over the training of the Sangha's volunteers in1941. Another prominent member of the Madaripur Jugantar group,Kalyan Kumar Nag, who later was known as 'Swami Satyanand' and founded the 'Hindu Mission' in 1926, was an active member of the Sangha and of the Hindu Mahasabha in the thirties.

In the early forties, Hindu volunteer groups proliferated in Calcutta. Some of these, such as the Hindu Sakti Sangha, another 'active' wing of the Mahasahba, were large and well organised, with over500 members scattered in branches in different parts of the city, and were financially sound. Others were smaller para ('neighbourhood') groups such as the 'Yuva Sampraday' of Behala started in 1943 by Nirmal Kr. Chatarji with some young boys and girls at P.S.Behala. It functions as follows: 1. Bratachari and dagger play for young boys and girls. 2. Dramatic section. 3. Football section. It also has a library. In all there are50 members, 30 young school boys and girls and 20 young men. They also perform Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja. At the time of Durga Puja they stage dramas. Similar neighbourhood organisations included the Baghbazar Tarun Byayam Samiti with twenty-five members, and the Arya Bir Dal in the Park Circus area with sixteen members. In greater Calcutta, active volunteer societies of this sort included the Entally Byayam Sangha(Physical Training Society), the Salkia Tarun Dal in Howrah, the Hindu Seva Sangha in Hajinagar in the 24 Parganas and the Mitali Sangsad in Serampore.

The larger volunteer organisations were frequently well funded. The Bharat Sevashram Sangha, for instance, enjoyed Marwari support. In1941, the Special Branch intercepted a letter from the Secretary of the Burdwan branch of the Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha to Jugal Kishore Birla, thanking him for his offer to finance 'training and physical culture for the Hindus of Burdwan'. Another organisation which enjoyed the patronage of the Birlas was the Bengal branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS). The Calcutta headquarters of the RSS was reportedly housed in 'Mr Birla's Shilpa Vidyalaya at [the] Harrison Road and Amherst Street Crossing'. By the mid-forties, the RSS had expanded from Calcutta to the interior, where it had the support of at least one big Hindu zamindar. An intelligence department report revealed that

“at Rajshahi, Pabna, Salap (Pabna district) Mymensingh, Susang (Mymensingh district) and in other parts of Bengal there are many branches. Babu ParimalSingha of [the] Susang Raj family is a staunch devotee of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha. It is said that in Bengal there are about a lac [sic] of members of this Sangha.”

Organisations such as these were effective in mobilising large sections of the Hindu bhadralok youth of Calcutta and the mofussil towns behind the communal ideology and politics of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Hinduised Congress of the forties. Although the authorities regarded most of them as harmless (see the last column in table 8), this was more a reflection of the Government's curiously tolerant attitude towards communal politics and organisations than a measure of the seriousness of their intentions. The 'physical training' that the Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangha offered its young recruits included training in the use of firearms. In 1939, V. R. Patki of the Bengal branch of the RSS wrote to a friend in London:

“The charts of the Lee En-field Bayonet etc. sent by you were received ... There is a well-known firm in London known as 'Parker Hale' where Arms requisites are sold. Can you get an 'Aiming Rest' in that firm? This instrument is used for taking aim by resting the gun on it. This can be utilised by recruits before they are allowed to fire.”

After the War, demobilised servicemen and military employees were induced to procure firearms and ammunition for Hindu communalorganisations. A police report in May 1946 revealed that both the Anushilan and Jugantar groups were involved in collecting arms and it was rumoured that their activities were being financed by the Hindu Mahasabha:

“Members of the Anushilan Party are reported to be trying to obtain arms through military employees ... On May 11, the house of Shyam Sunder Pal, a member of the Anushilan party was searched at Calcutta and 108 rounds of ammunition were discovered. The Jugantar Party, also engaged in obtaining illicit arms, is said to be financed by a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha in their efforts to obtain arms and ammunition.”

The Mahasabha had been active amongst demobilised soldiers since the end of the war, attempting to organise soldiers 'and released INA men under the banner of the Mahasabha and also to arrange for the military training of Hindu youths by ex-servicemen'. And at least in Burdwan, these efforts paid off. In an impassioned letter to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the 'Hindu Ex-Army Personnel of Panagar' declared that

“We the Ex-Army Hindu Personnel of Burdwan District look forward eagerly for a retaliation against our dangerous enemy the Muslim in the Hindu majority district... We are prepared and will follow your commands ... We have taken oath and will not refrain from fulfilling our heartiest desire. We are armed and are fully aware of the war tactics ... We consider that by this way of revenge we can stop the uncivilised moslim of this province and their leader the half cast notorious Suhrawardy and Nazimiddin will understand the Hindu spirit of taking revenge[sic].”

Given that the Hindu Mahasabha had fought the 1945-46 elections quite openly on the platform of resisting Muslims tooth and nail, it is hardly a matter of surprise that Hindu volunteers a few months later were ready for this test of strength in Calcutta. B. R. Moonje, firing the first shot in the electoral campaign for the Mahasabha, had declared:

“Hindu Mahasabha wants Independence but does not believe that it can be achieved through non-violence. It therefore wants to organise violence on the most up-to-date western scientific lines ... It would be wise if Congress were to take up ... to meet the [Muslim League] threat of a Civil War, the Mahasabha slogan of Train the Youths in Horse riding and Rifle Shooting'.”

When civil war became a reality in Bengal, Mahasabha volunteers were ready and eager to act upon their leader's advice, even if bamboo staves, knives and crude country pistols had to do service for cavalry and artillery. Hindus, as much as Muslims, were prepared for battle on 16August; both sides were armed and Hindus appear to have had the bigger battalions.

An analysis of Hindu rioters reveals the extent to which volunteer organisations had been successful in mobilising middle-class Bengali Hindus of Calcutta behind the increasingly virulent communalism that characterised bhadralok politics in the forties. While the Muslim rioters consisted mainly of up-country migrants, a surprisingly large number of bhadralok Hindus were arrested on charges of rioting. Discussing the composition of the Hindu crowds in the riots, Suranjan Das observes

“Bengali Hindu students and other professional or middle-class elements ... were active. Wealthy businessmen, influential merchants, artists, shopkeepers ... were arrested on rioting charges. In central Calcutta, bhadraloks joined others to disrupt a Muslim meeting being addressed by the Chief Minister himself. Again, a large portion of the crowd which killed Dr Jamal Mohammed, an eminent eye-specialist, consisted of ‘educated youths'... It was not surprising that many of them spoke English with police officers.”

Indeed, one of the Hindus arrested for hurling a bomb into a Muslim crowd in the unrest that continued after the Killing was a prominent doctor, Dr Mahendranath Sarkar of Burdwan, who admitted, 'I am now a Congressman. I was previously a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. I joined the movement favouring the partition of Bengal'. Also involved on the Hindu side were released INA soldiers and Marwari businessmen. It was this improbable alliance between students, professional men, businessmen and ex-soldiers, Congressmen, Mahasabhaites, shopkeepers and neighbourhood bully boys, that led the Hindu crowd to its bloody victory in the streets of Calcutta in 1946. It was also to be the basis of the Hindu movement for the partition of Bengal and for the creation of a separate Hindu homeland.

But Hindu culpability was never acknowledged. The Hindu press laid the blame for the violence upon the Suhrawardy Government and the Muslim League, and the Killing was held up as a dreadful portent of the fate of Bengali Hindus if they remained under 'Muslim rule'. In the months that followed, the Calcutta Killing - cloaked in recrimination byte Hindu press - became a powerful symbol which was used to rally Hindus behind the demand for a separate Hindu state in West Bengal. The riots in Noakhali and Tippera, in which local Muslims, reacting slowly but ferociously to rumours of how their fellow-Muslims had been massacred in Calcutta and Bihar, killed hundreds of Hindus in reprisal, gave Hindus the excuse they wanted to put themselves unashamedly on a war footing:

“Make Shurawardy (I hate to utter his name) [know] that Hindus are not yet dead and that neither he nor his vicious lieutenants can terrorise the Hindus ...Shurawardy has sown the wind and must reap the whirlwind very soon. It is he who has made the Hindus rebel. Rebel and take revenge is our only motto from now on. Come and let us fight with the Muslim League brutes. We should notecase fighting so long as Bengal is not partitioned and Leaguers are kicked out from the homeland of the Hindus.”

Sentiments such as these fed a growing determination among many Hindus that, come what may and regardless of the cost, Bengal must be partitioned.