"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.
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.
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:
- 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;
- 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:
- 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
- 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:
- that he allowed Suhrawardy to interfere with law and order operations while his reserve powers allowed him to prevent Suhrawardy from doing so;
- 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:
- that he could not have prevented Suhrawardy from interfering without triggering a major political crisis with country-wide repercussions, at a particularly delicate moment;
- 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.
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.
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.
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.