The Great Calcutta Killings: How Calcutta Would Have Been Lost Forever
The history of India’s Partition is incomplete without a mention of the sordid episode of the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 when Calcutta was overrun by the vicious forces of communal frenzy. Led by Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay, Hindus who effectively organised themselves could wrest their habitat from succumbing to the evil designs of Muslim separatism.
The resistance put up by the Hindus of all shades and origins was an archetype of selfless patriotism in defiance of a majoritarian government and a repulsive political narrative. The offering of resistance by bravehearts like Mukhopadhyay, in the long run, prevented Calcutta and the whole of the eastern bank of the Ganges from getting engulfed by Pakistan.
The Build-up to the Direct Action Day
The Cabinet Mission in India (1946) to arrange transfer of power from British rule to Indian leadership proposed an initial plan of the composition of the new Dominion of India and its government. However, this could not address the alternative plan to divide the country into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan as proposed by the Muslim League.
The Muslim League planned a general strike (hartal) on 16 August terming it as Direct Action Day to protest this rejection, and to assert its demand for a separate Muslim homeland.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah said if the Muslims were not granted Pakistan, he would launch “Direct Action”. The Muslim League Council Meeting held during the period 27–29 July 1946 passed a resolution declaring that the Direct Action Day was intended to unfold direct action for the achievement of Pakistan. Jinnah gave enough indication of his evil intentions – he said he would have “India divided or India burned”, that the League had bidden “goodbye to Constitutional methods” and would “create trouble”.
Syed Muhammad Usman, then Mayor of Calcutta, issued a widely circulated leaflet that said: Kafer! Toder dhongsher aar deri nei! Sarbik hotyakando ghotbei! (Infidels! Your end is not far away! You will be massacred!)
In order for the Islamist mayhem to go unchecked, Hindu officers were sent to leave and Pathan and Hindustani Muslim officers were appointed in their place at 22 out of 24 police headquarters of Bengal and in the majority of the police stations of Calcutta, by the then Bengal Prime Minister H.S. Suhrawardy. Many of those officials aided the Muslim Leaguers in raping and butchering Hindu women.
Killing of Hindus and Retaliatory Violence
The first instance of killing of Hindus was reported in Beliaghata in the early hours of 16 August, a Jumma Baar (Holy Friday). Two Bihari Goalas (milkmen) were killed by Muslims. With inflammatory anti-Hindu slogans in their lips, soon after, shops, restaurants and cinema halls owned by Hindus were vandalised, looted and set on fire by Muslims.
Prime Minister Suhrawardy’s speech in the League’s Calcutta Maidan Rally may have meant an open invitation to disorder. Marauding Muslim gangs led by infamous criminals like Munna Chaudhary and Meena Punjabi started attacking Hindus and looting Hindu shops with brickbats and bottles as weapons.
Hindu men and boys were brutally massacred while girls were disrobed, abducted and raped. Many were taken as sex slaves. Golok Bihari Majumder, a senior police official had witnessed naked and delimbed Hindu girls hanging from a slaughterhouse in central Calcutta. Many Hindus went missing as their corpses were simply dumped into the Ganges or city canals.
The spate of destruction continued throughout the night of 16 August, up till the next day that witnessed one of the terrible massacres at Kesoram Cotton Mills in the slums of Lichubagan. 300 (400-600 according to some reports) Odia Hindu labourers were slaughtered at the hands of an Islamist band led by communist textiles union leader Syed Abdullah Farooqui and Elian Mistry, a hardliner.
According to conservative estimates, 7,000 Hindus were killed or went missing in the first two days. Estimates vary between 4,000 and 20,000. At this juncture, Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay also known as Gopal Patha (Patha means a male goat), who owned a meat shop in Calcutta emerged from the dregs of devastation. He hailed from a family of freedom fighters and was the nephew of the revolutionary, Anukulchandra Mukhopadhyay who was involved in the famous Rodda Company Arms Heist Case.
He was joined by Hindu men like Jugal Ghosh and Vijay Singh Nahar. Under the banner of his organisation Bharat Jatiya Bahini, Mukhopadhyay organised thousands of Hindus and armed them with swords, pistols and lathis. Most of the arms and ammunition were provided by the Marwari traders who had purchased those as ‘precautionary measure’ from American soldiers, which were later used during the riot. Acid bombs were manufactured and stored in Hindu-owned factories before the outbreak.
Hundreds of Hindu volunteers of Vyayam Samitis (physical culture clubs) of Calcutta, Howrah and Hooghly and religious organisations like Arya Samaj acted as foot-soldiers of Hindu resistance. Punjabi Sikhs, Bihari Goalas and lower-caste Hindus of UP also contributed en masse to the muscle power.
Hindu Mahasabha and a section of the Congress and Forward Bloc put their manpower behind them. The figures of Muslim casualties were heavier as Hindu retaliation picked pace, and Muslims started leaving the city. Skirmishes and clashes between the communities continued for almost a week.
Finally, on 21 August, Bengal was put under Viceroy’s rule. Battalions of British troops, supported by battalions of Indians and Gorkhas, were deployed in the city. The rioting reduced on 22 August. In these six days, thousands died in brutal conditions.
Methods of murder varied from stabbing, piercing, torching, bludgeoning, severing limbs, cutting, disemboweling to gagging, gassing, and throwing half-dead bodies in the water, and pushing the bodies into waste pipes and drain choking the latter. Bastis, already with infamous names such as Nakashipara, Karamtolli, Sahebbagan, became the most gruesome sites of murder.
Needless to say, had there been no Hindu resistance, the whole strip of land between Bhagirathi-Hooghly River and present-day Indo-Bangladesh Border would have gone to Pakistan. The city of Calcutta would have been pushed into the fledgling Islamic state, even in the event of West Bengal becoming part of India. Why so? Let us examine the strip of land in question.
Foiled Plan of Muslimising Calcutta
A glance into the case of Calcutta City and the district of 24 Parganas would reveal the notorious motifs of the Muslim League. This is because there are recorded instances of the provincial government’s plan to settle large numbers of Bihari and Hindustani Muslims in the Barrackpore industrial belt and in the rural and suburban areas and elsewhere for instance, in the southern fringes of Calcutta.
To substantiate this claim, Kalipada Biswas in his book Jukto Banglar Shesh Odhyay (Final Chapter of United Bengal) mentions that there are numerous evidences of settling large numbers of North Indian Muslims in Gumo and Habra regions in North 24 Parganas.
Had the Muslim fundamentalists emerged victorious in the Calcutta Pogrom, then within a year, they would have succeeded in altering the religious demography of the 24 Parganas district which was already 33 percent Muslim.
In the case of the provincial capital of Calcutta, the exchange of a letter dated 25 January 1947, between Raghib Ahsan of Bihar Muslim Relief Committee (Bengal) and Muhammad Ali Jinnah revealed the nefarious plan to settle 5 lakh Bihari Muslims in Calcutta. We find a similar mention of this plan in the autobiography of Sheikh Mujib, then a Muslim National Guard leader who later became the founding father of Bangladesh. When this letter was being exchanged, Bengal already had 3.5 Muslim refugees from Bihar.
These Bihari Muslims were refugees who had to flee their home districts during the 1946 Bihar anti-Muslim riots. Ahsan, in his letter, urged Jinnah to direct the Bengal government to establish a ‘Bihari Refugee Rehabilitation Department’ and enact a ‘Land Acquisition Law’ for facilitating settlement of Muslims in large numbers in the city.
There were plans to nationalise the jute industry, which constituted the backbone of Calcutta’s economy. The plan had ulterior motives. Ahsan wrote to Jinnah, “Calcutta is the city of jute. Calcutta is the port of jute. Calcutta has been built by jute trade and industry and jute is 100 percent a Muslim monopoly product. But it is 100 percent exploited by Marwari-British capital through Bihar Hindu labour. The moment the jute industry is nationalized, Calcutta will be Islamized. Bihar (Muslim) refugees will be employed, and Bengal capital will be free from the Marwari pest.”
Henceforth the nationalisation plan was equated to the ‘Islamisation’ of Calcutta. There were also plans at implementing a 50 percent Muslim communal ratio rule for all central government offices in Greater Calcutta Zone. There were 200 such establishments in the region. The plan stated envisaged that the Collector of Customs must be a Muslim, the Chairman of the Calcutta Port Trust must be a Muslim, and 50 percent of Railway coolies at Howrah, Sealdah, Kanchrapara, Asansol and Kharagpur must be Muslims.
Ahsan urged Jinnah to issue a directive to Suhrawardy to enforce 50 percent Muslim communal ratio rule in factories, firms, companies and mills and employ Bengali Muslims and Bihari Muslim refugees who would be settled in vacant Khas Mahal lands and lands of Calcutta Corporation and Improvement Trust. Bengal’s transport sector (tramways, taxis, buses and steamers) was also to be nationalised in order to ease the communal reservation scheme for Muslim employees.
It must be noted here that in 1947, Calcutta Proper had a population of 21.09 lakh, of which more than 4.98 lakh were Muslims whose culture was Urdu-based. Of the remaining 16 lakh Hindus, nearly 5 lakh (32 percent) were Hindu migrant labourers from neighbouring and far away provinces like Orissa, Bihar, UP and Punjab. Therefore, resident Hindus constituted roughly 11 lakh of the city’s population.
Settling 5 lakh more Muslims in Calcutta would have taken their total population to somewhere around 10 lakh. That would have made the city 49 percent Muslim. Another 2-5 percent addition could have been provided by implementing the communal ratio rule by importing Bengali Muslims and few more Hindustani Muslims of the contiguous areas into the city.
There were incidents of persistent and sporadic tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the aftermath of the Killings of August 1946. In such a communally charged environment, there was a widespread notion among the Bengali Muslims that Bengal would be partitioned along the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River and that the city of Calcutta would be a part of East Pakistan.
When given an option of India or Pakistan, many Bengali Muslim government employees had written ‘Pakistan, preferably Calcutta’ in their opinion forms. This was no doubt a part and parcel of a conscious plan of altering the religious demography of the city.
The Muslim League had, from the very beginning, advocated for the inclusion of Calcutta and its adjoining districts in Pakistan. When the Radcliffe exercise was in operation, the Bengal Governor Frederick Burrows proposed that Calcutta be excluded from both the Bengals and instead be administered by a ‘council’. He feared there could be ‘riots’ in case Calcutta was handed to West Bengal.
Bhabatosh Dutt mentions that Muslim professors of Islamia College, Calcutta (now, Maulana Azad College) wrote in their opinion forms, ‘Pakistan, preferably Calcutta’. One of them tried to console Dutt by saying, ‘at least you are going to have Howrah’. However, even before the Radcliffe Award was out, it became clear that Calcutta was to remain in India.
A Strategic Victory for Bengali Hindus
The Hindu retaliation in the Great Calcutta Killings strengthened the morale and self-determination of the Hindus of Bengal. It was becoming increasingly evident with every passing day that any attempt to truncate the Bengali Hindu homeland would be met with severe repercussions from the Bengali Hindu side. By then, the Hindus led by Syama Prasad Mukherjee began politically organising themselves for a fervent homeland movement.
Bengal’s partition along the 400 km-long Hooghly River would have proven fatal to India in terms of national security. The Muslim League not only aspired to integrate Calcutta into Pakistan but also had plans to destroy the preeminent Howrah Bridge- the only connecting footbridge between eastern and western banks of the Ganges at that time. The merger of Murshidabad, the only Muslim-majority district, in Pakistan would have ensured Pakistani control over the Cossimbazar Port.
The stretch of land between Bhagirathi-Hooghly and Indo-Bangla Border comprises the eastern half of Murshidabad district; the whole of Nadia and 24 Parganas districts; and the city of Calcutta. In 1947, Murshidabad was a Muslim-majority district with Muslims constituting nearly 55 percent of the district’s population. The district would have easily become a part of Pakistan in event of boundary demarcation. Murshidabad lied contiguous to East Bengal.
Murshidabad district that was dissected by Hooghly River was added to West Bengal only to keep the headwaters of Calcutta Port under Indian control. As evident, the Muslimisation of Calcutta Port Trust in compliance with the League’s plans as stated earlier was directly related to the Pakistanisation of Murshidabad. Soon, Pakistan would have dried up the Hooghly River by deviating river waters away to East Pakistan, resulting in a logistic and economic collapse of the Calcutta Port.
Nadia was also a Muslim-majority district in general. In particular, the eastern subdistricts of Kushtia, Meherpur and Chuadanga were overwhelmingly Muslim whereas Krishnanagar and Ranaghat were Hindu-majority subdistricts.
If the border was demarcated along the Hooghly River, then the Hindu claim to the Vaishnavite holy city of Nabadwip would have been preserved as it lay on the western bank. Nabadwip would have been part of India. However, it meant that two other Hindu holy cities that lay on its eastern bank: Shantipur and Mayapur succumbing to Pakistan’s territorial engulfment.
It must be mentioned here, that the two Hindu-majority subdistricts of Nadia were placed in Pakistan on the eve of independence. The Hindus of Nadia agitated against this decision. There was a complete blackout observed throughout the subdistricts and Hindu women refused to lit ovens as a mark of protest. Three days later, the Hindu-majority areas were finally severed from Pakistan and placed in West Bengal. It goes without saying, the unwavering defiance shown by Nadia’s Hindus, was wholly inspired by the Hindu resistance put up in August 1946.
However, the placing of Calcutta and adjoining districts in Pakistan implied a Hindu Bengal with a further reduced area (roughly 20 percent of undivided Bengal) with a huge burden of the population in the interior districts like Bardhaman, Bankura and Medinipur. The three districts to have absorbed three-fourth mass of East Pakistani Hindu refugees after Partition were: Calcutta, 24 Parganas and Nadia. A Partition along the Hooghly River may have complicated the transnational journey of the refugees.
The vast stretch of terrestrial porous border between the eastern bank and Indo-Bangla border facilitated their mass migration to India. Vast tracts of Nadia and 24 Parganas like Bangaon, Ranaghat, Barasat and Jadavpur are inhabited by the East Bengali Hindu refugees and their descendants till date.
Also, the shape of present-day northern West Bengal would have remained uncertain. If the eastern bank districts were placed in East Pakistan, it implied a significant reduction in the bargaining power of the Bengali Hindus in securing northern Bengal from the clutches of Pakistan.
The merger of Hindu-dominated regions like West Dinajpur and Maldaha would have remained a question mark. In absence of a merger, the southern districts would have remained totally cut-off from the northern districts like Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.
In all probability, Calcutta would have been subjected to an unnatural referendum, given the options to join Pakistan or India. The Muslim League government could have easily shown those 5 lakh non-Bengali Hindus as ‘migrants’ thereby slashing them off electoral rolls. A demographic invasion by settling Muslims in the city would further outnumber the Bengali Hindu voters. India could have lost Calcutta forever, in event of a pro-Pakistan mandate.
The internal exchanges with regard to Calcutta’s demographic exercise within the Muslim League happened in the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killings. It is obvious that had the Muslim Leaguers emerged victorious out of it, then it would have easily facilitated capital city’s integration into Pakistan.
Collating the Past with the Present
The gallant show of strength and organisation acumen by the Hindus in 1946 is a facsimile for the Hindus of present-day West Bengal to emulate. A state that has been ruled by the communists and lately, the Trinamool, has abruptly eroded this glorious chapter from the pages of history. The successive political regimes have adhered to blatant Muslim appeasement. The Marxist rule in West Bengal has brushed the saga of Hindu defiance under the carpet.
The foremost criteria for the formation of the Bengali Hindu Homeland in 1947 were the substantial Hindu majority and security of Hindus. However, in present times, both have been under persistent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. The numerous incidents of communal riots verify the claim. Time and again, protracted Islamist persecution has shrunk the Bengali Hindu Homeland.
Already, three districts have turned into Muslim majorities. A dialogue on Hindu persecution in the urban spaces of West Bengal is still regarded as a topsy turvy irrational subject. That is why the state remains susceptible to the danger of Islamism that is trying to wrest political control. Those who cannot remember the past, as nineteenth-century Spanish philosopher George Santayana had famously said, are bound to repeat it.
- Mazumdar, Jaideep; Remembering Gopal Mukherjee, the Braveheart who Saved Calcutta in 1946; Swarajya Magazine; August 19, 2017; 07:10 pm; https://swarajyamag.com/politics/remembering-gopal-mukherjee-the-braveheart-who-saved-calcutta-in-1946
- Samaddar, Ranabir; Policing a Riot-torn City: Kolkata, 16-18 August 1946; Publisher: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group; June 2015.
- Biswas, Bipadbhanjan, Bharat Bibhajon: Dr. Ambedkar O Jogendranath Mondal
- Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh; The Unfinished Memoirs; Publisher: OUP; June 2012
- Raghib Ahsan’s Letter to M.A. Jinnah; 25 January 1947; http://observingliberalpakistan.blogspot.com/2010/07/muslimizing-calcutta.html
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