|Direct Action Day|
Great Calcutta Killings
|Part of Partition of Bengal (1947)|
|Caused by||Division of Bengal on religious ground|
|Goals||Ethnic and religious persecution|
|Methods||Massacre, forced conversion, arson, abduction and mass rape|
|Resulted in||Partition of Bengal (1947)|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Part of a series on|
|Persecution of Hindus |
in pre-1947 India
Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), also known as the Great Calcutta Killings, was a day of widespread communal rioting between Muslims and Hindus in the city of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in the Bengal province of British India. The day also marked the start of what is known as The Week of the Long Knives.
The 'Direct Action' was announced by the Muslim League Council to show the strength of Muslim feelings towards its demand for an "autonomous and sovereign" Pakistan. The Action resulted in the worst communal riots that British India had seen.
The Muslim League and the Indian National Congress were the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India in the 1940s. The Muslim League had demanded, since its 1940 Lahore Resolution, that the Muslim-majority areas of India in the northwest and the east, should be constituted as 'independent states'. The 1946 Cabinet Mission to India for planning of the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership proposed a three-tier structure: a centre, groups of provinces, and provinces. The "groups of provinces" were meant to accommodate the Muslim League demand. Both the Muslim League and Congress in principle accepted the Cabinet Mission's plan. However, Muslim League suspected that Congress's acceptance was insincere.
Consequently, in July 1946, it withdrew its agreement to the plan and announced a general strike (hartal) on 16 August, terming it as Direct Action Day, to assert its demand for a separate Muslim homeland.
Against a backdrop of communal tension, the protest triggered massive riots in Calcutta. More than 4,000 people lost their lives and 100,000 residents were left homeless in Calcutta within 72 hours. This violence sparked off further religious riots in the surrounding regions of Noakhali, Bihar, United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh), Punjab, and the North Western Frontier Province. These events sowed the seeds for the eventual Partition of India.
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in East Pakistan
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Muslims in India
In 1946, the Indian independence movement against the British Raj had reached a pivotal stage. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent a three-member Cabinet Mission to India aimed at discussing and finalising plans for the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership. After holding talks with the representatives of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League—the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India—on 16 May 1946, the Mission proposed a plan of composition of the new Dominion of India and its government. The Muslim League demand for 'autonomous and sovereign' states in the northwest and the east was accommodated by creating a new tier of 'groups of provinces' between the provincial layer and the central government. The central government was expected to handle the subjects of defence, external affairs and communications. All other powers would be relegated to the 'groups'.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the one time Congressman and Indian Nationalist, and now the leader of the Muslim League, had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 16 June, as had the central presidium of the Congress. On 10 July, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress President, held a press conference in Bombay declaring that although the Congress had agreed to participate in the Constituent Assembly, it reserved the right to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it saw fit. Fearing Hindu domination in the Constituent Assembly, Jinnah rejected the British Cabinet Mission plan for transfer of power to an interim government which would combine both the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, and decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly. In July 1946, Jinnah held a press conference at his home in Bombay. He proclaimed that the Muslim league was "preparing to launch a struggle" and that they "have chalked out a plan". He said that if the Muslims were not granted a separate Pakistan then they would launch "direct action". When asked to be specific, Jinnah retorted: "Go to the Congress and ask them their plans. When they take you into their confidence I will take you into mine. Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble."
The next day, Jinnah announced 16 August 1946 would be "Direct Action Day" and warned Congress, "We do not want war. If you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We will either have a divided India divided or a destroyed India." 
In his book The Great Divide, H V Hodson recounted, "The Working Committee followed up by calling on Muslims throughout India to observe 16th August as 'Direct Action Day'. On that day, meetings would be held all over the country to explain the League's resolution. These meetings and processions passed off–as was manifestly the central League leaders' intention–without more than commonplace and limited disturbances, with one vast and tragic exception ... What happened was more than anyone could have foreseen."
In Muslim Societies: Historical and Comparative Aspects, ed by Sato Tsugitaka, Nakazato Nariaki writes:
From the viewpoint of institutional politics, the Calcutta disturbances possessed a distinguishing feature in that they broke out in a transitional period which was marked by the power vacuum and systemic breakdown. It is also important to note that they constituted part of a political struggle in which the Congress and the Muslim League competed with each other for the initiative in establishing the new nation-state(s), while the British made an all-out attempt to carry out decolonization at the lowest possible political cost for them.
The political rivalry among the major nationalist parties in Bengal took a form different from that in New Delhi, mainly because of the broad mass base those organizations enjoyed and the tradition of flexible political dealing in which they excelled. At the initial stage of the riots, the Congress and the Muslim League appeared to be confident that they could draw on this tradition even if a difficult situation arose out of political showdown. Most probably, Direct Action Day in Calcutta was planned to be a large-scale hartal and mass rally (which is an accepted part of political culture in Calcutta) which they knew very well how to control. However, the response from the masses far exceeded any expectations. The political leaders seriously miscalculated the strong emotional response that the word 'nation', as interpreted under the new situation, had evoked. In August 1946 the 'nation' was no longer a mere political slogan. It was rapidly turning into 'reality' both in realpolitik and in people's imaginations. The system to which Bengal political leaders had grown accustomed for decades could not cope with this dynamic change. As we have seen, it quickly and easily broke down on the first day of the disturbances.
Since the 11–14 February 1946 riots in Calcutta, communal tension had been high. Hindu and Muslim newspapers whipped up public sentiment with inflammatory and highly partisan reporting that heightened antagonism between the two communities.
Following Jinnah's declaration of 16 August as the Direct Action Day, acting on the advice of R.L. Walker, the then Chief Secretary of Bengal, the Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, requested Governor of Bengal Sir Frederick Burrows to declare a public holiday on that day. Governor Burrows agreed. Walker made this proposal with the hope that the risk of conflicts, especially those related to picketing, would be minimized if government offices, commercial houses and shops remained closed throughout Calcutta on the 16th. The Bengal Congress protested against the declaration of a public holiday, arguing that a holiday would enable 'the idle folks' to successfully enforce hartals in areas where the Muslim League leadership was uncertain. Congress accused the League government of "having indulged in 'communal politics' for a narrow goal". Congress leaders thought that if a public holiday was observed, its own supporters would have no choice but to close down their offices and shops, and thus be compelled against their will to lend a hand in the Muslim League's hartal. On 14 August, Kiron Shankar Roy, a leader of the Congress Party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, called on Hindu shopkeepers to not observe the public holiday, and keep their businesses open in defiance of the hartal. In essence, there was an element of pride involved in that the monopolistic position that the Congress had hitherto enjoyed in imposing and enforcing hartals, strikes, etc. was being challenged. However, the League went ahead with the declaration, and Muslim newspapers published the program for the day.
The Star of India, an influential local Muslim newspaper, ed by Raghib Ahsan Muslim League MLA from Calcutta published detailed programme for the day. The programme called for complete hartal and general strike in all spheres of civic, commercial and industrial life except essential services. The notice proclaimed that processions would start from multiple parts of Calcutta, Howrah, Hooghly, Metiabruz and 24 Parganas, and would converge at the foot of the Ochterlony Monument (now known as Shaheed Minar) where a joint mass rally presided over by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would be held. The Muslim League branches were advised to depute three workers in every mosque in every ward to explain the League's action plan before Juma prayers. Moreover, special prayers were arranged in every mosque on Friday after Juma prayers for the freedom of Muslim India. The notice drew divine inspiration from the Quran, emphasizing on the coincidence of Direct Action Day with the holy month of Ramzaan, claiming that the upcoming protests were an allegory of Prophet Muhammad's conflict with heathenism and subsequent conquest of Mecca and establishment of the kingdom of Heaven in Arabia.
Hindu public opinion was mobilised around the Akhand Hindusthan (United India) slogan. Certain Congress leaders in Bengal imbibed a strong sense of Hindu identity, especially in view of the perceived threat from the possibility of marginalizing themselves into minority against the onslaught of the Pakistan movement. Such mobilization along communal lines was partly successful due to a concerted propaganda campaign which resulted in a 'legitimization of communal solidarities'.
On the other hand, following the protests against the British after INA trials, the British administration decided to give more importance to protests against the government, rather than management of communal violence within the Indian populace, according to their "Emergency Action Scheme". Frederick Burrows, the Governor of Bengal, rationalized the declaration of "public holiday" in his report to Lord Wavell —
Many of the mischief-makers were people who would have had idle hands anyhow. If shops and markets had been generally open, I believe that there would have been even more looting and murder than there was; the holiday gave the peaceable citizens the chance of staying at home.— Frederick Burrows, Burrows' Report to Lord Wavell.
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Troubles started on the morning of 16 August. Even before 10 o'clock Police Headquarters at Lalbazar had reported that there was excitement throughout the city, that shops were being forced to close, and that there were many reports of brawls, stabbing and throwing of stones and brickbats. These were mainly concentrated in the North-central parts of the city like Rajabazar, Kelabagan, College Street, Harrison Road, Colootolla and Burrabazar. In these areas the Hindus were in a majority and were also in a superior and powerful economic position. The trouble had assumed the communal character which it was to retain throughout. The League's rally began at Ochterlony Monument at noon exactly. The gathering was considered as the 'largest ever Muslim assembly in Bengal' at that time.[page needed]
The meeting began around 2 pm though processions of Muslims from all parts of Calcutta had started assembling since the midday prayers. A large number of the participants were reported to have been armed with iron bars and lathis (bamboo sticks). The numbers attending were estimated by a Central Intelligence Officer's reporter (a Hindu) at 30,000 and by a Special Branch Inspector of Calcutta Police (a Muslim) at 500,000. The latter figure is impossibly high and the (Muslim) Star of India reporter put it at about 100,000. The main speakers were Khawaja Nazimuddin and Chief Minister Suhrawardy. Nazimuddin in his speech preached peacefulness and restraint but rather spoilt the effect by asserting that till 11 o'clock that morning all the injured persons were Muslims, and the Muslim community had only retaliated in self-defense.
The Special Branch of Calcutta Police had sent only one Urdu shorthand reporter to the meeting, with the result that no transcript of the Chief Minister's speech is available. But the Central Intelligence Officer and a reporter, who Frederick Burrows believed was reliable, deputed by the military authorities agree on one statement (not reported at all by the Calcutta Police). The version in the former's report was—"He [the Chief Minister] had seen to police and military arrangements who would not interfere". The version of the latter's was—"He had been able to restrain the military and the police". However, the police did not receive any specific order to "hold back". So, whatever Suhrawardy may have meant to convey by this, the impression of such a statement on a largely uneducated audience is construed by some to be an open invitation to disorder indeed, many of the listeners are reported to have started attacking Hindus and looting Hindu shops as soon as they left the meeting. Subsequently, there were reports of lorries (trucks) that came down Harrison Road in Calcutta, carrying Muslim men armed with brickbats and bottles as weapons and attacking Hindu-owned shops.
Hindus and Sikhs were just as fierce as the Muslims in the beginning. Parties of one community would lie in wait, and as soon as they caught one of the other community, they would cut him to pieces.
A 6 pm curfew was imposed in the parts of the city where there had been rioting. At 8 pm troops were deployed to secure main routes and conduct patrols from those arteries, thereby freeing up police for work in the slum areas.
On 17 August, Syed Abdullah Farooqui, the President of Garden Reach Textile Workers' Union, along with Elian Mistry, a Muslim hooligan, led a Muslim mob into the mill compound of Kesoram Cotton Mills in the Lichubagan area of Metiabruz. The mill workers, among whom were a substantial number of Odias, used to stay in the mill compound itself. On 25 August, four survivors lodged a complaint at the Metiabruz police station against Farooqui. Biswanath Das, a Minister in the Government of Orissa, visited Lichubagan to investigate into the killings of the Oriya laborers of Kesoram Cotton Mills. Some sources put the death toll at 7,000–10,000. Some authors have claimed that most of the victims were Muslims. However, many authors claim that Hindus were the primary victims.
The worst of the killing took place during the day on 17 August. By late afternoon soldiers brought the worst areas under control, and the army expanded its hold overnight. In the slums and other areas outside military control, however, lawlessness escalated. In the morning of 18 August, "Buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms."
Skirmishes between the communities continued for almost a week. Finally, on 21 August, Bengal was put under Viceroy's rule. 5 battalions of British troops, supported by 4 battalions of Indians and Gurkhas, were deployed in the city. Lord Wavell alleged that more British troops ought to have been called in earlier, and there is no indication that more British troops were not available. The rioting reduced on 22 August.
Suhrawardy put forth a great deal of effort to bring reluctant British officials around to calling the army in from Sealdah Rest Camp. Unfortunately, British officials did not send the army out until 1.45 am on the 17th.
Violence in Calcutta, between 1945 and 1946, passed by stages from Indian versus European to Hindu versus Muslim. Indian Christians and Europeans were generally free from molestation as the tempo of Hindu-Muslim violence quickened. The decline of anti-European feelings as communal Hindu-Muslim tensions increased during this period is evident from the casualty numbers. During the riots of November 1945, casualty of Europeans and Christians were 46; in the riots of the 10–14 February 1946, 35; from 15 February to 15 August, only 3; during the Calcutta riots from 15 August 1946 to 17 September 1946, none.
During the riots, thousands began fleeing Calcutta. For several days the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River was crowded with evacuees headed for the Howrah station to escape the mayhem in Calcutta. Many of them would not escape the violence that spread out into the region outside Calcutta. Lord Wavell claimed during his meeting on 27 August 1946 that Gandhi had told him, "If India wants bloodbath she shall have it ... if a bloodbath was necessary, it would come about in spite of non-violence".
There was criticism of Suhrawardy, Chief Minister in charge of the Home Portfolio in Calcutta, for being partisan and of Sir Frederick John Burrows, the British Governor of Bengal, for not having taken control of the situation. The Chief Minister spent a great deal of time in the Control Room in the Police Headquarters at Lalbazar, often attended by some of his supporters. Short of a direct order from the Governor, there was no way of preventing the Chief Minister from visiting the Control Room whenever he liked; and Governor Burrows was not prepared to give such an order, as it would clearly have indicated complete lack of faith in him.
Prominent Muslim League leaders spent a great deal of time in police control rooms directing operations and the role of Suhrawardy in obstructing police duties is documented
Both the British and Congress blamed Jinnah for calling the Direct Action Day and the Muslim League was seen responsible for stirring up the Islamic nationalist sentiment.
There are several views on the exact cause of the Direct Action Day riots. The Hindu press blamed the Suhrawardy Government and the Muslim League. According to the authorities, riots were instigated by members of the Muslim League and its affiliate Volunteer Corps, in the city in order to enforce the declaration by the Muslim League that Muslims were to 'suspend all business' to support their demand for an independent Pakistan. However, supporters of the Muslim League believed that the Congress Party was behind the violence in an effort to weaken the fragile Muslim League government in Bengal. Historian Joya Chatterji allocates much of the responsibility to Suhrawardy, for setting up the confrontation and failing to stop the rioting, but points out that Hindu leaders were also culpable. Members of the Indian National Congress, including Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru responded negatively to the riots and expressed shock. The riots would lead to further rioting and pogroms between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims. These events sowed the seeds for the eventual Partition of India.
An important sequel to Direct Action Day was the massacre in Noakhali and Tippera districts in October 1946. News of the Great Calcutta Riot touched off the Noakhali–Tippera riot in reaction. However, the violence was different in nature from Calcutta.
Rioting in the districts began on 10 October 1946 in the area of northern Noakhali district under Ramganj police station. The violence unleashed was described as "the organized fury of the Muslim mob". It soon engulfed the neighbouring police stations of Raipur, Lakshmipur, Begumganj and Sandip in Noakhali, and Faridganj, Hajiganj, Chandpur, Laksham and Chudagram in Tippera. The disruption caused by the widespread violence was extensive, making it difficult to accurately establish the number of casualties. Official estimates put the number of dead between 200 and 300. After the riots were stopped in Noakhali, the Muslim League claimed that only 500 Hindus were killed in the mayhem, but the survivors opined that more than 50,000 Hindus were killed. Some sources also made some extreme claim that the Hindu population in Noakhali was nearly annihilated. According to Francis Tuker, who at the time of the disturbances was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command, India, the Hindu press intentionally and grossly exaggerated reports of disorder. The neutral and widely accepted death toll figure is around 5000.[page needed]
According to Governor Burrows, "the immediate occasion for the outbreak of the disturbances was the looting of a Bazar [market] in Ramganj police station following the holding of a mass meeting." This included attacks on the place of business of Surendra Nath Bose and Rajendra Lal Roy Choudhury, the erstwhile president of the Noakhali Bar and a prominent Hindu Mahasabha leader.
A devastating riot rocked Bihar towards the end of 1946. Between 30 October and 7 November, a large-scale massacre of Muslims in Bihar brought Partition closer to inevitability. Severe violence broke out in Chhapra and Saran district, between 25 and 28 October. Very soon Patna, Munger and Bhagalpur also became the sites of serious violence. Begun as a reprisal for the Noakhali riot, whose death toll had been greatly overstated in immediate reports, it was difficult for authorities to deal with because it was spread out over a large area of scattered villages, and the number of casualties was impossible to establish accurately: "According to a subsequent statement in the British Parliament, the death-toll amounted to 5,000. The Statesman's estimate was between 7,500 and 10,000; the Congress party admitted to 2,000; Jinnah claimed about 30,000." However, By 3 November, the official estimate put the figure of death at only 445.
According to some independent sources of today, the death toll was around 8,000 human lives.
Some of the worst rioting also took place in Garhmukteshwar in United Provinces where a massacre occurred in November 1946, in which "Hindu pilgrims, at the annual religious fair, set upon and exterminated Muslims, not only on the festival grounds but in the adjacent town" while the police did little or nothing; the deaths were estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000. Rioting also took place in Punjab and Northwest Frontier Province in late 1946 and early 1947.
The resolution was passed with an overwhelming majority ... Thus the [A.I.C.C.] seal of approval was put on the Working Committee's resolution accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan ... On 10 July, Jawaharlal held a press conference in Bombay ... [when questioned,] Jawaharlal replied emphatically that the Congress had agreed only to participate in the Constituent Assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best ... The Moslem League had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan ... Mr. Jinnah had clearly stated that he recommended acceptance.
From February onwards communal tension had been strong. Anti-British feeling was, at the same time, being excited by interested people who were trying to make it a substitute for the more important communal emotion. The sole result of their attempts was to add to the temperature of all emotions ... heightening the friction between Hindus and Muslims. Biased, perverted and inflammatory articles and twisted reports were appearing in Hindu and Muslim newspapers.
As a public holiday would enable 'the idle folk' successfully to enforce hartals in ares where the League leadership was uncertain, the Bengal Congress ... condemned the League ministry for having indulged in 'communal politics' for a narrow goal.
As a counter-blast to this, Mr. K. Roy, leader of the Congress Party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, addressing a meeting at Ballygunge on the 14th, said that it was stupid to think that the holiday [would] avoid commotions. The holiday, with its idle folk, would create trouble, for it was quite certain that those Hindus who, still wishing to pursue their business, kept open their shops, would be compelled by force to close them. From this there would certainly be violent disturbance. But he advised the Hindus to keep their shops open and to continue their business and not to submit to a compulsory hartal.
During the pre-riot days the Hindu Mahasabha organized a number of rallies in Dacca to advocate the cause of Akhand Hindusthan and condemn the recent legislative measures of the Huq ministry. [Footnote 19:] Akhand Hindusthan was a plea for a united India. Pakistan was considered destructive of Indian nationalism and an attempt to reduce the Hindus to 'a statutory minority'.
Suhrawardy ... proclaimed a public holiday. The police too, he implied, would take the day off. Muslims, rallying en masse for speeches and processions, saw this as an invitation; they began looting and burning such Hindu shops as remained open. Arson gave way to murder, and the victims struck back ... In October the riots spread to parts of East Bengal and also to UP and Bihar ... Nehru wrung his hands in horror ... Gandhi rushed to the scene, heroically progressing through the devastated communities to preach reconciliation.
... Seven lorries that came thundering down Harrison Road. Men armed with brickbats and bottles began leaping out of the lorries—Muslim 'goondas,' or gangsters, Nanda Lal decided, since they immediately fell to tearing up Hindu shops.
At 6 p.m. curfew was clamped down all over the riot-affected districts. At 8 p.m. the Area Commander ... brought in the 7th Worcesters and the Green Howards from their barracks ... [troops] cleared the main routes ... and threw out patrols to free the police for work in the bustees.
The bloodiest butchery of all had been between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the 17th, by which time the soldiers got the worst areas under control ... [From] the early hours of the 18th ... onwards the area of military domination of the city was increased ... Outside the 'military' areas, the situation worsened hourly. Buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms.
Tousands began fleeting Calcutta. For days the bridge over the Hooghly River ... was a one-way current of men, women, children, and domestic animals, headed towards the Howrah railroad station ... But fast as the refugees fled, they could not keep ahead of the swiftly spreading tide of disaster. Calcutta was only the beginning of a chain reaction of riot, counter-riot, and reprisal which stormed through India.
Hindu culpability was never acknowledged. The Hindu press laid the blame for the violence upon the Suhrawardy Government and the Muslim League.
The immediate provocation of a mass scale riot was certainly the afternoon League meeting at the Ochterlony Monument ... Major J. Sim of the Eastern Command wrote, 'there must have [been] 100,000 of them ... with green uniform of the Muslim National Guard' ... Suhrawardy appeared to have incited the mob ... As the Governor also mentioned, 'the violence on a wider scale broke out as soon as the meeting was over', and most of those who indulged in attacking Hindus ... were returning from [it].
Moslem League Boss Mohamed Ali Jinnah had picked the 18th day of Ramadan for "Direct Action Day" against Britain's plan for Indian independence (which does not satisfy the Moslems' old demand for a separate Pakistan).
Having seen the reports from his own sources, he [Jinnah] was persuaded later, however, to accept that the 'communal riots in Calcutta were mainly started by Hindus and ... were of Hindu origin.'
Both sides in the confrontation came well-prepared for it ... Suhrawardy himself bears much of the responsibility for this blood-letting since he issued an open challenge to the Hindus and was grossly negligent ... in his failure to quell the rioting ... But Hindu leaders were also deeply implicated.
The riot was a direct sequel to the Calcutta killings of August 1946, and therefore, believed to be a repercussion of the latter ... the Noakhali-Tippera riot ... was different in nature from the Calcutta killings ... news of the Calcutta killings sparked it off.
Rioting in the districts ... began in the Ramganj Police Station area in the northern part of Noakhali district on 10 October 1946.
The number of dead was at that time reliably estimated as in the region of two hundred. On the other hand, very many Hindu families had fled, widespread panic existed, and it was impossible to say if particular individuals were dead or alive ... Hindus evacuated villages en masse, leaving their houses at the mercy of the robbers who looted and burned ... Our estimate was that the total killed in this episode was well under three hundred. Terrible and deliberately false stories were blown all over the world by a hysterical Hindu Press.
This included an attack on the 'Kutchery bari of Babu Suerndra Nath Bose and Rai Saheb Rajendra Lal Ray Choudhury of Karpara' ... the erstwhile president of the Noakhali Bar and a prominent Hindu Mahasabha leader in the district.
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