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August 16, 1946: The infamous Calcutta Riots

On this day, 73 years ago, Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah called for Direct Action'. The call resulted in what TIME magazine called the worst communal riots of the twentieth century. Vultures fed on the thousands of unburied corpses that were strewn unclaimed on the streets in the 72 hours of violence. The "Great Calcutta Killings' led to the partition of Bengal between a Hindu-majority Western Bengal, and a Muslim-dominated Eastern Bengal (today's Bangladesh).

What was the shameful event?

Now known as the ‘Direct Action Day Riots’ or ‘The Great Calcutta Killings’, 16 August 1946 poised itself right next to one of the most important days in Indian history, the day of the country’s Independence on 15 August, a year later.

But while the latter date came with hope, the former saw an unprecedented spectacle of hatred and bloodshed. In 1946, Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared 16th August as ‘Direct Action Day’ and called for Muslims all over the country to “suspend all business”.

This was to put pressure on the British government to relent to the League’s demand of dividing the country on the basis of religion, thereby allowing the creation of a Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

In those days the situation in Bengal was particularly complex.
The Hindu and Muslim communities had started growing apart in the period between 1932 and 1947 and turning into political adversaries. The rift increased when the communal electorate was introduced in the 1937 provincial election. Muslims automatically became the most powerful community in Bengal and Punjab as they outnumbered the Hindus and Sikhs.

The effect of the two-nation theory in Bengal let the Muslim League win an impressive total of 114 seats in the 1946 Bengal Legislative Assembly election, as opposed to the 87 seats won in Congress.

In the province, Muslims represented the majority of the population (56%, as against 42% of Hindus) and were mostly concentrated in the eastern part. 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 the provincial autonomy scheme introduced by the Government of India Act of 1935.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy
The League government, led by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, was up against the hurdle of strong opposition from the Congress, the Communist Party of India and also from a Hindu nationalist party, the Hindu Mahasabha. Against this backdrop, the protest triggered massive riots in Calcutta. Estimates vary but it is agreed that at least 4,000 people lost their lives and 100,000 residents were left homeless in Calcutta within 72 hours.

‘Direct Action Day’ marked the beginning of several acts of violence spread over a couple of days in what came to be known as the Week of the Long Knives. While it was ostensibly established none of the politicians had expected the violence to reach as massive a scale as it did, it went ahead to become a brutality-ridden microcosm of the political struggle that had the entire country in its throes later in 1947.

Muslims became more determined in their fight for a separate nation where they would feel safe from communal violence, a decision from which both Jinnah as well as the Congress’ elite politicians would stand to benefit.

As members of one community rounded up members of another and murdered them in cold blood, using swords, knives, cleavers, guns and metal rods, 16 August 1946 was forever etched in history as the day which saw the surfacing of the most primeval human instinct of violence.

The communal riots of 16 August 1946 are one of the most brutal incidents of violence in the history of India, leaving behind several thousand people dead in its wake. LIFE magazine, while publishing pictures showing vultures feeding happily on the hundreds of dead bodies on the streets of Calcutta, made a poignant remark.

In the end, these harrowing photographs provide what might be construed as a final, ironic refutation of the sort of ultra-clannish barbarity enacted in the 1946 riots, and in all religious riots throughout history. After all - a rotting, mutilated corpse has no allegiance to one religion over another.

Why did this situation arise?

Clement Attlee

In 1946, the Indian independence movement against the British Raj had reached a pivotal stage when the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent a three member Cabinet Mission to India aimed at discussing and finalizing plans for the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership, providing India with independence under Dominion status in the Commonwealth of Nations.

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 initial plans of composition of the new Dominion of India and its government.
On 16 June, under pressure from the Muslim League headed by Jinnah, the Mission proposed an alternative plan to arrange for India to be divided into Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The princely states of India would be permitted to accede to either dominion or attain independence. Jinnah, the one time Congressman and Indian Nationalist, and now the leader of the Muslim League, accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 16 June whereas the Congress rejected it outright.

On 10 July, Jawaharlal Nehru held a press conference in Bombay declaring 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. Fearing Hindu Domination in the Constituent Assembly, Jinnah denounced the British Cabinet Mission and decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly to try to put pressure on Congress and the British, by resorting to "Direct Action".

In July 1946, Jinnah held a press conference at his home in Bombay where he declared his intent to create Pakistan. Jinnah proclaimed that the Muslim league was "preparing to launch a struggle" and that they "have chalked out a plan". He decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly. He rejected the British plan for transfer of power to an interim government, which would combine both the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress. He said that if the Muslims were not granted Pakistan then he would launch "Direct Action".

When asked to specify what exactly he meant by direct action, 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 ”.

And trouble he did make but not in the way he had imagined. On the next day, Jinnah announced 16 August 1946 would be "Direct Action Day" for the purpose of winning the separate Muslim state.

When did the rioting start?

There are several views on the exact cause of the direct action day riots. According to expert reports, the 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.

Members of the Indian National Congress, including Mahatma 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.

Calcutta — which was a very turbulent city but a great industrial center — had been bombed during World War II. People were still semi-traumatized from their experience during the war and the famine that occurred during the war and there were lots of leftover weapons lying around ... so it was a tinderbox waiting to explode or implode.

On that day, the speeches that were given were fairly inflammatory, and some of the Muslim listeners of these speeches went out and started burning and looting Hindu areas. At the same time, Hindus in different parts of the city were also throwing bricks and stones at Muslim marchers.

It's very hard to say exactly how it started or who started it but both sides behaved violently. Neither of the communities had imagined the extent of bloodshed that would follow. If there is one incident in history that points to what happens to ordinary people when their political leaders talk and behave irresponsibly, it is the Great Calcutta Killings.

Where was the irreversible effect of Direct Action felt?

Until the riots most observers had thought the differences between the Congress Party and the Muslim League would somehow be resolved and that freedom would bring a united India.
Jinnah's arguments for division were all familiar: that the Muslims in India were outnumbered three to one by Hindus and would be ‘crushed’ under Hindu domination; that religion, customs, culture all made Muslims different from Hindus.

Opponents of the two-nation theory maintained that Hindus and Muslims could not be so different, since there was no racial difference at all. Even Jinnah, who was Shia Muslim, they were fond of pointing out, had a Hindu grandfather (Premjibhai Meghji Thakkar).
The riots did eventually serve to increase the feeling of alienation among Muslims, therefore strengthening their desire for a separate nation. The violence made both communities realise the extent of harm they were capable of causing each other when being ‘forced’ to live together.

Amidst small islands of Hindu-Muslim cooperation were the burning villages, the blazing fanaticisms. The sparks of Bengal flew westward to the state of Bihar, where Hindus wreaked merciless vengeance on the Muslim minority. The flames of Bihar fanned out to the Punjab and touched off explosions that dwarfed even the Calcutta riots.
Months of violence sharpened the divisions, highlighted Jinnah's arguments, and achieved partition.

Who were the victims?

Their exact number is not known, 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 4,000 and a maximum of 10,000, 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 aspects are important
The first is the particularly savage manner in which the killings were executed. Not only were victims brutally killed, their dead bodies 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 was not part of the usual gamut of communal riots in India, but was to figure prominently in accounts of communal violence around the time of Partition, which in retrospect, makes the Great Killings a sad harbinger of horrors still to come. Though women and children figured among the dead, 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, in view of the general “social ecology” of massacres in India, 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.

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. 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.

LIFE magazine featured stark pictures from the aftermath of the riots in its Sept. 9, 1946 issue - photos made by Margaret Bourke-White, who at the time was covering the run-up to the intensely fraught Partition of India. In a haunting two-page spread, titled "The Vultures of Calcutta," LIFE published three of Bourke-White's pictures, including the nightmarish photo that leads off the gallery above.
The pictures under the series ‘Vultures of Calcutta’ tell us how many thousands would have been murdered that day.

How unplanned were these riots?

There are two sides of this story, however. When Jinnah called for a nationwide day of suspension of all business, he perhaps did not expect a riot as massive as the one which eventually took place.
The other side of the historical spectrum disagrees. The riots were a result of the panic Muslims experienced at the prospect of being a minority in a Hindu dominated country. In that case, it might have been a deliberate, well-thought scheme of executing the killings. It is hard to conclude that the violence, of a level as great as this one, and of a communal nature, was entirely unplanned.

Muslims and Hindus who had presented a picture of unity and harmony in 1905 when they had unanimously protested against the partition of Bengal, now ended up with recurrent violent clashes over issues pertaining to idolatory, playing music and consumption of beef.

In his book The Great Divide, H V Hodson recounted, "The working committee followed up by calling on Muslims throughout India to observe 16 August as direct action day. On that Day meeting would be held all over the country to explain League's resolution. These meetings and processions passed off – as was manifestly the Central league leaders' intention – without more than commonplace and limited disturbance with one vast and tragic exception... what happened was more than anyone could have foreseen."

The Direct Action Day riots sparked off several riots between Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs in Noakhali, Bihar, and Punjab in that year.

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