16th August: A Revisit

The Great Calcutta Killings, 1946

This revisit is intended to reveal what actually happened 75 years ago and why BJP leadership wants to mark the 16th of August as their protest/mourn day.

16th August 1946, a date that calls for a revisit. And the revisit begins in Calcutta, now known as Kolkata. This revisit has a prelude. On 3rd August 2021 Anandabazar, a leading Bengali daily newspaper of Kolkata reports: BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) will hold rallies in every district of West Bengal, India, on 16th August. And then the news report mentions that Swapan, a Rajya Sabha member, wrote in his Tweeter: On this day of 1946, Muslim League observed Direct Action Day and began Great Calcutta Killings. The news report ends here. In the past 75 years, Indian political leaders, regardless of their political ideologies, have never identified 16 August 1946 as a significant date that needs to be observed in the context of Indian political history. 16th August has never been a vital agenda on the list of any Indian political party in the past 75 years. Why now — simple question. Answers remain in the fact findings. This journey may reveal some of the facts: the role-playing of the leadership of both sides. And the Muslim residents of Calcutta who made the supreme sacrifice to lay the foundation of a new nation.   

In early 1946, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (tenure: 1945-1951) sent a three-member cabinet mission for the planning of the transfer of the power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership. This team proposed an initial plan of composition of the new dominion of India and its Government. The leadership of the Congress Party welcomed this gesture of the British Raj. But the leadership of the Muslim League Party opposed this decision of transferring the power to the Indian Government. However, soon an alternative plan to divide the British Raj into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan was proposed by the Muslim leadership. On 16 June 1946, the Mission proposed an alternative plan for the subcontinent to be portioned.

The Congress Party leader Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the proposal outright. On 10 July 1946, Nehru announced that while the Congress has agreed to participate in the constituent assembly, it would be free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan. On 29 July 1946, Muhammad Ali Jinnah convened a meeting of the Muslim League Working Committee to discuss the role of the Congress leadership. The committee members agreed with Jinnah that the Congress, in the Hindu-majority constituent assembly, declaring its intent to reject the proposal of the partition and that will eventually result in keeping the Muslims of India under the Hindu domination. Hence, the Working Committee passed the resolution of Direct Action Day programme. Jinnah gave a call for a general strike (hartal) terming it Direct Action Day. Muslim League’s Call for a general strike was simply to assert its demand for an independent homeland for the Muslims of India. But, Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress (also known as Congress Party) expressed his reaction by saying: Either Direct Action knocks the Government over, or the Government knocks Direct Action over.    

On the morning of 16 August, 1946 (eighteenth day of Ramadan in 1946), Hussain (also Huseyn) Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Leader of the united Bengal and the Prime Minister of the Bengal province of the British Raj, called the Muslim residents of Calcutta (then capital of the United Bengal) to observe the day as hartal. He addressed the rally by saying: larke lenge Pakistan, Leke rahenge Pakistan, nar-e-takbir, Allah-hu Akbar.

The observance of hartal did not finish in one day. It turned into a riot and continued for four days (16th August to 19th August). Hindus and Sikhs fought against the Muslims of Calcutta. Amitabha Ghosh (claims to be an eye-witness) writes in Bangodesh.com: On day 2, a truck carrying a body of Sikhs, turban-less and wielding drawn swords, appeared in Upper Circular Road. It was time for Muslims to get panicky.

The aftermath of the massacre, several news sources reported that 4000 people died and 100000 people were left homeless in 72 hours. An estimation suggests that before the partition of Bengal in 1947, West Bengal had a population of 21.2 million, of whom 5.3 million were Muslims. The city of Calcutta had a Hindu population of 2,952,142 and the Muslims population of 1,099,562. After the partition, the Muslim population of Calcutta came down to just 601,817. It is also estimated that 5 lakhs of Muslims migrated from Calcutta to East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. Many of their progenies now live in the Geneva Camps as “stranded Pakistanis” in Bangladesh. From 16th August to 19th August in 1946, the streets of Calcutta observed the divided existence of the two nations: Muslims and Hindus. The theory of Two Nations turned to be a reality on the streets of Calcutta after the supreme sacrifice was made by the Muslims of this city. As a result, a new homeland named Pakistan became the destination of 200 million Muslims (Muslim population of undivided India in 1946). The price for this new homeland was paid by the Shaheeds (martyrs) of the Direct Action Day that took place in this month of August.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Lahore Times.

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