Gopal `Patha' Mukherjee, Gopal the Goat, looks an unlikely retired gang leader. He is positively beatific, with his thick, black-rimmed spectacles, long white beard, and tidy wisp of grey hair tied up on top of his head, sardar-style. Yet, half a century ago, he was among the most feared of
The words are uttered so softly, it takes a while for their import to sink in.
War of 1947 heroes/murderers
A City Feeding on Itself:
Testimonies and Histories of ‘Direct Action’ Day
In 1946, Gopal Patha, a notorious goon of
Patha organised his gang because, according to him, "it was a very critical time for the country; the country had to be saved. If we become a part of
Like Gopal Patha, the local tough Jugal Chandra Ghosh also had some men at his disposal. He ran an akhara (wrestling club) at Beliaghata, and raised money from the neighbouring sawmills, factories and khatals (dairy sheds), distributing it among his "boys". They carried out retaliatory attacks in the Beliaghata area and the Miabagan basti (slum settlement). "One murder would fetch ten rupees, and a wounding would bring five". He had links to certain political leaders of the city, and knew the Hindu Mahasabha secretary Bidhubhusan Sarkar as well as Suresh Chandra Bannerjee who later became a prominent leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress. Ghosh's anger against the Muslim League flared when he saw the dead bodies from the first days of rioting. "I saw four trucks standing, all with dead bodies piled at least three feet high; like molasses in a sack, they were stacked on the trucks, blood and brain oozing out. that sight had a tremendous effect on me". The picture that emerges from the interviews with these men, active during those riot-torn days of August 1946, also underlines the character of the mob that had gone on a rampage through the bylanes and streets of
By the mid-20th century, only three-tenths of the population was native-born; the working class of the city continued to come from outside. The 1896 Labour Inquiry Commission noted a large number of men migrating from
In this unknown city they lived alone, in terrible conditions. This group of 'labouring poor' thus came to assume a strong notion of communal identity based on religion, language and habitat. Although
casual labourers were Hindustani-speaking immigrants from
A significant number of Muslim rioters were kasais (butchers) from north and central
These direct links with institutional politics ensured that the outbreaks of violence were highly organised. Hindu
businessmen, prominent merchants, as well as politicians of the Hindu Mahasabha and some sections of the Congress, provided leadership to the mob. A number of INA (Indian National Army) men who had already come to the city to celebrate INA Day on 18 August were involved in rioting. Even minority sections of the population, such as Anglo-Indians, took part. This is evident from the following eyewitness account of Syed Nazimuddin Hashim, a student at
It is well documented that from the 1920s onwards, Hindu and Muslim identities had hardened within the framework of institutional politics. In a Public and Judicial Department report covering the first half of 1940, the British government noted the alarming rise of "volunteer corps" or "private armies" of the political parties, an indicator of the increased communitarian tensions. "The militant volunteer corps formed by communal and political
organisations subscribing to conflicting objectives and ideologies have grave potentialities for mischief in the event of an organised movement to create communal disorder or to subvert the administration", stated the report. In Bengal, the Muslim League Volunteer Corps increased its number to around 4,154, while the Congress Volunteer Corps also significantly increased its numbers in
Certainly, the period 1946-47 was "the penultimate and worst phase of communal violence in pre-independent
10 July, Jawaharlal Nehru declared in a press conference that although Congress would join the Constituent Assembly, it was free to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan. The Muslim League reacted immediately. In a resolution passed by the National Muslim Parliament held in
details of the day, the ministry in
That year, Badruddin Umar was 14 years old. His father Abul Hashim was a member of the Muslim League, and went on to become the general secretary of the party in Burdwan in 1947. On Direct Action Day, Umar was present in
alcohol or with enthusiasm. They were shouting wild slogans, 'we'll fight, we'll seize'. Slogans about the famous warrior Khalifa Hazrat Ali. and they carried huge imaginary portraits of Jinnah in battledress, riding on a white horse, scimitar by the side, and leading the battle of the hordes against the infidels". The meeting began late, at , and by then the crowd had swelled to between 30,000 and 50,000 people. A contemporary account suggests that even before the meeting started, a great deal of agitation was visible among the crowd, who heckled the leaders. "People were shouting all around that riots had broken out in Rajabajar and Muslims are being slaughtered." In his address, Chief Minister Suhrawardy reportedly assured the crowd that the military and police were "restrained". Fuelled by rumour and the Chief Minister's assurance, the processionists, on their way back, began looting Hindu shops. Hamida Khanam, a young lecturer at
of that day. "In the afternoon. around 5.30, I saw a huge crowd coming towards Park Circus. I saw men carrying electric fans, brass utensils. Then I saw the furniture . I realised this was not a simple gathering, there was looting going on. Just a few moments later I saw people looting a sweetshop on the other side of the road that belonged to a Hindu family. I realised the situation was very grave".
The massacre raged till 19 August. An 18 August telegram to the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, from Sir Fredrick Burrows, the Governor of
This account of the dead is corroborated by another chilling account of a necrophiliac city ravaged and destroyed. Phillip Talbot, a journalist present in
It would be impossible to describe everything that we saw. A sense of desolation hung over the native bazaars. In street after street rows of shops had been stripped to the walls. Tenements and business buildings were burnt out, and their unconsumed innards strewn over the pavements. Smashed furniture cluttered the roads, along with concrete blocks, brick, glass, iron rods, machine tools. Anything that the mob had been able to tear loose but did not want to carry off. Fountains gushed from broken water remains. Burnt-out automobiles stood across traffic
lanes. A pall of smoke hung over many blocks, and buzzards sailed in great, leisurely circles. Most overwhelming, however, were the neglected human casualties: fresh bodies, bodies grotesquely bloated in the tropical heat, slashed bodies, bodies bludgeoned to death, bodies piled on push carts, bodies caught in drains, bodies stacked high in vacant lots, bodies, bodies.
"Watching a city feed on its own flesh is a disturbing experience", Talbot concluded. "In spite of our war heritage of callousness, I know that I was not alone in sensing profound horror this last week as
compassion were severely tested as he wrote about the carnage all around him. "In human terms, estimated casualties ran from the Provincial Government's absurdly reductive report of 750 dead to military guesses that 7,000 to 10,000 people might have been killed. Already more than 3,500 bodies have been collected and counted, and no one will ever know how many persons were swept down the Hoogly, caught in the clogged sewers, burned up in the 1,200 fires, or taken away by relatives who disposed of their bodies privately. A reasonable guess, I think, is that more than 4,000 people died and 11,000 people were injured in what is already being called 'The Great Calcutta Killing' or 'The Week of the Long Knives'".
The orgy of communitarian slaughter, along with the famine of 1944, two years earlier, initiated the decline of the metropolis of
Blow fell upon blow like the continuous rains of the miserable rainy season in the city. There was hoarding, profiteering and black-marketing on an unprecedented scale. The sequel to this was the devastating
impression made by the bloody massacres, the stabbings in the back alleys, and the night raids into neighbourhoods that followed Jinnah's call for 'Direct Action' after the war. This was the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, when the Muslim League Ministry headed by Suhrawardy virtually placed
followed the Partition of Bengal, the streams of refugees that poured into
The personal testimonies presented in this essay point not to a grand narrative of ethnic and social hatred but to the grotesque irruption of these cataclysmic modes within the frame of the everyday and the mundane. These sudden killers were ordinary men and women going about their daily lives; the turbulent spiral of a single event turned them into sadistic assassins, or stunned witnesses to the horrors of genocide. The violence they saw
or perpetrated marked them forever. As the poet Shaukat Osman remarked, ".We are the prisoners of the past, prisoners of Partition, prisoners of the irrationality which led us to jump into darkness. the past is still there. It is haunting us like [a] ghost, all over the sub-continent".
I came upon the material used in this essay while doing archival research for a project on Partition. I was very moved by the testimonies, and felt I needed to compile them in order to understand one of the generally unanswered questions about Kolkata's past. I had always wondered how my city could have undergone such a
moment of violence that is now either almost forgotten, or vividly remembered as traumatic. I wanted to access
the 'little' histories of local witnesses, how they were haunted by the killings even as they continued to go about
their daily business in the city. This essay is an attempt to read that convulsion of extraordinary violence through
the observations of 'ordinary' people.
Various oral testimonies that appear in this text are excerpts from interviews for a
permission to use this material. The tapes can be accessed at the archives of the