Calcutta Riot, 1946

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Calcutta Riot, 1946 a dreadful event (16 August 1946) with its tremendous negative impact on Hindu-Muslim relations. The violence, highly organised in character, resulted from the hatred and distrust between the two major communities.

16th August 1946 was selected as the direct action day when Muslims throughout the subcontinent were to 'suspend all business' to support the Muslim League demand for Pakistan. On the other hand, the Hindu popular opinion rallied round the anti-Pakistan slogan. Bengal's Congress leaders were not necessarily Hindu communalists. But since most of the party's support came from the Hindus, a section of Congressmen developed a strong sense of Hindu identity in view of the perceived threat from the Pakistan movement. Their campaign certainly served to inflame the Hindu mind against the Direct Action Day, which was likely to be particularly successful in Bengal, since it had a League ministry in power.

Disturbances started on the morning of 16 August when League volunteers forced Hindu shopkeepers in North Calcutta to close their shops and Hindus retaliated by obstructing the passage of League's processions. The League's rally at Ochterloney Monument on that day was considered as the 'largest ever Muslim assembly'. The Muslim League Chief Minister in his address reportedly assured the audience that the military and police had been 'restrained'. This was interpreted by the gathering as an open invitation to commit violence on its rival community. The region most affected by the violence was the densely populated sector of the metropolis bounded by Bowbazar Street on the south, Upper Circular Road on the east, Vivekananda Road on the north and Strand Road on the west. Official estimate put the casualties at 4,000 dead and 100,000 injured in the riot. Only on the 22nd Calcutta became quiet except for some isolated killings. During Calcutta's earlier Hindu-Muslim clashes - notably in 1918 and 1926 - the targets of collective violence were essentially symbols of class and colonial oppression. But the 1946 crowd hardly demonstrated hostility against the government, police or Europeans. While in earlier riots shops dealing with immediate consumer goods or items whose price had just risen were mostly looted, in the riot of 1946 any shop was an object of attack, the only discriminatory feature being Muslims exclusively pillaging Hindu shops and vice versa. Religious symbols of the rival community were another victim of crowd violence. Unlike preceding riots, the women faced assaults in 1946. Another novelty of the 1946 killing was attacks and murders committed by small groups. The emphasis here was on revenge and control over the physical body of the enemy; the aim was to cause the greatest possible humiliation, pain and suffering.

What is most unique about the 1946 riot is that it was conducted in the most organised manner. The League mobilised all its frontal organisations to make the 'Day' a success. Special coupons for gallons of petrol were issued in the names of League ministers to be used by their party functionaries. One month's food ration for 10,000 people was allegedly drawn in advance to feed the League activists. Once the riot began the Chief Minister huseyn shaheed suhrawardy, accompanied by his political aids, spent considerable time in the Police Control Room to allegedly shield Muslims from police operations. On the other hand, Marwari merchants reportedly purchased arms and ammunitions from American soldiers, which were later used during the riot. Acid bombs were manufactured and stored in Hindu-owned factories long before the outbreak. Calcutta's Hindu blacksmiths were mobilised to prepare spearheads and other weapons.

Collective violence on either side also displayed features of organisation. The looted booty was carried to waiting lorries for transportation to a central place; shops were marked carefully with signs so that the crowd left untouched the establishments of their co-religionists. Houses of a particular community were attacked simultaneously. Both League and Congress volunteers used Red Cross badges to evade police detection. Perhaps at the height of antagonism the Hindu and Muslim crowd were impregnated with cross-fertilisation of ideas on collective conduct wherein one was copying the acts of others - a trend noticeable during the 16th century Catholic-Protestant riots in France.

Anatomy of the crowd Predominance of up-countrymen amongst the 1946 rioting crowd represented a broad pattern of similarity with Calcutta's preceding communal outbreaks. Amongst the Muslims the butchers, factory workers, masons, dock workers and other inhabitants of slums of central Calcutta were most active. Muslim students, including females, joined the 16th August rally. Within the Hindus the volatile section included milkmen, sweepers, rickshaw pullers, darwans (guards) of government offices and business establishments and personal retainers of the city's prominent persons. There were communal skirmishes taken place before. But, in the history of Calcutta's communal riots the Bengalis - Hindus and Muslims - joined the rioting crowd for the first time in 1946. Most pre-eminent in participation were potters, scavengers, petty shopkeepers, goldsmiths and Kalwars (artisans dealing with scrap metals), students and other middle-class groups.

In the1946-riot, contemporary accounts also emphasize the prominence of Hindu and Muslim gundas (a term denoting a broad spectrum of social groups ranging from various marginalised elements to habitual criminals). Linkage of these gundas with the world of organised politics was clear and the riot witnessed communal solidarity across class lines.

Provocation While the Congress and hindu mahasabha put the entire blame on the League, the Muslim League argued that the Congress fomented the trouble to create a situation which would force the dismissal of the League government and imposition of Governor's rule. But what needs to be emphasized is the role of British officials during the 1946 riot. The Bengal Governor's ratification of the League ministry's decision to declare a public holiday for the 16th contradicted sharply with his counterpart's action in Sind, the only other province where the League held political power. Again, in sharp contrast to the anti-imperialist disturbances of November 1945 and February 1946, the army was not summoned until 24 hours after the outbreak of the hooliganism. Curfew orders were not strictly enforced on the first few nights. The conduct of the Bengal Governor and European officials was 'culpable' in so far as a timely intervention might have averted the violence.

Aftermath The riots completely ramshackled the city life. Food and other essential supplies became scarce, hyperinflation prevailed, and epidemics threatened the metropolis. Calcutta came to be divided into 'communal zones', Hindus and Muslims avoiding each other's areas. For one whole year Calcutta remained a scene of constant communal clashes. Indeed a nexus could rightly be traced between communal outbreaks in Calcutta and Bihar. The circle was completed when the Punjab exploded in March 1947.

Communalism at the popular level provided a new turn to India's institutional politics. The Muslim League warned that civil wars on the Calcutta scale would occur in other parts of the country unless its proposal for the Partition of India was accepted and the Congress suffered a setback and its leadership, excepting Gandhi and Badshah Khan, accepted Partition of the country along religious lines as the 'only alternative'. The turn that events had taken afterwards made a peaceful solution through an agreement between the Congress and the Muslim League a far cry. [Suranjan Das]

Bibliography Harun-or Rashid, The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh: Bengal Muslim League and Muslim Politics, 1936-1947, Dhaka, 1987, Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-1947, Delhi, 1991 and 1993.