The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.
Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.
In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.
On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.
In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.
Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.
From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.
On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:
‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’
At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.