It was almost mid-August 1946; the humidity and the low pressure in Bay of Bengal was adding to the tension that was already looming in the air over people of Calcutta and surrounding areas. Unsure of their future and scared of the rumors that were rampant, the common people of the state practically hid in their homes. The sword of partition was hanging on their heads – all the hopes of Netaji crossing over from Imphal to save the Nation had vanished into thin air with the news of his alleged accidental death. Women were scared to send their men out to work.
16th August had already been declared by M.A. Jinnah as The Direct Action Day. The Muslim League led by the Chief Minister H. S. Suhrawardy had given a call for hartal. On his request the Governor of Bengal Sir Frederick Burrows had declared 16th as a public holiday. The congress leaders were opposed to the hartal and so were Hindu businessmen. The two nation theory that was being propagated was scary enough, and people were unsure of what was going to happen. There also had been news of the Mayor of Calcutta Syed Muhammad Usman issuing a leaflet that said: Kafirs, beware, you all will be massacred.
And to add to this, the news of Haren Ghosh’s murder had become public. Haren Ghosh, who was an impresario, had an office in WachhelMolla Building at Dharamtala. He was also a musician and regularly performed with Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar dance troupe. One evening while he was about to leave his office, the Bai ji from next door, who Suhrawardy used to visit regularly, came with a piece of paper that Suhrawardy had left by mistake. She wanted to know if it was an important paper. Haren Ghosh saw it and quickly threw it in the waste paper basket saying it was a useless paper. After she left he took it out and was shocked to see the details.
It was evident from the paper that something big was being planned. It showed that the plan was to do an ethnic cleansing of the areas around Calcutta, 24 Paraganas, Hoogly, and Howrah etc. to change the demography by scaring or killing Hindus so that the entire area on the eastern side of Ganga can be a part of proposed East Pakistan. The plan also was to blow off the Howrah Bridge with dynamite to cut off connection from the other side. Suhrawardy wanted to bring a major chunk of Muslim population from the densely Muslim populated areas and have them settle down on the properties of Hindus that would be killed or scared away. Suhrawardy himself had quite a bit of named and unnamed property around Calcutta so he was desperate to have Calcutta included in East Pakistan. Moreover, Calcutta was a rich, industrialized city and thus very much coveted by the about-to-be separate country.
These details horrified Haren Ghosh. He notified the Hindu leaders of the area about what he had accidentally discovered. He also was keen to notify Nehru. The local people warned him not to continue going to that office but he said: I am a peaceful man, who would harm me. This resulted in Haren Ghosh being butchered mercilessly, pieces of his body chopped and filled in bags and thrown in the gardens of random European houses around Park Street.
It was midnight of 15thAugust; there was hustle and bustle behind close shutters of the meat shop on the College Street owned by a 33-year-old Gopal Chandra Mukherjee, the nephew of revolutionary Anukul Chandra Mukherjee. In those days there used to be akhadas where young men did physical training. Gopal also had an akhada and a group of 500 to 600 young men who were totally devoted to him since the 1942 Quit India Movement. Gopal had some arms and ammunition, 4.5 pistols with cartridges that he had acquired from black American soldiers during World War II. The news of Haren Ghosh’s brutal murder and the plan he had revealed was enough warning for Gopal to be ready. He instructed his men to be calm but keep a watch on the situation.
On the dreaded day, the 16th of August, the early morning brought in news of few Odiya vendors being killed. Gopal Patha, as he was known popularly – being the goat meat shop owner – was at his shop when he saw a group of Muslim youth dressed in khaki uniforms taking out a procession with a band party. They marched on the Bow Bazaar street shouting “Mar ke lenge Pakistan, Lad ke lenge Pakistan” and walked away. After that, news of random killings of Hindu Bihari gwalas came in and as the day progressed there were more reports of stabbing and killing. The areas from Raja Bazaar to Beleghata, Bow Bazaar and Chandani Market that had major population of Muslims were tense. Gopal Patha shut his shop and tried to convince his Muslim friends not to get involved in violence and arson as they all had been living together since years in the area. In Gopal’s words, “That day after evening and nightfall, everyone went into their homes. But still we were worried that so many Muslims are present in my area; they may be attacked. I decided to rescue them and send them to the police station. My boys escorted them to BowBazaar thana which is nearby. From the other side, from Jaan Bazaar area all Hindustani milk men and all came into our locality with their sticks. I felt that it was not safe to keep them here. I rescued them and took them to the Bow Bazaar police station”. Little did he know at that time that The Muslim League was literally ready to kill and fight the common citizens to fulfill its political ambitions.
There had been an announcement about the meeting that had been called by Muslim League leaders near Shaheed Minar. The main speakers of the meeting were Suhrawardy and Khwaja Nazimuddin. Suhrawardy had already cleverly replaced Hindu police men with Pathan and Muslim police men in order to carry out his dirty plans. The meeting was scheduled to start at 2 PM.
Slowly people started gathering and walking towards the meeting grounds. By this time the slogan of “Lad kelenge Pakistan” was heard all over Calcutta. The Hindus of Central and North were scared to come out in the streets. The meeting started with peaceful speeches, the Muslim sentiments were aroused in the name of religion and slowly turned into provocative spreading lies that many Muslims had been killed by 11 AM. After that all hell broke loose. Thousands of Hindu men were pulled out of the houses and brutally killed. Anyone who was out on the streets that day never reached home. Many women were molested, disrobed and gang raped publicly in open grounds. In a factory in Metia Burj 600 Odiya workers were mercilessly beheaded. Somewhere around 7000 to 10000 people were killed. The Hindus panicked and started running away; some tried to cross the Ganga on boats but were targeted and killed. Howrah station was crowded with people trying to board trains.
Two days of madness saw most streets and walls of city houses covered in blood. There are reports of mass cremations of 35000 Hindu bodies but many more were found stuffed in gutters.
Finally after a day and a half of mass massacres, on 17th evening Gopal decided that it was time to fight back. He gathered his men and asked them to bring their arms, Swords, sticks, rods, knives whatever weapons they could find. They made crude bombs overnight. That night Calcutta did not sleep: the iron smiths made swords, spears and knives, the iron rods from construction sites were picked and sharpened on both ends. Gopal told his men that this was their time to save their nation, their city and its people. The instructions were to attack whoever had arms and tried to kill or attack Hindus. The ratio he said should be 1:10, don’t leave them injured or half dead, and just finish them off. But he had warned clearly, No looting and the women or children should not be touched, neither those who were not involved in the violence. Many non-Bengali men joined hands with Gopal to fight back, the Sikhs of transport business, the Bihari milk men and labours and many more. The financial support was provided by Marwari businessmen. The entire community had woken up to save its existence.
The Hindu fight back was something the Muslims and their leaders had not expected. They were totally taken by surprise. Suhrawardy, who always thought Hindus were weak and submissive, felt at loss to control the situation. A non-communal person like Gopal was forced to pick up arms to save his community, to save their women folk from being shamed and wronged. Few of his men got a jeep and with loaded pistols and crude bombs drove towards Beleghata. They wanted to finish off Suhrawardy the butcher, but at a turning over railway bridge the jeep toppled and two of the men fell down on the railway track and instantly died. Their mission had failed, but their spirits did not. They not only saved many people, they also provided shelter to the widows and children with the help of Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
By the afternoon of next the day, the police and army had takenover. But it took them a few days to curb the violence and bring normalcy, by which Hindus and Muslims were wary of each other and feared to enter areas dominated by each community. The military report in National archives of government of UK notes:
Soon after midnight on the 16/17th these gangs fought out the most desperate battles, murder and butchery of a worst type were carried on in the side lanes and byways of North Calcutta.
Round Vivekananda Road/ Central Ave., crossing about 50 Hindu Behari rickshaw pullers were caught in a cul-de-sac and butchered. Further up Central Ave., round the temple which stands in the middle, a party of some 30 Mohamedans was killed. It was during the period midnight 16/17th and 0700 hours on the 17th that most of the casualties occurred. All the roads in the affected areas were red with bricks. Our patrols were out but due to the tremendous fights that were going on it was impossible for us to force our way into the areas in which the main killings were taking place.
From the time the riots started every little blacksmith was working like mad in his house manufacturing spears, rods and knives. The iron rods used in reinforced concrete building works were all stolen and sharpened at both ends, and the butchery that these crude weapons did has have to be seen to be believed. Men, women and children were slaughtered by both sides indiscriminately and when Mullick Bazar was burnt three Hindu children were thrown into the flames.
The result of this riot has been complete mistrust between the two communities. Most of the Babus dare not go to their offices because they have to pass through Muslim areas, and they are afraid of being stabbed. Though the city is quiet there are still stabbing cases and both sides are very very frightened. The trams are running today (22nd). There are buses and taxis and the city is fast returning to normal. We have cleaned up practically all the corpses, D.D.T. has been sprayed and everything possible has been done.
Gandhi ji, who had been in Noakhali at the time of riots, came to Calcutta a few days later at the request of Suhrawardy. Unable to deal with the situation that had clearly gone out of hand, Gandhi ji was the only person who could stop this violence, he felt. Suhrawardy started visiting Gandhi ji every day beseeching him to intervene. Gandhi ji gave out a call for all to stop violence and surrender their arms to him. Some people came and surrendered some arms. Twice he sent message to Gopal to come but Gopal did not pay heed. The third time the local Congress leaders approached him and asked him to at least go and meet Gandhi ji. Gopal went there. When asked to surrender his arms he said, “Where was Gandhi ji when people were being butchered? I cannot surrender even a single nail with which I have saved honour of our mothers and sisters and lives of children”. And he walked out.
The common people were not happy with Gandhi ji’s attitude. They blocked the area around his camp and didn’t allow anyone to go and attend the prayer meeting at Gandhi Shivir. The police was unable to control the outrage. Again Gopal was called to give protection to Gandhi ji and his camp. Gopal, in his own words in an interview to Andrew Whitehead a British journalist, said,
“A man of non-violence asked for protection with arms.”
Although the police records have Gopal Patha’s name as a miscreant along with Suhrawardy’s goons Meena Pashawari and Bambaiya Pathan, who were specially called to lead the Hindu killings, the fact remains that had he not picked up arms and given a befitting reply, the history and geography of Bengal would have been different. The bone-chilling collective memory of that fateful day in the history of Bengal is ignored. But the Hindus of the present day Bengal owe a lot to Gopal Chandra Mukherjee, the Lion heart nationalist, the famous Gopal Patha.
1. Partition Voices
Gopal ‘Patha’ Mukherjee – talking to Andrew Whitehead, April 1997.
2. Calcutta Riots – nationalarchives.gov.uk