Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), known as the 1946 Calcutta Killings, was a day of a nationwide massacre of Hindus by Muslims motivated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s hate speeches. It led to a genocide of Hindus — and rapes of Hindu women — in the city of Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the Bengal province of British India. The day marked the start of what is known as The Week of the Long Knives.
The Muslim League and the Indian National Congress (INC) were the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India in the 1940s. The Muslim League had demanded, since its 1940 Lahore Resolution, that the Muslim-majority areas of India in the northwest and the east, should be constituted as ‘independent states’. The 1946 Cabinet Mission to India for the planning of the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership proposed a three-tier structure: a centre, groups of provinces and provinces.
The “groups of provinces” were meant to accommodate the Muslim League demand. Both the Muslim League and INC in principle accepted the Cabinet Mission’s plan. However, Muslim League suspected that INC’s acceptance was insincere.
Consequently, in July 1946, the Muslim leadership withdrew its agreement to the plan and announced a general strike (hartal) on 16 August, terming it “Direct Action Day”, to assert its demand for a separate homeland for Muslims out of certain northwestern and eastern provinces in colonial India.
Calling for Direct Action Day, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All India Muslim League, said that he wanted “either a divided India or a destroyed India”.
Against a backdrop of communal tension, the protest triggered massive riots in Calcutta. More than 4,000 people lost their lives and 100,000 residents were left homeless in Calcutta within 72 hours.
The rampant cases of Muslim violence across India sparked off retaliation by the Hindu community in regions near Calcutta like District Noakhali, Bihar, United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh), Punjab, and the North Western Frontier Province. The events sowed the seeds for the eventual partition of India.
The backdrop of Hindu genocide
In 1946, the Indian independence movement against the British Raj had reached a pivotal stage. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent a three-member Cabinet Mission to India aimed at discussing and finalizing plans for the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership. After holding talks with the representatives of the INC and the All India Muslim League, the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India on 16 May 1946, the mission proposed a plan of composition of the new Dominion of India and its government.
The Muslim League’s demand for ‘autonomous and sovereign’ states in the northwest and the east was accommodated by creating a new tier of ‘groups of provinces’ between the provincial layer and the central government. The central government was expected to handle the subjects of defence, external affairs and communications. All other powers would be relegated to the ‘groups’.
Jinnah, the former Congressman and now the leader of the Muslim League, had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 16 June, as had the central praesidium of the INC. On 10 July, however, Jawaharlal Nehru, the INC president, held a press conference in Bombay, declaring that although the INC had agreed to participate in the Constituent Assembly, it reserved the right to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it saw fit.
Fearing Hindu domination in the central government, the Muslim League politicians pressed Jinnah to revert to “his earlier unbending stance”. Jinnah rejected the British Cabinet Mission plan for a transfer of power to an interim government, which would combine both the Muslim League and the INC, and decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly.
In July 1946, Jinnah held a press conference at his home in Bombay. He proclaimed that the Muslim league was “preparing to launch a struggle” and that they “have chalked out a plan”. He said that if the Muslims were not granted a separate Pakistan then they would launch “direct action”. When asked to be specific, Jinnah retorted, “Go to the Congress and ask them their plans. When they take you into their confidence I will take you into mine. Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I am going to make trouble too.”
The next day, Jinnah announced 16 August 1946 would be “Direct Action Day” and warned INC, “We do not want war. If you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We will either have a divided India or a destroyed India.”
In his book The Great Divide, HV Hodson recounted,
The Working Committee followed up by calling on Muslims throughout India to observe 16th August as ‘Direct Action Day’. On that day, meetings would be held all over the country to explain the League’s resolution. These meetings and processions passed off–as was manifestly the central League leaders’ intention–without more than commonplace and limited disturbances, with one vast and tragic exception … What happened was more than anyone could have foreseen.
In Muslim Societies: Historical and Comparative Aspects, edited by Sato Tsugitaka, Nakazato Nariaki writes:
From the viewpoint of institutional politics, the Calcutta disturbances possessed a distinguishing feature in that they broke out in a transitional period which was marked by the power vacuum and systemic breakdown. It is also important to note that they constituted part of a political struggle in which the Congress and the Muslim League competed with each other for the initiative in establishing the new nation-state(s), while the British made an all-out attempt to carry out decolonization at the lowest possible political cost for them. The political rivalry among the major nationalist parties in Bengal took a form different from that in New Delhi, mainly because of the broad mass base those organizations enjoyed and the tradition of flexible political dealing in which they excelled. At the initial stage of the riots, the Congress and the Muslim League appeared to be confident that they could draw on this tradition even if a difficult situation arose out of political showdown. Most probably, Direct Action Day in Calcutta was planned to be a large-scale hartal and mass rally (which is an accepted part of political culture in Calcutta) which they knew very well how to control. However, the response from the masses far exceeded any expectations. The political leaders seriously miscalculated the strong emotional response that the word ‘nation’, as interpreted under the new situation, had evoked. In August 1946 the ‘nation’ was no longer a mere political slogan. It was rapidly turning into ‘reality’ both in realpolitik and in people’s imaginations. The system to which Bengal political leaders had grown accustomed for decades could not cope with this dynamic change. As we have seen, it quickly and easily broke down on the first day of the disturbances.
Since the 11–14 February 1946 riots in Calcutta, communal tension had been high. Hindu and Muslim newspapers whipped up the public sentiment with inflammatory and highly partisan reporting that heightened antagonism between the two communities.
Following Jinnah’s declaration of 16 August as the Direct Action Day, acting on the advice of then Chief Secretary of Bengal RL Walker, Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy requested Governor of Bengal Sir Frederick Burrows to declare a public holiday on that day. Governor Burrows agreed. Walker made this proposal with the hope that the risk of conflicts, especially those related to picketing, would be minimized if government offices, commercial houses and shops remained closed throughout Calcutta on 16 August.
The Bengal Congress protested against the declaration of a public holiday, arguing that a holiday would enable “the idle folks” to successfully enforce hartals in areas where the Muslim League leadership was uncertain. The INC accused the League government of “having indulged in ‘communal politics’ for a narrow goal”. INC leaders thought if a public holiday was observed, its own supporters would have no choice but to close down their offices and shops, and thus be compelled against their will to lend a hand in the Muslim League’s hartal.
The Muslim League branches were advised to depute three workers in every mosque in every ward to explain the League’s action plan before Juma (Friday) prayers. Moreover, special prayers were arranged in every mosque on Friday after Juma prayers for the freedom of Muslim India
On 14 August, Kiron Shankar Roy, a leader of the INC in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, called on Hindu shopkeepers to not observe the public holiday, and keep their businesses open in defiance of the hartal. In essence, there was an element of pride involved in that the monopolistic position that the INC had hitherto enjoyed in imposing and enforcing hartals, strikes, etc. was being challenged.
The Star of India, an influential local Muslim newspaper, edited by Raghib Ahsan Muslim League MLA from Calcutta, published a detailed programme for the day. The programme called for complete hartal and a general strike in all spheres of civic, commercial and industrial life except essential services. The notice proclaimed that processions would start from multiple parts of Calcutta, Howrah, Hooghly, Metiabruz and 24 Parganas, and would converge at the foot of the Ochterlony Monument (now known as Shaheed Minar) where a joint mass rally presided over by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would be held.
The Muslim League branches were advised to depute three workers in every mosque in every ward to explain the League’s action plan before Juma (Friday) prayers. Moreover, special prayers were arranged in every mosque on Friday after Juma prayers for the freedom of Muslim India.
The notice drew divine inspiration from the Quran, emphasizing on the coincidence of Direct Action Day with the holy month of Ramzaan, claiming that the upcoming protests were an allegory of Prophet Muhammad’s conflict with heathenism and subsequent conquest of Mecca and establishment of the kingdom of Heaven in Arabia.
Hindu public opinion was mobilised around the Akhand Hindusthan (United India) slogan. Certain Congress leaders in Bengal imbibed a strong sense of Hindu identity, especially in view of the perceived threat from the possibility of marginalizing themselves into minority against the onslaught of the Pakistan movement.
Such mobilisation along communal lines was partly successful due to a concerted propaganda campaign that resulted in a ‘legitimization of communal solidarities’.
On the other hand, following the protests against the British after the INA trials, the British administration decided to give more importance to protests against the government, rather than management of communal violence within the Indian populace, according to their “Emergency Action Scheme”.
Frederick Burrows, the Governor of Bengal, rationalised the declaration of “public holiday” in his report to Lord Wavell — Suhrawardy put forth a great deal of effort to bring reluctant British officials around to calling the army in from Sealdah Rest Camp. Unfortunately, British officials did not send the army out until 1.45 am on 17 August.
Troubles started on the morning of 16 August. Even before 10 o’clock Police Headquarters at Lalbazar had reported that there was excitement throughout the city, that shops were being forced to close, and that there were many reports of brawls, stabbing and throwing of stones and brickbats. These were mainly concentrated in the North-central parts of the city like Rajabazar, Kelabagan, College Street, Harrison Road, Colootolla and Burrabazar. In these areas, the Hindus were in a majority and were also in a superior and powerful economic position. The trouble had assumed the communal character which it was to retain throughout. The League’s rally began at Ochterlony Monument at noon exactly. The gathering was considered the largest ever Muslim assembly in Bengal at that time.
The Special Branch of Calcutta Police had sent only one shorthand reporter to the meeting, with the result that no transcript of the Chief Minister’s speech is available. But the Central Intelligence Officer and a reporter, who Frederick Burrows believed was reliable, deputed by the military authorities agree on one statement (not reported at all by the Calcutta Police). The version in the former’s report was—”He [the Chief Minister] had seen to police and military arrangements who would not interfere”. The version of the latter’s was—”He had been able to restrain the military and the police”. However, the police did not receive any specific order to “hold back”. So, whatever Suhrawardy may have meant to convey by this, the impression of such a statement on a largely uneducated audience is construed by some to be an open invitation to disorder indeed, many of the listeners are reported to have started attacking Hindus and looting Hindu shops as soon as they left the meeting. Subsequently, there were reports of lorries (trucks) that came down Harrison Road in Calcutta, carrying hardline Muslim gangsters armed with brickbats and bottles as weapons and attacking Hindu-owned shops.
On 17 August, Syed Abdullah Farooqui, the President of Garden Reach Textile Workers’ Union, along with Elian Mistry, a hardline Muslim hooligan, led a huge armed mob into the mill compound of Kesoram Cotton Mills in the Lichubagan area of Metiabruz. The mill workers, among whom were a substantial number of Odias, used to stay in the mill compound itself.
On 25 August, four survivors lodged a complaint at the Metiabruz police station against Farooqui. Bishwanath Das, a Minister in the Government of Orissa, visited Lichubagan to investigate the killings of the Oriya labourers of Kesoram Cotton Mills. Some sources estimate, that the death toll was up to 10,000 or more.
Exodus of communities
Kolkata had a Hindu population of 2,952,142, a Muslim population of 1,099,562, a Sikh population of 12,852 as per the 1946 estimate. A year before partition and after independence, the Muslim population came down to just 601,817 due to the migration of 5 lakhs Muslims from Kolkata to East Pakistan after the riot.
The 1951 Census of India recorded that 27% of Kolkata’s population was East Bengali refugees mainly Hindu Bengalis and they contributed to the economic growth of Kolkata in various fields just after settlement.
Millions of Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan had taken refuge mainly in the city and a number of estimations show that around 3.2 lakhs Hindus from East Pakistan had immigrated to Kolkata alone during the 1946–1950 period.
The first census shows that Hindu percentage in Kolkata had gone from 73% in 1946 to 84% in 1951 alone (a huge increment of 11% in 5 years) and at the same time Muslim percentage had reduced from 23% in 1946 to 12% in 1951 (a decline 11% at the same time). According to 2011 census, Kolkata city have a Hindu population of (76.51%); 3,440,290, Muslim population of (20.6%); 926,414, Sikh population of (0.31%); 13,849 out of 4,496,694 people.
Analysis by commentators
There are several views on the exact cause of the Direct Action Day riots. The Hindu press blamed the Suhrawardy Government and the Muslim League. According to the authorities, riots were instigated by members of the Muslim League and its affiliate Volunteer Corps, in the city in order to enforce the declaration by the Muslim League that Muslims were to ‘suspend all business’ to support their demand for an independent Pakistan. However, supporters of the Muslim League believed that the Congress Party was behind the violence in an effort to weaken the fragile Muslim League government in Bengal.
Historian Joya Chatterji allocates much of the responsibility to Suhrawardy, for setting up the confrontation and failing to stop the rioting, but points out that Hindu leaders were also culpable. Members of the Indian National Congress, including Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, responded negatively to the riots and expressed shock. The riots would lead to further rioting and pogroms between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims.
Subsequent communal violence
Rioting in the districts began on 10 October 1946 in the area of northern Noakhali district under Ramganj police station. The violence unleashed was described as “the organized fury of the Muslim mob”. It soon engulfed the neighbouring police stations of Raipur, Lakshmipur, Begumganj and Sandip in Noakhali, and Faridganj, Hajiganj, Chandpur, Laksham and Chudagram in Tippera. The disruption caused by the widespread violence was extensive, making it difficult to accurately establish the number of casualties.
Official estimates put the number of dead between 200 and 300. After the riots were stopped in Noakhali, the Muslim League claimed that only 500 Hindus were killed in the mayhem, but the survivors opined that more than 50,000 Hindus were killed.
Some sources made some extreme claims that the Hindu population in Noakhali was nearly annihilated. According to Francis Tuker, who at the time of the disturbances was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command, India, the Hindu press intentionally and grossly exaggerated reports of disorder. The neutral and widely accepted death toll figure is around 5000.
According to Governor Burrows, “… the immediate occasion for the outbreak of the disturbances was the looting of a Bazar [market] in Ramganj police station following the holding of a mass meeting.” This included attacks on the place of business of Surendra Nath Bose and Rajendra Lal Roy Choudhury, the erstwhile president of the Noakhali Bar and a prominent Hindu Mahasabha leader.
Bihar and rest of India
A devastating riot rocked Bihar towards the end of 1946. Between 30 October and 7 November, a large-scale massacre of Muslims in Bihar brought Partition closer to inevitability. Severe violence broke out in Chhapra and Saran district, between 25 and 28 October. Very soon Patna, Munger and Bhagalpur also became the sites of serious violence.
Begun as a reprisal for the Noakhali riot, whose death toll had been greatly overstated in immediate reports, it was difficult for authorities to deal with because it was spread out over a large area of scattered villages, and the number of casualties was impossible to establish accurately: “According to a subsequent statement in the British Parliament, the death-toll amounted to 5,000. The Statesman’s estimate was between 7,500 and 10,000; the Congress party admitted to 2,000; Jinnah claimed about 30,000.” However, By 3 November, the official estimate put the figure of death at only 445.
According to some independent sources of today, the death toll was around 8,000 human lives.
Some of the worst riots took place in Garhmukteshwar in United Provinces where a massacre occurred in November 1946, in which “Hindu pilgrims, at the annual religious fair, set upon and exterminated Muslims, not only on the festival grounds but in the adjacent town” while the police did little or nothing; the deaths were estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000. Rioting also took place in Punjab and Northwest Frontier Province in late 1946 and early 1947.