No Indian could ever forget 15th August, 1947. With independence came partition. While the former is the reason to rejoice the later remains a painful remainder throughout. The pages of Indian history that tell us about the riots are perhaps the bloodiest pages in recent times. The religious hatred fueled riots and the spark was kept alive for months through the chain of revenge. The riots spread city to city, amid the heated debate on the partition of India. The British had almost come to a conclusive edge of offering independence to India but the plea and opposition for the partition was equally strong both in the political quarters and among general public.
The first official call for the separate nation of Pakistan for the Muslims was raised in the All India Muslim League conference in 1940. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who later became the father of Pakistan, in his address, said that partition of India is inevitable. The major political powers of the British Raj, then, on the Indian side were the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. The British initiation for granting independence took shape as the United Kingdom (three members) Cabinet Mission of 1946. The cabinet intended to plan for the transfer of political power to India. By then the proposal for partitioning India into the Hindu majority India and the Muslim majority Pakistan was pressed more strongly that ever. The INA was not at all ready to take it.
Direct Action Day
Not pleased by the INA’s stand on the proposal of partition, the Muslim League called for a strike to show the strength of Muslims as well as underline their fear of Hindu dominance that might surface once the British left India. Jinnah’s ‘Dawn’ newspaper, published from Lahore, even had its headlines criticizing Congress’s refusal to echo the partition of India plan. The League council called the day ‘Direct Action Day’. Tracking back the bloodiest chain of mass violence in the entire history of British Raj, one might end up only here. Among the provinces in the colonial India, the Bengal province and Punjab had complex ensembles of Hindu-Muslim demographic. In fact the case with Punjab was even more complex, as it had Sikhs too.
The day marked for the direct action day was 16th August, 1946, announced by Jinnah. The central idea of the strike is to press for separate state for Muslims. Mob violence broke out during the day, and to the worst it didn’t end up there. Instead it only heralded the chain of violence Both Hindu and Muslim riot bobs went on hunting each other, killing thousands. Villages were turned into mortuaries in a short span of time and the corpses were abandoned in the streets for the vultures to feast.
Day after day each mob went on blood thirsty hunting spree killing others. Estimations state the death toll during the first month since the violence broke out was between 5,000 and 10,000, in Calcutta alone. Figuratively the values vary, but the point is they clearly show us the intensity of the violence. This Hindu-Muslim hatred began to poison the neighborhood too and that lead to the chain reaction. Among those killed in Calcutta riots – the historians refer the period as ‘The Week of Long Knives’ – among those killed Hindus were majority.
Chain of Violence
In a short span of time that followed the Calcutta riots in West Bengal, the Muslims in East Bengal reacted to it and the ‘violence’ fire began to engulf the other side of Bengal. The epicenter of the riot in East Bengal is the districts in Noakhali. Now called as Noakhali riots or Noakhali carnage, happened between October and November of 1946 is said to have claimed 5000 lives (rough figures), mostly Hindus.
On the other hand, the killing of scores of Hindus in Bengal riots sparked violence against Muslims in Bihar. The entire riot here targeted Muslim population as an act of revenge for the Calcutta and Naohkali carnages. Historians observe these vengeful mob violences at larger scales as cycle of violence had been the main reason behind the killings of thousands of innocent victims. Had it been contained locally the toll could have been very less, they comment.
Gandhi was literally on foot, visiting villages after villages, calling for peace. At the eve of Independence Gandhi, the Father of the nation, was not in Delhi to participate in the transfer of political power, instead was in Calcutta. Partly it was his attempt to put an end to communal violence and partly due to his dislike of the way India has became a free nation. He was not at all in a jubilate mood and had chosen to fast and pray all day. To his surprise the air of jubilation had set a positive attitude among the Bengalis and the course of the changes hinted peace wasn’t too far. People who were scanning the streets with weapons with an instinct to kill were now seen with the tricolor flag. Gandhi had initially feared that this change in mood might be momentary, perhaps. Yet, slowly peace replaced violence and killings. Gandhi was very happy about the transformation of Bengalis and besides congratulating them he also had earnestly requested the rest of the nation, wherever was unrest, to restore peace taking Calcutta as a model.
But the worst was yet to come, to challenge the clashes in Calcutta and in the vicinity. The heart of the havoc shifted from Calcutta to Punjab where it turned even bloodier.