Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), also known as the Great Calcutta Killings, was a day of widespread riot and manslaughter between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) in the Bengal province of British India. The day also marked the start of what is known as The Week of the Long Knives.
The 'Direct Action' was announced by the Muslim League Council to show the strength of Muslim feelings both to British and Congress because Muslims feared that if the British just pulled out, Muslims would surely suffer at the hands of overwhelming Hindu majority, which resulted in the worst communal riots that British India had seen.
The Muslim League and the Indian National Congress were the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India in the 1940s. The 1946 Cabinet Mission to India for planning of the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership proposed an initial plan of composition of the new Dominion of India and its government. However, soon an alternative plan to divide the British Raj into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan was proposed by the Muslim League. The Congress rejected the alternative proposal outright. The Muslim League planned a general strike (hartal) on 16 August, terming it as Direct Action Day, to protest this rejection and assert its demand for a separate Muslim homeland.
In those days the situation in Bengal was particularly complex. In the province, Muslims represented the majority of the population (56%, as against 42% of Hindus) and were mostly concentrated in the eastern part. As a result of this demographic structure and specific developments, this province was the only one in which a Muslim League government was in power under the provincial autonomy scheme introduced in 1935 in coalition with the Europeans, and against the hurdle of strong opposition from the Congress, the Communist Party of India and also from a Hindu nationalist party, the Hindu Mahasabha. The latter was supported by many members of the rich Marwari trading community, composed of immigrants from Rajasthan, who largely dominated the economy of central Calcutta (although European capital was still important). In consequence, the inhabitants of Calcutta, 64% Hindus and 33% Muslims, were by then divided into two highly antagonistic entities. Against this backdrop, 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. This violence sparked off further religious riots in the surrounding regions of Noakhali, Bihar, United Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh), Punjab, and the North Western Frontier Province. These events sowed the seeds for the eventual Partition of India.
In 1946, the Indian independence movement against the British Raj had reached a pivotal stage when the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent a three-member Cabinet Mission to India aimed at discussing and finalising plans for the transfer of power from the British Raj to the Indian leadership, providing India with independence under Dominion status in the Commonwealth of Nations. After holding talks with the representatives of the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League—the two largest political parties in the Constituent Assembly of India—on 16 May 1946, the Mission proposed initial plans of composition of the new Dominion of India and its government. On 16 June, under pressure from the Muslim League headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Mission proposed an alternative plan to arrange for India to be divided into Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The princely states of India would be permitted to accede to either dominion or attain independence.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the one time Congressman and Indian Nationalist, and now the leader of the Muslim League, had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 16 June whereas the Congress rejected it outright. On 10 July, Jawaharlal Nehru held a press conference in Bombay declaring that the Congress had agreed only to participate in the Constituent Assembly and regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best. Fearing Hindu Domination in the Constituent Assembly, Jinnah denounced the British Cabinet Mission and decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly to try to put pressure on Congress and the British, by resorting to "Direct Action". In July 1946, Jinnah held a press conference at his home in Bombay where he declared his intent to create Pakistan. Jinnah proclaimed that the Muslim league was "preparing to launch a struggle" and that they "have chalked a plan". He had decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly. He rejected the British plan for transfer of power to an interim government which would combine both the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress. He said that if the Muslims were not granted Pakistan then he would launch "Direct Action". When asked to specify 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 also am going to make trouble."
On the next day, Jinnah announced 16 August 1946 would be "Direct Action Day" for the purpose of winning the separate Muslim state.
In his book The Great Divide, H V Hodson recounted, "The working committee followed up by calling on Muslims throughout India to observe 16 August as direct action day. On that Day meeting would be held all over the country to explain League's resolution. These meetings and processions passed off – as was manifestly the Central league leaders' intention – without more than commonplace and limited disturbance 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 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 R.L. Walker, the then Chief Secretary of Bengal, the 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 the 16th. Bengal Congress protested against the declaration of public holiday, arguing that a holiday would enable 'the idle folks' to successfully enforce hartals in areas where the Muslim League leadership was uncertain. Congress accused the League government for "indulging in communal policies' for narrow goal". Congress leaders thought that 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. On 14 August, Kiron Shankar Roy, a leader of the Congress Party 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 Congress had hitherto enjoyed in imposing and enforcing hartals, strikes, etc. was being challenged. However, the League went ahead with the declaration, and Muslim newspapers published the program for the day.
The Star of India, an influential local Muslim newspaper, edited by Raghib Ahsan Muslim League MLA from Calcutta published detailed programme for the day. The programme called for complete hartal and 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 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 which resulted in a 'legitimization of communal solidarities'.
On the other hand, following the protests against the British after 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, rationalized the declaration of "public holiday" in his report to Lord Wavell —
Many of the mischief-makers were people who would have had idle hands anyhow. If shops and markets had been generally open, I believe that there would have been even more looting and murder than there was; the holiday gave the peaceable citizens the chance of staying at home.
Troubles started on the morning of the 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 as the 'largest ever Muslim assembly in Bengal' at that time.
The meeting began around 2 pm though processions of Muslims from all parts of Calcutta had started assembling since the midday prayers. A large number of the participants were reported to have been armed with iron bars and lathis (bamboo sticks). The numbers attending were estimated by a Central Intelligence Officer's reporter (a Hindu) at 30,000 and by a Special Branch Inspector of Calcutta Police (a Muslim) at 500,000. The latter figure is impossibly high and the (Muslim) Star of India reporter put it at about 100,000. The main speakers were Khawaja Nazimuddin and Chief Minister Suhrawardy. Nazimuddin in his speech preached peacefulness and restraint but rather spoilt the effect by asserting that till 11 o'clock that morning all the injured persons were Muslims, and the Muslim community had only retaliated in self-defence.
The Special Branch of Calcutta Police had sent only one Urdu 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 Muslim men armed with brickbats and bottles as weapons and attacking Hindu-owned shops.
Hindus and Sikhs were just as fierce as the Muslims in the beginning. Parties of one community would lie in wait, and as soon as they caught one of the other community, they would cut him to pieces.
A 6 pm curfew was imposed in the parts of the city where there had been rioting. At 8 pm troops were deployed to secure main routes and conduct patrols from those arteries, thereby freeing up police for work in the slum areas.
On 17 August, Syed Abdullah Farooqui, the President of Garden Reach Textile Workers' Union, along with Elian Mistry, a Muslim hooligan, led a Muslim 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. Biswanath Das, a Minister in the Government of Orissa, visited Lichubagan to investigate into the killings of the Oriya laborers of Kesoram Cotton Mills. Some sources put the death toll at 7,000–10,000. Some authors have claimed that most of the victims were Muslims. However, many authors claim that Hindus were the primary victims.
The worst of the killing took place during the day on 17 August. By late afternoon soldiers brought the worst areas under control, and the army expanded its hold overnight. In the slums and other areas outside military control, however, lawlessness escalated. In the morning of 18 August, "Buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms."
Skirmishes between the communities continued for almost a week. Finally, on 21 August, Bengal was put under Viceroy's rule. 5 battalions of British troops, supported by 4 battalions of Indians and Gurkhas, were deployed in the city. Lord Wavell alleged that more British troops ought to have been called in earlier, and there is no indication that more British troops were not available. The rioting reduced on 22 August.
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 the 17th.
Violence in Calcutta, between 1945 and 1946, passed by stages from Indian versus European to Hindu versus Muslim. Indian Christians and Europeans were generally free from molestation as the tempo of Hindu-Muslim violence quickened. The decline of anti-European feelings as communal Hindu-Muslim tensions increased during this period is evident from the casualty numbers. During the riots of November 1945, casualty of Europeans and Christians were 46; in the riots of the 10–14 February 1946, 35; from 15 February to the 15 August, only 3; during the Calcutta riots from 15 August 1946 to 17 September 1946, none.
During the riots, thousands began fleeing Calcutta. For several days the Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River was crowded with evacuees headed for the Howrah station to escape the mayhem in Calcutta. Many of them would not escape the violence that spread out into the region outside Calcutta. Lord Wavell claimed during his meeting on 27 August 1946 that Gandhi had told him, "If India wants bloodbath she shall have it ... if a bloodbath was necessary, it would come about in spite of non-violence".
There was criticism of Suhrawardy, Chief Minister in charge of the Home Portfolio in Calcutta, for being partisan and of Sir Frederick John Burrows, the British Governor of Bengal, for not having taken control of the situation. The Chief Minister spent a great deal of time in the Control Room in the Police Headquarters at Lalbazar, often attended by some of his supporters. Short of a direct order from the Governor, there was no way of preventing the Chief Minister from visiting the Control Room whenever he liked; and Governor Burrows was not prepared to give such an order, as it would clearly have indicated complete lack of faith in him.
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 intelligentsia, 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. These events sowed the seeds for the eventual Partition of India.
The Direct Action Day riots sparked off several riots between Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs in Noakhali, Bihar, and Punjab in that year.
An important sequel to Direct Action Day was the massacre in Noakhali and Tippera districts in October 1946. News of the Great Calcutta Riot touched off the Noakhali–Tippera riot in reaction. However, the violence was different in nature from Calcutta.
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 also made some extreme claim 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.
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.
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; Mr. 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 rioting also 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.