Vultures sitting on the roofs of a building while corpses lie below, abandoned in alleyway after bloody rioting
CALCUTTA, 1 7TH AUGUST 1946, THE INFERNO
by Sir Francis Tuker
In the middle of the morning, Sir Frederick Burrows set out with Brigadier Sixsmith, Brigadier Mackinlay and a military patrol to tour the afflicted areas. In Harrison Road they found big fires burning and large mobs assembled. The patrol went at them and quickly dispersed them, driving straight on through rioters carrying loaded sticks and sharpened iron bars. They scattered to right and left and the Governor’s party drove through, but it was obvious that their mood was thoroughly dangerous.
Returning by another route, the party saw a man being beaten to death less than a hundred yards away and ordered the police to take action at once. The police were slow to get out of their vehicles and before they had come into action three people were beaten down and lay dead on the road. A British police sergeant dispersed the mob with one shot.
At 11.30 a.m. the escort to the Governor stopped at the junction of Harrison Road and Amherst Street. There was a large crowd to the south in Amherst Street which dispersed as troops and police debussed and advanced towards them. To demonstrate to the Governor how the mobs re-formed, the police and troops withdrew to their vehicles, out of sight in Harrison Road, upon which the people came out of the side streets again and advanced to within thirty yards of the Governor’s party. Troops and police appeared once more and the mob rapidly retreated, leaving a freshly-stabbed man in the middle of the road where they had been standing.
The night’s rioting had been fierce but the bloodiest butchery of all had been between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the 17th, by which time the soldiers got the worst areas under control. During this period the south of Calcutta was set ablaze with the fury that had caught the north and centre: swords were being used and the crowds were charging madly hither and thither. Motor patrols of the 1/3rd Gurkhas drove into the melee. More and more dead lying in the flood of spouting watercocks were seen by our Intelligence patrols as they scoured the city.
Police reports were coming in of heavy fighting allover the town and of police intervention with bullets and gas. The pall of smoke from burning buildings spread overhead between the horror below and the light monsoon clouds of heaven. The dust and the sickening noise of killings rolled out from Garden Reach, Kidderpore, Metia Bruz, Beliagatia and along Lower Circular Road.
Looting and destruction were in full blast all about Park Street. European householders could not leave their houses: there they and their families sat, besieged and living on the tinned foods of their store cupboards.
C.D.L. tanks with strong searchlights joined the troops at dusk and the eerie flickering of their lights as they passed from street to street playing on the dead and on the devastation in which they died, made a Dore’s Inferno of Calcutta.
In the early hours of the 18th, the 1/3rd Gurkhas moved into the Dock area. From then onwards the area of military domination of the city was increased. Static guards took over from police guards and a party of troops under Major Littleboy, the Assistant Provost-Marshal, did valuable work in the rescue organisation for displaced and needy persons. Outside the ‘military’ areas, the situation worsened hourly. Buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms.
At midday, the Governor and the Army Commander set out on a tour of the city with the Chief Secretary and Mr. Suhrawardy, escorted by a combined police and military patrol. Except in the bustee areas there were no fresh mobs, but in the bustees looting, arson and murder held their horrible sway.
Wherever the party stopped, hostile crowds closed in on them and heads appeared on the housetops above. One Muslim shouted to the Chief Secretary, , But you must not shoot: you will disturb the peace of our city’!
Mr. Suhrawardy was eager to expose the depredations of Hindus against his co-religionists, pointing an accusing finger at peaceful men and charging them with lying in wait for Muslims. He was asked why Hindus and Muslims could not live in friendship in civil life when they managed so well in the Army. Mr. Suhrawardy replied that Hindu and Muslim unity would not exist very much longer in the Army. He was right and we knew it. Directly the British officer left the mixed mess of Hindu and Muslim officers would part into two cliques and the parting would soon be reflected among the men.
Police and soldiers were getting tired, and the load of quelling the violence was falling more and more on the troops as the police wearied and lost heart. Raj Mohan, Jorasanko and Tarachand Dutta Streets and Baowanipore in the south fell into pandemonium. Military patrols rushed in and opened fire, wounding two of the crowd. At 3 p.m. the Command ordered the 5th Division to reinforce Calcutta from Ranchi and ordered the Norfolks in from Ramgarh and the 3/8th Gurkhas from Parbatipur in North Bengal.
On Sunday, 18th August, the York and Lancaster Regiment again left the Fort to relieve a battalion in the dominated area. However, just as they were moving out they learnt of serious trouble in north Calcutta, in the Shampuka and Jorabagan Thanas, and received their orders to move to that area and to take over control. Everything was quiet and seemed normal until they crossed Vivekananda Road, going north of Chitpur Road.
The state of things from there on beggared description. Furniture, bedding, boxes and household articles of all kinds littered the road so that even the two light tanks which were leading the column had to pick their way; indeed some of the wheeled vehicles had to stop to clear debris before they could pass. Corpses became more frequent, and on the Gray Street-Chitpur Road crossing the leading tanks had to stop so that troops mounted on them could clear some of the bodies to one side to give room for vehicles to pass and disperse a fighting mob.
Over one hundred and fifty bodies were cleared from this cross-road the next day and it was here that one of the chief goondas of Calcutta died fighting with a knife in each hand. His green three-ton truck was standing in Gray Street and proved of great use in the street clearing which was soon to follow. Three hundred yards farther up the Chitpur Road there had been another pitched battle and over a hundred bodies remained to witness the fact. In Central Avenue, by a Hindu temple and in the surrounding street entrances, there were another forty dead. All in all there had been what must have been the worst carnage in the city.
Early in the evening our men found a small Muslim bustee in the Bag-Bazaar Street which had been burnt down; the occupants had either fled or had been killed, the dead bodies of three children bearing evidence of the crime. The interesting part of this incident is that from three different sources we were informed that the burning of this bustee was the work of nine goondas who were paid by a named person living in the neighbourhood.
On closer inspection of the bodies in this area we found that many were horribly mutilated and in one particular place a man had been tied by his ankles to a tramway electric junction box, his hands were bound behind his back and a hole had been made in his forehead so that he bled to death through the brain. He was such a ghastly sight that it was a wonder that the soldiers who were ordered to cut him down and cover him with a nearby sack, were not ill on the spot.
The rest of that night passed without incident and in the morning the battalion had opportunity to probe beyond the streets which had occupied all its attention in the remaining hours of daylight the previous day.
This probing brought to light only one important fact that had not been discovered the previous night. There were the odd bodies in sacks and dustbins that were beginning to make their presence known, but the big discovery was that of the wholesale slaughter in the Sobhabazaar Market. The Market itself was strewn with bodies, and the tiny hovels of the shopkeepers which bounded it held gruesome evidence of the awful conflict.
One room contained fifteen corpses and another twelve, but those two rooms were outstanding. At the western end of the bazaar there had been a rickshaw stand. The rickshaws had been smashed to bits and it appeared that the pullers had been massacred in toto. From among this shambles we rescued two live children, both wounded and one already gangrenous. As might be expected they were dazed and seemed half-witted; their mental and moral systems must have sustained a shock which might easily have driven them mad.
They would never be the normal people they could have been. The doctor did his best with their wounds and sent them into hospital. Bodily they would mend, but mentally-a shrug of the shoulders was his verdict. Most of the dead in that market had not had the remotest idea what was happening or why.
On the afternoon and night of the 18th August the Calcutta garrison made one supreme effort and gained complete control of north Calcutta. With this success they then turned their hand to clearing the city of its dead, shepherding lost persons into the Refugee Camp and restoring confidence.
The next day, with encouragement from officers and men, shopkeepers started cautiously to open their shops and efforts were made to induce tramway workers to return to duty. Incidents continued throughout the day but it did seem that the lunatic fury of Calcutta’s population had worn itself out. The stench of their murderous work of barely three days was terrible, particularly about Sealdah station, the area of which Major Livermore tells in his story in Appendix V.
On the 19th more work was done in clearing the streets and in general rescue work of destitute and injured. The Chief Minister, who throughout was more critical than helpful, alleged that the Military Rescue Service was ineffective. This meant that his staff had to be taken round to be shown what that Service was doing before they could be convinced.
The south flared up and the East Lancashire Regiment was sent there to damp it down.
In the evening the 4/7th Rajput Regiment and 3/8th Gurkhas arrived: our anxieties were now at an end. There were fresh troops to replace the tired battalions. Indian Pioneer Companies were ordered in to help clear the streets.
Bit by bit police patrols were taken out by the military and hour by hour by this means the police gained confidence and resumed their duties in the streets.
That is the bare outline of this manifestation of berserk fury. The one thing that stressed itself time and again was that had the police only known the extent of the strife that raged in the gullies and bustees on the night of the I6/I7th and on the morning of the I7th itself, troops would have been demanded earlier and the tumult more quickly quelled. In the palmy days of the Calcutta police, this information would have been gained and passed back far sooner than it was.
I do not know-no one knows-what the casualties were. On one night alone some four hundred and fifty corpses were cleared from the streets by the three British battalions. For days afterwards bodies were being recovered from sewers and tanks. All one can say is that the toll of dead ran into thousands.
By the 22nd August, despite the continuance of isolated killings, and the occasional dispersal of growing crowds, Calcutta was quiet.
The Army had had a grim time, the grimmest being the clearing of dead from the battlefield. It had served Calcutta well, not only by the use of force on the streets but also in its rescue and medical work. Our doctors had issued 7,500,000 units of anti-tetanus serum to the Surgeon General of Bengal. To no small extent our administrative services had helped to feed the city. For a short time the city was grateful to the soldiers but not for long. Newspaper attacks on the Army, unfounded allegations, began once more to appear in due time.
Trouble was now raising its head in Eastern Bengal and the 1/3rd Gurkhas were ordered off to Chittagong on the 22nd August. The Battalion reached Chittagong on the 24th to find that place in a highly inflamed condition, casualties up to the previous evening amounting to forty-five.
See Map No. 2, p. 155. See p. 380. Read more from Sir Francis Tuker’s While Memory Serves
Source: 916th to 20th August) Sir Francis Tuker : While Memory Serves AND http://sourcebook.fsc.edu/history/tuker.html
(London: Cassell, 1950), pp. 152-166
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