Corpse of a man seen through a wheel of a cart on its way to be cremated after bloody rioting between Hindus and Muslims on 16th August 1946
THE GREAT CALCUTTA KILLING
by Sir Francis Tuker
Lt. General Sir Francis Tuker was the General Officer Commanding of the Eastern Command with headquarters in Calcutta. General Tuker, who was known as a fairly neutral and moderate person, has recorded in his memoir, While Memory Serves, We can certainly consider his account to be credible as he had no axe to grind.
At the end of July 1946, I was ordered to Quetta to take part in a series of tactical discussions, the prelude to more detailed discussions to be held at Camberley in mid-August under the chairmanship of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Thereafter I was to take leave in England.
As I stepped into the home-bound ‘plane at Karachi on the 4th August I was handed a newspaper, and with apprehension read on the front page that a new government had been installed in India-the Interim Government, under the leadership of Pandit Nehru. Some Muslims had been invited to accept office in this government. Nevertheless, Muslim feeling would without any doubt be inflamed against what they would consider to be their betrayal to a Hindu-led government.
I knew then that all our forebodings of the months before would now be fulfilled. We had had our warnings of more trouble to come in Calcutta and I had, before I left Calcutta, ordered into that town reinforcements from outside-the 7th Worcestershire Regiment from Ranchi, the 1/3rd Gurkhas from Chittagong and 3/8th Gurkhas from north Bengal, Parbatipur. Before the storm broke the first two had arrived and the third was ready to entrain.
Political ‘met’ reports had kept trace of a pile-up of the weather ever since the February riots until now when brown cu-nimbus clouds were all about the sky.
I will first of all tell the tale of the Calcutta Killing1 for historical purposes in order to record the sequence of events. Thereafter, so that those who read may be able to absorb a little of the atmosphere which pervaded those dreadful events and so that they may be able to picture the people who were concerned in them, I tell some of the tale in extracts, in Appendix V, from the personal experiences of two of my officers.
It is my object to present a truthful picture, a presentation of affairs in India hitherto only too seldom permitted to be seen by foreigners. Henceforth, with the end of British rule, these presentations will occur even less frequently than before. Only those who believe in living in a fool’s paradise will attempt to push Reality into the wings, for its rightful place is in the centre of the stage and assuredly it will in good time, perhaps inconveniently, occupy that place.
It is both leading player and central theme round which any human play must be written. One great reality of Indian politics has for years been communalism. But unfortunately the Congress Party hid it from the world, with the inevitable result that India today is decisively parted into at least two nations.
To shrink from perceiving the natural tendency of Hindustan towards an Asiatic form of Communism will lead to even greater catastrophe.
From February onwards communal tension had been strong. Anti-British feeling was, at the same time, being excited by interested people who were trying to make it a substitute for the more important communal emotion. The sole result of their attempts was to add to the temperature of all emotions, and those emotions turned fatally towards heightening the friction between Hindus and Muslims. Biased, perverted and inflammatory articles and twisted reports were appearing in Hindu and Muslim newspapers, while the leading politicians and labour leaders continued no less irresponsible in their public utterances.
All this boiled to fever pitch after Mr. Jinnah had announced on the 29th July that Direct Action would be observed throughout India on the 16th August. Direct action in India could only mean action by force as a protest against the decrees of the existing Government, that is, against what was considered to be inequitable treatment of the Muslims in the interests of the Hindus.
Every one of us fully understood that Direct Action Day would certainly be a day of extreme stress in Calcutta. Reports were flowing into our Intelligence Centres in Calcutta showing the ever mounting emotions of the two communities. Nevertheless, neither civil nor military officials thought that feeling would run any higher or take any more dire course than it had taken for the past month or two, for there had been many crises and at each one serious outbreaks had been expected but had not occurred.
On the 9th August the Congress Party had celebrated Remembrance Day, which was to commemorate the start of the 1942 riots in Bengal, Bihar and the U.P.- riots which had nearly brought our armies to a standstill, fighting the Japanese on the Assam border. Remembrance Day had passed off peacefully.
For the first half of August, speeches of public men of both Congress and Muslim League at large meetings in Calcutta were inflammatory and violent in their character, all directed against the opposite community. On the 15th August, an acid debate took place in the Bengal Assembly when the Bengal government had announced its decision to make the 16th August, Direct Action Day, a public holiday.
The debate showed how bitterly the Hindus resented this order. One of the causes for their resentment was that, up till now, the Congress had more or less possessed monopoly rights for imposing and enforcing hartals (the closing of shops), paralysing the whole of Calcutta’s transport, and for strikes: they thus strongly resented the prospect of any other competitor, especially so formidable a bidder as the Muslim League, entering this highly coveted field of political exploitation.
Of the reports coming in to us about public speeches at this time, the following are three selections which show the sort of oratory that was being displayed.
Mr. Nazimuddin, speaking to a Muslim meeting on the 11th August, was reported to have said that the Interim Government, without the support of the Muslim League, would before long certainly bring about a very serious clash between the communities. Although, he said, final plans for direct action had not yet been settled, there were scores of ways well known to Calcutta Muslims by which the League could make a thorough nuisance of themselves, not being bound to non-violence as was the Congress.
As a counter-blast to this, Mr. K. Roy, leader of the Congress Party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, addressing a meeting at Ballygunge on the 14th, said that it was stupid to think that the holiday for Direct Action Day was being decreed by the Muslim Bengal government in order to avoid commotions. The holiday, with its idle folk, would create trouble, for it was quite certain that those Hindus who, still wishing to pursue their business, kept open their shops, would be compelled by force to close them. From this there would certainly be violent djsturbance. But he advised the Hindus to keep their shops open and to continue their business and not to submit to a compulsory hartal. So Mr. Roy himself was setting the stage for the very clash that he feared.
It is in the nature of all too many of the people of India that they are wont to provoke trouble rather than to be discreet and to compromise.
It was now the turn of the Sikhs, so at the same meeting a prominent local Sikh leader in a fighting address, recalled to the memory of the audience how in the communal riots of 1926 the Muslims had been soundly beaten. He announced that if rioting did start the Sikhs would back the Congress and between them they would give the Muslims a good thrashing. From this it would appear that he rather looked forward to a little battle.
So it can be seen that all those who were principally concerned were doing their best to prepare the lists for the coming joust. They could hardly have done better if they had had a combined committee to arrange the grisly tournament. As I have said, I had issued orders in July to bring three more battalions into Calcutta in order to see that the rules of the tourney were obeyed. From the examples of the riots of the previous November and February we thought that this considerable reinforcement would suffice.
Source: (16th to 20th August) Sir Francis Tuker : While Memory Serves, published in London: Cassell, 1950), pp. 152-166 AND http://sourcebook.fsc.edu/history/tuker.html
Photo credits: Lt. Gen. Sir Francis Tuker http://www.generals.dk/general/Tuker/Sir_Francis_Ivan_Simms/Great_Britain.html
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