While Memory Serves [2 of 3]

Vultures sitting on the roofs of a building while corpses lie below, abandoned in alleyway after bloody rioting in Calcutta, India



by Sir Francis Tuker


On the 12th August Brigadier Mackinlay, commanding the Fortress, ordered all those units which were on an Internal Defence role to be confined to barracks and drastically restricted military movement in Calcutta for the 16th. Later, he confined all troops to barracks from the early morning of the 16th August.

‘Caterpillar’ broadcasts, which were our usual Internal Defence information broadcasts to all troops in Calcutta, started before 8 a.m. on the 16th and went on throughout the disturbances. August 16th, a warm, sticky, familiar day in the monsoon, broke quietly over Calcutta. The buses, taxis and rickshaws plied their trade as usual. The trams were not running as the Tramway Workers’ Union always managed to add to our difficulties and to the crowd on the pavements by declaring a one-day strike whenever trouble was coming, so that their employees might not miss the spectacle.

Ochterlony Monument, renamed as the Shaheed Minar is a monument in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. It was erected in 1825 by Major-general Sir David Ochterlony, commander of the British East India Company, to commemorate the victory of the Company’s armed forces over the Gurkhas in the Anglo-Nepalese War. The monument was constructed in his memory. It was designed by J.P. Parker and paid for from public funds. 

At 7:30 a.m. we heard that Hindus had erected barricades at the Tala and Belgachia bridges to prevent Muslims from entering the city and taking their processions to the middle of the town to the Ochterlony Monument where a mammoth Muslim assembly was to be addressed at 3 p.m. by Mr. H. S. Suhrawardy, the Chief Minister of Bengal.

Brigadier Mackinlay, as usual, visited Police Headquarters at Lal Bazaar about 9 a.m., finding the police not unduly worried and forecasting that, though there would be incidents, violence would not be on a great scale. The worst time was expected to be in the afternoon when the meeting broke up.

During the morning the anticipated incidents occurred. Houses were burned in the north and east of Calcutta, probably due to Muslim leaders compelling Hindu shopkeepers to close their shops, and the rank and file pulling people off their bicycles and off the buses. The Hindus, on their side, were trying to prevent Muslim processions from marching through Hindu quarters of the city on their way to the meeting. Brigadier Mackinlay’s impressions as to the likely extent of the trouble were confirmed on his visit about midday to the civil officials, the Inspector General, Deputy Commissioner and the Additional Secretary to the Government. The police were satisfied, although the incidents were widespread at the time, that they could deal with whatever was to come without aid from the soldiers.

Up to two o’clock the crowds were gathering round the Ochterlony Monument and our Intelligence patrols were out covering the town. Incidents were occurring. The police about Sealdah and Bow Bazaar at the north side of the city had opened fire once and used tear-gas to disperse violent mobs bent oil communal strife. Just before 3 p.m., on application from the police, the Fortress Commander ordered the York and Lancaster Regiment to be ready at once to move to Sealdah.

At 3 p.m. Brigadier Sixsmith, acting as Area Commander, met the Governor and the Commissioner of Police. The last named said that the situation was out of hand because, although the police could disperse the crowds, they re-formed directly his patrols had passed on. The Governor at once set off with Brigadier Sixsmith and the Commissioner of Police to have a look at the town for himself. They saw hooliganism but nothing yet to warrant the application of military force; however, they found good reason why the soldiers should be held ready to move directly they were required.

All agreed that when the soldiers came in they would keep open the main roads, freeing the police from these roads for other and more detailed work. The York and Lancaster Regiment was therefore sent at once to a position of readiness in the Sealdah Transit Camp.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, (1892-1963) was designated Prime Minister of undivided Bengal (1946) until 1947 and Prime Minister of Pakistan (1956-57).
Born of a distinguished family of Midnapur in West Bengal in 1892, Suhrawardy held various important offices, including the deputy mayoralty of the Calcutta Corporation in 1924, Labour and Commerce Minister in A K Fazl-ul-Huq’s Praja-League coalition government formed following the 1937 elections, the Law Minister in Mohammad Ali’s Cabinet in Pakistan during 1954-1955 and, finally, the Prime Minister of Pakistan for a period of 13 months during 1956-1957.

Meanwhile, an immense Muslim crowd was gathered about the Ochterlony Monument and Mr. Suhrawardy was addressing them. Our patrols reported that he said that the Cabinet Mission was a bluff, and that he would see how the British could make Mr. Nehru rule Bengal. Direct Action Day would prove to be the first step towards the Muslim struggle for emancipation. He advised them to return home early and said that he had found Muslims peaceful in the course of his passage through the town and that he had made all arrangements with the police and military not to interfere with them.

Our intelligence patrols noticed that the crowd included a large number of Muslim goondas, and that these slipped away from the meeting from time to time, their ranks being swelled as soon as the meeting ended. They made for the shopping centres of the town where they at once set to work to loot and burn Hindu shops and houses.

Hitherto, south Calcutta had remained comparatively quiet, as it had been in the February riots. But shops were closed and feelings were tense.

At 4.15 p.m. Fortress H.Q. sent out the codeword ‘Red’ to indicate that there were incidents all over Calcutta.

There was now the usual demand on the part of the administration for more troops and for the troops to picket all over the town. This demand has been put forward in every big riot I have ever witnessed. Brigadier Sixsmith gave Mr. Suhrawardy the usual reply that the troops best fulfilled their task by keeping open the main routes and increased their effectiveness most economically by throwing out mobile patrols from these main arteries. In this way the greatest number of police were released for their proper duty of preventing crowds uniting on the main routes and at the nodal points.

Vultures feeding on corpses lying abandoned in alleyway after bloody rioting in Calcutta 16th August 1946 

The situation was clear in the neighbourhood of the areas dominated by the troops but, as was later apparent, obscure, for lack of information, in the bustee (slum) areas.

At 6 p.m. curfew was clamped down allover the riot-affected districts. At 8 p.m. the Area Commander received a sudden demand for troops in the Howrah area. He brought in the 7th Worcesters and the Green Howards from their barracks in the north of the town. This is what they saw.

As they drove in they found CoIlege Street Market ablaze, the few unburnt houses and shops completely sacked; the road outside was strewn with charred embers, empty shoe boxes, broken furniture and other litter; the air was heavy with the fumes of gas shells the police were using to disperse the crowds.

In Amherst Street looters had dragged a safe into the road and had succeeded in opening it before they were disturbed. In Upper Circular Road ‘fire-bugs’ were dragging lighted pieces of kerosene-soaked sacking across the road to start fresh fires, the remainder of the mob cheering them on and looting until the fires became too hot. At this time there was no evidence of the terrible killings that had taken place; the streets were clear of bodies.

At one place in Harrison Road an agitated man dashed out of a garage and after stopping the Company Commander’s carrier, proceeded to pick shotgun pellets out of his leg with a penknife, the while he told how his petrol pumps had been raided by goondas. After concluding his story he solemnly presented the officer with the pellets and, with a prayer that the troops keep a close eye on his garage, disappeared into the bosom of his family, who were apparently unhurt, but who wailed loudly and incessantly either in support of his story or in sympathy for his injury.

Later on, at about 5 a.m., things seemed much quieter, and it was not until well after daybreak that dead bodies began to appear in the streets and killings started afresh. It often happened that one passed along a clear street but on return five minutes later discovered several bodies, sometimes in the road, sometimes loaded on coolie barrows.

Many of the bodies were newly dead, but not a killing was actually witnessed at that time.

At 3.30 p.m. the three British battalions then operating performed a combined sweep and entirely dominated the centre of the city. Curfew was imposed and at 10 p.m. we withdrew one of the battalions to Fort William to rest before further operations on the following day.

Night brought with it little cessation of the rioting, only the Roza celebrations, the daylong fast, drawing Muslims off the streets for their meals after dark. The storm had burst and this time brought with it a torrent. February’s killings had shocked us all but this was different: it was unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn. The underworld of Calcutta was taking charge of the city.

The York and Lancaster Regiment cleared the main routes about Sealdah and threw out patrols to free the police for work in the bustees. But the looting and murder went on in the alleys and kennels of the town. The police were not controlling it. Daylight showed not a sign of bus or taxi : rickshaws were battered and burnt: there were no means for clerks to get to their work. With the banks on strike for this one day, the 17th, there were all the more idle men loafing about the town.


Next: Calcutta, 17th August 1946, The Inferno

Page    1    2    3


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
Photo credits: http://www.oldindianphotos.in/2011/01/calcutta-communal-riot-or-great.html



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