Partition, Riots and a ‘Disturbed Calcutta’
6 years. 60 million lives lost. No human life untouched. This is what the cover page of Antony Beevor’s magnum opus ‘The Second World War’ reads. The cover page of assistant professor of History at Brown University, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali’s ‘The Long Partition’ could have very well read “1 to 2 million lives lost and 15 to 20 million people displaced” in the subcontinent. For the latter, we are not even sure of the numbers with considerable exactitude. Steven Brockle hurst of BBC Scotland is perhaps not quite off the mark to state that India’s Partition of 1947 was ‘one of the biggest upheavals in the history of mankind’. And as the event occurred in temporal contiguity with the Second World War, makes Partition even more uncanny, yet real.
Surreality however, is exemplified as Yacoobali narrates the tale of Ghulam Ali – a ‘havildar (subaltern official) in the British Indian Army’ – who was deputed in Britain during the Second World War to learn the art of artificial-limb making. Ali opted to serve the Indian Army after partition because his roots were in Lucknow. Nonetheless, at the time of Partition, since he was posted in Rawalpindi, Ali was coercively drafted in the Pakistan Army. After 3 years, in 1950, he is supposed to have been unceremoniously discharged by the Pakistanis citing the fact that initially he had offered to serve the Indian Army.
The story of course does not end here. The Pakistani forces released Ghulam Ali into Indian territory at the border post of Khokrapar. The Indian authorities, quite rightly so, arrested him for forced entry without a travel permit. In 1951, Ali was re-released into Pakistan. Veritably perturbed, Ali sought Pakistani citizenship. His plea was however, turned down. Six years later, Ali finally landed up in the ‘Hindu camp’ in Lahore since he allegedly was neither an Indian nor a Pakistani.
If this simply seems to be Partition’s interesting anecdote, then surely what the octogenarian Jaidev Hunna told BBC’s Brocklehurst should be good enough to raise a horripilation of dread. Hunna remembered the night he and his family left their home and took refuge in a nearby college. To their apparent relief, a group of Muslim soldiers arrived, whom Mr Hunna and his Hindu brethren perceived to be protectors, till the same set of soldiers started shooting and killing all the Hindus. How did Mr Hunna survive that night? He tactically lay among the corpses, pretending to be dead. The soldiers checked the bodies and searched the pockets for money. In hindsight, Hunna was extremely lucky not be have been shot dead or permanently disabled on that life-transforming ‘long night’.
Partition nonetheless left its most prominent scars in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, leaving both the regions not just territorially dismembered, but its people permanently separated, with millions rootless and countless forced to lead the lives of refugees – displaced from the place of birth, unwanted in the ‘new land’. The Imperial Raj’s Calcutta or today’s Kolkata was the place of origin of the riots which came as an appendage to the Partition in 1947. And the locality in which I lived and enjoyed my childhood was at one point of time in history, infamously notorious for communal carnage. However, it was an irony of sorts for me to learn about Shaikh Habu or Habugoonda (hooligan) or for that matter the bland, sonorously sounding Habibur Rahman (of course, not his namesake in the Indian National Army by Subhash Chandra Bose) was a resident of the Lalbagan bustee (slum) in the Shovabazar-Sutanuti area in the northern confines of Kolkata. That too, I learnt about Habu (Habibur) in a thoroughly researched and insightful article by a Japanese professor of South Asian History, retired from the faculty though, and resident of Tokyo, Nariaki Nakazato.
Courtesy Nakazato, we come to know that the news outlet Dawn painted the obituary of Habugoonda. Dawn reported that in the Shyambazar area (incidentally where I live today and the place which houses the statue of Subhash Chandra Bose), a handful of Muslims were all killed and the head of the Muslims in the locality, named Habib (read Habibur aka Habu), was overpowered by Hindus. His head was cut away from his body, wrote Dawn.
Habibur was after all, not a mere goonda – opines Nakazato. He was perhaps educated to some rudimentary level and had made inroads into the transport business. Nevertheless, he enjoyed the overt patronage of then Muslim League government in Bengal. Professor Nakazato terms Habibur as the ‘child of a turbulent age’, a phrase by far hyphenated however from the historical epithet that Napoleon enjoyed – child of the French revolution. Habu lived in the Lal bagan bustee and was indeed the ‘terror’ of the slum even during peace times. The political clout he enjoyed earned him a taxi as well as a private car. His political connections however did not make him suave to any modest degree whatsoever; the fights that he picked up quite frequently on petty issues, in inebriated conditions, reflected his status of a goonda, not with standing the nouveau riche ‘gentleman like’ façade that he essayed to erect.
Lal bagan bustee existed in 1980s in Kolkata, abutting the market place in Shova bazar area, the decade during which I used to make several visitations to that market, almost on a daily basis. I had no inkling about Habu then. The bustee exists even today, as at times I drive around in that locality to recollect my past. Thankfully however, Habiburs do not exist anymore. Neither does any of his legacies exist. Lal bagan bustee perhaps was purged out of the Muslim League sponsored disturbing, unruly, murderous hooliganism during the 16th to 20th August of 1946 when Habu and his associates were eliminated.
Same time, in an adjoining region in north Kolkata, a different man, in his mid-thirties, was the owner of a meat shop in the famous College Street – a place which even today boasts of availability of books of the widest order, sublime quality and vivid variety, and encases historic institutions like the Presidency College, Sanskrit College, and Calcutta University. Gopal Mukherjee ‘did not belong to any criminal underclass of then Kolkata (Calcutta)’, firmly writes Debjani Sengupta of Delhi University’s Indraprastha College.
On the morning of 16th August 1946 – Muslim League’s Direct Action Day – a robust Gopal Mukherjee heard a cacophonous crowd led by Muslim League volunteers as they shouted: ‘Larke Lenge Pakistan’ (We will have our Pakistan by fighting – read, violence). Gopal was traveling towards his meat shop when this crowd threatened to augment Calcutta’s increasing entropy. Gopal was alarmed. He wanted to save his Calcutta from being a part of Pakistan.
Did Gopal overreact on that day, which was otherwise declared a public holiday by Bengal’s premier Suhrawardy? To estimate the reaction of Gopal and his ‘boys’, excerpts from BBC’s Andrew Whitehead’s Partition tapes (entitled ‘The Gathering of the Storm’) are more than indicative. Nazimuddin Hashim, a student living in Calcutta then and a minister in later day Bangladesh, says that the ‘morale of the Hindus was shattered by the bloodletting’. And if this testimony isn’t good enough, then let us hear out Rashidul Hussain – a young Muslim boy living in Calcutta of 1946. When he was brushing his teeth at around 6:30 am on the morning of 16th of August, he saw a Muslim mob breaking open the door of his neighbour, located opposite to his house, and thereafter pulling out a completely naked body (possibly corpse) of a girl of around 16 years of age.
This was however, just the beginning of the mass murders so carefully orchestrated by the Muslim League government in Bengal. As another eye-witness would tell: ‘I saw children being thrown out from second floors of buildings’.
Debjani Sengupta writes that ‘large number of Muslim rioters were kasais or professional butchers from north and central Calcutta, as well as khalas is or dock workers, masons and hackney carriage drivers’. She further informs that the ‘rioters were armed with bricks, crackers burning cloth soaked in petrol, acid bulbs, bombs, soda water bottles and petrol water bottles’. And interestingly, the police were not allowed to go outside by the Muslim League government in order to help quell the riots, for two whole days, 16th and 17th August – this is particularly what then police officer S. K. Bhattacharjee testified to BBC.
Gopal, on the other hand, had two pistols. He had bought them from American soldiers staying in Calcutta in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War. His ‘boys’ armed themselves with swords, meat-choppers, sticks and rods. In fact, as Mukherjee later said, his ‘boys’ armed themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on. They were joined by a band of cowherds, armed with lathis (strong bamboo sticks). Gopal submitted unshakeably: ‘we were fighting those who attacked us….we fought and killed them…so, if we heard one murder has taken place we committed ten more….the ratio should be one to ten, that was the order to my boys.’
In this venture, Gopal was not alone though. Owner of a wrestling club at Beliaghata, Jugal Chandra Ghosh was angered by the killings perpetrated by the Muslim League, and decided to retaliate. “I saw four trucks standing, all with dead bodies, piled at least three feet high; like molasses in a sack….. that sight had a tremendous effect on me’’, tells Jugal Chandra (BBC Partition Tapes, as quoted by Debjani Sengupta). A rather interesting observation by Sengupta is that the rioters were ‘not confined only to the lower social strata’. She writes that prominent Muslim League leaders were ‘directing’ operations from police control rooms.
City of Death
Roads of Calcutta were strewn with dead bodies. Nobody knew when it will be his or her turn to perish. Death was so real. To live through the cadaverous city during those five days was so fearful. Kamal Hassan’s film ‘Hey Ram’ made a feeble attempt to portray a ‘Disturbed Calcutta’ of 1946. In College Street, a Muslim in a lungi suddenly broke away from a procession ‘professing and proclaiming’ Pakistan, and hit a poor, hapless Odiya porter on his head, with an iron rod. About 50 Odiya workers were slaughtered and around 60 women molested in the Lichubagan area of Calcutta.
As the naked corpse of the sixteen-year-oldgirl lay in front of Rashidul Hussain, eerily reminding Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Thanda Gosht (Frozen Flesh), Calcutta came to a standstill from 16th to 20th August in 1946. The composite culture of the city was badly hit on its head by several iron rods – cracking open the fissures and sprinkling blood 360 degrees.
Andrew Whitehead met Gopal Mukherjee in 1997. By then as a matter of course, Mukherjee was old and frail, and by his own admission, had crossed 80. He had a house in the Bowbazar area, near a mall today which few years ago was called ‘Hind cinema’. Mukherjee then was in-charge of an NGO – National Relief Centre for Destitutes. His room had a life size model of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in uniform, tells Whitehead. An octogenarian Mukherjee talked openly about his role in the violence of 1946. To the last day he remained ‘proud’ not to have surrendered his weapons to Mahatma Gandhi, when the latter arrived in the city to stop the violence and usher in peace. Gopal passed away in 2005 and has a Wikipedia entry.
By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
(The writer is PhD, and is in India’s Central Civil Service. Any opinion expressed here is of author’s own.)