August 15, 1947 Calcutta’s Tryst With Destiny
At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.
-Jawaharlal Nehru (New Delhi, August 1947)
It has been seven and half decades since Jawaharlal Nehru spoke these words at the Council Hall in New Delhi on the midnight of August 14, 1947. All eyes were on Delhi where the transfer of power was taking place, the Union Jack to be replaced by the Indian tri-colour. But the happenings in Calcutta were historically no less significant.
The first colonised city (remember, the British could lay their hands on Delhi only after 1857 when they crushed the first national war of independence and ended the Mughal rule, exiling the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar) had witnessed its darkest hour as the call for “Direct Action” given by the Muslim League-led-provincial government with HS Suhrawardy at the helm, on August 16, 1947, had unleashed communal forces leading to killings in great numbers and sowing the seeds of partition.
The riots eventually spread to Noakhali and other areas in Calcutta for a whole year; long knives were out as the two communities viewed each other with suspicion and pure hatred. Two dominions were being born but the conjoined twins had to be ripped apart. The joy of political freedom for 400 million people was not unalloyed; there was tinge of sadness as many were rendered rootless, driven out of their homes and forced to seek an unknown destiny.
While most of the top Congress leaders were in Delhi for the transfer of power Mahatma Gandhi was in Hyderi Manzil (now known as Gandhi Bhavan) at Beliaghata in Calcutta, with Muslim League leaders trying to restore amity between the two communities. Bengal always looked up to its icon, Subhas Chandra Bose with whom Mahatma had cold ties and hence we can perhaps gauge the risks involved. But before that, let us turn our gaze at the public mood in the city, prior to the D-day.
Calcutta rejoiced on the eve of independence, despite the year-long discord and bloodshed. Joyful scenes were reported from some of the worst riot-affected areas of Central and North Calcutta particularly along Chittaranjan Avenue, lower Chitpur Road, Zakaria Street, Harrison Road, Bowbazar Street and Dharamtollah Street. In fact, newspapers made it a point to observe that no incidents of communal rioting were reported either from Calcutta or Howrah on that day. People loaded in lorry, buses and taxis shouted slogans to which large crowds from both communities thronging the streets responded with cheers. A photograph remains stamped in memory showing a tram car with people on the roof, hanging from the steps and wedged even in the front of the driver’s cabin (heaven knows how the driver was driving it). Hindus built triumphal arches decorated with leaves and flowers, flags and buntings, Muslim shopkeepers and house owners also put up flags of the new dominion. Indian tri-colour was put up in both public and private institution. At 1.05 AM the birth of the free nation was heralded by the crowds shouting slogans, ringing bells and blowing into conch shells which continued for an hour or two.
HS Suhrawardy, who had stayed back in Calcutta even after partition, called it a “miracle”. He issued a statement saying: “I have seen Hindus and Muslims hitherto so far apart, clasping each other in jubilation and moving through the streets fearlessly, arm-in-arm even closer than blood brothers,” a pointer to how things had been in the city torn asunder by violence.
Meanwhile, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari assumed the office of the Governor and Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, the first Chief Minister of Bengal was sworn in along with his Cabinet at the throne room of Government House (Raj Bhawan). Even as the Indian Flag was raised at the Assembly House, State Secretariat, High Court, Police Headquarters at Lalbazar, Central Municipal building (present day Kolkata Municipal Corporation) and University Building (University of Calcutta), and a salute of 17 guns was fired at Fort William all was not well, below the facade of celebrations.
A press note from the Bengal government reminded the citizens that Section 144 of CrPC was still in force due to the “disturbed conditions.” There was still a bar on public meetings and processions and hence celebrations for the Independence Day were to be arranged and conducted accordingly. Curfew was extended for another week in areas under nine police stations and partially at two other police stations. The Bengal Provincial Congress had already directed that processions or public meetings to celebrate Independence Day would not be held in areas where it was banned.
Mahatma, on a joint peace mission with HS Suhrawardy had been aware of the lurking possibilities of renewal of violence. When the new Governor visited him and congratulated him for the miracle he had wrought Mahatma answered that he could not be satisfied until Hindus and Muslims felt safe in one and another’s company and returned to their homes and lived as before. Without that change of heart there was “likelihood of future deterioration in spite of present enthusiasm.”
He had already announced that he would spend the historic day keeping a fast, spinning and offering special prayers. Mr Suhrawardy and Mr SM Osman, the Secretary of the Calcutta District Muslim League also fasted with him.
Only two days back, his temporary residence at Beliaghata had witnessed “hostile demonstrations” but as The Statesman reported on the eve of independence the place turned out to be a “holy pilgrimage” as men and women from all walks of life and communities visited the Mahatma and sought his advice. Gandhi had arrived to Calcutta on August 9, 1947, with the intention of proceeding to Noakhali but was approached by Suhrawardy to extend his stay in the city. Mahatma acceded to his request but said that Suhrawardy must live and work with him till every Muslim and Hindu was safe.
On the editorial page of its edition on August 15, 1947, The Statesman observed that the casualties from communal disturbances in Calcutta had indeed gone down and that Gandhi was acting “pluckily” as a “lightning conductor for verbal storms” expressing faith that it will help in building up public feeling against criminals at large who were fomenting communal trouble.
“There is a personal risk for both participants (Gandhi and Suhrawardy) but neither lacks courage in other respects, however, they make a striking contrast so that their joint housekeeping is an object lesson in the neighbourliness which is the only true answer to communal fury,” the editorial observed.
Gandhi himself observed in his post prayer speech on the same day that if Calcutta returned to sanity and friendship, Noakhali and the rest of India would be safe.
Mahatma who finally returned to Delhi on September 7, after a month–long-stay in Calcutta again undertook a fast on September 1, for three days, ending it only after receiving assurance on cessation of hostilities from both communities but then that is another story. I am tempted to wrap up with a quote from a speech of MA Jinnah, blamed for Partition, delivered in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August, 1947: “... you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual but in the political sense as citizens of the state.” - MA Jinnah (August, 1947). This excerpt has no special connection or relevance to Calcutta but has a bearing on the overall issue of harmonious existence, exemplified by a city which, though suffered from occasional bouts of intolerance, had since not lost its cool even when Delhi, Mumbai and Gujarat had been consumed by communal fury.
150/B Dr Suresh Chandra Banerjee Road
(Near Alochaya Cinema on Beleghata Main Road)
Kolkata 700010, Tel: 23715364
Gandhiji stayed in this house from August 12 to September 6, 1947.