Kolkata is today one of the major metropolis in Bharat. In 1946, it was not certain that it will be part of independent Bharat. The Pakistan movement was on its peak and Muslim league was determined to get as much area for Pakistan as possible. They wanted the whole of Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan. It was Gopal Patha, who put a spanner in the works of Muslim League and it is largely due to him that Calcutta is now a part of Bharat.
Muslim League in control of Bengal
Bengal’s eastern part had a majority of Muslims. However, this part was industrially backward, with the industries concentrated in areas such as Calcutta, 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly. All these districts were Hindu majority with a large number of Hindu industrial workers from states like Odisha and Bihar.
If Pakistan had to become a powerful nation, it could not have done so without industries. Creating the same from scratch would be too much work. So the plan was to make these areas Muslim majority by ‘direct action’. The Muslim majority in these areas could be used to make them a part of Pakistan.
The elections to the provincial assembly of Bengal happened in January of 1946. Out of 119 Muslim seats, the Muslim league won 95% i.e. 113 seats and emerged as the biggest party in Bengal. Its leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became the Prime Minister of Bengal. As PM, Suhrawardy had complete control over Police, as according to the Govt of India Act, 1935 which was the then constitution of Bharat.
The plan for Bengal
Jinnah, to put pressure on the British government and Congress, declared 16th of August, 1946 to be “Direct Action Day”. As Muslim League ruled only one state of Bharat i.e. Bengal, it was there it decided to show the power of its “Direct Action”. Suharawardy declared that 16th of August would be day of complete hartal and even declared a public holiday to further ensure success of the plan. The Hindus did not like it as they were forced to keep the shops closed in support of Muslim League and many of the Congress leaders supported the Hindu claim of Akhand Bharat against Pakistan.
Muslim sentiments, always on the edge, were further stoked in the name of religion. It was the month of Ramzan and the wars of early Muslims against non-Muslims were used to draw a parallel with prevalent conditions. The 13 August 1946 issue of Muslim League mouthpiece The Star of India, said “Muslims must remember that … it was in Ramazan that the permission for jehad was granted by Allah. It was in Ramazan that the Battle of Badr, the first open conflict between Islam and Heathenism, was fought and won by 313 Muslims and again it was in Ramazan that 10,000 Muslims under the Holy Prophet conquered Mecca and established the kingdom of Heaven and the commonwealth of Islam in Arabia. The Muslim League is fortunate that it is starting its action in this holy month.”
There was widespread belief among Muslims that Hindus are cowards and cannot win a military victory over Muslims. After all, had not the Sena King Lakshman Sen been defeated by a mere 18 soldiers of Bakhtiyar Khilji? There was widespread belief that Hindus did not have the courage to resist Muslims and there would be a mass exodus of Hindus from Calcutta and neighboring districts, if Muslims started attacking them. Ironically, this was despite the fact that any Muslim King had not won a single major military victory over Hindus since 1761!
The official plan for Direct Action Day was published by the newspaper The Star of India. The programme called for complete hartal and general strike in all spheres of civic, commercial and industrial life except essential services. The notice proclaimed that processions would start from multiple parts of Calcutta, Howrah, Hooghly, Metiabruz and 24 Parganas, and would converge at the foot of the Ochterlony Monument, where a joint mass rally presided over by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy would be held. The Muslim League branches were advised to depute three workers in every mosque in every ward to explain the League’s action plan before Juma prayers.
The unofficial plan was to re-enact the Battle of Badr, which has taken place on 18th of Ramzan. In 1946, the day coincided with 16th August. Syed Muhammad Usman, the then mayor of Calcutta, published a leaflet that said: Kafer! Toder dhongsher aar deri nei! Sarbik hotyakando ghotbei! (Hindus! Your destruction is not far away! You will be massacred!)
Direct Action Day
Small incidents of violence had started even before 16th of August. On 16th, as decided, Muslims gathered at Ochterlony Monument to hear Suhrawardy. The gathering was very large and reported to have upwards of of 1 lakh Muslims. Suhrawardy is reported to have said that he will ensure that police and military will not interfere. This was an open invitation to riot without any fear of police action. There were numerous fiery speeches by clerics in Mosques that encouraged the Muslims to riot.
The riots started immediately after the meeting was over. Muslims returning from the meeting killed Hindu shop owners who had kept the shops open, burnt properties of Hindus and started a reign of terror in Calcutta. The worst killings happened on 17th of August.
A Muslim communist leader, Syed Abdullah Farooqui, President of Garden Reach Textile Workers’ Union, gathered a mob of Muslim hooligans and invaded Lichubagan, a slum where Oriya labourers lived, many within the mill compound. In Kesoram Cotton Mills, about 600 Oriya workers were massacred. It is reported that the workers even showed their communist party cards to the invading Muslims, but they had now probably lost their “class consciousness”. In all, about 10000 Hindus were killed in Calcutta on that day.
The police was conspicuously absent from the scene. The reason is not difficult to comprehend. Suhrawardy himself, along with Muslim League leaders was stationed in the police control room at Lalbazar. Various other police control rooms were being run by other Muslim League supporters. Despite the orders of curfew, no police obstructed the Muslim rioters due to interference by Muslim League government.
As predicted by Muslim League, this did lead to a massive exodus of Hindus from the city. For several days, Howrah Bridge was crowded by Hindus fleeing the massacre. Many of them were waylaid and killed. Many chose to cross Hooghly river by boats and were drowned by Muslims who rammed their barges in boats.
Only one hurdle : Gopal Patha
By the night of 17th, Hindus, initially numbed by the orgy of violence, had started organizing. The center of this Hindu resistance was Gopal Chandra Mukharjee or Gopal Patha. Gopal’s family ran a mutton shop in Calcutta and it was the reason, he was called Patha, which means goat in Bangla. A follower of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Gopal had established an organisation named Bharat Jatiya Bahini i.e. Bhartiya People’s Army. It included many wrestlers, who had trained in akharas. The total strength of the outfit was around 500-800.
As he witnessed the killings by Muslims, and inaction of police, he gathered his followers and instructed them to fight fire by fire and brutality with brutality. In an interview with Andrew Whitehead of The Indian Express in 1997, Gopal Patha said “It was a very critical time for the country. We thought if the whole area became Pakistan, there would be more torture and repression. So I called all my boys together and said it was time to retaliate. If you come to know that one killing has taken place, you kill 10 others. That was the order to my boys.”
He had procured some pistols, cartridges and grenades from the American soldiers stationed in Calcutta after the second World War. The weapons procured during the Quit India Movement of 1942 were also used. Gopal Patha and his men chalked out a detailed plan to retaliate. They were helped financially by Marwaris traders of Burrabazar. The Hindu blacksmiths produced swords, knives, spears etc in huge quantities and the migrant goalas/milkmen, armed with lathis, joined him.
The retaliation started on 18th of August. Suhrawardy had intimated his goons that he could give them free hand for 2 more days and the objective of a Muslim majority Calcutta was to be achieved within these two days. They had no idea of a ferocious Hindu retaliation. Muslim League goons attacking Hindu areas were killed first and the fight was then taken to Muslim majority areas. The members of Muslim National Guard, a militia associated with Muslim League, were killed in large numbers, however no women or children were harmed.
Over the next three days, Gopal Patha and other Hindu leaders identified, hunted and killed people who had taken part in killings of Hindus. Some other leaders involved were Jugal Chandra Ghosh who ran an akhara and Basanta, a famous wrestler. All of them were also connected to Marwari traders and Hindu Mahasabha and Congress leaders. Majority of the muscle was provided by Bengali Dalits as well as non-Bengali migrant population with people from UP, Bihar and Odisha.
Muslims of Bengal were disabused of their notions of Hindu cowardice. There was panic amongst the ranks of Muslim League as by 20th the death toll of Muslims had surpassed that of Hindus. Suhrawardy was reportedly seen in Lalbazar control room with his head in his hands and muttering in despair. He had collected the abuses and scorn of a wide spectrum of Bhartiyas and Britishers for nothing. His gambit had failed.
To save face and his government, Suhrawardy deputed G G Ajmiri and Sheikh Muzib Ur Rehman, his confidants, to request truce with Patha. G.G.Ajmiri was the leader of the student’s wing of Muslim League and Mujibur Rahman was a member of the Muslim National Guard. They went to Gopal Patha and requested for an end to the killings. Patha agreed on the condition that the Muslim League would stop attacks on Hindus first. Suhrawardy had to accept. By then Suhrawardy govt was also dismissed on 21st of August and British army pacified the riot affected areas.
The Calcutta Killings spread to other areas of Bengal and Bharat. Indeed, until after the partition the riots continued. So, Gopal Patha retained his organisation as a shield for Hindus against Muslims. In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi was touring Bengal to stop the riots. Journalist Sailen Chatterjee was always with Gandhi to document his deeds. He says “People came with their weapons and placed them at the feet of Gandhiji. Shabbily-dressed people came with swords, daggers and country-made guns. Even Mountbatten said this was the miracle of Calcutta. Gandhi’s miracle.”
Jugal Ghosh also surrendered their arms. Gopal Patha however, never became a Gandhian. He told Andrew Whitehead : “Gandhi called me twice, I didn’t go. The third time, some local Congress leaders told me that I should at least deposit some of my arms. I went there. I saw people coming and depositing weapons which were of no use to anyone: out-of-order pistols, that sort of thing. Then Gandhi’s secretary said to me: ‘Gopal, why don’t you surrender your arms to Gandhiji?’ I replied, `With these arms I saved the women of my area, I saved the people. I will not surrender them. Where was Gandhiji, I said, during the Great Calcutta Killing? Where was he then? Even if I’ve used a nail to kill someone, I won’t surrender even that nail.” Gandhi could not win over Patha. No wonder, Gopal Patha was forgotten in the annals of history. Even Bengalis forgot him until Tapan Ghose and his Hindu Samhati started celebrating him.
The danger today
The Muslim League tried a last ditch effort to create an Independent United Bengal with Muslim majority in 1947. Had this plan, the brainchild of Suhrawardy and supported by Jinnah, been actualized, a Muslim majority Bengal would ultimately have become a part of Pakistan. Due to foresight of Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and his untiring efforts, the plan was foiled.
The dream to make Calcutta and Bengal in Muslim majority areas is alive even today. In three districts of Bengal: Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur, Muslim population had surpassed Hindu population in 2011 census! The illegal migration from Bangladesh is one of the biggest reasons for this. Readers should be prepared for a shck in 2021 census. Muslims growth rate of about 20% is double the rate of Hindu growth rate, about 10%, in Bengal. Between 2001 and 2011, Hindu population of West Bengal increased by about 60 lakhs and Muslim population increased by about 40 lakhs. This is despite West Bengal being more than 70% Hindu.
Kolkata has a Muslim mayor now since the first time after Calcutta Killings. The current mayor, Firhad Hakim even referred to his MLA constituency in Kolkata as “mini-Pakistan” to Dawn reporter Maleeha Siddiqi. Even Gopal Patha could be hard put to respond to the situation today. How can a single person stop a demographic invasion?
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I grew up in the area mentioned and had heard of Gopal Patha’s exploits during the ’40s and how he stopped the Calcutta riots. Your narrative is true and corroborates what I heard from the elders of that period.
Thank you for making widely known an important chapter.