The Calcutta Riots of 1946, also known as the “Great Calcutta Killing,” were four days of massive Hindu-Muslim riots in the capital of Bengal, India, resulting in 5,000 to 10,000 dead, and some 15,000 wounded, between August 16 and 19, 1946. These riots are probably the most notorious single massacre of the 1946-47 period, during which large-scale violence occurred in many parts of India. However, the “Great Calcutta Killing” stands out somewhat in the history of Calcutta, given that it was by far the most deadly episode in the recent history of the city. Although it received its name very soon after the events, it remains a very controversial episode, and different views or interpretations of it were put forward from Britain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While there is a certain degree of consensus on the magnitude of the killings (although no precise casualty figures are available), including their short-term consequences, controversy remains regarding the exact sequence of events, various actors’ responsibility, and the long-term political consequences.
The event must be situated in two different, yet interrelated contexts: firstly the all-India context, and secondly the Bengal one. The former was marked by growing tension between the Congress Party, the main Indian nationalist organization with a base mostly (but not exclusively) among the Hindu population of the country, and the Muslim League, the main organization representative of the Muslim minority, which comprised almost 25% of India’s population. Tensions were largely due to the fact that both groups were gearing up for a transfer of power from the British, which Prime Minister Clement Attlee had announced in March 1946, without fixing a date, however. Each group had very different ideas regarding the future shape of the subcontinent. In 1940, the Muslim League passed a resolution in favor of the creation of Pakistan. It was not clear, however, whether it was meant to be a separate Muslim state or a part of a confederation with the rest of India (Jalal, 1985). The British still hoped that a partition of India could be avoided and were trying to come to an agreement with both the Congress and the League. In a statement on May 16, 1946, a British Cabinet Mission proposed a plan for the formation of an interim government composed of representatives from the Congress, the League, and other forces. This plan gave the Congress one more seat than the League. After weeks of behind-the-scene negotiations, on July 29, 1946, at the prompting of its leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim League adopted a resolution rejecting the May 16th plan and called on Muslims throughout India to observe a “Direct Action Day” in protest on August 16.
The announcement of a transfer of power in the near future had further exacerbated a situation that was already very tense in India. It intensified a growing polarization between the two main political parties and the two major religious communities. In the 1945-46 elections, both at the national and at the provincial level, Congress had won most of the seats in the Hindu majority areas and the Muslim League in the Muslim majority areas. The League had not, however, been able to gain a majority in the Punjab, the richest Muslim majority province, and therefore was tempted to use extra-constitutional means to reach its goals. Given that the country had a long history of “communal” riots flaring up regularly since 1926 between Hindus and Muslims, there was understandably great fear of an outburst of violence, but the presence of the British Army in relatively large numbers, although resented by most, seemed to offer some guarantee of a peaceful transition. However, it was not to be, and the August 1946 events in Calcutta were to play a major role in triggering a whole spiral of violence that would engulf parts of India for many months.
The situation in Bengal was particularly complex. In the province, Muslims represented the majority of the population (54%, as against 44% of Hindus) and were mostly concentrated in the Eastern part (present-day Bangladesh). As a result of this demographic structure and specific developments, this province was the only one in which a Muslim League government was in power (under a regime of provincial autonomy introduced in 1935), in coalition with Europeans, and in the face of strong opposition from the Congress Party and from a Hindu nationalist party. The latter, the Hindu Mahasabha was supported by many members of the rich Marwari trading community, composed of immigrants from Rajasthan, who largely dominated the economy of Calcutta and of Bengal (although European capital was still important). The leader of the Muslim League in Bengal and Chief Minister of the province was Hussain Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy, a rival of Jinnah for the leadership of the League, was a controversial, albeit colorful personality who became very unpopular amongst large sections of the Hindu population for his alleged responsibility in the great Bengal famine of 1943, which had resulted in the death of two to three million people. However, he was idolized by many Muslims in Bengal, particularly by the Urdu-speaking Muslims from Northern India, who formed the majority of Calcutta’s Muslim population (Bengali Muslims, who accounted for the bulk of the Muslim population in the province, were mostly concentrated in the countryside). Calcutta itself had a clear Hindu majority (73% of the population according to the 1941 Census) and a significant Muslim minority (23% of the population). Given the tendency of the population in urban areas to congregate in neighborhoods dominated by one community, most Muslims lived in areas of Northern Calcutta, while Central and Southern Calcutta were almost exclusively Hindu (with a sprinkling of Europeans). Another characteristic of Calcutta’s Muslim population was that it was largely composed of poor people, mostly artisans, factory workers, rickshaw pullers and domestic servants. The Muslim middle class in Calcutta was small, in contrast to the much larger Hindu middle class. Big Muslim merchants and capitalists were few, and could not compete with the rich Marwari Hindus. Although Muslims were clearly a minority in Calcutta and occupied a peripheral position in the economic, social and cultural life of the city, the capital was the only large city in the province, and therefore occupied a privileged position in all provincial politics, whether Muslim or Hindu. Suhrawardy had a particularly large following amongst the poor Muslims of the city, and was also rumored to have close links to the Muslim underworld, which played a significant role in the parallel economy, based on smuggling, gambling and prostitution, which flourished in the great port-city.
Jinnah had called for peaceful demonstrations all over India on Direct Action Day, and most of India, including the Muslim-majority provinces of the Punjab and Sind (in the latter the Muslim League was part of a coalition government) remained calm. In Bengal, however, and specifically in Calcutta, the events took a violent turn, and quickly spun completely out of control.