During the massacre of Hindu men and women in Calcutta in 1946, one man mobilised the Hindu resistance and brought a halt to the horrific proceedings.
If Bengali Hindus are living in Kolkata today, and if (West) Bengal exists today, they have Gopal Mukhopadhyay (and other stalwarts) to thank for.
18 August ought to be a red-letter day for Kolkata in particular, and Bengal in general. But few remember this day, which marked a turning point in the gory events that overtook the city from 16 August 1946. And it was the dramatic turn of events from 18 August that year that saved the city and Bengal from becoming part of Pakistan.
Very few remember Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay, the braveheart who turned the tide against the Muslim League, saving tens of thousands of Hindus from certain annihilation and thus defeating the League’s diabolic pogrom against Hindus. Had it not been for him and his courageous and patriotic band of followers, Calcutta and its neighbouring Hindu-majority districts would have been drained of Hindus and made part of East Pakistan.
As is well known, the then Muslim League chief minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, organised a pogrom against the Hindus of Calcutta from 16 August 1946 – the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day (read all about the ‘butcher of Bengal’ and his dark deeds here). The pogrom against Hindus by the Muslim League was pre-planned. Jinnah gave enough indication of his evil intentions – he said he would have “India divided or India burned”, that the League had bidden “goodbye to Constitutional methods” and would “create trouble”.
The day – 16 August – was also chosen with care and to provoke Islamist sentiments. It was the eighteenth day of Ramzan, when prophet Muhammad fought and won the Battle of Badr, the first decisive victory over the heathens that paved the way for the bloody conquest of Mecca. Posters of Jinnah posing with a sword were distributed in Calcutta while the Muslim League mouthpiece The Star of India and other Muslim publications reminded the community about the significance of the day and urged them to follow in the footsteps of the prophet to kill the heathens (Hindus) and make Bengal the “land of the pure” (Pakistan). Syed Muhammad Usman, then mayor of Calcutta, issued a widely circulated leaflet that said: Kafer! Toder dhongsher aar deri nei! Sarbik hotyakando ghotbei! (Infidels! Your end is not far away! You will be massacred!)
Muslim League leaders instructed clerics in mosques to give fiery speeches after the jumma namaz (16 August was a Friday as well). The clerics obeyed and reminded their congregations that the day was a significant one and exhorted them to cleanse Bengal of kafirs or infidels. But even before the Friday prayers, Muslims started attacking Hindu shops and business establishments that had remained open in defiance of the Muslim League’s call for a hartal (strike). After the prayers, tens of thousands of agitated Muslims streamed to the Ochterlony monument (the Shahid Minar now) to hear Suhrawardy and other Muslim League leaders. The leaders issued fiery speeches urging the Muslims to attack Hindus and drive them away from Calcutta so that Jinnah’s dream of making Bengal a part of Pakistan could come true. Suhrawardy, in his speech, assured the Muslims that he had ensured that the police and army would be “restrained”. This was construed as a direct encouragement to Muslims to attack and kill Hindus.
The Killing of Hindus
And this is exactly what happened. Tens of thousands of agitated Muslims, baying for the blood of Hindus, streamed out of the rally and spread to different parts of the city armed with iron rods, swords and lethal weapons. A shop selling arms and ammunition belonging to a Hindu at Esplanade (just near the venue of the Muslim League rally) was the first to be attacked. The owner and his employees were decapitated. What followed was a one-sided orgy of violence in which thousands of Hindu homes and shops were attacked, Hindu men and boys brutally massacred (decapitation and amputation of limbs were the preferred forms of brutality) while Hindu women were disrobed, raped and killed. Many were taken away as sex slaves.
One of the worst massacres took place at Kesoram Cotton Mills at Lichubagan in the Muslim-dominated Metiabruz area, where a Muslim League leader, Syed Abdullah Farooqi, led a Muslim mob inside the compound of the mill where about 600 Hindu labourers, mostly Odias, were staying. They were all beheaded; just two survivors lived to tell the tale of Muslim brutality. Both had their arms hacked off and had been given up for dead, but they survived.
The Hindus, as Suhrawardy had rightly predicted, did not put up any resistance in the first two days. He had told his colleagues that Hindus had been numbed into submission by centuries of Muslim rule and just did not possess the courage to stand up to Muslims, even though Muslims were in a minority in the country. It must be remembered that Calcutta had 64 per cent Hindus and 33 per cent Muslims in 1946, and only a few districts neighbouring Calcutta like Howrah and Hooghly were Hindu-majority. Suhrawardy told his Muslim League colleagues that after centuries of being dominated by Muslims, Hindus did not “have it in their genes to resist Muslims” and that “Hindus were of the firm belief that they (Hindus) were weak and Muslims were strong and ferocious”.
Suhrawardy stationed himself in the control room of the Calcutta Police headquarters at Lalbazar, from where he restrained the British and Anglo-Indian police officers from deploying forces to areas where Muslims were attacking Hindus successfully. Earlier, Suhrawardy had changed the composition of the city police’s constabulary by inducting a large number of Pathans and Muslims from United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) into the force to replace Bihari Hindus. These Muslim constables also aided the Muslim League criminals in killing Hindu men and raping and butchering Hindu women.
The killings took place in Hindu-majority areas of the city, and in the first two days – 16, 17 August – a few thousand Hindus were killed. Estimates vary between 4,000 and 20,000; about 3,500 bodies of Hindus were cremated, but British and Indian contemporary historians have written that many times that number were stuffed into underground sewers or simply dumped in the Ganges and the various canals that criss-crossed the city. A conservative estimate would put the number of Hindus killed or missing at over 7,000.
Exodus of Hindus
Hindus started fleeing Calcutta. Howrah station was a mass of humanity with Hindus desperate to board trains bound for other parts of the country. Hundreds of Hindu families, desperate to cross the Hooghly in country boats, were drowned when Muslims manning barges rammed their vessels into the country boats. This was exactly what Suhrawardy had planned: kill Hindus and create such a fear psychosis that Hindus would flee Calcutta, and the city would then become Muslim-majority. A Muslim-majority Calcutta would then bolster the Muslim League’s demand for its inclusion in Pakistan.
Suhrawardy had planned that after driving Hindus out of Calcutta, he would turn his attention to Hindu-majority districts of Howrah and Hooghly as well as the 24 Parganas that were industrialised and driving the economy of Bengal. Without these districts, he realised, East Pakistan would not be economically well off. So it was imperative to drive Hindus away from these districts or beat them into submission so that they would not oppose the League’s demand for the inclusion of the districts in Pakistan.
Enter Gopal Mukhopadhyay
It was at this crucial juncture, when Suhrawardy’s and the Muslim League’s diabolical plan of killing Hindus and reducing them to a hopeless minority in Calcutta and neighbouring districts was coming to fruition, that Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay emerged on the scene. Gopal, then 33, belonged to a family of nationalists. He was an ardent supporter of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and used to abhor Gandhian non-violence. He was a nephew of Anukul Chandra Mukhopadhyay, a nationalist thinker and professor of philosophy at Allahabad University who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1964.
Gopal used to run his family mutton shop and, hence, was popularly known as Gopal ‘patha’ (‘patha’ means male goats in Bengali). Many researchers have said he used to interact closely with Muslim traders and rearers of goats, and bore not an iota of ill will towards Muslims. From his early days, Gopal was a philanthropist, helping families and people in distress. Gopal had already raised the Bharat Jatiya Bahini, a nationalist organisation comprising young men, to help people in distress and carry out relief works during calamities. Many members of the Bahini were wrestlers.
On the night of 17 August, when distressing reports of large-scale massacre of Hindus and rape of Hindu women started reaching Gopal, he called out to Hindu youths and members of his Bharat Jatiya Bahini to resist the attacks by Muslims. Throughout the night, Gopal and his associates chalked out detailed action plans to stop Muslim attacks on Hindus. Hearing of the self-defence strategy being chalked out by Gopal, many non-Bengali Hindu men offered to help. Marwari traders of Burrabazar, who had also borne the brunt of Muslim attacks, offered financial help. Hindu blacksmiths made thousands of swords, spears, choppers, cleavers and other weapons in their workshops overnight.
The Hindu Fightback
By early morning of 18 August, small armies of Hindu youths were ready in Hindu localities to take on Muslim attackers. Suhrawardy and his Muslim League colleagues knew nothing of this build-up of Hindu resistance and started directing League criminals to Hindu areas from that morning again. Suhrawardy told his Muslim League colleagues and workers that they had two more days to cleanse Calcutta of Hindus as pressure was building up due to news of the killings reaching Delhi. Suhrawardy apprehended intervention by the viceroy, and hence his priority was to step up the killings of Hindus in Calcutta on 18 August and then turn his criminals loose in the three neighbouring districts over the next two days to complete his evil plan.
But the Islamist goons and criminals received a nasty shock on 18 August morning. “They faced resistance everywhere. Hindu youths counter-attacked with such ferocity that the Muslim League men had to flee. Many were killed. Emboldened by their success in taking on and defeating their Islamist attackers, Hindu youths took the fight to Muslim-majority areas and started killing Islamist men. They did not, however, touch Muslim women and children or the aged and the infirm,” writes historian Sandip Bandopadhyay, who researched Gopal Mukhopadhyay extensively. “Gopal was never communal. He simply organised self-defence of Hindus by organising Hindu youths to fight back Islamist aggression. He gave shelter to the homeless and widows and stopped them from getting killed or converted,” writes Bandopadhyay.
Over the next three days – 18-20 August – Muslim League goons were paid back in their own coin. All Muslim League goons who had led mobs in attacking Hindus and those who had participated in the pogrom against Hindus were identified, hunted down and killed. Panic spread among Muslims, who felt they were no longer safe in Calcutta. From 19 August, the tide had turned and Islamist men and youth who had killed Hindus were at the receiving end. Suhrawardy and his men, as well as the biased and anti-Hindu Calcutta Police officers and constabulary, could do nothing to stop Hindu resistance.
The Hindu fightback was led by Gopal Mukhopadhyay and some men like Basanta, a famous wrestler of Beadon Street (near Gopal’s residence in Bowbazar), but it was the Dalits and non-Bengali Hindus from Bihar and United Provinces who provided the muscle. Financed by Marwari traders, they fought back valiantly and succeeded in reversing the tide in favour of Hindus. By counter-attacking Islamists, they not only shattered the illusion among Islamists that Hindus were meek but also drove fear into the hearts of the Islamists who were confident of annihilating the Hindus.
Setback to Suhrawardy
Suhrawardy, who had thought Hindus were cowards and would submit meekly to Islamist attacks and subsequent domination, received a deep shock. He was shattered and, according to a British police officer, was seen in Lalbazar in the evening of 19 August in a state of utter shock, his head in his hands and muttering he could never imagine the Hindus would fight back and kill Muslims.
Suhrawardy’s sinister plan to kills Hindus in Calcutta and the neighbouring districts in order to create panic among the Hindus and trigger an exodus from these areas, thus converting them into Muslim-majority areas that would be ripe for inclusion in East Pakistan, received a huge setback. Suhrawardy was a defeated man, thanks mainly to Gopal Mukhopadhyay. His plan lay in tatters. By 21 August, when viceroy’s rule was imposed in Bengal, Suhrawardy was dismissed, and the British and Gurkha army troops spread out all over Calcutta to put an end to the killings, more Muslims than Hindus had been killed.
Suhrawardy, in order to save his chair and put an end to the violence, deputed G G Ajmeri and Mujibur Rahman (later the creator of Bangladesh) who were musclemen and members of the Muslim League students’ wing and the Muslim National Guard, to seek truce with Gopal Mukhopadhyay. They went to Mukhopadhyay and pleaded for an end to the killings. Mukhopadhyay agreed on the condition that the Muslim League would disarm its killing squads and stop attacks on Hindus first. Suhrawardy complied.
Historians say Suhrawardy was not only driven to the wall by Hindu resistance and the consequent failure of his diabolical plans, he also sensed that the British viceroy Lord Archibald Wavell was at the edge of his patience and could dismiss Suhrawardy’s Muslim league government in Bengal. That would have been more disastrous for Suhrawardy and he would have lost all power on the eve of independence of India. He panicked and in order to save his chair, suggested truce with the Hindus. But it would prove to be too late; Lord Wavell dismissed the Muslim League government in Bengal on 21 August.
If Not for Gopal Mukhopadhyay…
It would be relevant here to examine what course history would have taken had Gopal Mukhopadhyay not organised a resistance by the Hindus from 18 August 1946. Calcutta’s population at the time was about 20 lakh. Of them, there were 12.8 lakh Hindus and 6.6 lakh Muslims. Of the 12.8 lakh Hindus, about 30 per cent (or about 3.84 lakh) were non-Bengalis whose voices and opinions would not have mattered had a referendum been held on the inclusion of Calcutta in East Pakistan since they would have been considered migrants from other provinces.
By 17 August night, an estimated 7,000 Hindus had been massacred by the Islamists and that had triggered a massive exodus of Hindus, mainly Bengali Hindus, from Kolkata. Had the killings continued for two more days, more Hindus would have died and the city’s Hindu population – the killings and exodus combined – would have come down to an estimated 7.8 lakh.
Researchers who have studied genocide and ethnic killings and subsequent exodus of the targeted community say that the killing of every 100 people triggers an exodus of at least 4,000 people. Thus, the killings of 12,000 Hindus (7,000 already killed and at least another 5,000 who would have been killed had the pogrom continued for another two days) would have triggered the exodus of nearly five lakh Hindus from Calcutta. That would have brought the population of Hindus in Calcutta down to about 7.8 lakh, a little higher than the existing Muslim population.
Suhrawardy and his Muslim League colleagues had also planned to bring in Muslims from Calcutta’s hinterlands to take over properties left by Hindus who had fled or were killed. He had plans to bring in at least four lakh Muslims from the Muslim-majority and densely populated eastern part of Bengal to settle in Calcutta in the neighbouring industrial and economically advanced districts. Thus, the plan was to make Calcutta and its rich and industrially (as well as economically) advanced neighbouring districts into Muslim-majority areas. That would have strengthened the Muslim League’s claim for inclusion of Calcutta and these districts in East Pakistan.
Gopal Mukhopadhyay Averted Disaster for Hindus
Had Suhrawardy’s game plan succeeded, it would have been disastrous for Bengali Hindus. Had Calcutta and its neighbouring districts gone to East Pakistan, lakhs of Bengali Hindus would have been rendered homeless. And Hindus, as experience has shown, would not have been safe in Muslim-majority East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Statistics prove this contention. Bengali Hindus have never been safe and have always faced discrimination, killings, rapes, forcible conversions and forced displacements in Muslim-majority East Bengal that went on to become East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. In 1901, Hindus formed 33 per cent of the population of the eastern part of Bengal. They dwindled to 31.5 per cent in 1911, 30.6 per cent in 1921, 29.4 per cent in 1931 and 28 per cent in 1941.
After 1947, the decline in the Hindu population in East Pakistan was sharp. Hindus got reduced to 22.05 per cent of the population of East Pakistan in 1951, to 18.5 per cent in 1961, 13.5 per cent in 1974 (after the creation of Bangladesh), 12.13 per cent in 1981, 10.51 per cent in 1991, 9.2 per cent in 2001 and 8.96 per cent in 2011. By 2031, Hindus will form barely 5 per cent of the population of Bangladesh.
This proves that Bengali Hindus would never have been safe in Muslim-majority East Pakistan that would have included Calcutta, Howrah, 24 Parganas and Hooghly had Suhrawardy’s pogrom against Hindus succeeded and had Gopal Mukhopadhyay not valiantly organised and fought back the murderous Islamist mobs inspired and led by Suhrawardy.
Will History Repeat Itself?
Bengali Hindus would, thus, have been without a homeland today if Suhrawardy had succeeded. If Bengali Hindus are living in Kolkata today, and if (West) Bengal exists today, they have Gopal Mukhopadhyay (and other stalwarts, primary among them being Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee) to thank for. Had it not been for them, Calcutta and major parts of present-day Bengal would have been part of East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, where Hindus are a persecuted lot living like miserable second-class citizens in penury and despair. Unfortunately, Bengali Hindus have forgotten their heroes to whom they owe their existence. They have forgotten their history. And that is why Bengal today faces the danger of Islamist forces trying to wrest political control of the state. Those who cannot remember the past, as nineteenth-century Spanish philosopher George Santayana had famously said, are bound to repeat it.
The only redeeming feature here is the brave efforts by Hindu Samhati over the past few years to resurrect the memory and contribution of Gopal Mukhopadhyay. For the past several years, Hindu Samhati has been organising a rally on 16 August to commemorate Gopal Mukhopadhyay’s life and his efforts in saving the Hindus of Bengal and this city from becoming part of Pakistan. Encouragingly, a growing number of people, especially young men and women, have been participating in the rally. This year, an estimated 10,000 young men and women took part in the rally in Kolkata. Some Hindus, at least, are remembering history and drawing lessons from it.