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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 103

The Legacy of the plight of Hindus in Bangladesh

By Rabindranath Trivedi – Reporting for Asian Tribune from Dhaka

‘God, you have sent messengers, life after life,

To this callous earth;

They have said’ Forgive all sins’; they have told us’ Love-

From your heart all malice remove.’

They are venerable men, worthy of reverence, but we

In these dark days reject them with ritual futility.

I see secret violence under cover of darkness

Slaughtering the helpless,

I see the just weeping in solitary silence,

No power to protest, their only offence;


And this is why I ask, through my tears-
Those who poison your air and bloc out sun,

Do you truly forgive them, do you truly love them?

-Rabindranath Tagore

Part-1 : The plight of Hindus In East Bengal in 1940’s

Dhaka, 17 July, ( In 1942, Mahatma M K Gandhi issued the last call for independence of India from British rule. On the grounds of what is now known as August Kranti Maidan, he delivered a stirring speech, asking every Indian to lay down their life, if necessary, in the cause of freedom. He gave them this mantra: "Do or Die"; at the same time, he asked the British to 'Quit India’.

The response of the British government was to place Gandhi under arrest, and virtually the entire Congress leadership was to find itself behind bars, not to be released until after the conclusion of the war. A few months after Gandhi and Kasturba had been placed in confinement in the Aga Khan's Palace in Pune, Kasturba passed away: this was a terrible blow to Gandhi, following closely on the heels of the death of his private secretary of many years, the gifted Mahadev Desai.

At the final stage of Indian independence, to avoid division of India, Mahatma Gandhi quietly proposed to Lord Mountbatten that let Mr. Jinnah become the Prime Minister of independent India.

Furious, J L Nehru (1889-1964 AD) and Sadar Patel (1875-1950 AD), to get rid of M A Jinnah (1876-1948 AD) from all India politics, immediately accepted the proposal of the British Raj in dividing India into two sovereign states and got it approved much to the disappointment of Moulana Azad (1889-1958 AD), the immediate past Congress President, by the Congress Working Committee.

At the same time both of them (Nehru and Patel) insisted the division of Bengal and Punjab provinces of undivided India, which, ultimately triggered off terrible Hindu- Muslim riots. ‘Direct Action Day’ of Muslim League on 16 August 1946 led to communal violence in Calcutta, Bihar and expedited the birth of moth easten Pakistan. Later riots spread over greater Noakhali district in October, Mahatmaji rushed to Noakhali on a Peace mission, reaching Choumohani railway station on 7 November 1946.

In the first post-war British election the Conservatives lost and Laborite Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister. One of his first steps in regard to India was to send a Cabinet Mission to India led by Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, the other two members being Sir Stafford Cripps (of the 1942 Cripps mission fame) and A.V.Alexander. The Mission held a number of meetings with the Congress and the Muslim League and on May 16, 1946, made a set of proposals, which fell short of partition of the country.

The substance of the proposals was that the country would be constituted as a federal polity with residuary powers to the provinces, and the provinces would be classified into several groups depending on their geographical location and the religious complexion of the population The Muslim League, however reluctantly, accepted the proposals and so did the Congress, through a Congress Working Committee resolution of June 26. However Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the President of the Congress at the time, in a press conference held on July 10 in Bombay resoled from this position and declared that the Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly ‘completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise’; and also that grouping of provinces, as proposed by the mission, will not work. Consequent upon this, the Muslim League on July 29 withdrew their acceptance of the Cabinet Mission proposals.” writes Mr Tathagata Roy in his book entitled ”My people Uprooted”

The Mountbatten Plan for the partition of British India into two sovereign states of India and Pakistan was agreed with the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League. After approval by the British government, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India announced it on June 3, 1947. A major outstanding issue was the division of the provinces of Punjab and Bengal and demarcation of their boundaries. For this sensitive and urgent task, Lord Mountbatten chose his friend, the forty- eight year-old Sir Cyril Radcliff as the Chairman of the Boundary Commission. He was educated at Oxford, became a leading barrister in England and had worked with Mountbatten before.

Radcliffe had never set foot on the soil of India and there was no time to get to know the sub-continent now. He had to separate about eighty million people and divide 175,000 square miles of land. The United Nations had refused to do the job. In fact, within a period of thirty-six days he had to divide into two a land and a people, which were joined together in many ways for about one thousand years. This was because the date for the emergence of the two new states was set for August 14/15, 1947.

It was July 8, 1947. Radcliffe had arrived in Delhi. Two commissions were set up, one for Bengal and the other for the Punjab, both headed by Radcliffe. He was provided with the assistance of four judges as members in each commission, two nominated by the Congress and two by the Muslim League. The entire burden, therefore, fell on Radcliffe who had to make decisions on every matter. There was not much time to travel to different parts of India, which was vast. Therefore, people were invited to Delhi to present their respective arguments for determining which of the disputed areas will go to either of the two countries.

“But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided.

A continent for better or worse divided.

The next day he went to England, where he quickly forgot

The case as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,

Afraid, as he told his club, that he might get shot.”

W. H. Auden, poem titled “Partition.”


Outside South Asia, the partition of India evokes little recognition. As the British left India, the largest single migration in history took place: well over ten million, and perhaps as many as fifteen million, people crossed borders, and a million or more became the victims of murderous assaults. Both the Governments of India and Pakistan established commissions for the "recovery" of abducted women who numbered in several tens of thousands. Numbing as these figures are, they barely register in world histories: perhaps that indifference to the calamity that afflicted India and Pakistan betokens the view that life in South Asia has never had much value, and that the violence of the partition can be seamlessly assimilated into a narrative that pitches the Hindus and Muslims as foes locked into battle ever since Islam became a dominant political force in India in the early part of the 13th century.

Yet even within South Asia, nothing even remotely resembling the massive literature — scholarly studies, survivors’ memoirs, biographies of the Nazi leadership, among numerous other genres -- generated by the Holocaust was to come into existence, and until the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence was celebrated in 1997, the public memory of partition was encapsulated in a handful of notable works. For the solidly middle classes, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1954) appeared to capture best the violence that engulfed the Punjab; for those with a more sophisticated literary sensibility, and a much greater appetite for self-mockery, chilling sarcasm, and the naturalist style of de Maupassant and Balzac, the short stories of Saadat Hassan Manto would epitomize nonpareil the immense tragedies and absurdities behind the partition, indeed the near complete banishment of moral restraints. Barring some other imaginative endeavors over the previous five decades — a couple of films of Ritwik Ghatak, the film Garam Hawa ("Hot Wind", director M. S. Sathyu, 1973), the television serial Tamas (director Govind Nihalani, 1988), and scattered short stories by a few writers — the partition appeared to have been avoided rather than confronted. …Before moving to a consideration of some of the nuances and ironies of "The Death of an Empire", it would be useful to place. Ashis Nandy within the orbit of Indian public and intellectual life, as well as the more global world of engaged criticism and activism.


Six decades have passed since the great divide of India in August 1947, those bitter memories of mass killings, arsons, lootings, raping and gang raping and burning the heads of the family alive to death along with the minor children and other family members still haunt the people of both the countries. The nightmares of the past, off and on reappear with more vengeance whipping up the cheap communal passions and sentiments almost to the height of hysteria. Usually emotionally charged crazy mob losing their heads do not hesitate in engaging themselves in uprooting homesteads of the next door neighbors or burning them alive or literally slaughtering them or in destroying Mosques, Mandirs, Pagodas or Churches. Legacy of tortures, humiliation on Hindus not yet stopped in Bangladesh after August 1975. The plight of Hindus in Bangladesh never stopped since its independence as a nation birth by fire in 1971. Worst of all, state, so to say, party in power sponsored humiliation every now and then shake the confidence of the innocent law abiding citizen of the country.

Together with withdrawal of acceptance of the Cabinet Mission proposals the Muslim League also announced that August 16, 1946 will be a day of ‘Direct Action’ by the League in support of Pakistan. In fact, while on August 15 ,1946 Jawaharlal was sitting with Jinnah at his house in Bombay, trying vainly to persuade him to withdraw the threat of Direct Action, H S Suhrawardy in Calcutta was applying the finishing touches to the plans for the morrow. Governor Burrows with whom he had a very cosy relationship had just installed Suhrawardy in 1946 as Premier of Bengal.

Ashok Mitra writes that when the City of Calcutta went to sleep on the night of August 15, 1946, no one, including perhaps the plotters for the 16th, could gauge what was going to happen in the next few days. However the rest of his account of the killings, written quite meticulously, indicates that on the contrary the game plan for that day had been circulated among Muslims of the city, at least a substantial number of them, by word of mouth. The pro-League newspaper ‘Dawn’ of Karachi on August 16 published an advertisement which gave a call to use of force as being the only way to achieve what the Muslims want. At about 10 A.M. a gun shop on Chowringhee was looted. The mob fanned out and started setting upon Hindus all over the city. Suhrawardy was camping at the Control Room of the Calcutta Police at Lalbazar, busy ‘watching the situation’. No police officer had the authority to move any men without his personal orders, Mr Tathagata Roy mentioned.

As for the Army, Wolpert writes that the Brigadier in charge of Calcutta, J.P.C.Mackinlay, had ‘ordered’ his troops to be ‘confined to barracks’ that day (quotation marks Wolpert’s), and observes that thus India’s largest, most crowded and most communally volatile city was left virtually naked. The Fire Brigade worked overtime right through, but were stopped at many places by marauding Muslim mobs.

Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Tuker, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of India’s Eastern Army, called the killings “unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and maim and burn. The underworld was taking charge of the city . . . the police were not controlling it”. Major Livermore observed that Calcutta was the battlefield of a battle between mob rule and civilisation and decency. How many people died in the killings? No official estimate is available, the reason for which is probably that none other than officialdom started the killings. Bhabani Prosad Chatterjee puts the figure at about five thousand, with another fifty thousand or so grievously injured. The damage to property, of course, was beyond estimation. Lord Wavell had remarked that more people lost their lives in the Calcutta Killings than in the Battle of Plassey and had informed Pethick-Lawrence that the toll was 3,000 dead and 17,000 injured.

Wolpert quotes unofficial claims of “as many as 16,000 Bengalis . . . murdered between August 16-20, 1946”. The number of dead was presumably determined by body count, and it is here that the estimates varied, because a large number of bodies had been thrown into the River Hooghly, or in the canals that pass through the city, or were pushed into manholes.

Muslim League’s call for ‘Direct Action’ was supposed to have countrywide operation. Why, then, was Calcutta singled out? Several reasons have been suggested. Bhabani Prosad Chatterjee thinks one reason might be the fact that staging the bloodbath in Calcutta would have attracted the attention of the whole world to the might of the Muslim League, since at that time Calcutta was the most important city in India, indeed the second city in the British Empire.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad remarks in his 'India Wins Freedom’: "Sixteenth August 1946 was a black day not only for Calcutta, but for the whole of India. The turn that events had taken had made it almost impossible to expect a peaceful solution by agreement between the Congress and the Muslim League.. This was one of the greatest tragedies of Indian history and I have to say with the deepest of regret that a large part of the responsibility for this development rests with Jawaharlal".

Whatever might have been the reason, there is no doubt that The Calcutta Killings of 1946 were a result of a sinister, diabolical plot hatched by some very cynical, criminal minds who thought nothing of sending a few thousands of their countrymen (including a lot of them from the community whose interests they were supposed to be protecting) to a premature end in the most ghastly manner imaginable. As an example of deliberate abuse of state power to cause mass murders it compares well in intensity, though not in breadth, with the Nazi holocaust and the Killing Fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia.

On the other hand, Abul Mansur Ahmad, a former minister and author (who was already an important Muslim politician close to Fazlul Haq) gives a different account altogether. He quotes Nazimuddin as having said that their struggle was not against the British, but against the Hindus. He also says that the murder hysteria of the Muslims had been taken to such a pitch that he was once he was asked by a friend (ordinarily a sensible, humane person) "how many Hindus have you killed? All your love for Muslims is just lip service".

Ashok Mitra, ardent Nehru-admirer, has expressed great regret at the fact that even after the killings were over, not to mention during them, neither Nehru nor Gandhi saw it fit to visit Calcutta. Mitra could attribute this only to the fear that any such visit immediately following the killings (in which, according to Mitra, the guilt of the Muslims was many times that of the Hindus) might have resulted in their being dubbed anti-Muslim. Thus, the observation must be made that, to the secular Congress leaders, the right or wrong of the situation was of no consequence. They would never be caught in public, so long as they could help it, saying that what the Muslims did was wrong. Calcutta was not the only city affected by M A Jinnah's 'Direct Action'.

Former Chief Minister of West Bengal, The most prominent Communist Party (Marxist) leader Shri Jyoti Basu in his brief political memoir “With the People” observed : “I remember the great Calcutta killing of 1946, the worst communal riot in Bengal. I personally witnessed the animal rage and horror let loose on the streets of Calcutta, the diabolic frenzy amounting to insanity that gripped t he Hindus and the Muslims. I saw the frenetic manner in which they clashed with each other I walked through areas littered with corpses and bleeding human bodies. I smelt the acrid odour of crackling flames and the stench of death. This ghastly spectre forever humbled and shamed my sense of humanity.

I also know that what happened in 1946 was a man-made disaster. It was clear to me then that there were manipulative imperial machinations behind the riots. The great tragedy is that, now, at the fag end of this century, I have seen the ugly face of this man-made catastrophe rear its head again! With one major difference- years of deception, and Machiavellian cunning, have made the face all the more repugnant..... I remember too how the moment the flames of communal violence died down, the problem of rehabilitation confronted us... Gandhiji advised us to form an all-party central committee and to organize an all-party central procession, which, he felt, was the need of the hour.

On 19 September, when the House was in session, I had an opportunity to speak on the no-confidence motion sought by Dhirendra Nath Dutta, a member of the Congress. I held the British rulers directly responsible for bringing about this communal riot. It was unfortunate, I felt, that our politicians had fallen headlong into the trap set by those who wielded their clout from Whitehall in London, from New Delhi and from the Governor’s House in Calcutta. In so many words, I said that I felt disgusted and disheartened to see the manner in which they had hatched a conspiracy and perpetrated this heinous deed with the cooperation and collusion of the police and the fawning bureaucracy. I was firmly convinced that the so called “impartial” indifference of the police and the Governor of Bengal was all premeditated.”

Dacca, the present day capital of Bangladesh, the then second city of province of Bengal was equally affected, with the difference that here the Hindus were completely at the receiving end, and did not get any chance to retaliate.

Mr Tathagata Roy, author of ‘My People Uprooted” interviewed an eyewitness, Rabindra Nath Datta, a retired Insurance Executive now living in Calcutta in his modest flat at Salt Lake City who was a student at Dacca Collegiate School then, and used to live on Wyer Street in the Wari area of Dacca. This is what he had to say : " On 16th August 1946, a large number of Hindu dwellings in Dacca were set on fire. Wari was a solidly Hindu area, and we were relatively safe, but for further safety's sake a large number of Hindus went and took refuge in the estate of Hardeo Todi. We could see the fires in the distance. Hardeo Todi was a wealthy Hindu businessman of the Marwari community who used to own a glass factory, and lived in a sprawling estate together with his sons Dhanulal and Brajlal.

Hardeo gave refuge unreservedly, and there were no casualties among the Hindus of Wari. Five or six days after the riots subsided a strange phenomenon was noticed. The atmosphere was still very tense, and veryfew people ventured out at night. One morning some eight or ten bloated and partially decomposed naked corpses were found to have been dumped beside the railway line running between Wari and Tikatuli. One look at the males among them (it was not easy to take that look) told one that the males were not circumcised, and were therefore Hindus. These corpses were clearly those of Hindus killed elsewhere and brought by truck during the night and dumped in the Hindu-majority areas of Tikatuli and Wari to scare the Hindus.

This went on for quite a few nights. I took a photograph of the corpses. A few other boys and I formed a party to take the bodies during the day to Shyampur cremation ground and cremate them there. Meanwhile in school we were told by our Muslim fellow students that we would also have to share the fate of the corpses if we (meaning the Congress) did not concede Pakistan".

I met Mr. R N Dutta at a seminar organized by the Campaign Against Atrocities on Minorities in Bangladesh (CAAMB) at Habra on the plight of Bangladeshi Hindus in West Bengal on 18 February 2007. CAAMB is a human rights advocacy group working on the issues of minority rights in Bangladesh and campaigns for upholding democratic and secular values in society. Mr. R N Dutta (74),bearded old straight courageous man, has shown me those photographs of corpses in Dacca holocaust and told me with chocked voice many untold stories of bygone days in Wari. Huge migration of human caravans, with an unprecedented miseries of human sufferings ever happened in the entire history of the subcontinent, perhaps in human history, followed by savage campaigns of slaughtering of human beings during immediately before and after the partition of the then India in 1947.

It was a different experience in my life. I had the occasion to witness the genocide and massacres of Pakistani army in occupied Bangladesh in 1971.

Rabindranath Trivedi is a retired civil servant, author and columnist.

- To be Continued –

- Asian Tribune -

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