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Direct Action in Calcutta

Excerpted from Margaret Bourke-White's book, Halfway to Freedom: A Report on the New India, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1949. White was a correspondent and photographer for LIFE magazine during the WW II years. In 1946 she was in India. The following is her account of the Direct Action Day launched by the Muslim League in Calcutta on August 16 of that year. Tens of thousands died from communal riots that started in Calcutta and then spread to other places all over India. This was a prelude to the carnage of partition that followed a year later.

Why had the fearful Great Migration come to pass? Why were millions of people wrenched from their ancestral homes and driven toward an unknown, often unwanted "Promised Land"? For years Hindus and Muslims had struggled side by side for independence from British rule. With freedom finally on the horizon why should India begin to tear herself in two along religious lines?

The overt act that split India began in the streets of Calcutta. But the decision was made in Bombay. It was a one-man decision, and the man who made it was cool, calculating, unreligious. This determination to establish a separate Islamic state came not -- one might have expected -- from some Muslim divine in archaic robes and flowing beard, but from a thoroughly Westernized, English-educated attorney-at-law with a clean-shaven face and razor-sharp mind. Mahomed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and the architect of Pakistan, had for many years worked at the side of Nehru and Gandhi for a free, united India, until in the evening of his life he broke with his past to achieve a separate Pakistan.

Jinnah lived to see himself ruler of the world's largest Islamic nation before he died in September, 1948, at the age of seventy-two, but I think of him as reaching his pinnacle of power two years before his death, when freedom-with-unity appeared on the verge of becoming a reality and he took the momentous steps that crushed all hopes for a united India.

Jinnah's press conference at his Bombay home on fashionable Malabar Hill, in late July, 1946, marked the public turning point. It was so unusual for the Quaid-i-Azam, or "Great Leader," to call a press conference that both foreign and Indian reporters rushed eagerly to attend it. Nor were they disappointed. On that mid-summer morning, Jinnah intimated -- rather boldly -- the coming of Direct Action Day. Two and one half weeks later this day touched off a chain of events that led, after twelve explosive months, to a divided India and the violent disruptions of the Great Migration.

Until then most of us had thought the differences between the Congress Party and the Muslim League would somehow be resolved and that freedom would bring a united nation. Jinnah's arguments for division were all familiar: that the Muslims in India were outnumbered three to one by Hindus and would be crushed under Hindu domination; that Hindus worshiped the cow while Muslims ate the cow; that religion, customs, culture all made Muslims different from Hindus. Opponents of the two-nation theory maintained that Hindus and Muslims could not be so different, since there was no racial difference. Ninety-five per cent of India's Muslims were just converted Hindus. Even Mr. Jinnah, they were fond of pointing out, had a Hindu grandfather.

For my part, I believe that the tragic weakness of the Indian leaders during this crucial period was their failure to take a firm stand against the forces of Indian feudalism. A spellbinder with slogans found it all too easy to galvanize the pent-up suffering of centuries into one powerful current of religious hatred. That this was done by an ambitious lawyer in Western dress and of unorthodox habits makes it all the clearer that religion was used like a document plucked from a briefcase.

There was a good deal of the successful lawyer about Jinnah that midsummer morning of the press conference, as he stood on the steps of his spacious veranda receiving the reporters. A pencil-thin monochrome in gray and silver, with perfectly tailored suit and tie and socks precisely matching his hair, his manner with us was courteous but formal. As he fitted his monocle to his eye and began to speak, there was something consciously theatrical about Mr. Jinnah -- throwback perhaps to that most un-Islamic chapter of his past when he was a Shakespearean actor in England.

His statement to the press was in the form of a monologue, delivered in an icy voice, which was forecast of fiery events to come. "We are preparing to launch a struggle. We have chalked a plan." We reporters, although we sat around Jinnah in a closed circle, had almost to stop our breathing to hear his curiously hushed words. He had decided to boycott the Constituent Assembly. He was rejecting in its entirety the British plan for transfer of power to an interim government which would combine both the League and the Congress. He lashed out against the "Hindu-dominated Congress" in his flat, chilled monotone. It seemed clear, now the bondage to the British was drawing to an end, that he was free to concentrate all his fire against the opposite party.

"We are forced in our own self-protection to abandon constitutional methods." His thin lips slit into a frigid smile. "The decision we have taken is a very grave one." If the Muslims were not granted their separate Pakistan they would launch "direct action." The phrase caught all of us. What form would direct action take, we all wanted to know. "Go to the Congress and ask them their plans," Mr. Jinnah snapped. "When they take you into their confidence I will take you into mine."

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the cooing of pigeons, hopping over Jinnah's manicured lawn. Then he added in the same toneless voice, so strangely unmatched to his words: "Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble."

Next day the Quaid-i-Azam changed out of his double-breasted suit and put on Muslim dress and fez for the Muslim masses. Standing on a platform liberally decorated with enlargements of his portrait, he announced that the sixteenth of August, two and a half weeks hence, would be "Direct Action Day." His vituperation against the Congress was acidly explicit. "If you want peace, we do not want war," he declared. "If you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We will either have a divided India or a destroyed India." And the Muslim Leaguers jumped up on their seats and tossed their fezzes in the air.

It was a battle between top-flight politicians now. The papers blazed with accusations from both sides -- League and Congress equally intolerant in their attacks. The opposing streams of fiery words had a terrible effect on the emotional Indian people. Passions mounted during the crucial fortnight; Direct Action Day dawned in an atmosphere of dread and foreboding.

Most of what I learned about that day came from a little tea-shop keeper in Calcutta, where the explosion began. As soon as I heard of the incredible events taking place, I had flown from Bombay to Calcutta. The disruption of normal city life was so great that it was some time before I could make my way to the ruined heart of the bazaar district. Hunting for a survivor who had been an eyewitness to the first stroke of direct action, I found Nanda Lal, in the wreckage of his teashop. ........

On the morning of August 16th, Nanda Lal started his oven and set out his tray of sweetmeats as usual. When his little son came out with the jars of mango pickle and chutney, he commented to the child that the streets looked reassuringly quiet. The sacred cows that roam freely through the thoroughfares of Calcutta were sleeping as usual in the middle of the car tracks, and rose to their feet reluctantly, as they always did, when the first streetcar of the day clanged down Harrison Road.

It was the sight of that first tram that confirmed Nanda Lal's fears that this day was to be unlike all other days. Normally it was so crowded with commuters that they bulged from the platform and clung to the doorsteps and back of the car. Today there was hardly a passenger on board.

Then things began happening so quickly that Nanda Lal could hardly recall them in sequence. But he did remember quite clearly the seven lorries that came thundering down Harrison Road. Men armed with brickbats and bottles began leaping out of the lorries -- Muslim "goondas," or gangsters, Nanda Lal decided, since they immediately fell to tearing up Hindu shops. Some rushed into the furniture store next to the Happy Home and began tossing mattresses and furniture into the street. Others ran toward the Bengal Cabin, but Nanda Lal was fastening up the blinds by now, shouting to his son to run back into the house, straining to bar the windows and close the door. .......

During the terrible days that followed, Nanda Lal huddled with his family and relatives in the upper hallway. Sometimes bricks and stones crashed through the windows of the outside rooms. The children cried a great deal; they were hungry as well as terrified. .......

On the fourth day Nanda Lal noted that the weapons in the street fighting had grown heavier. Soda-water bottles had given way to iron staves, and unfortunately the neighborhood had a plentiful supply of rails from the fence surrounding the near-by Shraddhananda Park. Finally, as the skirmish of the iron pikes reached its fiercest, a convoy of three military tanks rolled through and machine-gunned the mobs, and along with them the police made their belated appearance. ......

When peace returned to Calcutta on the fifth day, the streets were a rubble of broken bricks and bottles, bloated remains of cows, and charred wrecks of automobiles and victorias rising above the strewn figures of the dead. The human toll had reached six thousand according to official count, and sixteen thousand according to unofficial sources. In this great city, as large as Detroit, vast areas were dark with ruin and black with the wings of vultures that hovered impartially over the Hindu and Muslim dead.

Thousands began fleeing Calcutta. For days the bridge over the Hooghly River, one of the longest steel spans in the world, was a one-way current of men, women, children, and domestic animals, headed toward the Howrah railroad station. ......

But fast as the refugees fled, they could not keep ahead of the swiftly spreading tide of disaster. Calcutta was only the beginning of a chain reaction of riot, counter-riot, and reprisal which stormed through India for an entire year.

The next link in the chain was the Noakhali area in southeastern Bengal. Here in the uncharted recesses of swampy lowlands and hyacinth-choked bayous I talked with Hindus who had abandoned their villages en masse and fled to the riverbanks. They had strange tales to tell of forced conversion to Islam, of being compelled to throw the images of their gods into the water and to eat the meat of the sacred cow. ......

Gandhi -- though he was far too old to endure such hardship -- went to Noakhali and tramped on foot through marshes and jungle trying to restore confidence to the villagers. Trade-unions and peasant organizations threw their weight toward unity. It is significant that throughout the worst of the disruption in Bengal, five million Hindu and Muslim sharecroppers campaigned together in the Tebhaga movement for long-overdue land reforms. Wherever there was constructive leadership toward some goal of social betterment, religious strife dwindled to the vanishing point.

But between these small islands of Hindu-Muslim cooperation were the burning villages, the blazing fanaticisms. The sparks of Bengal flew westward to the state of Bihar, where Hindus wreaked merciless vengeance on the Muslim minority. The flames of Bihar fanned out to the Punjab and touched off explosions that dwarfed even the Calcutta riots.

Months of violence sharpened the divisions, highlighted Jinnah's arguments, achieved partition. On August 15,1947, exactly one day less than a year after Nanda Lal had seen direct action break out on his doorstep, a bleeding Pakistan was carved out of the body of a bleeding India.