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The Great Calcutta Killing
(16th to 20th August)

Sir Francis Tuker

Courtesy: While Memory Serves
(London: Cassell, 1950), pp. 152-166

At the end of July 1946 I was ordered to Quetta to take part in a series of tactical  discussions, the prelude to more detailed discussions to be held at Camberley in mid-August under the chairmanship of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Thereafter I was to take leave in England.

As I stepped into the home-bound 'plane at Karachi on the 4th August I was handed a newspaper, and with apprehension read on the front page that a new government had been installed in India-the Interim Government, under the leadership of Pandit Nehru. Some Muslims had been invited to accept office in this government. Nevertheless, Muslim feeling would without any doubt be inflamed against what they would consider to be their betrayal to a Hindu-led government. I knew then that all our forebodings of the months before would now be fulfilled. We had had our warnings of more trouble to come in Calcutta and I had, before I left Calcutta, ordered into that town reinforcements from outside-the 7th Worcestershire Regiment from Ranchi, the 1/3rd Gurkhas from Chittagong and 3/8th Gurkhas from north Bengal, Parbatipur. Before the storm broke the first two had arrived and the third was ready to entrain.

Political 'met' reports had kept trace of a pile-up of the weather ever since the February riots until now when brown cu-nimbus clouds were all about the sky.

I will first of all tell the tale of the Calcutta Killing1 for historical purposes in order to record the sequence of events. Thereafter, so that those who read may be able to absorb a little of the atmosphere which pervaded those dread events and so that they may be able to picture the people who were concerned in them, I tell some of the tale in extracts, in Appendix V, from the personal experiences of two of my officers. It is my object to present a truthful picture, a presentation of affairs in India hitherto only too seldom permitted to be seen by foreigners. Henceforth, with the end of British rule, these presentations will occur even less frequently than before. Only those who believe in living in a fool's paradise will attempt to push Reality into the wings, for its rightful place is in the centre of the stage and assuredly it will in good time, perhaps inconveniently, occupy that place. It is both leading player and central theme round which any human play must be written. One great reality of Indian politics has for years been communalism. But unfortunately the Congress Party hid it from the world, with the inevitable result that India today is decisively parted into at least two nations.

To shrink from perceiving the natural tendency of Hindustan towards an Asiatic form of Communism will lead to even greater catastrophe.

From February onwards communal tension had been strong.  Anti-British feeling was, at the same time, being excited by interested people who were trying to make it a substitute for the more important communal emotion. The sole result of their attempts was to add to the temperature of all emotions, and those emotions turned fatally towards heightening the friction between Hindus and Muslims. Biased, perverted and inflammatory articles and twisted reports were appearing in Hindu and Muslim newspapers, while the leading politicians and labour leaders continued no less irresponsible in their public utterances. All this boiled to fever pitch after Mr. Jinnah had announced on the 29th July that Direct Action would be observed throughout India on the 16th August. Direct action in India could only mean action by force as a protest against the decrees of the existing Government, that is, against what was considered to be inequitable treatment of the Muslims in the interests of the Hindus.

Every one of us fully understood that Direct Action Day would certainly be a day of extreme stress in Calcutta. Reports were flowing into our Intelligence Centres in Calcutta showing the ever mounting emotions of the two communities. Nevertheless, neither civil nor military officials thought that feeling would run any higher or take any more dire course than it had taken for the past month or two, for there had been many crises and at each one serious outbreaks had been expected but had not occurred. On the 9th August the Congress Party had celebrated Remembrance Day, which was to commemorate the start of the 1942 riots in Bengal, Bihar and the U.P.- riots which had nearly brought our armies to a standstill, fighting the Japanese on the Assam border. Remembrance Day had passed off peacefully.

For the first half of August, speeches of public men of both Congress and Muslim League at large meetings in Calcutta were inflammatory and violent in their character, all directed against the opposite community. On the 15th August, an acid debate took place in the Bengal Assembly when the Bengal government had announced its decision to make the 16th August, Direct Action Day, a public holiday. The debate showed how bitterly the Hindus resented this order. One of the causes for their resentment was that, up till now, the Congress had more or less possessed monopoly rights for imposing and enforcing hartals (the closing of shops), paralysing the whole of Calcutta's transport, and for strikes: they thus strongly resented the prospect of any other competitor, especially so formidable a bidder as the Muslim League, entering this highly coveted field of political exploitation.

Of the reports coming in to us about public speeches at this time, the following are three selections which show the sort of oratory that was being displayed.

Mr. Nazimuddin,2 l speaking to a Muslim meeting on the 11th August, was reported to have said that the Interim Government, without the support of the Muslim League, would before long certainly bring about a very serious clash between the communities. Although, he said, final plans for direct action had not yet been settled, there were scores of ways well known to Calcutta Muslims by which the League could make a thorough nuisance of themselves, not being bound to non-violence as was the Congress.

As a counter-blast to this, Mr. K. Roy, leader of the Congress Party in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, addressing a meeting at Ballygunge on the 14th, said that it was stupid to think that the holiday for Direct Action Day was being decreed by the Muslim Bengal government in order to avoid commotions. The holiday, with its idle folk, would create trouble, for it was quite certain that those Hindus who, still wishing to pursue  their business, kept open their shops, would be compelled by force to close them. From this there would certainly be violent djsturbance. But he advised the Hindus to keep their shops open and to continue their business and not to submit to a compulsory hartal. So Mr. Roy himself was setting the stage for the very clash that he feared. It is in the nature of all too many of the people of India that they are wont to provoke trouble rather than to be discreet and to compromise.

It was now the turn of the Sikhs, so at the same meeting a prominent local Sikh leader in a fighting address, recalled to the memory of the audience how in the communal riots of 1926 the Muslims had been soundly beaten. He announced that if rioting did start the Sikhs would back the Congress and between them they would give the Muslims a good thrashing. From this it would appear that he rather looked forward to a little battle.

So it can be seen that all those who were principally concerned were doing their best to prepare the lists for the coming joust. They could hardly have done better if they had had a combined committee to arrange the grisly tournament. As I have said, I had issued orders in July to bring three more battalions into Calcutta in order to see that the rules of the tourney were obeyed. From the examples of the riots of the previous November and February we thought that this considerable reinforcement would suffice.

On the 12th August Brigadier Mackinlay, commanding the Fortress, ordered all those units which were on an Internal Defence role to be confined to barracks and drastically restricted military movement in Calcutta for the 16th. Later, he confined all troops to barracks from the early morning of the 16th August.

'Caterpillar' broadcasts, which were our usual Internal Defence information broadcasts to all troops in Calcutta, started before 8 a.m. on the 16th and went on throughout the disturbances. August 16th, a warm, sticky, familiar day in the monsoon, broke quietly over Calcutta. The buses, taxis and rickshaws plied their trade as usual. The trams were not running as the Tramway Workers' Union always managed to add to our difficulties and to the crowd on the pavements by declaring a one-day strike whenever trouble was coming, so that their employees might not miss the spectacle.

At 7:30 a.m. we heard that Hindus had erected barricades at the Tala and Belgachia bridges to prevent Muslims from entering the city and taking their processions to the middle of the town to the Ochterlony Monument where a mammoth Muslim assembly was to be addressed at 3 p.m. by Mr. H. S. Suhrawardy, the Chief Minister of Bengal. Brigadier Mackinlay, as usual, visited Police Headquarters at Lal Bazaar about 9 a.m., finding the police not unduly worried and forecasting that, though there would be incidents, violence would not be on a great scale. The worst time was expected to be in the afternoon when the meeting broke up. During the morning the anticipated incidents occurred. Houses were burned in the north and east of Calcutta, probably due to Muslim leaders compelling Hindu shopkeepers to close their shops, and the rank and file pulling people off their bicycles and off the buses. The Hindus, on their side, were trying to prevent Muslim processions from marching through Hindu quarters of the city on their way to the meeting. Brigadier Mackinlay's impressions as to the likely extent of the trouble were confirmed on his visit about midday to the civil officials, the Inspector General, Deputy Commissioner and the Additional Secretary to the Government. The police were satisfied, although the incidents were widespread at the time, that they could deal with whatever was to come without aid from the soldiers.

Up to two o'clock the crowds were gathering round the Ochterlony Monument and our Intelligence patrols were out covering the town. Incidents were occurring. The police about Sealdah and Bow Bazaar at the north side of the city had opened fire once and used tear-gas to disperse violent mobs bent oil communal strife. Just before 3 p.m., on application from the police, the Fortress Commander ordered the York and Lancaster Regiment to be ready at once to move to Sealdah. At 3 p.m. Brigadier Sixsmith, acting as Area Commander, met the Governor and the Commissioner of Police. The last named said that the situation was out of hand because, although the police could disperse the crowds, they re-formed directly his patrols had passed on. The Governor at once set off with Brigadier Sixsmith and the Commissioner of Police to have a look at the town for himself. They saw hooliganism but nothing yet to warrant the application of military force; however, they found good reason why the soldiers should be held ready to move directly they were required. All agreed that when the soldiers came in they would keep open the main roads, freeing the police from these roads for other and more detailed work. The York and Lancaster Regiment was therefore sent at once to a position of readiness in the Sealdah Transit Camp.

Meanwhile, an immense Muslim crowd was gathered about the Ochterlony Monument and Mr. Suhrawardy was addressing them. Our patrols reported that he said that the Cabinet Mission was a bluff, and that he would see how the British could make Mr. Nehru rule Bengal. Direct Action Day would prove to be the first step towards the Muslim struggle for emancipation. He advised them to return home early and said that he had found Muslims peaceful in the course of his passage through the town and that he had made all arrangements with the police and military not to interfere with them.

Our intelligence patrols noticed that the crowd included a large number of Muslim goondas, and that these slipped away from the meeting from time to time, their ranks being swelled as soon as the meeting ended. They made for the shopping centres of the town where they at once set to work to loot and burn Hindu shops and houses.

Hitherto, south Calcutta had remained comparatively quiet, as it had been in the February riots. But shops were closed and feelings were tense.

At 4.15 p.m. Fortress H.Q. sent out the codeword 'Red' to indicate that there were incidents all over Calcutta.

There was now the usual demand on the part of the administration for more troops and for the troops to picket all over the town. This demand has been put forward in every big riot I have ever witnessed. Brigadier Sixsmith gave Mr. Suhrawardy the usual reply that the troops best fulfilled their task by keeping open the main routes and increased their effectiveness most economically by throwing out mobile patrols from these main arteries. In this way the greatest number of police were released for their proper duty of preventing crowds uniting on the main routes and at the nodal points.

The situation was clear in the neighbourhood of the areas dominated by the troops but, as was later apparent, obscure, for lack of information, in the bustee (slum) areas.

At 6 p.m. curfew was clamped down allover the riot-affected districts. At 8 p.m. the Area Commander received a sudden demand for troops in the Howrah area. He brought in the 7th Worcesters and the Green Howards from their barracks in the north of the town. This is what they saw.

As they drove in they found CoIlege Street Market ablaze, the few unburnt houses and shops completely sacked; the road outside was strewn with charred embers, empty shoe boxes, broken furniture and other litter; the air was heavy with the fumes of gas shells the police were using to disperse the crowds. In Amherst Street looters had dragged a safe into the road and had succeeded in opening it before they were disturbed. In Upper Circular Road 'fire-bugs' were dragging lighted pieces of kerosene-soaked sacking across the road to start fresh fires, the remainder of the mob cheering them on and looting until the fires became too hot. At this time there was no evidence of the terrible killings that had taken place; the streets were clear of bodies.

At one place in Harrison Road an agitated man dashed out of a garage and after stopping the Company Commander's carrier, proceeded to pick shotgun pellets out of his leg with a penknife, the while he told how his petrol pumps had been raided by goondas. After concluding his story he solemnly presented the officer with the pellets and, with a prayer that the troops keep a close eye on his garage, disappeared into the bosom of his family, who were apparently unhurt, but who wailed loudly and incessantly either in support of his story or in sympathy for his injury. Later on, at about 5 a.m., things seemed much quieter, and it was not until well after daybreak that dead bodies began to appear in the streets and killings started afresh. It often happened that one passed along a clear street but on return five minutes later discovered several bodies, sometimes in the road, sometimes loaded on coolie barrows. Many of the bodies were newly dead, but not a killing was actually witnessed at that time.

At 3.30 p.m. the three British battalions then operating performed a combined sweep and entirely dominated the centre of the city. Curfew was imposed and at 10 p.m. we withdrew one of the battalions to Fort William to rest before further operations on the following day.

Night brought with it little cessation of the rioting, only the Roza celebrations, the daylong fast, drawing Muslims off the streets for their meals after dark. The storm had burst and this time brought with it a torrent. February's killings had shocked us all but this was different: it was unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn. The underworld of Calcutta was taking charge of the city.

The York and Lancaster Regiment cleared the main routes about Sealdah and threw out patrols to free the police for work in the bustees. But the looting and murder went on in the alleys and kennels of the town. The police were not controlling it. Daylight showed not a sign of bus or taxi : rickshaws were battered and burnt: there were no means for clerks to get to their work. With the banks on strike for this one day, the 17th, there were all the more idle men loafing about the town.

In the middle of the morning, Sir Frederick Burrows set out with Brigadier Sixsmith, Brigadier Mackinlay and a military patrol to tour the afflicted areas. In Harrison Road they found big fires burning and large mobs assembled. The patrol went at them and quickly dispersed them, driving straight on through rioters carrying loaded sticks and sharpened iron bars. They scattered to right and left and the Governor's party drove through, but it was obvious that their mood was thoroughly dangerous. Returning by another route, the party saw a man being beaten to death less than a hundred yards away and ordered the police to take action at once. The police were slowto get out of their vehicles and before they had come into action three people were beaten down and lay dead on the road. A British police sergeant dispersed the mob with one shot.

At 11.30 a.m. the escort to the Governor stopped at the junction of Harrison Road and Amherst Street. There was a large crowd to the south in Amherst Street which dispersed as troops and police debussed and advanced towards them. To demonstrate to the Governor how the mobs re-formed, the police and troops withdrew to their vehicles, out of sight in Harrison Road, upon which the people came out of the side streets again and advanced to within thirty yards of the Governor's party. Troops and police appeared once more and the mob rapidly retreated, leaving a freshly-stabbed man in the middle of the road where they had been standing.

The night's rioting had been fierce but the bloodiest butchery of all had been between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on the 17th, by which time the soldiers got the worst areas under control. During this period the south of Calcutta was set ablaze with the fury that had caught the north and centre: swords were being used and the crowds were charging madly hither and thither. Motor patrols of the 1/3rd Gurkhas drove into the melee. More and more dead lying in the flood of spouting watercocks were seen by our Intelligence patrols as they scoured the city. Police reports were coming in of heavy fighting allover the town and of police intervention with bullets and gas. The pall of smoke from burning buildings spread overhead between the horror below and the light monsoon clouds of heaven. The dust and the sickening noise of killings rolled out from Garden Reach, Kidderpore, Metia Bruz, Beliagatia and along Lower Circular Road. Looting and destruction were in full blast all about Park Street. European householders could not leave their houses: there they and their families sat, besieged and living on the tinned foods of their store cupboards.

C.D.L. tanks with strong searchlights joined the troops at dusk and the eerie flickering of their lights as they passed from street to street playing on the dead and on the devastation in which they died, made a Dore's Inferno of Calcutta.

In the early hours of the 18th, the 1/3rd Gurkhas moved into the Dock area. From then onwards the area of military domination of the city was increased. Static guards took over from police guards and a party of troops under Major Littleboy, the Assistant Provost-Marshal, did valuable work in the rescue organisation for displaced and needy persons. Outside the 'military' areas, the situation worsened hourly. Buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms.

At midday, the Governor and the Army Commander set out on a tour of the city with the Chief Secretary and Mr. Suhrawardy, escorted by a combined police and military patrol. Except in the bustee areas there were no fresh mobs, but in the bustees looting, arson and murder held their horrible sway. Wherever the party stopped, hostile crowds closed in on them and heads appeared on the housetops above. One Muslim shouted to the Chief Secretary, , But you must not shoot: you will disturb the peace of our city'!

Mr. Suhrawardy was eager to expose the depredations of Hindus against his co-religionists, pointing an accusing finger at peaceful men and charging them with lying in wait for Muslims. He was asked why Hindus and Muslims could not live in friendship in civil life when they managed so well in the Army. Mr. Suhrawardy replied that Hindu and Muslim unity would not exist very much longer in the Army. He was right and we knew it. Directly the British officer left the mixed mess of Hindu and Muslim officers would part into two cliques and the parting would soon be reflected among the men.

Police and soldiers were getting tired, and the load of quelling the violence was falling more and more on the troops as the police wearied and lost heart. Raj Mohan, Jorasanko and Tarachand Dutta Streets and Baowanipore in the south fell into pandemonium. Military patrols rushed in and opened fire, wounding two of the crowd. At 3 p.m. the Command ordered the 5th Division to reinforce Calcutta from Ranchi and ordered the Norfolks in from Ramgarh and the 3/8th Gurkhas from Parbatipur in North Bengal.

On Sunday, 18th August, the York and Lancaster Regiment  again left the Fort to relieve a battalion in the dominated area. However, just as they were moving out they learnt of serious trouble in north Calcutta, in the Shampuka and Jorabagan Thanas, and received their orders to move to that area and to take over control. Everything was quiet and seemed normal until they crossed Vivekananda Road, going north of Chitpur Road. The state of things from there on beggared description. Furniture, bedding, boxes and  household articles of all kinds littered the road so that even the two light tanks which were leading the column had to pick their way; indeed some of the wheeled vehicles had to stop to clear debris before they could pass. Corpses became more frequent, and on the Gray Street-Chitpur Road crossing the leading tanks had to stop so that troops mounted on them could clear some of the bodies to one side to give room for vehicles to pass and disperse a fighting mob. Over one hundred and fifty bodies were cleared from this cross-road the next day and it was here that one of the chief goondas of Calcutta died fighting with a knife in each hand. His green three-ton truck was standing in Gray Street and proved of great use in the street clearing which was soon to follow. Three hundred yards farther up the Chitpur Road there had been another pitched battle and over a hundred bodies remained to witness the fact. In Central Avenue, by a Hindu temple and in the surrounding street entrances, there were another forty dead. All in all there had been what must have been the worst carnage in the city.

Early in the evening our men found a small Muslim bustee in the Bag-Bazaar Street which had been burnt down; the occupants had either fled or had been killed, the dead bodies of three children bearing evidence of the crime. The interesting part of this incident is that from three different sources we were informed that the burning of this bustee was the work of nine goondas who were paid by a named person living in the neighbourhood.

On closer inspection of the bodies in this area we found that many were horribly mutilated and in one particular place a man had been tied by his ankles to a tramway electric junction box, his hands were bound behind his back and a hole had been made in his forehead so that he bled to death through the brain. He was such a ghastly sight that it was a wonder that the soldiers who were ordered to cut him down and cover him with a nearby sack,  were not ill on the spot.

The rest of that night passed without incident and in the morning the battalion had  opportunity to probe beyond the streets which had occupied all its attention in the remaining hours of daylight the previous day.

This probing brought to light only one important fact that had not been discovered the previous night. There were the odd bodies in sacks and dustbins that were beginning to make their presence known, but the big discovery was that of the wholesale slaughter in the Sobhabazaar Market. The Market itself was strewn with bodies, and the tiny hovels of the shopkeepers which bounded it held gruesome evidence of the awful conflict. One room contained fifteen corpses and another twelve, but those two rooms were outstanding. At the western end of the bazaar there had been a rickshaw stand. The rickshaws had been smashed to bits and it appeared that the pullers had been massacred in toto. From among this shambles we rescued two live children, both wounded and one already gangrenous. As might be expected they were dazed and seemed half-witted; their mental and moral  systems must have sustained a shock which might easily have driven them mad. They would never be the normal people they could have been. The doctor did his best with their  wounds and sent them into hospital. Bodily they would mend, but mentally-a shrug of the shoulders was his verdict. Most of the dead in that market had not had the remotest idea what was happening or why.

On the afternoon and night of the 18th August the Calcutta garrison made one supreme effort and gained complete control of north Calcutta. With this success they then turned their hand to clearing the city of its dead, shepherding lost persons into the Refugee Camp and restoring confidence.

The next day, with encouragement from officers and men, shopkeepers started cautiously to open their shops and efforts were made to induce tramway workers to return to duty. Incidents continued throughout the day but it did seem that the lunatic fury of Calcutta's population had worn itself out. The stench of their murderous work of barely three days was terrible, particularly about Sealdah station, the area of which Major Livermore tells in his story in Appendix V.

On the 19th more work was done in clearing the streets and in general rescue work of destitute and injured. The Chief Minister, who throughout was more critical than helpful, alleged that the Military Rescue Service was ineffective. This meant that his staff had to be taken round to be shown what that Service was doing before they could be convinced.

The south flared up and the East Lancashire Regiment was sent there to damp it down.

In the evening the 4/7th Rajput Regiment and 3/8th Gurkhas arrived: our anxieties were now at an end. There were fresh troops to replace the tired battalions. Indian Pioneer Companies were ordered in to help clear the streets.

Bit by bit police patrols were taken out by the military and hour by hour by this means the police gained confidence and resumed their duties in the streets.

That is the bare outline of this manifestation of berserk fury. The one thing that stressed itself time and again was that had the police only known the extent of the strife that raged in the gullies and bustees on the night of the I6/I7th and on the morning of the I7th itself,  troops would have been demanded earlier and the tumult more quickly quelled. In the palmy days of the Calcutta police, this information would have been gained and passed back far sooner than it was.

I do not know-no one knows-what the casualties were. On one night alone some four hundred and fifty corpses were cleared from the streets by the three British battalions. For days afterwards bodies were being recovered from sewers and tanks. All one can say is that the toll of dead ran into thousands.

By the 22nd August, despite the continuance of isolated killings, and the occasional dispersal of growing crowds, Calcutta was quiet.

The Army had had a grim time, the grimmest being the clearing of dead from the battlefield. It had served Calcutta well, not only by the use of force on the streets but also in its rescue and medical work. Our doctors had issued 7,500,000 units of anti-tetanus serum to the Surgeon General of Bengal. To no small extent our administrative services had helped to feed the city. For a short time the city was grateful to the soldiers but not for long. Newspaper attacks on the Army, unfounded allegations, began once more to appear in due time.

Trouble was now raising its head in Eastern Bengal and the 1/3rd Gurkhas were ordered off to Chittagong on the 22nd August. The Battalion reached Chittagong on the 24th to find that place in a highly inflamed condition, casualties up to the previous evening amounting to forty-five. 


  1. See Map No. 2, p. 155.
  2. See p. 380.

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