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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 28

Day One in Calcutta

Monday 30 June 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Ten years ago, in the afternoon of June 27, 1998, Nikhil Chakravartty breathed his last. Remembering him after 10 years, we are reproducing some of his finest reports, editorials and articles that appeared in this journal and elsewhere over the last sixty years. We are also reproducing the speech that our former President, K.R. Narayanan, delivered while unveiling N.C.’s portrait at the Press Council of India (New Delhi, February 28, 1999), and publishing several reminiscences by those who knew him intimately.

The following report by Nikhil Chakravartty, the Calcutta correspondent of People’s Age (published from Bombay), appeared in the weekly’s August 24, 1947 issue (it was wired from Calcutta on August 17, 1947) under the following headlines : ‘End of a Nightmare and Birth of New Dawn!’; ‘Calcutta Transformed by Spirit Of Independence’; ‘Hindus, Muslims Hug Each Other In Wild Joy—Tears Roll Down Where Blood Once Soaked The Streets’.

Frenzy has overtaken Calcutta. It is a frenzy which no city in India has ever felt through the long years of thraldom under the British.

When the clock struck midnight and Union Jacks were hauled down on August 15, 1947, the city shook to her very foundations for a mad frenzy overtook her 40 lakh citizens. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

I have racked my brains for hours; I have looked up all despatches in the Press; but still I find no adequate words to communicate the unforgettable experience that has overwhelmed me in the last three days. It is like a sudden bursting of a mighty dam: you hear a deafening roar of water sweeping away everything in the flood. It comes with a crushing suddenness and strikes with the strength of a thousand giants.

That is how all of us in Calcutta have felt in the last few days—all of us, old or young, man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor. In this mighty sweep of the flood none was spared. And the floods carried off a lot of dirt and stigma of our slavery.

Calcutta is Reborn

ONE hundred and ninety years ago, it was from Calcutta that Clive set out of conquer this land of ours and it was this city which was the seat of all his vile intrigues that divided our ranks and brought about our defeat. But today in the sweeping torrent of freedom all that has been wiped away, and once again this beloved city of ours stands out clean and full of radiance with the glow of lasting brotherhood.

Everybody felt nervous about August 15. Weeks ahead authorities were on tenterhooks; more police and military were being posted to ensure peace. Ministers would not permit meetings in the open to celebrate the transfer of power, afraid that the goondas might create trouble. East Bengal Hindus were nervous that one little spark in Calcutta might throw the entire province into the flames of a civil war; Muslims were panicky that they might be finished off in Calcutta and many had left the city.

Gandhiji had already moved his camp to one of the most affected areas—Belliaghata—and cancelling his East Bengal trip, had decided to spend a few days here with Suhrawardy. But even he was disturbed by rowdy goondas, backed by communal groups, accusing him of being an enemy of Hindus. News from the Punjab was bad. On the whole an uncanny fear gripped everybody and the day of independence seemed like a deadline for disturbances.

But how wrong were our calculations! With all our pretensions of knowing our people, with all the prophecies and warnings, bans and precautions, no one really knew how the people—common men and women among both Hindus and Muslims—would come forward to celebrate August 15. It was this unknown factor, which in every turn of history is the determining factor, that has made all the difference in our calculations and the actual happenings on that day.

People’s preparations for the celebrations of the day went on briskly, though imperceptibly. The demand for Tri-colours knew no bounds; whatever be the material, whatever the make, every flag was literally sold out. Even the poorest of the poor, coolie, scavenger or rickshaw-puller, bought the Jhanda. In paras and mohallas boys and girls were getting ready practising drills or formations, organising Prabhat Pheris. Party differences, personal bickerings, etc. were forgotten.

Discordant voices there were, but they did not matter. Mahasabha first raised the slogan of black flags, but then piped down and declared non-participation. But all the prestige of Shyamaprosad could not make any impression on the very people whom he had swayed during the Partition campaign.

Forward Bloc and Tagorites also opposed the celebration on the ground that real freedom was yet to be won. But despite the fact that thousands of Bengali homes paid homage to Netaji that day hardly a handful abstained from participation. Every school, factory, office, every home—be it a mansion or a bustee—awaited the great day with hearts full of jubilation.

As the zero hour approached, the city put on a changed appearance. On the streets, people were busy putting up flags and decorating frontage. Gates were set up at important crossings, bearing names of our past titans like Ashoka or our martyrs in the freedom movement. The atmosphere was tense; should there be a new round of stabbings or shootings among brothers, or should there be return to peace and normalcy?

All Barriers Broken

THE first spontaneous initiative for fraternisation came from Muslim bustees and was immediately responded to by Hindu bustees. It was Calcutta’s poor toilers, especially Muslims, who opened the floodgate, and none could have dreamt of what actually took place.

Muslim boys clambered up at Chowringhee and shouted, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho” and exhorted the driver to take them to Bhowanipore. But the driver would not risk that and so they came up to the border only.

But then all of a sudden in the very storm-centres of most gruesome rioting of the past year—Raja Bazar, Sealdah, Kalabagan, Colootolah, Burra Bazar—Muslims and Hindus ran across the frontiers and hugged each other in wild joy. Tears rolled down where once blood had soaked the pavements. “Jai Hind”, “Vande Mataram”, “Allah-ho-Akbar” and above all renting the sky “Hindu-Muslim ek ho”.

Curfews were ignored; men rushed out on the streets, danced, clasped and lifted each other up. It was all like a sudden end of a nightmare, the birth of a glorious dawn.

As midnight approached, crowds clustered round every radio set and Jawaharlal’s ringing words sent a thrill round every audience, “Appointed day has come —the day appointed by destiny..”

With the stroke of midnight, conch-shells blew in thousands, conch-shells blown by our mothers and sisters from the innermost corners of our homes—for the call of freedom has reached every nook and corner.
And with the conch-shells were heard the crack of rifles and bursting of bombs and crackers. The very arms that were stored so long to kill off brothers were being used to herald the coming of freedom.

A torchlight procession started in North Calcutta. Tram workers, in all spontaneity, brought out a couple of trams crowded with Hindus to the Nakhoda mosque and were feted by Muslims with food and drink. In Burra Bazar, Muslims were treated the same way and all embraced one another. Hardly anybody slept that night—the night choked with passionate emotions welling up in so many ways.

As the morning came the city was already full of excitment and pavements were thronged with people. Prabhat Pheris came out singing songs of the national struggle. Boys and girls marched through the streets with bands and bugles—bright and smart, free citizens of tomorrow.

Flag salutations in every park, in every school and office. Buses plied free, giving joy rides to thousands. Trams announced that all their returns would be sent for relief. And they ran till late at night along all mixed routes which were closed for the past year.

At the Government House, our own Government was to unfurl the Tricolour, but invitees were confined to Burra Sahibs and officials, the rich and elite, Ministers and Legislators. They came in big cars, many with their wives dressed in all their fashionable clothes.

Government House—People’s Property

COMMON people, those that have made freedom possible, they too came in thousands, but they were kept outside, beyond the huge iron gates. Why must this be so? Why must this occasion be celebrated in the way the White Sahibs have done so long?

I watched that crowd growing restless every minute and found among them the very faces that you come across in the streets every day or at the market or in your own home: babu, coolie, student, Professor, young girl and shy wife—all jostling with each other, impatient at being kept out. Sikh, Muslim, Bhayya and Bhadralok clamoured for the gates to be opened and when that was not done, they themselves burst into the spacious grounds and ran up towards the Governor’s stately mansion.

The burst into the rooms much to the annoyance of the officials and perhaps also of the marble busts of many of the White rulers that have never been disturbed in their majesty.

For hours they thronged there, thousands over thousands of them, shoving out many of the ICS bosses. But it would be a slander to say that they were unruly. How little did they touch or damage? Had they been unruly, as somebody had reported to Gandhiji, the whole place would have been a wreck in no time.

They went there for they felt that it was one of their own leaders who had been installed as their Governor. And when the annoyed officials ran up to Rajaji to complain to him about the crowd swarming into the rooms, C.R., it is reported, replied: “But what can I do? It is their own property. How can I prevent them from seizing it?”

The sense of triumph, of pride that we have come to our own could be seen in the faces that entered the portals of the Government House. It is symptomatic of August 15 no doubt. For though there were restrictions and curtailments to real freedom in the elaborate plans the Dominion Status, the people—the common humanity that teems our land—have taken this day to mean that that have won and no amount of restrictions will bar the way, just as no policeman could stop the surging crowd that broke into the Government House.

Outside, all over the city, houses seemed to have emptied out into the streets, lorries came in hundreds, each packed precariously beyond capacity; lorries packed with Hindus and Muslims, men and women. Streets were blocked and the people themselves volunteered to control traffic.

Rakhi Bandhan Again

LORRY-LOADS of Muslim National Guards crammed with Gandhi-capped young Hindu boys shouted themselves hoarse “Jai Hind”, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho”.

Somebody in Bhowanipore waved a League flag under a Tri-colour. What a sight and what a suspense. But the days of hate were over and all shouted together, “Hindu-Muslim ek ho!”

A batch of Hindu ladies went to Park Circus to participate in the flag hoisting. They tied rakhi (strings of brotherly solidarity made famous during Swadeshi days) round the wrists of Muslim National Guards. And the Muslim boys said, “May we be worthy brothers!”

Hindu families, quiet and timid Bhadralok families, came in hundreds to visit Park Circus with their wives and children in tikka gharries piled by Muslims. Muslims, well-to-do and poor, visited Burra Bazar, and Ballygunge in endless streams. And this was going on all these three days.

They are all going to paras or mohallas they had to leave or where they had lost their near and dear ones. Today there is no area more attractive and more crowded than the very spots where the worst butcheries had taken place. As if to expiate for the sins of the last one year, Hindus and Muslims of Calcutta vied with each other to consecrate their city with a new creed of mighty brotherhood.

On the evening of August 16, one year back, I sent you a despatch which could describe but inadequately the mad lust for fratricidal blood that had overtaken Calcutta that day. To mark the anniversary of that day I visited the crowded parts of Hindu Burra Bazar and the Muslim Colootola where in this one year hardly anyone passed alive when spotted by the opposite community. But this evening Muslims were the guests of honour at Burra Bazar and Hindus, as they visited Colootola, were drenched with rose-water and attar and greeted with lusty cheers of “Jai Hind”.

On the very evening, at Park Circus, was held a huge meeting of Hindus and Muslims. Suhrawardy, J.C. Gupta, MLA, and Bhowani Sen spoke. It was here that Suhrawardy asked the Muslims to go and implore the evicted Hindus to come back to Park Circus.

At Belliaghata, Gandhiji’s presence itself has brought back hundreds of Muslim families who had to leave in terror of their lives only a few weeks back. And Gandhiji’s prayer meetings are attended by an ever increasing concourse of Hindus and Muslims—themselves living symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Reports from Bengal districts also prove that this remarkable upsurge of solidarity was not confined to Calcutta alone. In Dacca, despite panic, Hindus and Muslims jointly participated in the celebration of Pakistan, and Muslim leaders themselves intervened in one case where the Congress flag was lowered, and the flag was raised again.

Everywhere Hindus showed response by honouring the Pakistan flag. Joint Hindu-Muslim demonstrations were the marked features of the occasion.

Reports from Comilla, Kusthia, Dinajpore, Krishnanagore, Munshinganj, Malda and Jessore, all show that August 15 had passed off in peace and amity. Only local fracas were reported from Kanchrapara, but the great and good tidings from Calcutta eased the situation there.

In this mighty flood of freedom and brotherhood there is yet the sense of suspense, for it came with such an incredible suddenness and magnitude that many think it is too good to last long. It is like holding a precious glass dome in your hands while you are in suspense that it might fall and break at any moment.

Spontaneous assertion of people’s will for freedom and brotherly solidarity needs to be harnessed in lasting forms and that is where our leaders will be tested in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens, August 15 will be cherished for Calcutta’s grand celebration on the eve of the end of the dark night of slavery and the dawn of freedom. Calcutta yesterday was the symbol of our servitude and fratricidal hate. Calcutta today is the beacon-light for free India, asserting that freedom once resurrected can never be curbed or destroyed, for all our millions of Hindus and Muslims together are ready to stand together as its proud sentinels.

(People’s Age, August 24, 1947)

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