On the morning of 16 August 1946, crowds of Muslims made their way to a park in central Calcutta (now Kolkata). They were gathering to observe Direct Action Day, called nationwide by the All-India Muslim League to protest what it saw as the abandonment of India’s Muslim minority by the British colonial government and the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress. The general strike and rallies planned were intended to imitate Congress’s tactics of mass protest but, while the day passed off peacefully elsewhere, in Calcutta large-scale violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in thousands of deaths. These riots are seen as marking a turning point after which the country’s partition into India and Pakistan became inevitable.
Earlier in the year, a British Cabinet Mission hoping to secure a unified post-independence India had proposed a plan for a weak central government to serve as a meeting point for groups of provinces representing Hindu and Muslim majorities. When Congress backtracked on its support for the plan, the League’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, renounced constitutional methods and called for Direct Action Day.
These riots are seen as marking a turning point after which the partition of India became inevitable
Recent scholarship has placed the killings in the context not of party politics or religion but war, famine and poverty. Calcutta hosted countless destitute migrants drawn by the promise of employment and food during the Bengal Famine, caused partly by the wartime requisition of grain, killing some 3 million in 1943. Thus the violence wasn’t indiscriminate but a reaction to the need for food and housing, leading to the looting of shops and provisions, and attacks on companies seen to be denying jobs to people based on religion. The disorder prompted other, sometimes more serious riots elsewhere, including in neighbouring Bihar province.
Though not entirely unprecedented – the country had witnessed smaller riots during the 1930s – the violence of Direct Action Day made tangible for the first time the possibility of civil war, which was forestalled only by the country’s hurried partition.
This allowed Britain, as well as India and Pakistan, to present a more acceptable and self-congratulatory narrative about a peaceful transfer of power resulting in the successful achievement of independence.
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Faisal Devji is a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford. His books include Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard, 2013)
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This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine