Direct Action Day: the tragedy

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VIEW: Direct Action Day: the tragedy — I —Yasser Latif Hamdani

Contrary to what the Indians hold, all historians now agree that the massacre in Calcutta was primarily of Muslims and not Hindus

Today is August 16th. Sixty-four years ago, the All India Muslim League bid farewell to its traditionally constitutional methods and resorted to civil disobedience all over India. The Direct Action Day, though peaceful in most of India, took an ugly turn in Calcutta. There are two reasons why we must revisit this painful period in our history.

The first is because, in Karachi, of late, two parties organised primarily around identity, just like the pre-partition Muslim League, are playing with fire and it might be instructive for them to revisit the Calcutta carnage and its aftermath.

Second, there is much about the Calcutta killings that exists in the Indian consciousness that is just plain untrue. For one thing, the Indian version of events is as inverted as the official accounts of that blighted day that exist in Pakistan. Contrary to what the Indians hold, all historians now agree that the massacre in Calcutta was primarily of Muslims and not Hindus.

Perhaps, revisiting this seeping wound will help heal other wounds that exist in the fractured polity of the subcontinent. The official Indian nationalist mythology conjures up two villains of the Direct Action Day fiasco — Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy — ironically two of the most liberal leaders thrown up by Muslim India. It is forgotten that in the good work Gandhi is rightly credited with in Calcutta and other places, he was aided by Suhrawardy, and yet Suhrawardy is directly blamed by Indian nationalist authors for planning and executing violence. Similarly, if Gandhi was the great non-violent agitator, Jinnah was constitutionally non-violent and incapable of violence.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had famously buried the Cabinet Mission Plan with his statement that Congress would go into the Constituent Assembly unfettered by agreements. Nehru had, during the course of his discussions earlier in the year, told the British that the Muslim League was not progressive enough to carry out ‘direct action’. He had calculated along with other Congress leaders that as a party committed to constitutional politics, the Muslim League did not have the organisation or the manpower to carry out a civil disobedience movement. Nehru was right of course except that it was precisely this fact that led to an otherwise peaceful civil disobedience movement degenerating into total communal breakdown in Calcutta. The Congress remained convinced that if they were firm, Jinnah would back down from the brink. Jinnah, on his part, seems to have been convinced that if he threatened civil disobedience, the Congress would reconsider. Thus, when Jinnah and Nehru met on the evening of August 15, 1946, both men expected the other to back down. Each made a terrible error by underestimating the other’s resolve.

Jinnah left the programme for the day vague in the hope that Congress and the British would relent. This view is corroborated by Maulana Azad who also wondered — in hindsight — how a constitutional politician like Jinnah resorted to mass politics and concluded that Jinnah was driven along a course that he was reluctant to and, at any rate, understood little of. On August 14, explaining that direct action did not mean direct action in any form but a peaceful hartal, Jinnah said, “I enjoin upon the Muslims to carry out the instructions and abide by them strictly and conduct themselves peacefully and in a disciplined manner.” H V Hodson, the British Reforms Commissioner and a student of Indian politics, wrote in his book The Great Divide that “the working committee followed up by calling on Muslims throughout India to observe August 16th as Direct Action Day. On that day, a meeting would be held all over the country to explain the League’s resolution. These meetings and processions passed off — as was manifestly the central League leaders’ intention — without more than commonplace and limited disturbance with one vast and tragic exception. What happened was more than anyone could have foreseen.”

The customary Indian accusation that the Muslim League planned and executed the massacre of innocents in Calcutta does not stand the test of facts. Lord Wavell wrote on August 21 that “the estimate of casualties is 3,000 dead and 17,000 injured. The Bengal Congress is convinced that all the trouble was deliberately engineered by the Muslim League ministry but no satisfactory evidence to that effect has reached me yet. It is said that the decision to have a public holiday on August 16 was the cause of trouble, but I think this is very farfetched. There was a public holiday in Sindh and there was no trouble there. At any rate, whatever the causes of the outbreak, when it started, the Hindus and Sikhs were every bit as fierce as the Muslims. The present estimate is that appreciably more Muslims were killed than the Hindus” (page 274, Volume VIII, Transfer of Power Papers).

This was confirmed by Sardar Patel’s letter, where he gloated about more, many times more, Muslim casualties than Hindus. This letter is quoted by renowned Indian historian Sumit Sarkar on page 432 of his book Modern India: 1885-1947. One of the big gaping holes in the Indian nationalist version of history is that while all accounts seem to indicate that Muslims were armed with sticks, according to Sir Francis Tuker, “buses and taxis were charging about loaded with Sikhs and Hindus armed with swords, iron bars and firearms” (‘While Memory Serves’, quoted on this website: Who then was arming the Hindus and Sikhs?

That is beyond the scope of this discussion.

(To be continued)

Yasser Latif Hamdani is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at


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