The Vultures of Calcutta

Vultures feeding on corpses lying abandoned in alleyway after rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta.

The 15th of August has passed, the celebrations have subsided. Somewhere in the country they are still going on and why not, after all India gained Independence from British on the very same day in 1947. The hype around the day is big enough to overshadow the day that follows, the 16th of August. The momentousness of the day lost in the momentousness of the day that precedes it.

For those unacquainted with the date, it is also referred to as the “Direct Action Day”. A day named so by the then leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a day when his villainy was to go to the next level, a day many students of Colonial History and Indian Independence Struggle remember and loathe while Eminent Historians for some reason miss out on completely.

Vultures feeding on corpses lying abandoned in alleyway after rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta.
Vultures feeding on corpses lying abandoned in alleyway after rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta.


A trip down the memory lane tells us that exactly one year before the day India became a free nation, forces of various natures were at play. It was almost imminent that Pakistan was to be formed. While the subjects were thinking about what will be lost, the future masters were more interested in what could be seized, and this seizing was of metropolises, the centers of economic activity and powerhouses of capital generation.

These powerhouses were also to be divided between the two future nations but there was one complication from the Muslim League’s point of view – most of the cities were demographically skewed towards the Hindu side. Be it Karachi or Dacca or Lahore or Calcutta, majority of the inhabitants of these cities were Hindus. In Jinnah’s eyes this was a problem, the infidels were an obstacle in his pursuit for the Muslim nation for the pious, the pure and the “pak”.

Jinnah chose to solve the demographic problem demographically, he had been rigorously campaigning to the Muslim population to shift to these cities so that the equations are reversed and Muslims become a majority in the aforementioned cities. But the problem was still not solved, the Hindus were still not leaving. For maximum effect the Hindus were to be removed and Muslims were to replace them in as many cities as possible if the economy after independence was to be captured by the new state of Pakistan. By 1946, Dacca and Karachi were already a lost cause. Next in line was another city – Calcutta.

“Direct Action Day” wasn’t a sublime way to describe what Jinnah intended to do, but still nobody anticipated what actually happened. With hindsight one can deduce that it was a cryptonym for the call to Muslim mobs to mobilize, rallies after rallies to massacre the non Muslim population so that Calcutta can also be liberated and purified of its infidel population and seized for good.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the then Prime Minister of Bengal and later the Prime Minister of Pakistan, a rival of Jinnah was very much in cahoots with him in this conspiracy. Through his cronies in the government, the Governor of Bengal and the Commissioner of Calcutta, both British nationals and authorities of the highest order, he ensured that when the rampage was to ensue, no police was there to cause any interruption and everything went smoothly as per the plan. With his help an estimate of 1,00,000 members and workers of the Muslim League from various parts of Undivided India were called to execute the “Direct Action”.

Suhrawardy is the same guy who presided over the Great Bengal Famine that consumed millions of Indian lives. Of course nobody is absolving Churchill of his role in it but that’s another debate altogether.

Suhrawardy was idolized by many Muslims in Bengal, particularly by the Urdu-speaking Muslims from Northern India, who formed the majority of Calcutta’s Muslim population. Bengali Muslims, who accounted for the bulk of the Muslim population in Bengal province, were mostly concentrated in the rural areas. Calcutta itself had a clear Hindu majority, 73% of the population and a significant Muslim minority of 23%.

Most of Suhrawardy’s followers were amongst the poor Muslims of the city, and he was also rumored to have close links to the Muslim underworld, which played a significant role in the parallel economy, based on smuggling, gambling and prostitution, which flourished in the great port-city.

As the mobs mobilized, savagery was unleashed upon Calcutta. Not only the victims were brutally killed, they were also grotesquely mutilated. Such grisly “rituals” were to become very much part of the repertoire of communal killings in India. There were also widespread cases of rape – again something that was never seen before with riots in India, but went on to figure prominently in the violence unleashed around the time of Partition.

The Great Calcutta Killing was in a way a precursor of horrors still to come. Not only to the riots during Partition but also to the pogrom of Kashmiri Pandits several decades after Independence – most of the victims who were killed were adult males and not women.

Conservative estimates put around 10 000 deaths, 15 000 wounded and 100 000 displacements from the city but these are estimates only and the exact number is still not and will never be known.

Orchestrated by the Muslim League under the leadership of Jinnah, many more riots followed, claiming countless lives and stranding an even greater number. Repercussions of those infernal days still haunt the Indian Subcontinent.

16th of August is considered a dark day in Indian history except for maybe by Jinnah, Suhrawardy, The Muslim League and the Vultures for whom the feast of corpses lay all over in the streets of Calcutta.