Kolkata is no stranger to political rallies and processions. In fact, it loves them: michhils, as they’re called in Bengali, organised by the ruling Trinamool Congress, or even the opposition Communists, can involve lakhs of people and bring the city to a grinding halt.

It was, therefore, nothing out of the ordinary to see a few thousands gathered at Wellington Square in Central Kolkata last Sunday, ready to march the 5-kilometre distance to Shyambazar. What was odd, though, was their political affiliation. These people weren’t marching for workers’ rights or protesting the central government’s neglect of Bengal. Instead, wearing saffron strips as headbands and carrying triangular saffron flags, their cause was distinctly Hindutva.

Rallying for a cause

Organised by the far-right group Hindu Samhati, the procession was a commemoration of the Great Calcutta Killings, the terrible communal riot that began exactly 69 years ago on August 16, 1946. In particular, it was feting the role of a certain Gopal Chandra Mukherjee in it. Large billboards mounted on vans proclaimed Mukherjee to be “Kolkatar Rakhakarta” (Kolkata’s protector) and prefixed the title “Hindu bir” (Hindu braveheart) before his name.

It was also connecting 1946 to 2015: people carried banners which called for an end to the “torture” of Hindus in Bengal, warned politicians to stop “appeasing” certain groups in the “greed for votes” and called for an end to “Jihadi riots”. A van carried a lurid billboard asking why Kolkata’s intellectuals were silent about the everyday killing of bloggers in Bangladesh.

On a truck, flanked by hectic activity, a man on a public address system drilled everyone about how the march would be conducted: regular slogans, march in line and be peaceful. The Mamata Banerjee government also seemed interested in the last bit: there was heavy police bandobast for the event, with scores of policemen milling around, in case things went out of hand.

Gopal Mukherjee, the protector

Biswajit Sadhukar, a volunteer, was taking a break from handing out banners by smoking a cigarette quietly by the side of road. He had come in from Andul, a small town in Howrah district. This, it seemed, was the composition of most of the crowd: they weren’t Kolkatans but bussed in here by the Hindu Samhati from the mofussils and villages to forcefully recall Kolkata’s history.

Sadhukar burst into a great flood of conversation when asked who Gopal Mukherjee was. “It was Gopal Mukherjee who saved Kashmir, Punjab and Bengal in 1947,” he claimed. “If Gopal Mukherjee hadn’t been there, West Bengal would have been in Pakistan.”

Mukherjee wasn’t alone in this fight, though. “SP Mookerjee also helped Gopal,” said Sadhukar, helpfully pointing out that he was talking of the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of Bharatiya Janata Party. “But the main role was played by Gopal Mukherjee.”

And this commemoration wasn’t a petty party or political event. “It doesn’t matter whether you are in the Trinamool, the Congress or the CPI(M). You can come here as long as you believe in Hindutva.”

At this stage, an acquaintance of Sadhukar’s joined in and asked rhetorically, “But will any party join us? Even the BJP is afraid of losing Muslim votes.”

Sadhukar nodded in agreement. “Muslims know how to stick together and get parties to do their bidding. Even though Jinnah said we want to make a new nation since Muslims can’t live with Hindus, still the Muslims are here, oppressing us.”

Marching to Shyambazar

The procession started off in an orderly fashion, with the marchers in two neat rows. The slogans, though, were far rougher, led by an enraged man on the back of a truck. Marching though the genteel environs of north Kolkata, including College Street, the procession raised slogans against Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba. China was brought in too: “Cheen aar Pakistan, ei duto shoitaan” (China and Pakistan are the two great Satans).

The attention then turned to internal matters: we won’t allow Love Jihad and another Direct Action Day. Islampanthis go away. Baacha niyantran korte hobe (we need population curbs).

All of this ended with a few fiery speeches at Shyambazar in much the same vein. Suresh Chavanke of the Sudarshan television channel started off his speech, delivered in Hindi, promising that he is ready to “shed blood” if required and asking, “Is Bengal turning into Bangladesh?”

Tapan Ghosh, the head of the Hindu Samhiti, praised Gopal Mukherjee as a mahapurush (great man) and connected Direct Action Day in 1946 with a recent road blockade by Muslims in Sealdah. Rumours of violence had been spread about the blockade but turned out to be false later, although that didn’t stop Ghosh. His fiery speech ended with the incineration of the Pakistan flag along with portraits of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Dawood Ibrahim and Huseyn Suhrawardy, the Prime Minister of United Bengal at the time of the Great Calcutta Killings.

1946 Cabinet Mission Plan

Direct Action Day towers over the psyche of Bengal. It came at the end of a long and tortured series of legal negotiations over the Cabinet Mission Plan, a constitutional scheme to transfer British power to a united if federated India. Initially, both the Muslim League and the Congress accepted the plan, even if the Congress’s approval (on June 25, 1946) was predicated on adding a rider to the original plan, which, wrote Indian constitutional law expert HM Seervai, effectively “nullified that acceptance”. The rider was meant to strengthen the Centre – the Congress was concerned at how little power Delhi had under the Cabinet Mission Plan. (Much later, in December 1946, the British Government would strike down the Congress’ rider as incorrect, but by then it would be too late: the Calcutta Killings, followed by riots in East Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had already occurred.)

On July 10, 1946, in his first press conference as the new Congress President, Jawaharlal Nehru scrapped even this conditional acceptance of the plan. Nehru held that the Congress regarded itself “free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan” and it considered itself “completely unfettered by agreement and free to meet all situations as they arose”. Abul Kalam Azad, the only major Congress leader to oppose Partition right till the very end, called this rejection of the plan “one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history”.

This brought to an end any efforts over finding a constitutional settlement with respect to a united India. In response to Nehru’s press conference, Jinnah called a meeting of the Muslim League Working Committee on July 29, 1946, and got the party to pass two resolutions. One withdrew its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan. The second called for a programme of “direct action”. The League would stop cooperating with the government and “bid goodbye to constitutional methods” via a “universal Muslim hartal” on August 16, 1946.

Direct action announced

This was a completely unexpected move. The League had never gone in for direct action (that is, civil disobedience) and its weak organisation was thought to not be up to it. Nehru himself said so, when he wrote to British politican Sir Stafford Cripps as late as January 27, 1946:
“The Muslim League leadership is far too reactionary (they are mostly landlords) and opposed to any social change to dare to indulge in any form of direct action. They are incapable of it, having spent their lives in soft jobs.”

While Jinnah proved Nehru wrong (without knowing it), he had taken a massive risk, knowing well that there was a high chance of matters going out of hand, spiralling into a communal conflagration. Trouble was, in fact, expected in the Punjab, which had a long history of communal conflict. Instead, it erupted in Bengal. Historian Patrick French writes:
“Sitting in his ivory tower dressed in his London suit, he had not realised how the criminal underworld of Calcutta might behave. The Muslim League was too ramshackle an organisation to have any genuine control over its supporters. HS Suhrawardy ran the Bengal League and his organisation had entrusted direct action to Calcutta’s pirs and mullahs, who were told to mobilise the Muslim community at Friday prayers.”

In Bengal, with hopes for a constitutional agreement over united India gone, and some form of partition looking likely, Direct Action Day took the form of a war over who would control Calcutta. While it was the capital of a Muslim-majority province, the city itself was dominated by Hindus, both in terms of population and wealth.

Calcutta Killings

On August 16, to mark Direct Action Day, Bengal Premier Suhrwardy called for a bandh and addressed a massive rally at the Brigade Parade Grounds in Calcutta. Violence began after that, in all probability started by Muslim League volunteers returning from the rally.

It is here that history breaks down. So sharp is the divide now that “Hindu” and “Muslim” history rarely sees common ground. Historian Claude Markovits writes:
“In the period between August 1946 and August 1947, if you were a Hindu, you believed in one narrative that blamed Suhrawardy and the Muslim League entirely, and saw the violent acts by Hindu crowds as simply a matter of self-defense, and you could quote plenty of “witnesses” to support your claim. If you were a Muslim, you tended to adopt a discourse of victimisation and to point to the fact that most of the victims were Muslims, hinting at a dark Hindu plot to wipe out Muslims in Calcutta.”

Total breakdown

In this breakdown, no quarter was given. The violence was horrific and total. Suranjan Das, historian and current Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University, says that while the “earlier riots in Bengal had a class character, this was a totally different kind of violence”. Das writes:
“The other distinguishing feature of the 1946 riot is its organised nature. The Muslim League mobilised its frontal organisations to make the Direct Action Day a success and once the riot started it used the government machinery to help its supporters. Amongst Hindus, the Marwari merchants had purchased as ‘a precautionary measure’ arms and ammunition from American soldiers, which were later used during the riot. Acid bombs were manufactured and stored in Hindu-owned factories before the outbreak. Interestingly, Muslim and Hindu rioting crowds adopted similar strategies in perpetrating violence. The looted booty was carried to waiting lorries for transportation to a central place; shops were carefully marked with signs so that the crowd left untouched the establishments of their coreligionists; both League and Hindu activists used Red Cross badges to evade police detection.”

The complete nature of the riot meant there was almost no common ground, even for secularists. The fact that 75% of the victims were Muslim, was used by a Muslim League legislator, Gholam Sarwar, to attack Hindus totally unconnected to Kolkata, far out in rural Noakhali. Hindu versions, in turn, justified the Calcutta Killings as self-defence and saw, in the Hindu retaliation, a weakening of the Muslim position. On August 21, Vallabhbhai Patel would write to C Rajagoplacharai: “This [The Calcutta Killings] will be a good lesson for the League, because I hear that the proportion of Muslims who have suffered death is much larger.”

Gopal Pantha’s role

It is at the centre of this narrative of self-defence and just retribution that we find Gopal Mukherjee (popularly called Gopal “Pantha”, for the goat meat shop he ran – pantha means “male goat” in Bengali). Joya Chatterji, Professor of South Asian History at the University of Cambridge, explains that Gopal Mukherjee “was a major goonda at the time, who could command a force of around 500 men”. Patronised by Congress politicians (in an interview with Partition researcher Andrew Whitehead, Mukherjee claims close links with the second chief minister of West Bengal, BC Roy) and large businessmen, Gopal Pantha was the counterforce to Suhrawardy’s close links to the Muslim-dominated gangs of north Kolkata during the Great Calcutta Killings.

“Gopal Pantha was a familiar name to an earlier generation of Kolkatans,” said Bidyut Chakrabarty, historian and faculty at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. His exploits as a rioter during 1946 became almost a part of Kolkata folklore and Mukherjee was a well-known name till his death in 2001. The popular legitimacy around his acts was so deep that he himself had no qualms recounting them to Whitehead in 1997. In the interview, he also recalls Gandhi’s visit to Kolkata, as Mountbatten’s “one-man boundary force” in the week leading up to Independence. “I was asked to submit our arms to Gandhiji and get a certificate,” said Mukherjee. He refused. “When the Great Calcutta Killings took place where was Gandhiji? I will not give up the arms with which I defended my neighbourhood.”

After Independence and Partition, he mostly made his living as a syndicate ganglord, with a finger in various pies such as real estate and gambling.

Absent from official memory

Even whilst Mukherjee enjoyed significant public recall at an informal level, there was never any organised remembrance of the 1946 Killings. “On the other hand, it [1946 riots] is conspicuously absent from the official memory of Bengal, particularly on the West Bengal side, but also, in a more surprising way, on the Bangladeshi side,” writes Claude Markovits. Historian Suranjan Das agrees: “Before this, there has never been an explicit commemoration of either the Great Calcutta Killings or of the role of Gopal Mukherjee.”

Joya Chatterji explains the absence of any celebration of the violence of 1946: “Till now there was a consensus that communal violence was wrong. The entire polity was more left than we are today.”

Given this sort of ideological environment, the vicious nature of the 1946 violence and the communally mixed population of Kolkata city, it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. Even as 1946 remained part of the city’s personal memory, there was no organised effort to invoke it as part of its history.

This was part of a concerted effort, especially since the Left assumed power: as a result, Kolkata has seen a marked decrease in communal violence in the past 50 years. The last major incident was in 1964 followed by the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition violence. Compared to cities in north and west India, Kolkata has been peaceful – a remarkable achievement given its violent past.

But why is this changing now?

While the rally on August 16, 2015, was very small by Kolkata’s standards, the fact that it took place at all was a sharp break from the fact that the 1946 Killings had never been publicly feted before this. Bidyut Chakrabarty bought up nationwide trends to explain this. “There is a national momentum in favour of right wing politics,” he said. “Some elements in Bengal are raking up historical memory too, in order to serve a contemporary political purpose. Here Gopal Pantha, whose reputation as a strongman who contained Muslim aggression, is convenient.”

This isn’t the only manifestation of that trend, with a number of flashpoints roiling the communal pot in Bengal ever since the defeat of the Communists in the 2011. Some of this communal politics is “green” like the violence in Canning and Deganga. Incidents like the Tuktuki Mondal “love jihad” case, efforts to stir up rumours of a riot earlier this month and  the Trinamool Congress’ commemoration of SP Mookerjee, the founder of the the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP's previous incarnation, represent the “saffron” side of the coin.

In all of this, a small celebration of the Great Calcutta Killings, with its prominent place in the personal memory of the city, might be a quiet if ominous portent of things to come.