Calcutta’s Muslims after Partition

Becoming a minority community

Anwesha Sengupta

Mon Feb 14, 2022

The Selimpur (Dhakuria, Kolkata) Mosque. Photo Courtesy: Know Your Neighbour

Calcutta: A Muslim City

Before the Partition of British India (1947), Calcutta (Kolkata) was as much of a Muslim city as it was a Hindu one. Muslims who came to this city belonged to diverse classes, various sects and spoke in different tongues. Bengali-speaking Muslims came to Calcutta from neighbouring rural districts and they found work in the service sector. Being the prime centre of education, Calcutta also attracted young men from elite Bengali Muslim families. Since the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslims also came from more distant lands: with the Nawab of Awadh and the ruling house of Mysore came big entourages of court nobles, service men, and intellectuals dependent on royal patronage; traders came from Kathiawar, Delhi, Lucknow, western India and Persia. The court language of the early colonial era being Persian, there were demands in the government services for upcountry Muslims for their language skills. Certain urban professions of colonial Calcutta were entirely dominated by the Muslims: the khansama, darji and kasai being cases in point. Their presence was also significant among the artisans, petty traders, and masons. Similarly, the city housed a world of Muslim intellectuals, journalists, white-collar professionals, and prominent politicians. The highly heterogeneous community of the Muslims was, by late colonial times, integral to the city life. Consequently, Calcutta in the first few decades of twentieth century emerged as the nerve centre of Muslim politics, activism, education and cultural activities.

When partition of British India became a settled decision, the Bengal Provincial Muslim League made a very strong bid for Calcutta in front of the Bengal Boundary Commission chaired by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. They pointed out that the Calcutta port was manned by the Laskars and much of Calcutta’s glory was because of the flourishing jute trade. The Laskars were primarily Muslim sailors from Sylhet and eastern Bengal was the major centre for jute production. In other words, Calcutta glittered because of eastern Bengal. Therefore, Pakistan and not India had the stronger claim to the city. Though Muslims were numerically a minority in Calcutta, complex demographic arguments were also put forward by the League in support of their demand for Calcutta. Among other reasons, it was argued that since the major portion of the Bengal Presidency would become East Pakistan, it was only fair that they got the greatest city of Bengal. If it was impossible to include Calcutta in East Pakistan, the alternative was ― according to the Muslim League ― to declare it as a ‘common’ or shared city, belonging to both East and West Bengal, to Pakistan and India.

Such proposals were vehemently opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress. Mahasabha leader N.C. Chatterjee described the League’s claim to Calcutta as bizarre and redundant. Calcutta residents were predominantly non-Muslim who owned most of the residential buildings, paid the bulk of municipal a+nd other taxes, and owned and operated the major industries and educational institutions of the city ― all these points were raised by Chatterjee in refuting League’s claim.

Interestingly, few days before partition, a section within the Muslim League led by Khwaja Nazimuddin moved away from their demand for Calcutta. Moreover, they actively started mobilising others in the Party to give up the claim for Calcutta. Abul Mansur Ahmed, a journalist at Ittehad at this time who wanted Calcutta to be included in Pakistan, vividly described those days in his memoir:

Many leaders belonging to Nazimuddin-group used to come to the Ittehad office and tried to convince me against the keep Calcutta movement. They told me that if we did not claim Calcutta, East Pakistan would get Rs. 33 crore as compensation. With that amount of money Dacca could easily become New York.

The promise of 33 crores of rupees was alluring enough to tame the demand for Calcutta. Gradually, pro-League papers like Azad and Morning News became less insistent about the prospect of possessing or sharing Calcutta. the Boundary Commission also thought that Calcutta should be included in West Bengal and thus, with partition, Calcutta became an Indian city, turning the city’s Muslims into a rather vulnerable religious minority, against the backdrop of the communal violence that erupted time and again.

Riots in the City

On August 15, 1947 Calcutta was peaceful and jubilant, to an extent that it seemed almost unreal. The special correspondent of the Guardian, reporting from Calcutta, wrote:

Hindus and Moslems, freely mixing with each other, are in Calcutta tonight wildly celebrating the approach of independence. The former scenes of communal battles are now happy meeting places for crowds of both communities who are shouting and dancing in the streets. No incident has been reported until a late hour tonight.

The cordial atmosphere, however, proved to be very short-lived. Within a couple of weeks the city was again in flames. Prof. Anisuzzaman, a child then, was in Calcutta at that time. He remembered:

[The riot] continued for three-four days. Gandhi sat for a fast as long as the violence continued. Suhrawardy toured the riot affected areas of the city. Some of the leaders of the ruling party and of the opposition tried their best to stop the carnage.

People were panicky. Little Anisuzzaman, down with high fever, had nightmares about being attacked by the Sikhs: ‘I used to see that the Sikhs were coming along the Bright Street to kill us. I shouted: “The Sikhs are coming, the Sikhs are coming.” His father decided to leave Calcutta and India for East Pakistan after this riot.

The city remained a site of intermittent violence against the Muslims for years to come. A general feeling of anxiety was punctuated with moments of intense conflict. Calcutta witnessed brutal communal riots again in the early months of 1950. From late 1949, communal trouble in East Pakistan was making headlines in the city newspapers. There was a notable increase in the number of refugees coming to West Bengal and Assam. They brought with them horrid accounts of Muslim violence ― accounts that were made by weaving together rumours and realities. It agitated the Indian Hindus. The situation worsened in both East and West Bengal towards early February. Following a chilling retributive understanding of justice, right wing organisations and their sympathisers in the city systematically started targeting Calcutta Muslims. On February 6, Sheikh Muhammad Rafiq, a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, informed the House that Muslims were facing trouble in areas like Kankurgachhi, Beliaghata, Mirzapur and Bagmari. On February 7, 1950, Husan Ara Begum, a member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly made another desperate appeal:

At the present moment, the Muslims of Calcutta are living under a pressure, I should say, of fear, specially at Maniktalla and Narkeldanga which I have visited personally. … even last night they were harassed. Many of the Muslims of Paikpara have left their hearths and homes … I am appealing to the honourable chief minister to protect the life and properties of those citizens who are looking up to him for help.

Despite such appeals, a full-fledged riot broke out in Calcutta on the very next day. Violence first erupted in the Maniktala (north Calcutta) area. Soon it spread across places that were within the jurisdictions of Beliaghata, Amherst Street, Entally and Tangra police stations. There were numerous instances of stabbing, loot, and arson that systematically targeted Muslims. Inflammatory leaflets and handbills were distributed, posters demanding ‘blood for blood’ were put up in certain parts of the city. The police proved to be ineffective on numerous occasions. The provocative speeches made by Mahasabha leaders like N.C. Chatterjee worsened the situation. They demanded an immediate exchange of population: that is, an exchange of the Muslim population of West Bengal with the Hindus of East Bengal. The demand implied that there was no space for Muslims in Calcutta or in West Bengal, irrespective of whether they wanted to stay here or to go to East Bengal. Such provocations along with the massive influx of Hindu refugees from East Bengal further marginalised Muslims within the city. A large section of refugees coming from East Bengal squatted on abandoned Muslim properties. At times they forcibly occupied, with the help of the Mahasabha and other right wing parties/organisations, the mosques, graveyards, other wakf properties and houses where Muslim families lived ― thus displacing the minorities. Lalbagan Seva Samiti, a voluntary organisation situated in Raja Dinendra Street, Calcutta, for instance, claimed to have rehabilitated about 650 refugee families in 229 houses that were apparently lying vacant in the Lalbagan area. Apart from these 229 houses, there were numerous ‘burnt houses’ which, too, they allotted to refugee families. The Samiti was assisted by the North Calcutta District Committee of the Congress Party. The Lalbagan area incorporated Maniktala, Amherst Street and Beadon Street – i.e., areas that were the worst affected by the riot of 1950. It is obvious that the vacant and torched houses had Muslim occupants before February 1950.

After the February Riots of 1950, Calcutta remained relatively peaceful for around fourteen years. In 1964, however, the city once again became a site of communal violence. According to a BBC Report (January 13, 1964), more than 70,000 Calcutta Muslims fled their homes during these riots, more than a hundred of them were killed, factories were set on fire and there were widespread looting of Muslim properties. Since then the city has not witnessed any communal violence of that scale. But Calcutta remained volatile and the Muslims were targets of subtle everyday communalism and majoritarian aggression of different forms.

Beyond Riots

Since partition many of the Islamic institutions and symbols were systematically erased from the city landscape. Take the case of the Islamia College. Situated in central Calcutta, it was founded in 1926 by Governor Lord Lytton. This was a premier institution that promoted Islamic education as well as a more ‘general’ education to Muslim pupils. With Independence, the gates of the college were opened to all students irrespective of their religion. Moreover, the name of the college was changed from Islamia College to Central Calcutta College. The new name indicated its geographic location but attempted to erase a certain past associated with the institution. Partition severely affected the fate of the Calcutta Madrassah, another major institution for Islamic learning. Built in 1781, this institution bore the brunt of Partition. All its moveable properties, including books and manuscripts in the Madrassah Library, were shifted to Dhaka. The Bengal Madrassah Education Board also shifted to Dhaka, leaving behind a number of high madrassahs and the Hooghly Islamic Intermediate College, without any central organisation for their control and coordination. Apart from two professors, the entire faculty of the Madrassah opted for service under the East Bengal government. The institute survived, but became a shadow of its past. I went to the Calcutta Madrassah in February 2012 and the librarian showed me a catalogue of the books that were available in the library back in 1927. He lamented that not a single book mentioned in the catalogue was now there in the library. ‘Pakistan took it all. They forgot that Islam does not allow its followers to collect booty after any war’, said the librarian. For him, Partition was a war that the League won with the creation of Pakistan. ‘People who ruled Pakistan never thought of us, who stayed on in India’, said the librarian. He continued: Who knows whether the books reached the Dhaka Madrassah or not. We have heard that they carried the books and the manuscripts on open trucks. It was the rainy season. Many books were probably destroyed due to the rain, people say so.”

Since the Calcutta Killings of 1946, Muslims’ access to their religio-social spaces decreased rapidly. Every communal clash resulted in the desecration or forced occupation of mosques, graveyards, and waqf properties. The squatter colonies that developed on the southern fringes of the city ― Behala, Tollygunj, Kasba, Garia, Santoshpur ― often appropriated waqf lands. Hindu refugees, coming from East Pakistan because of majoritarian violence or for fear of it, saw Calcutta Muslims as ‘soft targets’ and often selected their properties for squatting. Writing in 1964, Nirmal Kumar Bose noted that many of the Calcutta mosques were then in a ‘moribund condition’ and some of them were used by the refugees for residential purposes.

Historian Joya Chatterji’s work has shown how Muslim residents of Selimpur (Dhakuria, Calcutta) gradually lost their rights over a local graveyard. Similarly, part of a burial ground at Park Circus became a football ground over the years; a tannery was set up by the refugees coming from East Pakistan in parts of the burial ground after the riot of 1964. In another portion of the same burial ground football was played regularly. Thus, as Chatterji noted, “boundaries of sacred and ritual space … were redrawn [in Calcutta] in the aftermath of partition.”

Leaving Home

For many of the city Muslims, staying put in Calcutta was no longer an option. Migration started early as some elite Muslims started moving out of Calcutta immediately after Partition. The ‘Great Calcutta Killing’, the Noakhali and the Bihar riots (all in 1946) along with the ongoing communal carnage in Punjab and Delhi, had made them jittery about staying back in West Bengal as a minority. So, when Calcutta became a part of India, they chose to leave immediately. For many others, it was the 1950 Riot that worked as the ultimate push factor. Staying on was no longer a safe option and they had to migrate. Also, as a consequence of Partition, Dhaka became the major centre of Muslim politics of East Bengal, and Calcutta, like the rest of India, had a Congress government. Many of the prominent Muslim leaders therefore left Calcutta for Dhaka to start their political career in Pakistan afresh. Moreover, Dhaka, as the new capital of East Pakistan, had significant employment opportunities. So it drew in the bulk of the elite urban Muslim migrants. Also, accustomed to life in Calcutta as they were, going somewhere else apart from Dhaka was almost unthinkable for this urban elite group.

But, compared to Calcutta – one of the most magnificent cities of the British Empire, Dhaka was no more than a muffasil town. Naturally, leaving Calcutta was a crushing experience for many. In their autobiographies and memoirs, many erstwhile Muslim residents of Calcutta remembered the despair and loss they had felt in their early days in East Pakistan. Many also recalled the apprehension among their family members about settling down in Dhaka. Anisuzzaman remembered the discussion that his father had with his brothers-in-law before leaving Calcutta. He repeatedly asked them about Dhaka: ‘How is this city? Do people get bread and butter there? Is there electricity, tap water? How do people commute from one place to another? Are there trams and buses like Calcutta?’His longing for Calcutta was so acute that he ultimately did not go to Dhaka. He settled down in Khulna instead. Khulna Town was much nearer the border than Dhaka and hence was closer to Calcutta. The proximity to Calcutta gave him some solace: if Pakistan should ever become a part of India again, he could at least easily come back to his beloved city.

Mijanur Rehman, who later became a noted author and cartoonist of Bangladesh, left Calcutta in 1948. He was then a teenager. Leaving Calcutta for Dhaka was a demoralising experience. As he confessed in his memoir:

I was very depressed when we came to Dhaka from Calcutta. Dhaka could not claim to be a big city … it was not even that big in size … The Dhakuria lake, the Alipur Zoo, theatre halls like Minerva, Srirangam, Star or Natyabharati, cinema halls like Metro, Light House, Globe, New Empire, Elite …. Dhaka had no equivalents. Let me not speak about the College Street book market and the Maidan! Why Dhaka, there were perhaps no such places in the whole world!

Those who left the city in these years were not necessarily residents of Calcutta by birth. Some of them were originally from areas that were now parts of East Pakistan. But they had grown up in Calcutta, studied in its colleges and universities, and had then started their careers in the city. Their social lives were intrinsically linked to the city. For them to leave the city was as tragic as becoming refugees. As Abul Kashem, the noted painter of Bangladesh wrote in his memoir:

I was born in East Bengal. But I spent the early years of my youth in Calcutta ― the great city of the British Empire. I often think of those days. When I think of Calcutta I still get overwhelmed. It is like watching a huge flock of birds, flying in the sky. They compel you to observe them, as long as possible.

To Kashem, the flock of flying birds ― the motif for freedom ― symbolised his days in Calcutta. The city had meant freedom and liberty to him. Born and brought up in a conservative family where painting was taboo, not surprisingly, Calcutta gave the young painter the much needed space to breathe in. The riot of 1950 forced him to leave the city ― but the city remained his icon of freedom.

The experience of the city’s poor Muslims was significantly different. While the riots displaced them, they seldom left the country as they often lacked the necessary means for border crossing. They searched for security in areas within the city or in the suburbs where their coreligionists had some numerical strength. Therefore, the scholars of post-Partition Calcutta have identified ghettoising tendencies among Muslim residents. While certain localities like Park Circus, Tiljala, Rajabazar, Metiaburz and Khidderpore witnessed influx of Muslims from various parts of the city and became increasingly congested, the rest of Calcutta became a predominantly Hindu space. Poorer Muslims of Calcutta, depending on their networks and skills, also often migrated to the “Muslim pockets” of various districts of West Bengal.

Conclusion

In this short essay I have described how with Partition of British India, Calcutta became a hostile space for its Muslim residents. Riots, everyday violence and other forms of majoritarian violence turned them into a vulnerable minority group. The Muslims reacted to this process of minoritisation in diverse ways. While many among the elite, educated Muslims shifted their base to East Pakistan, their poorer counterparts moved to ‘Muslim pockets’ within the city or in the districts of West Bengal. Thus, partition initiated a ghettoisation process in the city and in the state in general. The communal aggression and the reactions to it changed Calcutta irreversibly. From being a cosmopolitan city, Calcutta became an overwhelmingly Hindu city as a consequence of Partition

Anwesha Sengupta is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata.

(This is a shorter version of an article with the same title, published in Tanika Sarkar, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (Eds) Calcutta: The Stormy Decades (New Delhi, 2015). For references please see the original article.)

source https://www.thedailystar.net/views/in-focus/news/calcuttas-muslims-after-partition-2961151

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