Posts Tagged ‘Calcutta’

I had always thought that the most gruesome images ever captured by the lens of a camera were those depicting the plight of Jews and other prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps, copies of which abound in books, blogs and other literature related to the Holocaust. Whenever I have looked at these images, like most others I have cringed with horror and disgust, but always with a sense of assurance deep within that such abominable things had happened far away from home, and nothing comparable had ever taken place here in India. This misplaced sense of complacency was broken when I came across this collection of photographs. They were taken by the famous American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine during what is now known as the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 – a romantic name given to what was essentially a Hindu-Muslim riot of unprecedented scale that followed the call for ‘Direct Action’ by the Muslim League on the 16th of August, 1946. Incidentally, the last Independence Day was also the 65th anniversary of these riots.

One might say that my surprise at these pictures is unwarranted and betrays my ignorance of India’s communal past, since such riots have been common in India, the worst of them having occurred during the Partition of 1947. To such a charge my only defence is that while being reasonably aware of India’s communal history (including the events captured in Bourke-White’s pictures), I had failed to grasp the sheer savagery of these killings which took place not in a distant place but so close to where I have grown up – in the very heart of my home state, until I chanced upon these photographs. That Bengalis, the stereotypically peaceful and most complacent of people, could be swept up in a mass frenzy to the extent that they could delude themselves into committing a bloodbath of such horrifying proportions as revealed by these pictures was something I had not realized before. Some of the photographs are really graphic and makes one wonder how the photographer could stand steady in the midst of such ghastly scenes and capture them on camera. Bourke-White’s courage seems to be otherworldly to me, and she deserves respect for committing those scenes to posterity.

Sir Francis Tuker, the then Chief of the Eastern Command of the British Indian Army, described the riots in these words: “It was unbridled savagery with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn. The underworld of Calcutta was taking charge of the city.” (Tuker’s vivid account of the events of 16th to 20th August can be found here.) If Bourke-White’s photographs seem gut-wrenching, then Tuker’s words are not to be left behind in their description of bestiality and read like something out of a Leon Uris holocaust novel. Narrating a scene in Bag-Bazaar Street – a very busy thoroughfare known for its famous rasgullas –   he writes: “On closer inspection of the bodies in this area we found that many were horribly mutilated and in one particular place a man had been tied by his ankles to a tramway electric junction box, his hands were bound behind his back and a hole had been made in his forehead so that he bled to death through the brain. He was such a ghastly sight that it was a wonder that the soldiers who were ordered to cut him down and cover him with a nearby sack, were not ill on the spot.”

A passer-by walking down Bag-Bazar Street in the present day is likely to be unaware of the dark history of the place, but many of the old buildings that line the street have stood standing there while the bloodbath had unfolded in front of them. But since they cannot tell their story, the passer-by shall never know. In fact, there is no monument in the whole of Calcutta that will remind him of the thousands who died on the streets in the summer of 1946. After all, it is only natural for a nation which has long suffered at the hands of foreign rulers to build, upon gaining freedom, monuments only to those who have died at the hands of foreign enemies and not those who are butchered by their own friends and neighbours. The new powers that be ensure that a vain and largely artificial sense of nationalism is made to cover up for the shame of a deep-rooted internal disunity, and generations of school children grow up with profound indignation over the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre and, at the same time, complete ignorance of something as ignominious as the Great Calcutta Killing. Through concerted efforts, public consciousness is filled with hatred for the enemy without, while the greater enemy that lurks within is conveniently forgotten. As a consequence of this collective hushing-up and shying-away from realities, the nation fails to develop the maturity to deal with deeper social problems. The policies, institutions and efforts that are necessary to mend broken bridges between communities are never put in place. People live their lives under the delusion that they are citizens of one great nation that brings together diverse communities, when the reality is that there are even today as many nations in India as there are communities.  The “Indian Union” is actually a union of illusions.

How else do we explain the ease with which, four and a half decades after independence, a minor political outfit running short of ideas for nation-building can turn to the business of nation-breaking over a hypothetical temple, and in so doing not only rekindle that old blood-lust, but also gain national acceptance through that exercise? (I refer obviously to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise to prominence with the Ayodhya Ram Temple affair, a shameful episode in independent India’s communal history.) What is even more unfortunate is that the very people who masterminded these events are today nurturing ambitions for prime-ministerial office. Mr Advani, the veteran of Ayodhya, is once again embarking on another of his national rabble-rousing missions, and Narendra Modi is on a self-righteous fast claiming to be a messiah of communal harmony. Our collective memory is so short-lived that their ambitions might just bear fruit, and then there shall be very little we can do to prevent history from repeating itself.

Be that as it may, the intent of writing this article was not to dwell on the murky political situation of the day and I have digressed from the main theme. I have recounted a historical event; but unless it has some connection to the present and to the future, documenting history is a meaningless exercise. Its only value lies in being able to record the causal relationships between human actions and their consequences so that every generation can decide for itself which actions to repeat and which to avoid. Edward Gibbon described history as “little more than the register of crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs represent a typical and fairly recent page from that register. In fact, as our experience shows, the context has not changed much from 1946 to 1992 to 2002, and even in the present day, the causal relationship between unbridled demagoguery and human suffering is being repeatedly evidenced not just in India, but the world over. The ‘register of follies’ is being written in every day and each page tries to remind us how easy it can be for ordinary men and women to forget eons of civilization behind them and, under the slightest provocation, become beasts for a day.

If after repeated reminders we do not learn, then there is very little to be said of human intelligence and lesser still about the future of the intelligent race.


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How does someone of my generation or age judge a public figure like Jyoti Basu? I grew up in a Bengal that was dominated by the later half of his ‘reign’ (1987-2000), by which time the early fruits of the communist movement in the state, like land reforms, Panchayati Raj and social uplifting of farmers in the villages had already begun to ring hollow, particularly in the urban areas, where a comprehensive apathy towards industry and neglect of urban development had caused a certain degree of disillusionment with the Communist Party (CPI-M) amongst the educated classes. This was at least so in my hometown of Durgapur, a city founded by a visionary Congressman and a predecessor of Basu, and which saw many of its fine industries being wasted by unhealthy trade-unionism. As a school student, I recall how strikes were a fairly common affair (which is so even today), and which meant that our parents, or those who were employed in the Steel Plant, would have to be in their offices by the midnight preceding the day of bandh, lest they be denied entry by the striking workers. On every such occasion, one could hear the adults cursing either Jyoti Basu or his party, the CPI(M), for its hijacking of industrial development in the state.

Most of these curses were arguably well deserved. At the time, however, I did not understand much, and would wonder why such a seemingly charming and innocent person should be at the receiving end. But later, and now, I have witnessed at first hand some of the scourges of the Jyoti Basu era. Universities continue to be deeply infested with party sympathizers, if not members, the culture of bandhs has transcended party lines and become an accepted means of protest, and the once great city of Calcutta is now a massive and putrefying urban slum. I can also vouch for cadre hooliganism from experience. Notwithstanding all this, Jyoti Basu remained defiantly popular, and emerged victorious election after election, his strength being the unshakeable rural vote-bank. It was only after he relinquished office in 2000 that the fortunes of the CPI(M) began to decline, and the final chapters in this story remain to be written.

There have been many effusive comments and fond recollections on TV by political rivals about Jyoti Basu, now that he has passed away. But to judge objectively, and not charitably, one must take into account a host of issues and weigh them on a fine balance. Each and every action and inaction of his must be evaluated against its consequences, and in this evaluation, the skewed development of one sector at the cost of gross neglect of another must earn heavy penalties. In which direction the scales will ultimately tip is something that I can not decide, if only for want of knowledge or objectivity. Let wiser minds than I decide, or let it be left to history.

What can be said without loss of objectivity, however, is that Mr Basu was the undisputed representative of a certain age and a certain ideology in 20th century India. He was one of the last remaining products of the independence movement, and belonged to that age in Indian politics where achievement came through sacrifice and not by birth, and the only agenda necessary or permissible to become a politician was a vision for a greater India. That age is regrettably in the past, and this is the age of dynasties and parivaars, and the narrower your political agenda, the better your chances of winning a seat. The ideology was Communism and Marxism. Basu was one of the very few leaders in the world who got to implement it through a democratic process and in a parliamentary system. While you could easily say what Jyoti Basu stood for, it is very difficult to decide the leanings of many of our present-day politicians. The relevance of his philosophy in the current day is the matter of a different debate, but at any rate, it was a philosophy which attracted the most passionate of adherents in Bengal once upon a time, most of them young and educated people. Together with its many offshoots, some of them rather extreme, Communism brought youngsters and college-goers into politics, though some say at the cost of politicizing them at too young an age.

Today very few youngsters, if any, are mourning his death. The newly enfranchised among them might even have been responsible for his party’s routing in the latest elections. I went out for a movie today, only to find the cinema closed. But I also found many others like me outside the theatre equally dismayed at the closure, and some were thinking of checking out the nearest multiplex. Perhaps the owner of the cinema is a genuine old-timer, or perhaps he is foregoing his day’s profits out of ‘deference’ to the local CPI(M) boss. One can not tell, and it is just as well not to linger any further on Jyoti Basu’s legacy. As a Communist, he would not approve of the ‘cult of the individual’ himself. But if I have to retain a single image of the man who bestrode Bengal politics and Indian communism like a Colossus for decades, it would be one taken from the BBC’s online obituary:

“As a young student of a Catholic school during the British colonial days, Mr Basu led his friends on a daytime raid of the posh, whites-only Calcutta Club. Fully-clothed, they splashed merrily in the swimming pool until they were fished out and arrested.”

I would choose this for it represents what Basu started off with and was capable of, and not what he failed to accomplish nevertheless.

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