Posts Tagged ‘history’

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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