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THE SITUATION MUST BE MET - Jinnah?s Direct Action Day and its legacy

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  • Published 19.06.05

We returned to Calcutta on Direct Action Day, August 16, 1946. As a child of nine, I had little grasp of politics, but I remember the mounting nervousness, so different from the tranquillity of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram we had left behind, as the Madras Mail steamed towards Howrah. Gory reports were brought to us at each halt. Blood was flowing like water. Shops were looted, houses fired. No one was safe. The woman with whom we shared our compartment exploded in hysterics. She lived in an Old Ballygunge rajbari, with bustees nearby. Her aged mother and young daughter must have met, she wept, a fate worse than death.

Howrah station was eerily silent. There were no coolies. Nor the usual cacophony. My mother, sister and I sat on the deserted platform while my father went away. He was gone a long time but returned eventually with a Major Kulkarni in uniform ? I was much taken by the jungle of hair in his ears ? and some men in tow. They hoisted our luggage and we set out avoiding the station concourse and main entrance, down the railway tracks, past sidings and gates, to a block of flats called Colvin Court. It was an exciting journey with an element of risk, of hide and seek, from the crowds we could not see but the muffled roar of whose ?Al- lah ho Akbar!? reached us every so often.

We spent three days at Colvin Court, guests of a Mr Lal, also a railway officer. The bazaars were closed, the servants had decamped and food was scarce. Rice and sabji for lunch, chapattis and sabji for dinner. The broad balcony permitted a distant view of trucks laden with raucously shouting men, trucks laden with mounds covered in sheets, fluttering flags, brandished swords, and ?Allah ho Akbar!? Occasionally, there were jubilant chants of ?Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai!? Then, again, the ominous ?Allah ho akbar!?

My father was away a lot and my mother took out her anxiety on me. I sat still to avoid being reprimanded for playfulness while my father was in danger somewhere in the turbulent city. Later, much later, I learnt that he had walked the stricken streets to ensure that the family had come to no harm. Mandeville Gardens was a safe locality, but there were aunts in Ganesh Chandra Avenue and Mirzapur Street, my uncle in Entally and grandmother and her sister in Auckland Place. It was the tension of waiting, of not knowing, that got to my mother and, through her, to me.

We left on the third day in a car with armed guards provided by the mysterious Major Kulkarni. It was a nightmare drive through empty streets, smoke-blackened houses, and the stench of death. A handcart piled with stinking animal carcasses trundled along Beck Bagan. A man in a fresh white dhoti lay on Syed Ameer Ali Avenue, the open attach? case beside him spilling out papers. The only movement was of vultures too gorged to do more than flap their wings.

Doha, Suhrawardy, Jinnah...the names recurred again and again in the overheard conversation of grown-ups. I did not know who they were but I knew that they were behind the carnage. In childish foolishness, I imagined them interspersing ?Allah ho Akbar!? with a popular lyric of the times, ?Kan me biri, mu me pan, lar ke leyga Pakistan.? There was a sequel, ?Kan me biri, mu me pan, lar ke liya Pakistan, Kan me biri, mu me pan, hus ke leyga Hindustan.?

Jinnah?s name resonated in my infant ears for another reason ? his austere sister, Fatima, her head draped in an urni, voluminous gharara flowing down thin shanks. Apparently, Miss Jinnah wore saris like everybody else until the light on the road to Damascus revealed to her that no good Muslim woman ever flaunted such Hindu attire. My family had a reason for reacting strongly to her diktat when an aunt married an East Punjab Muslim and went to live in Karachi. We wondered how Miss Jinnah would make her dress in her new incarnation.

I read recently that tired of Miss Jinnah?s harangues about civil war if Pakistan was not conceded, Lady Mountbatten once remarked that she was delighted to find that the Hindu students of one class in Lady Irwin College had elected one of the two Muslim girls to be Head Girl. ?Don?t be misled by the apparent contentment of the Muslim girls there,? Miss Jinnah warned. ?We haven?t been able to start our propaganda in that college yet!? That was three months before Partition, nine after Direct Action Day.

Jinnah established the nexus on July 29, 1946, when his Muslim League resolved that ?the time has come for the Muslim nation to resort to Direct Action to achieve Pakistan, to assert their just rights, to vindicate their honour and to get rid of the present British slavery and the contemplated future Caste-Hindu domination.? Did anyone realize then how brutally direct action would press for Pakistan? A Muslim League functionary?s expectation of a ?universal Muslim hartal? suggested ?possibilities of working up mass hysteria? to a viceregal official. Wavell innocently believed that Jinnah had ?no real idea what to do.?

When a Daily Telegraph correspondent sought clarification of ?direct action?, Jinnah replied, ?There would be a mass illegal movement.? Later, the lawyer in him had second thoughts and he changed ?illegal? to ?unconstitutional?. Nirad C. Chaudhuri thought it was only ?intended to be a day of demonstrations, protest marches, and meetings all over India? which Suhrawardy, Bengal?s chief minister, turned into the Great Calcutta Killing. If so, he and Doha, Calcutta?s deputy police commissioner, went beyond the intentions of the man Chaudhuri called undivided India?s most successful politician, the equal of Weizmann, Israel?s creator.

But as Israelis boast, Zionism triumphed not because of conferenceroom skills but because Jews fought for victory. The Irgun and Stern Gang attacked Palestinians and Palestine?s British rulers, their legacy of murder and arson forgotten when Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, respective leaders of the two terrorist organizations, became prime ministers. History exonerates politicians who become acclaimed national rulers.

Thus, it is overlooked now that Maulana Hasrat Mohani declared to wild cheering at the Muslim League meeting that Jinnah had but to give the word for Muslims to ?rise in revolt at a moment?s notice?. Ghaznafar Ali said the same in more restrained language. Jinnah?s ?If there is not sufficient power, create that power? anticipated Mao Zedong. Congress and viceregal power lay in pistols, machine guns, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. ?The situation must be met,? he thundered, ?We also have a pistol.?

Jinnah cannot have disapproved of Suhrawardy?s decision to declare a three-day holiday and assure the mob ?that he had made all arrangements with the police and military not to interfere with them?. A British officer wrote, ?Calcutta was the battlefield. The battle was mob rule versus civilisation and decency.? The city has never recovered from that bruising. Jinnah?s bloody pressure tactics were repeated in Noakhali.

As for his early secular protestations, Jinnah worked for Dadabhoy Naoroji, an anglicized Parsee, not a Hindu. Also, men change with circumstances. Tagore was once honoured to be knighted, Gandhi to receive the Kaiser-i-Hind medal. One last dichotomy. Lady Mountbatten also tells us that in one breath Miss Jinnah vowed that ?Muslims would fight for separation and their rights if these were not agreed? and in the next lauded her brother?s unflinching support for the Non-Violence Declaration. Could the Quaid-e-Azam not have been at least as duplicitous?

The question is of academic interest, except to a politician eager only to gratify his immediate listeners, the prostitute?s trade according to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief. Jinnah?s Direct Action Day worked its evil; its legacy still haunts us. What happened, I have often wondered, to that zamindarni matron in our compartment.