It was part of the chain-reaction, which had begun a year earlier with the terrible riot in Calcutta on August 16, 1946, which had been observed by the Muslim League as the ‘Direct Action Day’.
On the ‘Direct Action Day‘, August 16, 1946, Calcutta witnessed a communal riot for four days. Bands of hooligans armed with sticks, spears, hatchets and even fire-arms roamed the town, robbing and killing at will.
More than 5,000 lives were lost and the number of injured was estimated at 15,000. Bengal was at this time ruled by a Muslim League ministry headed by H.S. Suhrawardy.
It was alleged that he had deliberately prevented the police from acting promptly and impartially.
The communal violence became the strongest argument in the Muslim League’s brief for Pakistan. Its leaders insisted that the choice lay between ‘a divided or a destroyed India’.
The Mountbatten Plan fixed August 15 as the date for the simultaneous transfer of power from Britain to India and the partition of the country.
Two and a half months were obviously too short a period for such a vast and complex undertaking.
Partition brought a torrent of killing, looting, arson and rape such as the world had not seen for centuries.
The spirit of vengeance ran wild. The announcement of the boundry award, two days after the declaration of independence, added momentum and velocity to the tide of carnage.
Several hundred thousand people were killed and innumerable women raped and abducted. Millions were uprooted, transformed into refugees in alien lands. It is impossible to arrive at any accurate estimate of casualties: informed and scholarly guesses vary from 200,000 to 500,000 people. In all probability, some 15 million had to move across hastily constructed frontiers separating India and Pakistan.
Speaking of the killings, rape, arson, and loot that constituted Partition, contemporary observers and scholars have sometimes used the expression ‘holocaust’ as well, primarily meaning destruction or slaughter on a mass scale.
The ‘ethnic cleansing’ that characterized the partition of India was carried out by self-styled representatives of religious communities rather than by state agencies.
The riot and savagery spread to different parts of the country. The manner and method in which it took place is given below with the regional variation and immediate outcome :
1. The Muslim-majority districts of Noakhali in East Bengal were encouraged by fanatical mullahs and ambitious politicians.
The local hooligans burnt the property of Hindus, looted their crops, desecrated their temples, kidnapped Hindu women and made forcible conversions. Thousands of Hindus fled from their homes.
Gandhiji was in Delhi when the news from East Bengal came through. He was particularly hurt by the crime against women. He cancelled all his plans and decided to leave for East Bengal.
He met Hindu and Muslim leaders and requested for their cooperation so as to enable the two communities to resume their peaceful life.
The atmosphere in East Bengal was charged with suspicion, fear, hatred and violence. Gandhi took his residence in Srirampur, one of the worst hit villages.
He embarked on a village-to-village tour. His presence acted as a soothing balm on the countryside. It eased tension and softened the tempers.
2. The Hindu peasantry of Bihar wreaked a terrible vengeance on the Muslim minority in that province for the events in East Bengal.
Early in March Gandhi moved over to Bihar and said that the majority must repent and make amends, the minority must forget and forgive and make a fresh start.
3. In March 1947 news of serious disturbances came from the Punjab. The Muslim League’s ‘direct action’ campaign to dislodge the Unionist Akali-Congress coalition sparked off a conflagration in that province.
The Hindu and Sikh minorities in its western districts went through the same horrors as the Muslim minority in Bihar and the Hindu minority in East Bengal.
Lahore and Amritsar, were caught up in a strange guerilla warfare in which shooting, stabbing and arson went on in the midst of police patrols and curfew orders.
4. ‘Communalization’ of the services, including the police and the military, was a catastrophic decision.
Although there was a ‘neutral body’ of troops, a ‘boundary force’ of 55,000 men to maintain law and order during the period of transition, but they felt utterly helpless, when communal disturbances broke out over a wide area in the Punjab, NWFP and Sin.
The problem of suppressing communal riots suddenly became more difficult than it had ever been before.
5. The next round of rioting started in July-August 1947. It became impossible to halt it. The Hindu and Sikh minorities in West Pakistan, and the Muslim minority in East Punjab became helpless victims of atrocities; they could not depend upon the protection of the local authorities, which came to be infected with communalism.
6. Anti-social elements took full advantage of the new situation; there were orgies of looting, arson and killing.
Millions of terror-stricken Hindus and Sikhs fled eastwards by rail and road to India. Similarly, long convoys of Muslim refugees from East Punjab and Delhi wended their weary way to Pakistan.
Armed bands with lists of houses and shops moved all over the town freely, driving the Muslims out of their houses and killing them.
Turmoil of communalism, with all its variations from individual intrigues to mass madness was witnessed.
The holocaust continued unabated; things seemed to be slipping out of the hand. The situation in Delhi continued to be worse.
The carnage was being justified under the cover of an astounding rumour that the Muslims were hoarding arms. In Delhi the situation showed some improvement as the army called from the south did its job conscientiously.
7. In Bengal a tragedy similar to that of the Punjab was avoided by Gandhi’s presence and his historic fast in September 1947 which was universally acclaimed as one of the greatest miracles of modern times;
8. As a consequence of partition the Muslim community in the subcontinent was split into two states in 1947 and into three states after 1971.
9. Gandhi’s martyrdom did slow down the pace and velocity of murderous activities of the fascist elements but not before much damage has been done.
The partition did not solve the communal problem; it only internationalized it. What had been a political debate between rival communities and political parties became an issue between two ‘Sovereign States’, which after three wars since 1947 are still debating the possibilities of peaceful coexistence.