Wartime Calcutta: Walking a Gut-Wrenching Disaster

Tathagata Neogi
May 5, 2018 · 14 min read
The Calcutta Riots, 16 August 1946. Calcutta police disperse a mob of rioters who were attacking a Hindu temple on Circular Road by Peter Farrant. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Having been born in a family with deep roots in Kolkata, I have heard sorrowful recollections of the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, the Japanese bombings of 1943–44, and the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 since my childhood. Living in Metiaburuz near the dockyards in South Kolkata, my father’s family experienced these traumatizing back-to-back disasters first hand. They suffered through acute food shortages during the famine and were lucky to be one of the few families to receive canned-food rations from the US Air Force because my grandfather worked in the dockyards. They crawled under their beds in the ground-floor bedroom during the Japanese bombing between December 1943 and January 1944. They sheltered a few of their Muslim friends and spent anxious hours hiding them while a communal bloodbath raged outside in August 1946, a year before India’s Independence. My late grandmother once told me that the morning after the riot the women and children of our family house were not allowed to look outside the window. She was curious and looked outside, only to encounter a bloody street filled with mangled, half burnt bodies. The air was thick with the smell of burnt flesh and rotting blood.

The victims of the Great Calcutta Killings of August 1946 (Source: Life Magazine)

I tried and failed to connect to the magnitude of these concurrent disasters. The recollections I heard from my relatives were disparate, and over the years had accumulated an Islamophobic tinge. I repeatedly heard, for example, that Metiaburuz was “mini Pakistan” because of the Muslim-majority population of the area and I felt an immediate disconnect from the same family members who, minutes earlier, had been proud that their parents had risked their lives to save their Muslim friends. How can these conflicting emotions coexist? Much later, while studying history in high school and college, the Bengal famine, the Great Calcutta Killings, and the Second World War were mere footnotes and numbers mentioned in passing during discussions of the nationwide Congress-Muslim League politics leading up to Partition and Independence. These disasters that were so ingrained into my family’s memory and the wider collective community memory of Calcutta and Bengal, seemed really distant. This emotional distance was the reason I wanted to research and develop a walking tour about this debilitating, and in many ways defining, period of Calcutta’s recent history. I wanted the magnitude of the tragedy to hit me and those who walk with me, at full force. I also wanted to understand these events from different viewpoints and provide a more nuanced narrative that I had found lacking in the public consciousness. It is difficult to be nuanced about a series of concurrent tragedies of such huge magnitude. Still, I thought I would try my best, and soon it consumed me. Before I talk about my emotions around developing the walk, I want you experience some of the frustrations I felt. Lets jump right in to get a crash course of inexplicable human errors that caused the disaster.

The story of wartime Calcutta is one of a city divided along deep and interconnected fissures. More than three million people died in the Famine of 1943–44 in the entire Bengal province, including Calcutta. At least five thousand (in official estimates) were killed during the communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in August of 1946. A few hundred thousands were displaced and rendered homeless during those same riots. Several hundreds were killed by the Japanese bombings, and many were shot by the British military police while protesting in front of government grain silos for food or striking from industries in and around Calcutta for better pay and larger rations. Calcutta, a British memo recommended, had to be protected at any cost to win the war in Southeast Asia against Japan. The human cost of this was ignored by a racist, divisive, and paranoid British colonial government, whose Imperial pride was at stake as another fast-expanding Empire gobbled up British territory in Southeast Asia.

Calcutta started preparing for war in 1938 through regular air-raid drills as the situation started to go south with Hitler in Europe. When the local community did not take the drill seriously and considered Nazi Germany to be a distant enemy, the local colonial government went as far as painting old Mohawk I’s to resemble a Luftwaffe fighter and flying them over Calcutta and the countryside to drive the fear of war home. Plans were drawn up to form an Air Raid Patrol (ARP) corp involving the local youth. In the villages, a Home Guard corps would soon be introduced to make the countryside war-ready. As war broke out in Europe in September 1939, the colonial authorities tried and failed to garner local support for the British war efforts in Europe through propaganda posters, and later by showing propaganda films in various neighbourhoods in the city and in the countryside. War in Europe was too distant for the local populace to connect with; the Independence movement had also gathered huge momentum, and sympathizing with the cause of the colonizers was clearly not the way to go. The colonial machinery had expected unwavering loyalty from their subjects, but that was not forthcoming.

Loyalty was even more complicated after Japan entered the war in December 1941. After Pearl Harbor fell, Japan moved swiftly to conquer islands in the Pacific and South China Sea. As Japan advanced towards Singapore in January and February of 1942, the British government in India were certain that “Fortress” Singapore would hold the onslaught back, and Calcutta, the principal port and Second City of the British Empire, had nothing to worry about. On 15th February 1942, however, the British surrendered Singapore — and what followed was a massacre of the local population as the British government was busily evacuating their own people. The fall of Rangoon would soon follow in March 1942, bringing a stream of refugees and wounded into Bengal, and ultimately to Calcutta.

A P-36 Curtiss Hawk above Calcutta skies in 1941 (Source: Assisbiz)

I was amazed to read about the complacent British government in Calcutta, which made no effort to make the city defensible. Calcutta only had a handful of British troops, no air defense system, and only eight old Mohawk fighters that had been considered unfit for service in Europe. Their attempts to garner local support was failing, as the stories of British defeat at the hands of Japan brought about fresh hopes for freedom in the city. It was hard to project the Japanese as enemy and the city awaited deliverance, even though gory stories of massacres by Japanese troops in Singapore and Rangoon trickled into the city with the incoming refugees and were magnified through the British propaganda machine. The situation was made even more complex by the news of the successful escape of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose from India, and his regular radio broadcasts from Berlin, and later Tokyo and Singapore, to rally public opinion against British Imperialism. The immediate British response to ensure loyalty among the politically aware and active educated middle class was to use the ARP and Home Guards corps as spies. Calcutta would soon become littered with British spies, with arrests and extra-judicial killings the punishment for showing any support for Bose or his local allies. The ARP and Home Guards were given incentives to work for the government, including a license to be corrupt and oppressive. Censorship and surveillance in all forms started to strengthen its suffocating grasp around Calcutta.

Indian Refugees from Burma wait for a ferry to take them to safety across the Irrawaddy (Source: Life Magazine June 1942)

As I delved deeper into the narratives of the disasters, it become increasingly clear that the initial callousness of the Colonial government in failing to recognize and prepare for the Japanese threat started a domino effect of irreversible tragedies. Despite being one of the most fertile regions of India, Bengal was prone to occasional outbreaks of famine due to devastating cyclones leading to crop destruction, flooding, and the disruption of established communication systems for the movement of resources. But despite long experience with Bengal’s famine situation, the Colonial administration inexplicably failed to come up with a wartime food plan. As Calcutta prepared for the impending war through umpteen air raid drills in 1938, a wartime food-rationing plan was already in place in England, in case of an outbreak of hostilities. The complacency of the British authorities in Bengal, and India in general, meant that no proper food department existed. As the bubble of safety bursted and Japanese forces homed in on Singapore and Rangoon, the British authorities in Calcutta seemed to have finally woken up to the magnitude of the impending disaster. Calcutta, the industrial and economic powerhouse of British India, had to be protected at any cost. With the Japanese army knocking at the doors, Calcutta’s strategic importance increased manifold by providing an advanced base for bombing Japanese positions in Southeast Asia.

But first, Japanese advancement had to be halted, and after a long slumber, the authorities had to think something up quickly. The answer was “Denial:” Japanese forces must be denied every opportunity to make use of local resources that they could use against the British army. In January of 1942, L.G. Pinnell was appointed by Herbert, the Governor of Bengal, to oversee the implementation of the Denial scheme. Pinnell was a Civil Servant with no prior experience in war or food rationing. His highest appointment was as the personal secretary to the Viceroy of India. His appointment by Governor Herbert was a crucial mistake that would have far reaching ramifications in the impending disaster. Since Pearl Harbor, individual rice dealers had already begun to hoard rice, the main staple of Bengal. The inevitable result was skyrocketing prices, making rice inaccessible to the poorer section of the population. Without taking this into account, Pinnell, with full support from Herbert and largely bypassing the elected Bengal legislature, started to implement the Denial scheme by buying (at government rates) what the government determined to be the surplus rice from the countryside and storing them in government silos in Calcutta and other parts of Bengal. As a result, accessible rice rapidly vanished from the market. Whatever rice was available was beyond the affordability of a large number of people. Rice available in the unregulated black market was also beyond reach. Pinnell also ordered the destruction of about 40,000 big and small boats to deny the Japanese the use of ready river transport in case of an invasion. This disrupted the internal communication and supply networks. The final nail in the coffin was the devastating cyclone of 1942, which destroyed the countryside. The fate of Bengal’s rural population and urban poor and working class was sealed.

Famine victims on Calcutta Street in 1943. This evocative photograph was published in The Statesman. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cruelty, corruption, and inefficiency of the Denial scheme was immensely complicated by the actions of the elected members of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. M.K. Kriplani, the Governor-appointed Joint Secretary of Commerce and Labour Department, was asked to work with Pinnell to swiftly execute the Denial measures. Kriplani in turn appointed the prominent rice merchant M.A. Ishpahani’s firm to collect surplus rice from Midnapore, Khulna, and Barishal. This arbitrary appointment exposed the already widening fissure among the major political parties in Bengal legislature, which was already divided along the communal lines. The Bengal government at this time was headed by an elected Chief Minister, Fazlul Haq, an ex-Muslim League member who had formed a new party because of his more liberal views. Although Haq had won the majority in the election of 1941, his party did not secure the absolute majority required to become the Chief Minister. Haq had therefore initially signed up for an uneasy alliance with the Muslim League, which soon fell apart. To keep the Muslim League at bay, Haq, with the support of Governor Herbert, had formed another loose alliance with the Hindu Mahasabha and the Congress. At a time when the price of rice was skyrocketing in the market, and Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and was inching ever closer to Calcutta, the major political parties in the city were distracted with squabbles and measuring their political gains.

The appointment of Ishpahani as a procurer had even more destabilizing effort in the already-chaotic legislature and opened the floodgates for self-centered rivalry. Because Ishpahani was a prominent member of the Muslim League, the other parties in the legislature interpreted his appointment as a pro-Muslim League (and pro-Muslim) move of the British government. All other parties demanded the appointment of their party representatives as procuring agents too, to protect the interests of their party followers in the countryside. Fearing a political impasse, the Governor capitulated and representatives from Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha, and Haq’s Krishan Praja Party were also appointed as procurers. These appointees had no experience in the rice market and made crucial mistakes in judgement that allowed the middlemen who procured on their behalf the freedom to oppress the already impoverished and malnourished farmers and hoard a large amount of the procured stock. Therefore, although enough rice was available, it was either locked up in the Government silos, or sold at an exorbitant price in the black market, beyond the reach of the common man. Initially, the Nipponophobic government’s response was to ignore the gravity of the famine — following the direct command of the Churchill administration. Later, when the magnitude of the tragedy started coming out in the international media, mostly with the arrival of the US troops, some food lines were opened, but the relief measures were never adequate. Of course, ample food seems to have been available for the European and the affluent local population of the city through black markets and the preferential distribution of resources.

African American GI’s at the Jain Temple in north Calcutta during one of the City Tours run regularly for US Army personnel by the American Red Cross (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The gap in access to food widened with the arrival of American forces in Calcutta in mid-1942. By 1942, Japan had already conquered the ports along the South China Sea and blocked all land access routes between inland China and India by capturing Burma and Thailand. The US war effort in the Pacific was on the back foot, and there was urgent need to provide continued training and support to Chiang Kai-shek’s army, which was still holding the Japanese war machine back despite heavy casualties. The US military therefore needed a series of airbases in northern and eastern India to deliver supplies, ammunition, and troops into China by flying “over the hump” (the Himalayas). Calcutta’s position as a first-class British port, and the fact that it was situated well in range for B29 bombing missions into Burma and Thailand, increased its strategic importance manifold. But the arrival of US Army and Air Force units into Calcutta put increased pressure on the city’s already depleted food resources. Apart from feeding the Allied troops in Calcutta, the grain stored in the silos was also used for feeding the troops fighting in Burma and delivering food “over the hump” into inner Manchuria to feed the Chinese army.

Going through page after page of now-declassified US army pamphlets and newspapers and listening to more than 30 hours interviews with the veterans who fought in the China-Burma-India Theatre, it appears that the gravity of the situation was not lost on the US command. It also appears that the US Army in India started a voluntary food donation scheme by saving from their weekly rations of canned food. It was some of these cans that kept my family in Metiaburuz fed during the war. Also, quite intriguingly, it appears that the British Government in Calcutta tried its best to conceal the gravity of the famine from the American troops in the city by regularly transporting the starving urban poor into food-camps in or outside the city, in what was considered to be the “outbound” — forbidden — areas for the US soldiers. On one hand, the presence of the US army was reassuring to the Colonial government; on the other, the government was cautious about keeping them as far as possible from local politics and ensuring that the status quo was maintained. While the American army in Calcutta sneered at the imperial government, it was itself deeply segregated between White and African American soldiers, with differential access to power and resources. The African American troops were kept under constant surveillance so that they could not be “troublemakers.”

I took a very long time to finish the research for this walk. Six months, to be exact. I wanted to understand the fissures and approach the events from all possible sides. But what also slowed me down was the realization of the sheer magnitude of the disaster, and the human cost of it. After going through pages and pages of gut-wrenching descriptions and visual depictions of this largely man-made disaster, I cannot but consider myself fortunate. Fortunate enough to have access to food, shelter, and other basic amenities. As I delved deeper into this, I started losing my appetite, and I became increasingly irritable and occasionally depressed. My training in ethnography had prepared myself to professionally detach my emotions from my interlocutors, but somehow this was different. This was too close to home, and there was nothing to do but embrace it.

During the inaugural War, Famine and Riots Walk on May 1, 2018 (Photo: Anirban Bhattacharya)

When I finally finished the research and was starting to design the walk, I had to try to communicate the same emotions that I had felt during my research, but not at the cost of the nuances in this story. This is one of the most difficult walks I have ever designed. While most of the buildings and spaces associated with the tragedy still exist, I had to connect them with the narrative in such a way that the disaster would come alive. Normally the narratives for most of our walks are relatively jolly, but I wanted to make sure that there was always a curtain of gloom wrapped around this one. This walk deserved a full-scale immersion into the pain and suffering of the time so that we can come out of it feeling thankful for our access to daily meals and safe shelters, and the other amenities of life that we take for granted. I also wanted to drive the point home that we absolutely need to learn from the past human errors that unleashed and sustained this tragedy. We need to know that history is not always about success and opulence: it is also about tragedies and disasters, and we can learn equally from both. To bring about this experience, I use visual aids where the numbers of the displaced and the dead are printed in a large font. I show gory images taken by journalists of the long food queues of the dead and the dying. For the post-war riots that swept through Calcutta in August 1946, I read accounts and show pictures taken by a Life Magazine photographer of mangled, half-burnt corpses surrounded by vultures.

Finally, I end the War, Famine and Riots Walk with a minute of silence for those who died and were displaced during this horrific tragedy. Colonial reparation claims aside, they deserve our apology as human beings, as our errors in judgement failed them, our fellow human beings, back in the 1940s.

The War, Famine and Riots Walk is scheduled once every two months by Heritage Walk Calcutta.

Suggested Reading:

Famine Inquiry Commission, 1945. Report on Bengal. Government Press.

Greenough, P.R., 1982. Prosperity and misery in modern Bengal: The famine of 1943–1944. Oxford University Press, USA.

Mukherjee, J., 2015. Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. Oxford University Press.

Sen, A., 1977. Starvation and exchange entitlements: a general approach and its application to the Great Bengal Famine. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 1(1), pp.33–59.

Sen, A. and Hobsbawm, E.J., 1980. Famine Mortality: a study of the Bengal Famine of 1943. Peasants in History.

For CBI Theatre: http://cbi-theater.com/ & http://www.cbi-history.com/

CBI Veteran’s Archive: https://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-cbi.html

The Calcutta Blog

This is the official blog of Heritage Walk Calcutta, a Kolkata based startup providing academic-led, immersive walking tours and cultural experiences in the city and beyond.

Tathagata Neogi

Written by

I am the Co-Founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, a Kolkata, based startup that brings locals & tourists closer to the history of Calcutta through walking tours.

The Calcutta Blog

This is the official blog of Heritage Walk Calcutta, a Kolkata based startup providing academic-led, immersive walking tours and cultural experiences in the city and beyond.

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