|Riots: Partition, 1947|
The distinguished Bengali poet Samarendra Sengupta was born in Dhaka in 1935 and lived the first 16 years of his life there before moving to Calcutta in 1951. He remembers the frequent sectarian violence in Bengal, especially the horrors of the Partition riots, where about one million were killed as Pakistan and East Pakistan were carved out of India
We lived in a sprawling bungalow in Purana Paltan, Dhaka. The rose garden in our house was famous for the 80 kinds of roses that my father nurtured. He was the registrar of Dhaka University and I had two brothers and four sisters. My mother was educated at home by an English lady tutor. We had quite a few eminent neighbours, like Kaji Abdul Odud, Jasimuddin, Mohitlal Majumdar and Ramesh Chandra Mazumdar. Most of the people who lived in our neighbourhood were Hindus and were teachers or staff of Dhaka University. But Purana Paltan was not far from Fakirapol, a Muslim neighbourhood, and the house of the Nawab of Dhaka was within a mile of our house. My best friend was Anisur Rahman and we spent days in each other’s houses. His mother loved me no less than her own son. Besides, people like Kaji Abdul Odud were family friends.
But riots were a regular feature in Dhaka. There would be one or two riots every year around the time of Id, Durga Puja or Janmashtami. Sometimes, the disturbances lasted for four to six weeks. These phases were really opportunities to settle scores in business by people with vested interests, in which a few innocents lost their lives. People would anticipate riots around the time of the festivals and stock up on rations to last a month. Many Hindus kept guns at home. I want to stress two aspects of these riots — first, they were never started by the really poor of any community, and no one who belonged to the upper class or upper middle-class was killed in the violence. Second, the police came late most of the time, possibly on purpose. The British deliberately delayed in controlling or preventing mob frenzy.
The riots would be sparked off during festivals by the sudden discovery of a pig’s carcass inside a mosque, or some such incident. The processions brought out by the people of Nawabpur (a Hindu-majority area) during Janmashtami and those of Islampur (a Muslim-majority area) during Muharram would also compete with one another in pomp and show. I distinctly remember the mob frenzy I saw in 1945, when I was 10. That year, we had gone to see the Islampur procession pass through the Nawabpur intersection. We knew a dentist whose chambers overlooked the street through which the rally would pass. It usually took about an hour for the long procession to pass through that intersection. We were all watching it from the balcony of the dentist’s chambers when suddenly, we heard some crackers burst and cries of ‘Bande Mataram’ and ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ rent the air. Immediately, we could see the horses (of the carriages) stopping in their tracks and then retreating. We sensed something wrong and rushed back home.
Later, we heard two people had died when someone opened fire. The same night, about 200 people (who had been part of the Islampur procession) came marching into our neighbourhood. We watched them coming from the terrace of our neighbour Hiralal Dasgupta’s house. Hiralalbabu fired a few blank shots, whereupon they turned back. The communal disturbance continued for a couple of weeks before petering out. The news on the radio kept us abreast of the number of people stabbed. The weapons used were usually knives and daggers. The rioters rarely used firearms. Neighbourhood vigilance parties were set up and men and boys took turns on guard duty at night. If we anticipated trouble, we would go and stay the night at my friend Anisur’s place.
The next riot I saw was in 1947, when I was 12. It has left a vivid impression on my mind; I have never really got over it. It was triggered by the discovery of a pig’s leg in a mosque during the Durga Puja that year. The vigilance parties had become active immediately. One night, from the terrace of our house, we saw two men advancing towards the Wari Club with blazing torches in their hands, screaming ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ all the while. Soon, they set the club’s tent on fire. The fire brigade turned up pretty late. In reaction to this, on Bijoya Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja, a saintly old Muslim named Abbas Mian, who lived in our lane and ran a provision store, was stabbed to death. He was stabbed by a dhaki (drummer) called Rebati. He had been like a grandfather to us and we called him Abbas-dadu. I would often ask him for toffees when I went to his shop to fetch something for my mother. He always asked me to drink water after I had had the sweets, to prevent a sore throat. He was a very affectionate and dearly beloved man. No one could imagine that he would be killed to avenge the burning of the club tent. We do not know why Rebati did this, or who hired him to do it. Many of our elders looked for him all over Dhaka, vowing not to spare him if he was found. But that was in vain. In all probability, he had left East Bengal immediately and had crossed over to India.
After 1947, things started deteriorating rapidly and most of our Hindu neighbours started selling their houses and crossing over to India. Some houses were also forcibly occupied by Muslims. Communal tension was palpable most of the time. My father had passed away in the meanwhile. I completed my schooling in 1951 and left Dhaka for Calcutta that year. My mother stayed on with my two elder brothers. When the 1951 riots began, I was not there. My family didn’t think it safe to stay on in our house any longer. They moved to a relative’s place near Sadarghat in Dhaka. Soon after, my brothers tried to exchange our property for a house in Park Circus, Calcutta. When the exchange was complete, my mother and brothers moved here.
But all of my relatives were not so lucky. My mother’s younger sister and her husband lived in a village in Bikrampur near Dhaka. My aunt fell seriously ill in 1955 and died due to lack of medical aid. Communal violence had made it impossible for my uncle to procure medicines for her or to take her to Dhaka for treatment. My uncle was a doctor and had many Muslim patients. But he couldn’t save his wife; communal animosity had reached such a pass by then.
Very early in life, the stabbing of Abbas-dadu showed me how divisive religion could be when controlled by fanatics. I also knew we were paying the price of depriving the Muslims of Bengal for a century or more.
As told to Sharmistha Datta Gupta