What does it mean to be Indian? Is it the same feeling people had in 1947? Veena Venugopal’s Independence Day explores the common man’s first Independence Day. For some it meant freedom, for some it meant fear. An excerpt explore the communal riots just before Independence faced by Tarun Kumar Roy –
By 1946, we were full of hope. It had become clear by this time that independence was not far away. We hoped that the Muslim League would be defeated and that India would remain undivided. I was then almost seventeen, nearly an adult. In school and in the neighbourhood paras, we used to have heated debates about what independent India would be like. At this time we were quite confident that Muslims
would ignore the demand for a separate country, and that India would gain independence as an undivided nation.
The division between the communities was, however, gaining traction through the year. The riots in my town of birth, Noakhali, began in October, right after Durga Puja. In these riots there were more cases of forced conversion and rapes than Hindus actually being murdered. In the rural areas, with their open fields, the scope of killing people was not very high and there weren’t too many people to begin
with. But the events that occurred made us realize how vulnerable we were.
A man called Arun Ganguli, who was a World War veteran and trained sniper, and a few former soldiers, began to train us. We were a motley group of boys from the neighbourhood, teenagers and young adults. During the Second World War, a black market had emerged in Calcutta for guns, revolvers, rifles and pistols. After the 1946 riots in Calcutta, this market flourished even more. The buyers and sellers were all Hindus. Across the state, Hindus amassed a vast quantity of firearms, cartridges and bullets from there.
Interestingly, Muslims used knives, swords and acid bulbs in these riots. There weren’t too many people among them who could use firearms. To prepare ourselves, we also developed our connections in this black market.
Around this time, just before the Puja holidays, a quarrel broke out between two of my classmates, a Hindu and a Muslim. Usually, such squabbles died down in no time but because of the kind of suspicions and competition between the two religions at the time, the quarrel escalated. Suddenly, we saw one of them had gripped the other’s throat, and fellow Muslims had surrounded the duo and were trying to drag the Hindu boy towards their hostel. Both boys were strongly built, but the Hindu boy was slightly short, while his opponent was very tall. So, the Muslim boy had an upper hand. Once I saw what was happening, I called
some of my other friends. We got sticks and mallets from the gymnasium, and we walked into the fight and managed to get our guy out.
The riots in Calcutta continued intensely for four or five days. There were incidents of rioting that carried on, in fact, for over a year, going on until Independence Day in 1947.
However, even though there were no communal riots in Krishnanagar, there was tension in the air and a lack of trust between the two communities. A spark could have set off a fire. The situation was such that we were afraid to travel and were especially terrified of desolate places.
In fact, we were scared of being alone with our own Muslim friends. These were the same people we had once been very close to. In the past, we would have snuck off together to a field across the river and eaten stolen chickpeas. We had danced with them with our sticks on Muharram; we had gone on picnics together. Suspicion had now crept into these relationships. There were some sensible people on both sides, thankfully, and the people of the town were liberal in their outlook. That is why Krishnanagar was spared the riots.
Read more accounts of what Independence meant to the first generation of free Indians in ‘Independence Day‘ – out now!