Click here to skip to content

Indian Independence: Partition Source 4

A copy of a secret report written on 22 August 1946 to the Viceroy Lord Wavell, from Sir Frederick John Burrows, concerning the Calcutta riots.

[IOR: L/P&J/8/655 f.f. 95, 96-107]

After the Muslim League had retracted its acceptance of the Cabinet Mission's Plan and called for a 'Direct Action Day', communal violence broke out. 16-18 August saw the first wave with the 'Great Calcutta Killing'. Around 4,000 people were killed in Calcutta and many more injured, with around 100,000 made homeless. This report was written after the event, from the viewpoint of the British Governor of Bengal. There was criticism of Suhrawardy, Chief Minister in charge of the Home Portfolio in Calcutta, for being partisan and of Burrows for not having taken control of the situation. The troubles then spread to the Noakhali district in East Bengal and to Bihar where approximately 7,000 Muslims were killed. There were also troubles in Bombay and the United Provinces, but little elsewhere. The original report by sir John Burrow was lengthy and laborious containing 10 pages of narratives. The following is an extract.


22nd August 1946

Dear Lord Wavell,

The series of telegrams, beginning with No.192 of August 16th, will have kept you apprised from day to day of the board outline of the appalling disturbances that have occurred in Calcutta. In this letter I am attempting to give a fuller picture of the setting, the course of events, and my preliminary conclusions. It is too soon to expect a very accurate account even of the disturbances themselves, far less to attempt a balanced judgement either of the causes of the riots or the wisdom of the measures taken to quell them. I shall try to be as objective as possible, and shall in particular exclude all reference to food and relief, (about which I shall address you separately as soon as possible), and to the repercussions on my Ministry. I am sending a copy of this letter to Pethick-Lawrence by safe hand on a York plane.

2. The setting. Omitting the more remote causes of the riots - the long struggle for power between Hindus and Muslims, in which Calcutta is a focal point, the weakening of our authority which is an inevitable consequence of our impending departure, the dislocation of the normal life of Calcutta by war and famine, and the presence of a Muslim Ministry in a predominantly Hindu city - the proximate cause was the resolution of the Council of the All-India Muslim League passed at Bombay on July 29th, calling on 'the Muslim nation to resort to direct action to achieve Pakistan', and the consequent fixing of August 15th as 'Direct Action Day'. I enclose a cutting from the "Star of India" of August 9th - it was repeated in subsequent issues till the 13th - giving the programme for 'Direct Action Day' in Calcutta.

3. The decision of my Ministry to declare a holiday under the Negotiable Instructions Act on August 16th has been a matter of some controversy. ...... It is easy to be wise after the event and to say that the trouble would not have occurred if there had not been a holiday, "for Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do". I disagree; many of the mischief-makers were people who would have had idle hands anyhow. If shops and markets had been generally open, I believe that there would have been even more looting and murder than there was; the holiday gave the peaceable citizens the chance of staying at home. There was an adjournment motion in the Legislative Council on August -15th about the declaration of a holiday. The Chief Minister, defending the decision, said that though the Muslims would observe the day peacefully and in a disciplined manner, there was always a danger of conflict arising; Congressmen had in the past enforced hartals by violence, and Muslims might be tempted to follow their example, which in the present political atmosphere was bound to five rise to communal conflict. It was to minimize the risk of such conflicts that he had declared a holiday. ......

4. As regards the probabilities of trouble and its possible extent, we found it extremely difficult to arrive at any confident appreciation in advance. Outwardly both major parties and also the independent Schedule Caste leaders, who had announced their intention to support the Muslim protest, had emphasised the necessity of keeping the peace. On the other hand the atmosphere was admittedly explosive and we realised - and I impressed it on my Chief Minister and all his colleagues - that the League were playing with fire. ......

5. Narrative of events. ......

6. Friday, August 16th. Even before 10 o'clock Police Headquarters had reported that there was excitement throughout the city, that shops were being forced to close, and that there were many reports of stabbing and throwing of stones and brickbats. The trouble had already assumed the communal character which it was to retain throughout. At that time it was mainly in the northern half of the city. (Later reports indicate that the Muslims were in an aggressive mood from early in the day and that their processions were well armed with the lathis, iron rods and missiles. Their efforts to force Hindu shops to close as they passed through the streets were greeted with showers of brickbats from the roofs above - indicating that the Hindus were also not unprepared for trouble - and from this sort of exchange of missiles, matters soon degenerated into arson, looting and murder). The situation deteriorated during the forenoon and at 2.40 p.m. the Chief Secretary rang up my Secretary to say that the position had become so serious that he supported the request of the Commissioner of Police that the Army should be called in at once in aid of the civil power. ...... Ten minutes later the Commissioner of Police reported that the Chief Minister had already agreed to the calling in of troops. He added that the Police had used tear-smoke on crowds frequently and that the situation was bad in Harrison Road, Wellington Square and Corporation Street. ......


Yours sincerely,

(Sgd.) F. J. Burrows.

His Excellency Field Marshal the Right Hon'ble Viscount Wavell, G.C.B., G.H.S.I., G.H.I.E., C.M.G., M.C.

Viceroy and Governor-General of India, The Viceroy's House, New Delhi.