23 November 1945
Today in 1945, Richard Casey, the governor of Bengal, called on British troops to take to the streets of Calcutta to support the police, who had shot dead five student protesters earlier in the day. Another seven died the same day in hospital, and, as British newspapers informed their readers under such headlines as ‘Calcutta is Quieter’ and ‘Calcutta is almost normal again’, this brought the total number of civilians killed in demonstrations in the city that month to at least 32, with the number of injuries estimated at between 192 and 300.1
Many of those severely injured, including at least one fatality, had been baton charged as they squatted in the roads and refused to disperse. The students had been demanding the release from detention of officers of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.) who were being prosecuted for treason. During the Second World War, the I.N.A. had fought against the British with the aim of gaining Indian independence and the students felt strongly this was an honourable cause for which both the I.N.A. and now the protesters themselves were willing to lay down their lives. The majority of India’s population was strongly sympathetic and on learning of the killing of so many students, it was not only Calcutta’s local government and utility workers who refused to work. Across many other cities across the vast subcontinent, workers came out on one day strikes in a defiant demonstration of solidarity.2
British newspapers dutifully reported the governor’s explanation which blamed ‘hooligan elements’ that ‘had taken advantage of a the disturbed situation’, adding that ‘an uncontrolled and leaderless body of youths,’ had ‘sought to disobey regulations framed for the maintenance of public order.’ In contrast, the English language Anglo-Indian Statesman newspaper, despite its readership being weighted heavily towards relatively privileged sectors of the local Indian population, took up a more empathetic stance, noting that there was considerable and widespread sympathy for the plight of Calcutta’s Corporation employees who were now on strike. Their wages, it noted, were shamefully inadequate and it reminded readers that Calcutta’s civil administration was ‘patently inefficient and widely regarded as corrupt.’ In contrast to the imperious tone of the British press, it demanded a full inquiry into the protests, its causes and into the killing of so many demonstrators.3
- ‘Calcutta is Quieter’, the Liverpool Echo, 24 November 1945, p. 3, ‘Despite 20,000 on strike – Calcutta Almost Normal Again,’ the Liverpool Evening Express, 24 November 1945, p. 4, ‘ ‘Troops Standing by in Calcutta,’ The Daily Mirror, 24 November 1945, p. 1 and ‘Army Stands by in Calcutta,’ The Times, 24 November 1945, p. 4
- ‘Troops Ready in Calcutta,’ the Liverpool Daily Post, 24 November 1945 p. 1, ‘Troops Stand By in Calcutta,’ Belfast News-Letter, 24 November 1945 p. 3 and ‘Despite 20,000 on strike, Calcutta almost normal again,’ the Liverpool Evening Express, 24 November 1945, p. 4.
- ‘Troops Stand By,’ The Scotsman, 24 November 1945 p. 5, ‘Disturbances in Calcutta,’ The Times, 23 November 1945, p. 3 and The Statesman cited in ‘Bombay Flares Up – Calm in Calcutta,’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 24 November 1945 p. 4.
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