Historic Events



Home    Sitemap    Reference    Last updated: 19-May-2009






This intends to give an over view over the numerous historic events which affected Calcutta in the 1940s. 


Return to top



 The Outbreak of War

Although the outbreak of the war in Europe was not entirely unexpected, the way India got involved in it was highly controversial at the time.  The political tensions caused by this were further exacerbated but the seeming weakness of the colonial power in the face of the dictatorships, an impression only underlined when Japan entered the war as well.  Life in the city was due some deep changes, and it would never be able to return to its old ways. 


Top of page    03 September 1939 - Outbreak of War in Europe    The seizing of the German Consulate    Internment of German Enemy aliens    September 1941 - German Attack on Russia    1941 – Pre war tensions with Japan    07 December 1941 - The attack on Pearl Harbour    Beginning of WW2 in Asia    The seizing of the Japanese Consulate    Internment of Japanese Enemy aliens    Requisitioning



The Passing of Rabindranath Tagore

The death of Tagore in 1941 was not entirely unexpected.  Nevertheless it led to unprecedented scenes of mourning in Calcutta. He had been an icon of Indian and Bengali culture, a multifaceted giant of intellect who made countless contributions to a great variety of cultural and political fields.   

His poetry, plays and other literature had been loved by the world and he was deeply revered by the people of Bengal, when he had made proud by leaving an indelibly Bengali mark on world culture. 

For Bengal It was the End of an Era. For more than half a century he had been dominant in so many aspects and with him the Bengal Renaissance, which had been such a large part of Calcutta's culture, finally died.

The very soul of the city would never be the same without him, and it has never quite stopped mourning as it did in August 1941.


Top of page    1939-1940 –Tagore’s last productive years    May 1940 - Gandhi visits Tagore in Shantiniketan    Sept./Oct. 1940 - Tagore is ill in Calcutta    November 1940 - Tagore returns to Shantiniketan    1940-41 - Tagore's final Poems    14 April 1941 - "Subhyater Sankat” (The Crisis in Civilisation)    09 May 1941 – Tagore’s 80th Birthday    25 July 1941 - Tagore leaves Shantiniketan for the last time    30 July 1930 – Tagore writes his last poem    30 July 1930    Operation in Calcutta    07 August 1941 - Tagore dies    Tagore's cremation ceremony    Tagore's shrad at Shantiniketan    Reactions to Tagore's Death 




The Netaji

Of all the charismatic and strong-willed politicians in pre-independence Calcutta none managed to inspire such unconditional adulation and uncompromising resistance as Subhas Chandra Bose. His radicalism in opposing the British fell on fertile ground with many of the younger generation of Calcutta. It also deeply divided the Congress Party in Bengal, and led to his isolation on a national level, as well as his frequent arrests by the British.  

Even that however, could curb not stop his seemingly boundless energy, and his escape from Calcutta into exile in 1941 became another legend of his struggle.  He had left the city which had been his anvil for decades (forever as it turned out), yet even from afar he managed to keep a strong hold on it.

Continuous rumours, propaganda leaflets and especially his broadcasts from Berlin and Japanese occupied South-East Asia, kept him alive to his numerous supporters and many enemies in Calcutta.

His mysterious disappearance at the end of the war finally completed his transformation from flesh and blood politician into national myth, a myth which still enthrals many in the city.


Top of page    1939 - Subhas Chandra Bose leaves the Congress Party at the Tripuri Congress    The Forward Block    July 1940 - The Holwell Monument Agitation    July 1940 - Arrest    September 1940 - Hungerstike    December 1940 – House-arrest    17/18 Jan 1941 - Escape from House-arrest    The way to Germany    Meeting Hitler    The India Centre    Legion Freies Indien    The Netaji's Broadcasts    By U-Boat to Japan    21 October 1943 - Azad Hind government    The INA    21 May 1945 - Netaji Subhas Bose's last broadcast from Bangkok    17 August 1945 Netaji Subhas Bose's plane crashes near Taihoku in Taiwan



 Demonstrations and Agitations

Calcutta as one of the birthplaces of modern Indian nationalism, and as host to one of the most educated and advanced of Indian populations had always been a hotbed for political activity and agitation.

Throughout the 1930s, the genteel well chaired debates in public halls became increasingly a thing of the past and political agitation took to the streets to address the increasingly politically aware masses.

Even in the tense and politically repressive situation of the war did not stop the Calcuttans from coming out and making their voice heard.

The quit India movement broke through it and from then on till independence and beyond the political, communal and economic situation always provided enough issues to spark of protest in a great variety of forms.

Small meetings, speeches, mass ralleys, political leaflets and magazines, strikes, protest-marches, sit-ins, riots, mutinies, terrorist attacks and hungerstrikes; all were used to make one's opinions and grievances heard and felt. 

They seemed to be so frequent that almost independently of the actual cause they became a prominent (and in some case permanent till today) feature of life in 1940s Calcutta.

[Please note that some of the greater agitations, namely the communal tensions of 1946, and the Communist agitation are dealt with in separate chapters. ]


Top of page    08 August 1942 - Quit India Resolution    August 1942 - Free Tamralipta government    14-17August 1942 - Calcutta Hartal of Quit India movement    10 March 1944 - Textile Crisis Day    21 November 1945 - Demonstrations against the Azad Hind Fauz Trials    12 February 1946 - Further demonstrations against Azad Hind Fauz Trials    1946 – Tebhaga Movement    1946 - Naval Mutiny    21 January 1947 - "Hands off Vietnam" Demonstration at Dum Dum Airport




Local Politics and Government

Governing the second largest city of the British Empire had never been a easy task.

The chronic shortage of tax revenue and a climate which put enormous strain on civic infrastructure made life difficult for the co-operation.

The cities rapid growth, ethnic diversity, drastic social inequalities

and the competing interests of Industry trade and civil society further made consensus nearly impossible.

The 30 and 40s the increasingly radical agitation for independence and the increasing communal tensions reduced Calcutta City Politics to a state of near anarchy.

To that were added since 1939 the strains of the war effort, Japanese bomb attacks, and the effects of the great famine of '43, all of which pushed the cities infrastructure as well as the nerves of its citizens and administrators to near breaking point.


And even when the war was won, the post war years were marred by even more violent communal tensions, economic problems as well as the general uncertainty preceeding partition. 

With independence a new era dawned.

How would Calcutta govern itself in a free India, with all its new opportunities. 

But also, how would the city and its government cope with the sudden influx of refugees and the decline of it empire based economy. 


Top of page    The City Emblem    The Government Structure   The Corporation




The Muslim League in Government

Throughout the 1920s and 30s the previously politically dormant rural majority of Bengal had been awakened by groups like the Krisak Praja Party. This, and the infighting in the Bengal Provincial Congress party, led inevitably to the late 1930s and most of the 1940s of rural or Muslim based parties. Fazlul Huq, Kwaja Nazimuddin, and finally H.S. Suhrawardy successively led Bengal governments from Calcutta with the Krisak Praja Party, the Muslim League or combination thereof, interrupted only by intrigues and vicious infighting and periods of governors rule.

It was only the fact that the secessionist Muslim League won out in the inter-party struggle and ultimately took much of Bengal and most of her Muslim voters to Pakistan, which allowed Congress to regain power in the assembly at independence.


Top of page    The Muslim League - The Krisak Praja Party    Fazlul Huq    Kwaja Nazimuddin    21 March 1940 - Pakistan resolution    1937-1941 - The First Fazlul Huq Cabinett    1941 - Bose - League pact takes over Calcutta Corporation    December 1941 - Fazlul Huq and the Muslim League    December 1941 - The Huq - Congress Government    28 March1943 - Resignation of the Fazlul Huq government    March/Apil 1943 - Governor's rule    24 April 1943 - Kwaja Nazimuddin's Muslin League cabinet    1944 - Muslim League takes over Calcutta Corporation    28 March 1945 - Nazimuddin's Muslin League government falls    02 April 1946 - H.S. Suhrawardy forms Muslim League government    H.S. Suhrawardy




Governors and Viceroys

In the days before independence and full democracy in India the figures of the Provincial governor and the Viceroy in New Delhi still exerted a great deal of influence. Their personalities shaped politics and to some extent life in India. The way the social backgrounds, personalities and attitudes of the holders of these post changed does conversely say a lot about the changing nature of British rule in India and Calcutta.  


Top of page    Sir John Herbert    Sir Richard Casey    Frederick John Burrows    Lord Linlithgow    Field Marshal Lord Wavell    Lord Louis Mountbatten




The unstoppable Japanese Advance

At first even the Pacific war had seem far away, with the fall of Hong Kong sad but not too unexpected. In the early months of 1942 this all changed. In short succession the Japanese managed to overrun the European possessions in South-East Asia. The fall of the fortress city of Singapore was great shock and in less than a month Rangoon also had fallen, and by the end of March the Japanese had reached India near Chittagong and the on the Andamans. 

Would Calcutta be next? Would there be a panic; would the British and their allies fight; would the independence movement welcome the Japanese? 

In the meantime there were many refugees from Burma with horrific tales to tell, many relatives were trapped, missing or killed behind enemy lines and in the city itself some fifth columnists working for the Axis.

Calcutta had suddenly found itself on the front line facing the march of a seemingly unstoppable enemy.


Top of page    15 February1942 - The Fall of Singapore    March 1942 - The Fall of the Dutch East Indies    08 March 1942 - The Fall of Rangoon    Summer 1942 - The Arrival of the Burma Refugees    23 March 1942 - The Japanese reach Bengal at Chittagong    23 March 1942 - The Japanese take the Andamans    Pro-axis activity in Calcutta    The Losses 




When Calcutta was American

One of the less remembered and more unusual effects of the war were the large number of American military personnel which it brought to the city. They were mostly (although by no means all) white like the British, but very different in style. They had more money, where used to a different life style and living standard back home and most of all they had a very different attitude to India, the Indians and their culture.  Many Calcuttans were surprised and even shocked and offended by their disregard for age old colonial and Indian traditions. Others found them refreshingly efficient and modern, and lapped up everything they brought with them, from their money and materials which swamped the city, to their Magazines, Movies, Swing & Jazz.  


Top of page    02 April 1942 - Arrival of US Troops    American troops    Americans and Indians    Americans and the British    Black soldiers    Out of Bounds




Bombs on Calcutta

The rapid progress of the Japanese through South-East Asia in early 1942 was finally stopped on the borders of India. The immediate threat of invasion had seemed to recede until in late 1942 the Japanese made their presence felt again.

Calcutta was just within range of Japanese bombers, and through-out 1942 and '43 they did their best to disrupt the operations of the port and create panic among the population. 


Top of page    Air Raid Precautions    20 December 1942 - First Japanese Bombing Raid    25 December 1942 - Japanese Christmas Raid on Central Calcutta    1942 - Japanese attack on Kidderpore Docks    05 December 1943 - First Japanese daylight raid on Calcutta    War damage




The Bengal Famine

The most tragic event of the 1940s in Calcutta was the Bengal famine of 1943.

Throughout the war increased demand and reduced supply drove up rice prices. A cyclone in 1942 and forced requisitioning for the forces as well as hoarding by speculators then drove prices even further until they were out of reach for much of the poor. 

Many of the starving villagers started a long march to the city in hope of finding food.

Many died on the way, but a hundred-thousand settled on to the city’s pavements to beg search for scraps and often simply die where they were.

The response of the city was inadequate and public anger rose.

Many volunteered to help the poor in running soup kitchens many were stirred to political action. But nonetheless about a thousand destitutes died each week in the streets of the second city of the empire and all over Bengal there were at least 3 million victims.

Many tried to ignore and forget the catastrophe, but in the end the consciousness and political outlook of the city had changed forever.


Top of page    Underlying reasons    May 1942 - Boat Denial policy    16 October 1942 - The Midnapore Cyclone    Food requesitioning    January 1943 - First reports of famine in the villages    May 1943 - The first starving villagers reach Calcutta    June 1943 - First reports of death from famine in the villages     The reporting of the Famine    August 1943 - Peak of the Bengal Famine    August 1943 - Soup kitchens & voluntary aid    The Azad Hind Government offers Japanese rice for Bengal    November 1943 - Food rationing in Calcutta    August 1943 - Disposal of the dead    Army relief work    December 1943 - The famine comes to an end    Inquiry Commission




The End of the War

In mid 1942 the previously seemingly invincible Japanese and Germans finally felt the first major setbacks. The roll back had definitely begun even for India after the battle of Imphal and Kohima in 1944. Yet there was still a lot of fighting till the end came with the Atom-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And even if by Mid September 1945 the last Japanese had finally surrendered the war had not really come to and end for Calcutta.

Freed POWs came into town needing medical care, supply lines had to be maintained for newly freed/re-conquered countries. Most of all the fighting men came back from the front to Calcutta hoping for repatriation. But transport was scarce and the port overworked and consequently vast numbers of troops had to stay on sometimes for as much as a year without much to do, facing increasing hostility by the public waiting impatiently for independence, and lacking the discipline of war service. 

In the meantime the lucrative defence contracts, which had led to a boom in manufacturing in the city, came to and end, Britain one of the city's main customer and investor was itself impoverished by the war effort, and saw not much of a future in the Raj. The economy took a nose dive, crime and the black market boomed, and the political future was more uncertain than ever.  


Top of page    May 1942 - The Japanese fail to win the Indian ocean    January 1943 - The Germans surrender at Stalingrad    The Stilwell Road    05 April - 22 June 1944 - Battles of Imphal and Kohima    June 1944 - D Day Landings    20 March 1945 - The Allies recapture Mandalay    03 May 1945 - The Allies retake Rangoon    07 May 1945 - German surrender VE Day    August 1945 - The Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki    14 August 1945 - Japan surrenders VJ Day    5 September 1945 - British troops land in Singapore    13 September 1945 - The last Japanese troops in Burma and the Andamans surrender    PoW of the Japanese    The Long wait for Repatriation




Politics before Independence

This chapter deals with the politics of Calcutta and Bengal during the years running up to independence. 

[Please note that the communal tensions in 1947, the rise of communism, and the years of Muslim League rule are dealt with each in separate chapters]


Top of page    Sarat Chandra Bose    Dr Shyamaprasad Mukherjee    European Association    The Royalists




The Great Calcutta Killings

Few events of the 1940s are still as contested as the large scale communal riots in August 1946. What do people remember of it? What was reported at the time? Contradictions, and contested accounts are not unusual.

The human tragedy of it all is undeniable though as is the fact that Calcutta and even India as a whole was never the same again.  


Top of page    Earlier Communal Riots    16 August 1946 - Day of Direct Action    16-19 August 1946 - Great Calcutta Killings    The Authorities' actions    Defence Associations    Working for Peace    19 August 1946 - British troops enter Calcutta to end the riots    Gandhi fast for Peace    After the Riots    Spens Commission    10 October 1946 - Noakhali Killings   Gandhis visit to Noakhali    Bihar Killings    29 May 1947 - Renewed Communal Violence    July 1947 - Jinnah & Gandhi Peace-Appeals are dropped from planes over the city    August 1947 - Gandhi stays with Suhrawardy at Baliaghata    1948 – Assassination of Gandhi    November 1948 - Muharram Disturbances    February-March 1950 - Communal violence 





For India as a whole the most momentous event in the 1940 was undoubtedly independence.

Calcutta had always been closely tied to both the Empire and all its history, politics and most of all its economic realities.

Simultaneously the city's inhabitants were also some of the earliest and most radical in rejecting the empire and fighting for India’s freedom. Consequently independence had a deep effect on the life of the city as a whole and of all of its inhabitants.

With the charged up emotions surrounding the issue of independence it was impossible for this process to happen without unforeseen events.

As Indian independence was only the first of a wave of decolonisation there was also  interest and support in Calcutta for other countries (such as French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies) which were facing a much harder fight to throw of the colonial yoke.

By the end of our decade India (which at the start of it had been committed to a world war by the sole decision of a British Viceroy) had finally gained full independence and became a republic in 1950.

[Please note that much of the agitation for Independence, the partition and its effects, as well as the independence of Chandernagore, each form a separate chapter]


Top of page    Negotiations for Independence    The Weeks and Days leading to Independence    15 August 1947 - Independence Day    C.R.Rajagopalcharya    Unrest after Independence    World-wide Independence    The New Constitution





The saddest side effect of Indian independence was undoubtedly the partition of the country.

We start the decade less than 30 years after the Swadeshi movement had re-united Bengal against the will of the British colonial masters.

Yet throughout the 1940s decisions were taken which drastically changed the political landscape. The political consciousness of the rural Muslim majority rose and felt unrepresented by urban Hindu majority Calcutta. This made it possible for the Muslim league to persuade them of the potential benefits of a separate Pakistan.    

By 1947, what in the late 30s had sounded like no more than eccentric ideas, had become seemingly impossible to avoid.

The sole remaining question, which for the future of Calcutta was vital and worried many of its inhabitants very deeply, was how exactly Bengal was to be partitioned.

Was it all, including Calcutta, to go to Pakistan, was it to be a separate independent state apart from both Indian and Pakistan, or was solely the greater Calcutta area to be split off to perhaps form some sort of neutral territory ?

Anxiety in Calcutta and especially its Hindu community led to much agitation against Pakistan.  

In the end as independence drew ever closer the province was cut in two (sometimes very roughly) along communal lines, in less than a month.

India as a whole and one of its most culturally distinct provinces, Bengal, was partitioned, never to be re-united. The effects are stamped on to city and its culture to this very day.  Calcutta has lost a large part of its economic and cultural hinterland, and countless of its old and new inhabitants their homes and their roots, many even their lives.

Even Ghandi who had done so much to ease partition in Calcutta in particularly was had been murdered within a few month.

[Please note that independence as well as the communal riots in 1946 each form separate chapters] 


Top of page    Original Ideas    06 April 1947 - Tarakeshwar Conference of Provincial Hindu Mahasabha    11 April 1947 - Petition for the Partition of Bengal in Constituent Assembly    27 April 1947 - Suhrawardy Bose Plan for an independent undivided Bengal    03 June 1947 - Mountbatten announcement of Bengal partition    20 June 1947 - Bengal Assembly votes for Bengal to join Pakistan    03 July 1947 - Formation of shadow cabinet for West Bengal    08 July 1947 - The Boundary commission    09 August 1947 - Bengal Boundary commission report    August 1947 - Division of the Bengal administration    17 August 1947 - Official Partition of Bengal    Fleeing form East-Bengal    Partition Killing    Fleeing form West-Bengal    The Refugees Arrive    Aid for and by Refugees    The Refugees settle    Gandhi assassinated    December 1949 - Communal Riots break out in Khulna




 Congress Rule in West Bengal

Partition and the loss of the Muslim majority areas of East Bengal meant automatically the end of Muslim dominance in the Assembly. With the earlier disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose the Congress party assumed power in the state which it would hold onto for almost 20 years. Especially at the beginning the Congress party was still not free from the dramatic infighting of earlier years, but soon Dr. BC Roy managed to assume his dominant position to rule both party and state until his death.


Top of page    The Congress Party in West-Bengal    The shadow government for West-Bengal    17 August 1947 - Dr. Prafulla Chandra Ghosh becomes first Chief Minister of West-Bengal    21 November 1947 - 1st session of Assembly of West Bengal    Atulya Ghosh    1948 - The first Assembly Elections    1948 - Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy becomes Chief Minister    Opposition to Congress




The Communists on the Rise

Communism now so dominant in West-Bengal had a chequered but very interesting history in the 1940s.

It’s focus on social revolution as opposed to merely independence as well as it seemingly alien intellectual ideology made for a difficult start. The war years further complicated matters, as the Soviet Union, in line with the socialist world strategy dictated much of the political line to the CPI, and as the USSR was an ally of the British so it seemed to many was the CPI just at a time when other parties intensified fight against the British.

After the war on the other hand the social inequalities and economic problems resulting from the war (not least the experience of the famine) made many open to the radical social ideas of the communists. The communal violence partly overshadowed the social issues but also let the party's secularism look attractive. So in line with many other countries at the time, communism was steadily on the rise in Bengal. This however, together with increasing number of political strikes as well as armed activities of splinter groups like the RCPI led to Communism being banned and many activists being imprisoned in free post independence Bengal. Only the new Indian constitution in 1950 led to a resumption of activities which always also embraced Communism in Asia. 

Actual political power was still far away but the party had at least managed to become a strong opposition to Congress in Bengal.


Top of page    The CPI during the war to 1941    The CPI during the war 1941 to 1945    1943 - Legalisation of the CPI    1943 - CPI Conference    Post-war activity of the CPI    1947 - The Tramworkers' strike    Communism in the rest of the world    The CPI in elections    1948 - The banning of the CPI    The RCPI    1948 - The Dum Dum Steelwork attack    Re-legalisation of the CPI 




The Independence of Chandernagore

The independence of India famously spelt the start of the unravelling of the British Empire through out the world.

However, almost forgotten nowadays is that less than two years later, in a small sleepy suburb of Calcutta, another even older chain of Empire had its first small link broken.

The citizens of Chandernagore overwhelmingly voted to leave their French and Tamil masters in Paris and Pondicherry. It was the first French territory to successfully free itself from France in the 20th century and in its own unusual way it finally joined West-Bengal.  


Top of page    Chandernagor during the War    1947 Chandernagor Ville Libre    19 June 1949 - Chandernagor Referendum    02 May 1950 – De-facto transfer of Chandernagore to India





Great Plans for a Great Future

Independence and partition had brought a great many new needs to the city.

The economy probably more than any other Indian city geared towards the Empire for both markets and capital had to be restructured. Meanwhile its economic dominance was resented in the rest of India and it had also lost half of its regional market and many of the raw materials for its industries.

The strains of the war and the later political tensions had led to a long term neglect and sometimes deliberate destruction of the city's infrastructure, just at a time when millions of refugees had to be accommodated and integrated.


But independence and the new political stability under Dr. BC Roy also held many a new opportunities. Everyone expected things to get better now colonial exploitation had been ended.  West-Bengal and its metropolis Calcutta were now finally allowed to stand on their own two feet.

Bold decision could be taken for a new future at last: New buses, the start of the Ambassador car industry, an underground railway for Calcutta, new clean and modern satellite cities on its fringes, a new capital city even for a new West-Bengal untied with a natural resource rich Bihar to boost heavy Industry... 

Ambitious plans indeed, resources permitting of course...


Top of page    General    31 July 1948 - Calcutta State Transport Corporation starts up     1949 - First discussions on building a MetroRail    1948 - The Hindustan 10 rolls of the assembly line at Hindustan Motors    The Bengal-Bihar merger plan    The new capital    A new Calcutta on the lakes







Other Historic Events of the Era

This is a round up of a number of historic events in the city which do not fit into any other category.


Top of page    The New Howrah Bridge    The new Customs House     Mahajati Sadan    The National Library at Belvedere    The Bhawal Sanyasi Case    Mother Teresa




Home    Sitemap    Reference    Last updated: 19-May-2009



If there are any technical problems, factual inaccuracies or things you have to add,

then please contact the group under info@calcutta1940s.org