In post-independence and post-partition Congress-ruled
On 31 August, a huge mass demonstration was organised in Kolkata where hundreds and thousands arrived from the villages under the leadership of the Kisan Sabha. Though primarily a mass protest by peasants, rural women with babies walked alongside high school students; office workers merged with the columns of manual workers. The whole of Kolkata’s colonial city centre turned into a sea of 300,000 people demanding an end to destitution and hunger. The centre of the rally was the Shahid Minar, the foot of the monument and the adjoining open space of the ‘Maidan’ having historically served as the convergence point of anti-colonial and anti-establishment protests. That afternoon rain repeatedly lashed at the demonstrators. But their determination to force the Congress government to provide immediate relief or quit remained resolute. At the end of the meeting, a procession began and started making its way towards Writers’ Building. By then evening had descended. First, the demonstrators were cordoned off by the police. Then unexpectedly, without any warning, violent ‘action’ began. Contemporary observers have noted the way the police attacked directionless, panic-stricken people blinded by teargas.
80 people died in the carnage that day; they were mostly starving peasants who had survived the devastating and man-made Bengal Famine of 1943 and were no longer willing to die of hunger without any protest. Not a single bullet was fired. The police used sticks to beat people to death. 1000 people went missing and 3000 were injured. Ordinary bystanders, petty shopkeepers, cinema-hall ushers and sex-workers offered solidarity and assistance to those fleeing the police from the main thoroughfares in a bloodied state and spilling into the side streets and narrow alleys of north Kolkata. The police arrested thousands. According to one eye-witness who is now 74 years old: ‘In the semi-darkness, I saw mothers, sisters, brothers lying motionless on the road.’ The police later cremated many of the anonymous victims. Bodies could be seen floating in the