Saturday, 19 August 2017

No, Suhrawardy Avenue is not named after "The Butcher of Bengal"

Jaideep Mazumdar’s article in Swarajyamag on August 16th carried the sensational heading – 'It’s A Crying Shame That ‘The Butcher Of Bengal" Has A Road Named After Him In Kolkata”. Swarajya has been publishing one-sided, inflammatory articles for some time now, but in this case, the article is factually incorrect, because Suhrawardy Avenue is NOT named after Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the last Prime Minister of Bengal, but after Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, the first Muslim Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University.


Perhaps Hassan and Huseyn sound the same to Jaideep Mazumdar, but that subtle distinction is an important one. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Hassan Suhrawardy OBE, CStJ, FRCS was a surgeon, politician and the first Muslim Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University. Apart from serving as VC for two terms, he was among the most distinguished Muslim medicos of his time, the first Muslim Deputy President of the Bengal Legislative Council, the first Indian consulting surgeon to the Medical College Hospitals, the first Indian civil surgeon of Howrah, the first Indian Chief Medical Officer of the  State Railway in India and Burma, apart from being a councillor of the Calcutta Corporation and a Justice of the Peace.

During his tenure as VC, on 6th February 1932, the Chancellor of Calcutta University and Governor of Bengal was attacked at a convocation by 21-year-old revolutionary Bina Das. Das fired 5 shots at Jackson but Suhrawardy’s courageous and timely intervention ensured that Jackson survived this assassination attempt. Das served 9 years in prison. The gun she used for this assassination attempt may be seen today in the Kolkata Police Museum in Maniktala. Suhrawardy was knighted for his efforts via a special communiqué. His book on Calcutta, Calcutta and its Environs was meant as a guide for visitors to the city and may today be downloaded free from here.

Calcutta’s barefoot historian, P. Thankappan Nair records in his “A History of Calcutta’s Streets” – “The Corporation in its meeting held on Wednesday, March 8, 1933 christened the new (100 feet) road constructed by the C.I.T. from Park Circus to the junction of Kasaipara Lane (and lying to the North of the park) on which stands the house of Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University as Suhrawardy Avenue. The new name was notified on April 20, 1933”. The date is significant because, in 1933, Huseyn Shaheed had nothing significant to show, having served only as deputy mayor of Calcutta in 1924, to justify having the road named after him. A History of Calcutta’s Streets is an invaluable resource and one that is used by almost every major heritage and history blogger in Calcutta. One would expect that someone writing for a professional website would do better research.


Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was the son of Khujastha Akhtar Banu, who was Sir Hassan Suhrawardy’s sister. Sir Hassan was, therefore, Huseyn Shaheed’s maternal uncle or “mama”. Huseyn Shaheed was the Prime Minister of Bengal in the period leading up to independence and partition and it was during his tenure that the Muslim League’s “Direct Action Day” riots happened in Calcutta. It was a turbulent time in India’s history when the Congress wanted a united India, while the Muslim League, concerned that a democratic India without special protections for Muslims would turn into a Hindu majoritarian state, wanted a partition of the country on religious lines. When all else failed, the Muslim League called for “direct action” on 16th August 1946, which in Calcutta, turned into murderous riots which came to be known as “The Great Calcutta Killings”.

As with much of India’s history, the exact details from this period are far from clear. But when one sifts through contradictory reports and claims, one thing becomes clear - there was violence from all sides, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Huseyn Shaheed has been long held responsible for orchestrating the riots, but as this article in The Hindu shows, he was far from the Nero that he is portrayed to be. Shiv Sahay Singh writes, “The minutes of the meeting point out that Suhrawardy maintained that the “military was not in fact called too late as alleged in some quarters. They had actually been used at 2 am on the 17th”. He himself had visited the Lalbazaar Police Control Room (the police headquarters) on August 16, the day the riots broke out to see how the situation was developing”.


It took some effort to locate Sir Hassan Suhrawardy’s house. The old address was “246 Park Circus” and Nair writes that his house stood on what is presently Suhrawardy Avenue. The municipality's Graded List of Heritage Buildings mentions 3, Suhrawardy Avenue as being the home of Hassan Shaheed Suhrawardy, Huseyn Shaheed’s brother. This is probably an error and this was in all probability, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy’s house. Huseyn Shaheed’s house, however, has not survived. The red brick building on 40, Theatre Road was demolished in 2007. It too was a listed heritage building, but after it was purchased by a certain “Shyamsundar Dhanuka”, it was mysteriously delisted and demolished quietly, according to this report.


How an experienced journalist, who has worked with The Times Of India, Open, The Outlook, The Hindustan Times, can make such an error is beyond my comprehension. The fact that the article is still resolutely up on Swarajya’ website, in spite of multiple people, myself included, pointing out on social media that it is incorrect, would seem to indicate that this is in fact, malicious political propaganda. Someone pointed out on twitter that most members of the Suhrawardy family joined the Muslim League. They did. But that does not take away from the fact that Sir Hassan’s academic and medical excellence helped Indians as much as it did the Brits. Should we perhaps rename everything named after anyone who has some unsavoury element in their past? Not many would pass such a test. I can only think of one man who would, and he wasn’t exactly the darling of conservative Hindus when he was alive.


Under fire from journalists and academics, especially fact-checking website Alt News, Swarajya has changed the name of its article and edited its text. Here is the new article. If you look at the HTML, it remains the same. Swarajya has also issued an apology...

However, Jaideep Mazumdar, the author of the article, continues to abuse anyone who confronts him, in vile language. Here are some samples posted by Alt News - 

I  guess not everyone can handle it #WhenFactsAttack

By Deepanjan Ghosh


Nair, Thankappan P. – A History of Calcutta’s Streets

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