Freedom blues

Pradeep Gooptu

The entire nature of motoring changed in the city between 1941 and 1942 because the armed forces (first the British and then the American) requisitioned all modern cars on the road to supply the army frontline in the North East where they were fighting Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and the Japanese.

The only cars seen on the roads were very old ones which were kept going only with constant repairs. New cars were unavailable because supplies from factories overseas had stopped and ships which once carried cars were now used to transport only arms and military supplies. In many locations, government offices were shut down as officers were transferred to the war office to keep the army running

Independence
The Second World War had just ended and the foreign soldiers serving in the city left it. The city was full of used American vehicles dumped at throwaway prices and these included thousands of Jeeps, larger cars used by senior officers of the armed forces and even all types of cross country vehicles ranging from mid-sized four-wheel drives to larger half-tracks and open carriers.

As shown in a picture, older vehicles were also in use. Government offices reopened in distant district locations and we see a small Morris car towing a goods carrier across a makeshift dry weather bridge across a small river. The scene is possibly from the then undivided Midnapore district.

Cars of the Raj
The head of the British colonial government – Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India – travelled in great style as usual, as if nothing had changed. The Viceroy and his spouse used several cars. In one of the visuals, we see them riding in great splendour in a Sunbeam Talbot, one of the several used for formal occasions. This car is possibly nowadays with a collector in our city.

Pain of Partition
The lavish cars of the Raj hide a terrible truth. As we all know, Independence was marked by horrendous communal riots in many parts of India and particularly in Bengal. Spurred by the Muslim League cry of ‘Direct Action’ and ‘Larke Lenge Pakistan’ ( fight to attain Pakistan), the streets of Kolkata, for example, saw massive killing of innocent people by fundamentalist mobs from both sides. Arson, looting and senseless killing became the order of the day. In one photograph, we see dead bodies lying on Chowringhee Road in the heart of the city with only a lone vehicle in the background; all others had fled the area.

The other photograph was a follow-up of the earlier one; it shows dead bodies being loaded and put into a police Austin carrier used as an emergency vehicle by the workers disposing the bodies.

Joy of Independence
The riots in Kolkata stopped suddenly owing to two reasons. First, Mahatma Gandhi went on fast in a house in Beliaghata and these forced rioters to realise the criminality of their actions. Secondly, as soon as Independence Day dawned, the streets were filled with people celebrating their freedom through public rallies and processions on foot and on open vehicles.

“This is a new city; the hatred of the previous days vanished and men served each other sweets and food on the very streets on which blood was being shed the day before, and often to the same community whom they had viewed with the greatest hatred a short while ago”, wrote the leading English newspaper of the day.

The massive car shortage caused by the forced requisition of all useable vehicles by the army to use at the war front against the Japanese eased soon after 1945 as the American Army (and some British regiments) sold off their vehicles in the local market before pulling out. This was how a huge number of Jeeps and American sedans appeared all over Kolkata, being used for personal transport and taxis, sharing the roads with antiquated cars. It was not till 1947-48 that new cars started arriving on the market from the rebuilt factories in Britain and Europe.

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