When Connaught Place showrooms were set on fire

- August 14, 2023

Connaught Place witnessed carnage in British-owned showrooms in 1942 before seeing similar havoc in 1984, during the anti-Sikh riots

SET ABLAZE: An image showing a Sikh store being set on fire in 1984

Somebody at Mohan Lal Sons in Connaught Place would tell you that this very garment shop, then known as Rankling and Company, was about to be burnt down 81 years ago. 

August 10, 1942, was a gory day for Connaught Place as some hooligans had set on fire shops owned by Whites after Congress passed the Quit India resolution in the then Bombay two days earlier on August 8 and Aruna Asaf Ali unfurled the Congress flag the following day at Gowalia Tank Maidan, marking the beginning of Quit India Movement.

Also read: Tale of two Delhi poets and the Pak national anthem

Swelling crowd at Central Park 

Once the news of Congress passing a major resolution and most of its top leadership getting arrested reached Delhi, angry protests broke out in Connaught Place, the bastion of British power.  

MM Aggarwal, the late owner of Mohan Lal Sons, had witnessed the black day as a child. 

“Those were the days when we had no internet or social media. Thus, news related to arrest of Congress leaders reached Delhi only by August 10, 1942 through newspapers. Surprisingly, despite the fact that there was no clarion call from Congress to people to reach Connaught Place, people started reaching the Central Park on their own in hordes. Most of them were in khadi clothes and carrying Congress flags,” Aggarwal had once narrated the violent incident to this writer.

The surging crowd was shouting slogans against British Raj. Lala Deshbandhu Gupta and Mir Mustaq Ahmed were addressing the surging crowd with fiery speeches. Both were eloquent speakers. 

Mir Saheb later became Chief Executive Councillor (equivalent to Chief Minister of Delhi) in 1970s. Gupta, a towering Congress leader of Delhi, died very young. 

Shops that were charred 

RP Puri, the founder of Central News Agency, used to recall that while the Congress leaders were appealing for peaceful protest, some miscreants started setting fire to shops of the British. 

A showroom called ‘Army and Navy’, operating from the space where Khadi Emporium is located now, and other showrooms like Phillips and Company, Lawrence and Mayo were burnt down. 

Lawrence and Mayo showroom is still there at Janpath. Rankling and Company was saved by a whisker as the father of MM Aggarwal and his staff told the miscreants that he is the owner of it and the ownership is already transferred. 

TOTAL RECALL: George Chiu, owner of D Minsen and Company, a shoe showroom, has heard stories of 1942 carnage from his parents

Aggarwal remained president of New Delhi Traders Association from 1980-84 and then from 1993 to 1997. 

There were several British, Irish, Swiss and Chinese shopkeepers during the early years of Connaught Place.

MA Abdullah, then a student of St Stephen’s College, used to recall that the famous pastry shop, Wenger’s, remained unaffected as it was shut on the fateful day. 

It was owned by a Swiss couple living at Janpath. 

It was established in the year 1924 as a catering outfit for the British troops stationed in Delhi. In 1926, the Tea Room and Confectionery was inaugurated in Exchange Stores in Kashmiri Gate. 

Later, it shifted base from Kashmiri Gate to Connaught Place. Abdullah was the uncle of famous writer Sadia Abdullah. His son, Naseer Abdullah, is a model and an actor.

Unaffected Chinese of CP

The shops owned by Chinese were not touched at all. Around 10 Chinese-owned showrooms were there in Connaught Place in the 1940s. Says George Chiu, the owner of D Minsen and Company, a shoe showroom, “I believe those who were on rampage thought of us as Indians too. Hence, we were spared.” 

Chiu has heard stories of that black day from his parents. He still sits in his showroom. ‘Charles Samion’ was the first Chinese shoe shop to open in Connaught Place. It was located at F-2 in the then partially-readied ‘F’ Block. 

The owner was Chung Sam Nian, who came to India as a child during Qing dynasty, sporting long pleated hair. He studied in a Calcutta school. He was often taunted by his classmates, who tugged at his pony tail. He had worked and trained at a famous English-owned shoe factory in Calcutta before venturing to set up shop in the new capital of British India.

GATHERING POINT: The Central Park, which has been redone for G-20 Summit, was the place where protesters had gathered in 1942 before setting British shops on fire (Photo: Getty)

Chinese Art Palace was located in ‘A’ Block of Connaught Place. It was a shoe shop, and also dealt in curios and packaging. 

Another Chinese shoe-making shop was “Allied & Co.” at ‘D’ Block, occupying and sharing exactly half of “Snowhite”, the dry cleaners. This shop was owned by Liu Thong Khian. 

‘Smart Shoe Co.’ in ‘G’ Block was an Indian-owned shop, but entirely managed and represented by a Chinese gentleman called Chung Yin Nian. All these shops and their owners remain untroubled during the carnage.

Mayhem and madness in 1984

Connaught Place once again witnessed sheer madness after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Since the evening of her demise, Connaught Place was on fire for the next three days. The shops of Sikhs were brazenly looted. Sadly, cops were not there to control the situation. Mahant Suresh Sharma of Hanuman Mandir of Connaught Place vividly remembers when the thugs looted the huge showroom of garments known as S.M. & Sons in Regal building. Later, they completely burnt it down. 

Frenzied mobs of young vagabonds were on the prowl. 

“They were thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned stores to the ground, dragged Sikhs out of their cars and from DTC buses,” recalls Kulbir Singh, who was then working in ‘Punjab & Sindh Bank’ branch of Connaught Place.

Witnesses watched with horror as mobs walked the streets of Connaught Place. Despite the fact that Connaught Place Police Station was there at Baba Kharak Singh Marg, the cops did not come to the rescue of Sikhs. This is also what had happened in 1942. 

The police wasn’t even visible while Connaught Place was up in flames.

The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and author of two books ‘Gandhi’s Delhi: April 12, 1915-January 30, 1948 and Beyond’ and ‘Dilli Ka Pehla Pyar – Connaught Place’