Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre - V.N. Dutta and S. Settar

This book contains a collection of articles on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre edited by the two above named gentlemen. The events that led to the massacre of 397 (official) people inside the Jallianwala Bagh are discussed from many angles. The story begins sometime with the Rowlatt Satyagraha and how the nation felt cheated by the British after having fought for the British in the World War I. Gandhi had called for Rowlatt Satyagraha. One other article also places on record how prices had doubled and life was tough for the Indian citizen. To cap it all Punjab was under the governance of Lt. Gen. Michael O'Dwyer whose strong arm tactics had pushed everyone to the limit. Dwyer, considered dictatorial in his governance, was instrumental in recruiting 110000 recruits from Punjab alone out of 192000 Indians who fought the WWI on behalf of the British. The resentment caused by the Rowlatt Acts and the Khilafat movement added to the boil.

Closer to the event, the story starts around March 29, 1919, when an order was passed allegedly by the British restricting any public gathering (they say it was a back dated order to implicate local leaders like Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kichlew) to counter Gandhiji's call for a hartal on March 30 which was later postponed to April 6, Dr. Satyapal's speech which was attended by 45000 on March 30, 1919, the spiriting away of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kichlew without public knowledge to Shimla, firing on an unarmed crowd which protested the treatment given to its leaders that left a few dead and growing anger at the British for not letting them attend to the wounded. This broke the patience and an angry mob rioted on April 10 leading to killing of Englishmen at the banks and assault on Miss. Sherwood. On 11th O'Dwyer handed over control of Amritsar to General Dyer, a weak proclamation prohibiting meetings and then the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh on complete innocents who had gathered peacefully and even naively as it was baisakhi season.

There are several personalities that are key here. Michael O'Dwyer, Lt. Governor of Punjab (later shot dead by Udham Singh in London) was a dictator who was disliked by the people. Hans Raj considered a British spy and an agent provocateur who set it up so the British could teach the rebellious Indians a lesson. Hansraj is an inconsequential player who suddenly proclaims himself Secretary of Satyagraha Sabha, a body probably floated by him, instigates people to take revenge for the arrest of Satyapal and Kichlew and called for the meeting at Jallianwala Bagh without any formal authority saying that everyone is a leader and one must be prepared to kill or be killed. Hans Raj is missing since, his house burned down and they say the British whisked him away to Mesapotamia. Miss Sherwood incident and the murders of Englishmen at the bank and other places were the result of Hans Raj's provocation to the crowd to avenge Dr. Satyapal's and Dr. Kichlew's quiet arrest and sending away into hiding. This is followed by the arrival of the butcher of Amritsar Gen Dyer himself, remorseless till his death of his deed. Dyer it would appear set it up in a fashion that would give him the flimsiest of grounds to inflict harsh punishment on the locals and he succeeded in not just inflicting punishment but in taking the freedom struggle to another level altogether. Tagore renounced his knighthood after the event, Gandhi and other leaders stopped looking for any positive developments from the British and hardened their stands. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Indians united as never before at this atrocity as the British felicitated Dyer and tried to cover up for the event.

Dyer takes his soldiers around the city announcing at a couple of places that meetings were prohibited. The massacre itself on April 13, 1919 begins with Dyer walking up with 90 of his soldiers to the Jallianwala Bagh, ordering 50 of them to take positions and fire on a defenceless, peaceful crowd of over 1600 people, without any warning to disperse whatsoever. The orders were to shoot to kill and were given within 30 seconds of his reaching there. The soldiers fired and fired 1650 shots in abut 6-10 minutes of firing until they ran out of ammunition. And then Dyer turned back and went back without even providing any assistance to the wounded and dying and simply said that was not his job. The wounded dragged themselves into the streets and lay dead in their own pools of blood - men and boys and one three month old baby. Dwyer and Dyer kept saying there was a conspiracy to destabilise the British which is why they fired, but the truth is that almost 20% of the crowd inside Jallianwala Bagh were outsiders, those who had come to town on account of Baisakhi and who wandered into the Bagh. For this butchery Dyer was merely transferred back to England, felicitated for the good work done as 'Savior of India', 30000 pounds raised for him, and upon the outrage, cut his pension by half which was overturned by a Court of Justice.

After the incident the administration imposed Martial Law and blocked out the press. Dyer got himself conferred a Sikh by the manager of the Golden Temple. The street where Ms. Sherwood was assaulted was one where all Indians had to crawl, where public floggings were conducted and a new rule about salaams to the sahibs was introduced as a crime.  

The role of the Akalis, the Hindu Muslim unity on Ram Navami day (which so scared the administration that many felt that the massacre was planned in such a way that the Muslim casualties were low and thereby sow seeds of discord between them again), the heroes and the villains all show up clearly in retrospect. Undoubtedly the Jallianwala massacre was an event of great import in the history of mankind and how it shaped up the last few centuries. For all the ways in which the Empire tried to justify his firing, there are enough who felt that this was unpardonable and forever broke whatever little thread of hope and restraint that existed between Indians and the British.

The book deals with many aspects of the massacre - imperial terrorism, impact on national consciousness, impact on Sikhs and other parts of the country, how women came out of their homes after this incident and so on. I learned far more about the incident through the book and by any standards Dyer's work was most cruel and symptomatic of British thinking in those days.

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