The lost legend of JALLIANWALAH

A nation which wilfully chooses to forget the martyrdom of our ancestors is bound to repeat more injustice and tragedy

"I feel sorry. I am ashamed at what happened on April 13, 1919. This was a terrible occasion in which so many innocent Indians were slaughtered, for which I feel ashamed and I feel sorrow."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's comment in the Visitor's Book at Jallianwalah Bagh, February 19, 2005.

Aseem Shrivastava Delhi

Baisakhi arrived last month, the harvest celebration of North India. If it had not been for a small editorial page entry in a Hindi daily, I would have failed to realise that it was also the 90th anniversary of Jallianwalah Bagh. I went through several English language newspapers on the train to Delhi without being reminded of it. On the front page, there were pictures and headlines screaming desperately about India's victory in a hockey tournament in Malaysia. But no reminder of the heroic sacrifices made by our ancestors to obtain for us the space under the sun where we so vaingloriously conduct our sports today.

It would be worth going around our schools and colleges on a random weekday, asking students if they know the tale of Jallianwalah Bagh. Never are a people closer to losing their freedom than when they begin taking it for granted, forgetting the forebears who often paid with their own lives for it.

A legend for the centuries

Why is Jallianwalah Bagh important, and what is so significant about it in the context of our times today?

Perhaps no single event after the 1857 mutiny holds the same significance in the annals of India's fight for freedom from European domination as the Jallianwalah Bagh massacre. It was arguably the great turning point in the freedom struggle. So it is worth recapitulating briefly the chain of events which led up to it, as well as the enormous impact the massacre had on the psyche and future of India.

Demands for India's freedom from the British empire had grown sharply towards the end of World War I. India and the other colonies had made tremendous sacrifices towards the allied war effort, in the end, helping our rulers defeat the central powers. In exchange, we wanted freedom.

The Ghadar Party had been active in North America through the war years, often resorting to 'terrorist' means to draw international attention to the cause of India's freedom. Under the Defence of India Act, as many as 46 members of the Ghadar Party were hanged in Panjab (now Punjab) towards the end of World War I. In Singapore, 37 of them had to face the execution squads.

When the war ended, the British government of India wished to continue with the system of summary trials, detention and punishment which it had got used to during the war years with the help of the Defence of India Act. The Rowlatt Act - under which "no charge, no trial, no appeal" was written into law for any act of sedition - was passed. It was widely protested across India. A relatively obscure Mohandas Gandhi called for the first national satyagraha. A nation-wide hartal on April 6, 1919 was partially successful. While Bombay was brought to a halt, most other cities witnessed disruption in parts.

Gandhi's call was heeded widely. In Punjab, protesters were stopped and fired on by troops. In the orgy of violence which resulted, five Europeans died as well. More troops were sent for. They came under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.

On Baisakhi Day, Sunday, April 13, several thousand people had gathered peacefully in Jallianwalah Bagh. General Dyer arrived in his armoured car, but couldn't find access. He ordered his troops to fire at the crowd. Hundreds, and possibly up to a 1,000 people were massacred by Indian and Gurkha troops, taking their orders from Dyer. The firing continued till the ammunition was exhausted. In the words of historian John Keay, "...The crowd had offered no threat. Dyer had given no warning. Communication was by bullet alone...it was impossible for the troops to miss; nor did they. After the firing stopped they shouldered arms and turned about. The wounded were left untended, the dead uncounted. Dyer simply drove away, mission completed."

Or was it? Even after 379 people were declared to be officially dead (after 1,650 rounds of ammunition were used), Dyer went on to punish and insult the residents of Amritsar during the days following the massacre. Prisoners were handcuffed together, placed in cages, and often beaten in public, Taliban-style. Indians were made to crawl on all fours where an English lady had allegedly been attacked.

Nor was Dyer the only one to cross the line. In Lahore, which too had suffered arson during the protests, similar methods were employed by Dyer's counterparts. The city of Gujaranwala, which now hosts many an international cricket match in Pakistan, was bombed by aircraft.

Dyer's family had lived in India for long. They ran a brewery near Shimla, where the general had perhaps absorbed the racial fears that had haunted his kind since the 1857 mutiny. He was hardly alone in defending the brutality he unleashed on hundreds of defenceless people. He was relieved of his command but never formally punished. On the contrary, his mother country rewarded him, calling him "Defender of the Empire" and presenting him with a gilt sword, after an inquiry commission had exonerated him. A British daily, Morning Post, raised 26,000 pounds through a special subscription for the 'Saviour of the Panjab'. The general himself was unrepentant, and even proud of his actions.

Loud echoes of Jallianwalah Bagh today

Not so long ago, the third Indian prime minister to have come out of Cambridge University, while receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, acknowledged his country's debt to the British Empire in the following words:

"Our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free Press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilisation met the dominant empire of the day. These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well."

Wonder if our beloved prime minister forgot how the British sense of fair play and 'rule of law' worked in his home state of Punjab 90 years ago. Arundhati Roy had this comment on the prime minister's Oxford speech:

"At this point in history, for the Indian PM to publicly and officially declare himself an apologist for the British Empire is pretty devastating. After a few cautious caveats in his speech, Manmohan Singh thanked British Imperialism for everything India is today. Ironically, at the top of his list was all the machinery of repression put in place by a colonial regime -- the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, Rule of Law. He then went on to express gratitude for the gift of the English language -- the language that separates India's elite from its fellow countrymen and binds its imagination to the western world. Macaulay couldn't have asked for a more dedicated disciple."

Perhaps it is the case that our prime minister (and for that matter, all pretenders and contenders for the coveted throne, including the communists) are genuinely grateful for British notions of governance. For if the British had one Rowlatt Act, the present Indian State can choose from a veritable armoury of equally reprehensible legislation that has been passed by it over the years to ensure its own security, rather than that of the people it is meant to make safe.

Just a sampler here: There is the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act of 2005, under which heroes like Dr Binayak Sen (who worked in the healthcare sector for decades in the poorest interiors of India) are imprisoned by a government which has reduced human rights to a comic art-form. There is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act; valiant women like Irom Sharmila have been kept in detention for countless years, forcibly on a liquid diet, because she has chosen to protest against the Act by not eating a morsel of solid food for almost seven years.

There is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which has permitted the arrest and torture of honest journalists like Prashant Rahi, Govindan Kutty and Praful Jha. Not to be left behind by their competitors in the Congress and the BJP, the CPM in West Bengal have generously resorted to private militias in Nandigram and Lalgarh, when security laws have not been enough to maintain party turf.

India's unenviable human rights record in recent years has led the internationally reputed Human Rights Watch to conclude thus in their  last report:

"Despite an overarching commitment to respecting citizens' freedom to express their views, peacefully protest, and form their own organisations, the Indian government lacks the will and capacity to implement many laws and policies designed to ensure the protection of rights. There is a pattern of denial of justice and impunity, whether it is in cases of human rights violations by security forces, or the failure to protect women, children, and marginalised groups such as Dalits, tribal groups, and religious minorities. The failure to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible leads to continuing abuses."

From last week's papers we can learn that civilised parties like the Congress are much more responsive to a boot flung at a Union Minister in disgust than to the testimonies of thousands of victims and witnesses recorded by no less than 10 inquiry commissions (appointed by the government itself) over a quarter-century. Barbarism has certainly come of age in Sonia Gandhi's India.

Honour and heroism

Jallianwalah changed the course of history by inspiring men and women to deeds of great honour and heroism, leading up to the final ejection of the British from this part of the world. Udham Singh accepted execution in 1940 for finally taking revenge for the massacre by assassinating the governor of Panjab at the time, Michael O'Dwyer. Bhagat Singh and his comrades were inspired to well-known deeds leading to martyrdom.

"Gasps of India horror coincided with grunts of Indo-British approval," writes John Keay. Rabindranath Tagore, famously, renounced his knighthood (could one imagine Salman -- Mid-Knight's Child - Rushdie emulating him and refusing the same honour from a government which prosecuted an illegal, unconscionable war in Iraq? Times have surely turned acrid.

The December 1919 Congress Session was held in Amritsar to commemorate the massacre. Motilal Nehru (Varun, Rahul and Priyanka's great-great-grandfather), who had previously been denied permission to enter Panjab to defend one of the protesters, presided on the occasion. Listen to John Keay again:

"Up till now no family could have been more staunchly pro-British than Motilal's. Such was his admiration for British ideals of legality and humanity, and such his expectations of British-India collaboration, that he had sent Jawaharlal, his only son, to school at Harrow and university at Cambridge. On Jawaharlal's return he had censured his radical outbursts. Now he began to endorse them. The British were no longer worthy of respect. Anand Bhawan, the Nehrus' palatial residence in Allahabad, was stripped of its European furniture. Motilal abandoned his Savile Row suits and took to wearing the homespun cottons recommended by Gandhi. A great bonfire of the dresses, ties, boas and homborgs discarded by the Nehru clan would be the earliest memory of granddaughter Indira, born in 1917."

Jallianwalah is where the British Empire lost its mask. It is also when Mohandas became a mahatma and independence appeared on the horizon of the Indian freedom struggle, perhaps for the first time in a real, achievable sense.
For all freedom-loving people of any country or cause, Jallianwalah is a milestone to preserve in the sanctuary of collective memory, a testament at once to the common courage of humanity as much as to monumental human cowardice.

What will we do?

A far more barbaric Indian State's countless atrocities are being persistently met with silence from our famed pundits, many of them pontificating and presiding on India's destiny from the safe precincts of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. The question is what the rest of us will do in the face of such pusillanimity.

Today, when our integrity as a civilisation is under historic threat, will we rise to the occasion and challenge the shameless cowardice of security forces, governments, law courts and intellectuals in keeping so many heroes of the stature of Gandhi behind bars in what is still very much an ongoing struggle for freedom in this country? Or will we continue to allow small-hearted power-brokers to act with mute force and impunity and thereby prepare, once again, for another apocalyptic dismembering of the republic?

The Partition of 1947-48 had left Mahatma Gandhi in a state of deep dismay. It was a false dawn, leading the great poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz to write:
"Yeh daag, daag ujala, yeh shubguzida sahar Woh intezar tha jiska, yeh who sahar toh naheen"(This mottled dawn, haunted by the night This is not the dawn we had waited for)

 Are we going to allow the cowardice of our leaders and our elites to lead us down the well-trodden path to a familiar destination? Or do we still have the moral imagination and humanity to exorcise the ghosts of history and embrace those who our rulers once helped turn into our hostile neighbours?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2009