Jallianwala Bagh:  The British Empire and the Day of Reckoning

First of two parts.

April 13 is never likely to be forgotten in India, certainly not in the Punjab.  That day, 103 years ago, 55-year-old Reginald Dyer, an acting Brigadier-General in the Indian Army born in Murree, in what is now Pakistan, ordered fifty Gurkha and Balochi riflemen to commence firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  Some Indian estimates of how many people were killed ran to about 1,000.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men: “Good shooting.”  The men had done their duty, order had apparently been restored: “We have done a jolly good thing.”

Jallianwala Bagh after the massacre, 1919.

It was Baisakhi, the first day of the spring harvest festival, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  Though Indians had given their lives by the tens of thousands in World War I, a war which was scarcely their own, they got rewarded at the end of the war with increased repression. True, in mid-1918, the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils. From the standpoint of Indian liberals, these reforms were too little and too late, and the more militant-minded among Indian nationalists clamored for much greater concessions from the British. Nor did Indians seem prepared to accept the preposterous idea, which the English took rather too seriously about themselves, that their word was as good as gold or that they believed above all in the idea of “fair play”.  Unfortunately, British goodwill would soon be exposed as a mere chimera.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper in early 1919 with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.” 

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.” This was just days before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Punjab was being governed by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a firm believer in authoritarian rule who fancied himself a savior of the simple-minded Indian peasants who, according to him, had nothing to do with politics and deserved protection from treacherous urban Indian elites.  Like Reginald Dyer, with whom he is often confused, O’Dwyer was of Irish extraction, a perhaps not unimportant fact considering that the Irish were brutalized by the English and in turn brutalized those whom they colonized in policing the British empire. O’Dwyer did not at all take kindly to the defiance of authority and was certain, from his apparent study of history, that the great and firm hand of the British had not only saved the Punjab from the mutiny of 1857-58 but had been crucial in enlisting the aid of the Sikhs in suppressing the mutiny.  The government had no greater task than to uphold “law and order” and, watching the effects of the hartal initiated by Gandhi, he warned that the agitators “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

Local people point to the holes in the wall to suggest how Dyer directed the firing on 13 April 1919, deliberately aiming with the intent to kill as many people as possible.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving inadvertently revealed what truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.” That the Hindus and Muslims might unite was equally incomprehensible and alarming.  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity among Indians with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, “untouchable” to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might dare to act otherwise. 

The “Crawling Lane”.

Gandhi would subsequently describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation. Once the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh had stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. He would later state that no one asked for his help–who would ask for help from a butcher, one might ask–but his real attitude is betrayed by his confession that as soldier and officer of the law, his job was not to aid the wounded.  That was not his business.  The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air: this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification.”  O’Dwyer, who signaled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation which recalled the Rebellion of 1857-58.  Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of the Mutiny loomed over the prolific debates about the measures taken by the British to contain the disorders.

1919, however, was not 1857.  The Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered the phase of plebian protest.  Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.  The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an inquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by Lord William Hunter of Scotland.  Many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London.  The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality.  Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot” he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect.  Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgment of experienced officers, they argued, and many in Britain also agreed.  When, months later, Dyer was forced to resign his commission, the British public, led by the rabidly racist Morning Post, opened a fund in his name–the antecedent of the modern-day crowdfunding campaign–and raised £26,000 for him, an amount worth over £1.1 million today.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though I suspect that some Indians rejoiced that Dyer’s life was cut short by arteriosclerosis.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  Most people, even Indians, remember only the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but Gandhi was quite clear in his mind that the “crawling lane” order was even a greater wound on the Indian psyche.  What the British created in the Punjab was a regime of terror. The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Indian affairs had never commanded much attention in Parliament, but, rather unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”.  Montagu was grateful for the service that Dyer had rendered to the Empire.  Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so from none other than a motive “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism.”  Montagu went on to charge Dyer for “indulging in frightfulness.”  The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians:  “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in World War I.  That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.  The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practicing Jew, a suspect figure, and in 1922 Montagu himself was forced out of politics. 

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Every school history textbook describes how Tagore wrote a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood, characterizing the massacre as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”  More than twenty years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 years old at the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver.  O’Dwyer had spoken of the day of reckoning and now he got his comeuppance.  Remarkably, Dyer is the only person whose name Gandhi, with his own extraordinary flair for the English language, turned into an ideology.  He wrote of “Dyerism” to signify the terrorist apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.”  Churchill of course had a way with words, and so he continued:  “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”  But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”?  As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it:  the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.  As I shall argue in the subsequent essay, however great the atrocity of Jallianwala Bagh, the view that Jallianwala Bagh was somehow an exception cannot withstand scrutiny.  The British were then, as they are now, unrepentant and day of reckoning of the Empire has yet to come–even though British rule in India ended 75 years ago.

Additional Note: I published a 3-part piece on the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity on this blog in 2019. This first part is adapted from that piece, but some portions have been entirely rewritten. The second part that will follow in a few days is entirely new. Consequently, taken as a whole, this two-part piece is substantially new.)

This part was first published at abplive.in under the same title on 13 April 2022. Translations into Hindi, Punjabi, and a a number of other Indian languages are forthcoming.

Sangam and Agora:  A Forum of Poets, Philosophers, Scholars, and Autodidacts

A Short Note or Informal Manifesto

Vinay Lal and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

Though the idea for a new international forum comprised of poets and philosophers, writers and scholars, and activists and public intellectuals was conceived by us some months ago and has been germinating in our minds for much longer, the recent turn of events signaled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the desirability of such a venture.  However reprehensible this act of aggression, and whatever the geopolitics that inform the present circumstances, we aver that war is always a crime against humanity.

The uncomfortable fact is that the world has been spiraling out of control for some years, oddly enough in the wake of the triumphant declaration by the United States, following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the entire world appeared to be gravitating towards liberal democracy and the ethos of the free market economy.  Even as countries such as China and Russia have hardened their resolve to suppress dissent at home, many established democracies have been veering towards authoritarianism in recent years. On the economic front, it is widely conceded that inequality in nearly every country has grown immensely, and the various goals that the United Nations and its myriad agencies have set from time to time for the elimination of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, or illiteracy are not even remotely close to being met. The goalposts, whether with regard to literacy, access to health care, schooling, and so on, have shifted an innumerable number of times in the last half century.

However, the tenor of our present malaise or, to use an overly wrought word, “crisis”, cannot be captured by the decline of liberal democracy or the obscene economic disparities that make a mockery of our pretensions to a world where considerations of equity, social justice, and peace reign supreme.  Beyond all this, the stark, brutal, and unremitting reality of climate change threatens to make every other misfortune or even catastrophe look puny in comparison.  The most recent “Sixth Assessment Report” (2021) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes for grim reading, unequivocally clear as it is that the efforts to mitigate global warming have been woefully insufficient.  It declares that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”, and it goes on to warn that “continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”  The extreme weather events that have plagued the world—not the least of them 100°F temperatures in Siberia—in recent years will almost certainly increase, though speaking of plague should of course remind us of the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic that gripped the world.

War, political authoritarianism, the drift away from democracy, unmitigated climate change, the spiraling increase in consumption, the reduction of the human to homo economicus:  catastrophic as all this is, it is insufficient to describe what ails us today.  Nor will it be adequate to add to the above narrative other elements of the global situation in the hope that we will better comprehend the temper of our times. It is entirely reasonable, for instance, to suggest that the seductions of globalization have given way to the recrudescence of nationalism.  Some of us, especially if we have been life-long students of anti-colonial movements and have partaken of them in our own modest ways, recognize nationalism as a ‘disease’.  The difficulty of persuading those who have been at the receiving end of colonialism to think beyond nationalism must be recognized, but nationalism cannot be deflected or confronted merely with anodyne expressions of the fact that people are fundamentally ‘good’ and affirmations of the necessity of being a ‘world citizen’.  All too often, the ‘world citizen’ is a citizen of nowhere, and therefore bears none of the responsibilities that attach to the idea of citizenship. The ‘world citizen’ is only another expression of the rights-bearing individual who in principle has become the normative expression of what it means to be human, a stark indication of how far we have moved away from the language of ‘duties’.

The malaise of which we speak points to something deeply disturbing in the human condition at present—something akin to the end of imagination, even as all around the world common people take to the streets to signify their dissent, publishing flourishes, and the internet seems abuzz with thousands of ideas.  Language can restrain, limit, and enslave us as much as it liberates us. Everywhere there is the injunction ‘to think outside the box’, though it should be obvious that anyone using so cliched a phrase is unlikely to ever do anything like that.  Whoever heard anyone proudly declaring that they would like to think inside the box?  (A similar problem exists with the vastly overused and banal word, ‘excellence’, regarding which Bill Readings made the most apposite observation, in The University in Ruins, that it signifies absolutely nothing.) T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding” (The Four Quartets), put it this way, “History may be servitude, history may be freedom.” To the great detriment of the world, the languages in which the human predicament has been framed in the post-World War II have been largely shaped by the practices of the social sciences in the United States.  The problems of America become, willy-nilly, the problems of the rest of the world; when America sneezes, the rest of the world sneezes.  When the master is sick, as Malcolm X put it inimitably, “we sick”.  Identity politics of the sort that is exceedingly common on the American university campus and has slowly made its way into other sectors of American society has now become part of the common conversation in many countries, but we do not think that ‘identity politics’ is a very productive way of delivering a just society or an equitable social order.

What is required is a greater appreciation of more fundamental questions that underscore the precarity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of human experience.  Every generation, admittedly, tends to think that its own woes are the worst, but we would do well to inquire what makes our malaise profound and distinct. We have already pointed to the conjuncture of various circumstances, at the apex of which stands the problem of the Anthropocene, but the gravity of the problem can be amplified by seeking to understand what makes our gross indifference to our common future, as well as man’s inhumanity to man, different in these times.  The 20th century was a century of total war, but first World War I—the “Great War”, the war that was supposed to wean us from all wars—and then World II put an end to the idea that humankind had freed itself of the addiction to war.  We need not add to the tally of these “world wars” the wars generated by the Cold War or modern-day genocides such as the one that decimated Rwanda in 1994.  In the last two to three decades alone, just exactly what have diversity training—little do the bureaucrats know that even dictators have to undergo “diversity training”—corporate social responsibility, “respect” training, and other respected shenanigans wrought except the great delusion that somehow we have become more sensitive and caring human beings and the idea that incrementally societies will free themselves of their prejudices.  The late David Graeber wrote wittingly and illuminatingly on ‘bullshit jobs’, but it is just as true that trillions of dollars are expended on ‘bullshit’ research that over the last several decades has yielded very little.

There is a character in Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, who says that at the end of the day there is only one way to address the plague—“decency”.  But whatever happened to decency?  Or, even more tellingly, whatever happened to the idea of “shame”?  Does the idea of ‘shame’ have any currency at all in most societies these days?  We would go so far as to say that “shame” has virtually disappeared from the public vocabulary of our times.  Whoever speaks of “virtue”—except perhaps students of Greek philosophy, immersed in the reading of Plato and Aristotle.  The malaise of which we speak is captured in the unimpeachable and disturbing fact that every language of dissent has been hijacked, first and foremost by the gargantuan world of the American university.

This enterprise, which seeks no corporate or foundation funding, and is premised on the hope that goodwill, intellectual appetite and rigor, and imagination taken singly and in combination can command an audience, is thus animated by the conviction that poets, philosophers, writers, public intellectuals, scholars, and others must assume a greater place in thinking about the human condition and working on producing an ethical praxis more in congruence with ideas of social justice, equity, compassion, and even wisdom. Poetry makes nothing happen, wrote Auden, but of course as someone dedicated to the craft over decades he secretly pined for the day when Shelley’s apotheosization of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” might bear fruit.  There is no such expectation on our part, but we would like to see what we can do across borders—the borders that persist between nations-state, between self and other, between disciplines, between the cerebral and the manual, and the other borders too numerous to mention that make radical transgression a key political and ethical imperative of our times.

Our modest hope is to convene this forum once a month, or at least every six weeks, and have a poetry reading, short presentations, and vigorous discussion.  Meetings will be held over zoom, and we may even in time use the transcripts to create volumes of collective authorship.  If, after several meetings, it appears that the enterprise does not inspire us enough, it can be abandoned—or passed on to others who are able to marshal creativity and intellectual insights more forcefully.

We will have our first meeting via zoom on Saturday, April 23rd, at 10:30 AM (Los Angeles), or 6:30 PM—London; 7:30 PM—Poland; 11 PM—New Delhi.  Registration at this link is required:

https://ucla.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJIvf-uqqjgqEtHmmbAMikxJcbUDWXXTuCye

Vinay Lal, Los Angeles/Delhi: cultural critic, public commentator, blogger, and Professor of History, UCLA [email:  vlal@history.ucla.edu]

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Gdańsk:  poet, writer, musician, and co-host of the Oxford workshop, “Virus of Hate” [email:  gregor.kwiatkowski@gmail.com]

Sangam=from the Sanskrit, meaning confluence of rivers, especially of the Ganga, Yamuna, and the (mythical) Saraswati at Prayag; also refers to the Tamil Sangam poets, who flourished 500 BCE-300 CE; Agora=from the Greek, an open public space for markets, assemblies, and itinerant philosophers

Militants Strike, Britain Out:  The 1946 Naval Indian Mutiny

The Naval Indian Mutiny (RIN) mutiny, which ‘erupted’ on February 18, 1946, has long been overshadowed by the political trials of INA (Indian National Army) officers and soldiers which commenced in November 1945 and captured the nation’s attention. What was, of course, behind the INA was the charismatic figure of ‘Netaji’ Subhas Bose, whose storied exploits had been the talk of India and won him the affection of tens of millions of his countrymen and women.  In 1939, running for the Presidency of the Congress for a second time, against the express wishes of Gandhi, Bose had triumphed only to discover within weeks that the Congress machinery was behind the Mahatma and that he could not function effectively as President of the Congress.  In 1941, while placed under house arrest, Bose staged a daring escape from his Calcutta home from where he made his way to Afghanistan and eventually to Germany where he managed to get an audience with Hitler.  All this was theatrical enough, but merely icing for the cake:  in 1943, he took over the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) and in October that year he formed the Provisional Government of Free India.  The INA would see military action, most famously at Imphal and Kohima, and in Burma, but months before the war ended the INA had been decimated.  Bose’s own immediate future was uncertain at best, considering that Britain triumphed at the end of the war and that he had fought for the enemy, but providence had something else in store for Bose.  He is reported to have been killed in an air crash near Taiwan in September 1945.  Many in India refused to believe reports of his death; some still do so. It seemed a bizarre, certainly an unfair, death for one anointed ‘Netaji’, the hero of the nation.

The country was still reeling from the death of Subhas Bose when the British decided to initiate legal proceedings against some of its officers on charges of sedition, murder, and waging illegal war against the King-Emperor. That may explain, in part, why the RIN mutiny went into near obscurity, but oddly enough it was the saga of the INA that was, again in part, the catalyst for the RIN strike.  What cannot be doubted is that the naval mutiny was, as Sumit Sarkar, one of India’s leading historians, wrote, ‘one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten, episodes in our freedom struggle.’  The rebels themselves underscored the importance of what they had achieved: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation.  For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause.  We in the Services will never forget this.  We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget.  Long live our great people!  Jai Hind!’

The enlisted sailors (or ‘ratings’, as they are known in naval jargon) had grievances galore. They were recruited under false promises of a decent salary, prospects for some advancement, good food, and a steady uniformed job in the defence of their nation.  What they got in return was rotten food, poor working conditions, and the racial insults that Indians were expected to bear chin up, even in good humour, with the alleged stoicism of their English officers.  It is not only conventional to think that subalterns cannot think for themselves, but also that they cannot look beyond their own little worlds to the world outside. Yet, the words of the ratings, and the pronouncements of the Naval Central Strike Committee, formed to represent the demands of the rebels, unequivocally suggest that they had other concerns as well.  The end of the war meant that men would be released back into civilian life and prospects for employment for demobilized men were poor.  Moreover, the ratings objected to the fact that they were being deployed in Indonesia, where the Dutch were determined to restore the colonial order after the Japanese interregnum, to stifle the genuine political aspirations of Indonesians. Besides all this, there was also the brute fact that there was a yawning gap between the treatment of British and Indian sailors.

On February 18, the ratings at the HMIS Talwar, a signals training establishment, struck.  The groundwork, one might say, had been laid weeks before.  The Commanding Officer of HMIS Talwar was given to vile racial abuse and contemptuous treatment of the ratings and had earned notoriety among them.  He commonly addressed them as ‘sons of bitches’, ‘sons of coolies’, and sons of bloody junglees’.  On 1 December 1945, the HMIS Talwar and other naval ships and shore establishments were expected to be displayed to the elites of the city, but early that morning British officers found the parade ground sprayed with signs, among them ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, and ‘Down with the Imperialists’.  This was later determined to be the handiwork of Balai Chand Dutt, a senior telegraphist who had served with the navy for five years, and whose published memoirs furnish one of the key expressions of subaltern dissent.  Pramod Kapoor, whose book on the RIN mutiny is being released as this essay is being written, has shared precious and little-known details which suggest that, however spontaneous the uprising, the mutineers worked with the design of precipitating the revolt.  As one instance, the young journalist, Kusum Nair, later the author of such classics on Indian agriculture as Blossoms in the Dust and In Defence of the Irrational Peasant, engineered crushed stones to be placed on the evening of February 17 in the dal that was dished out to the ratings.  The food was customarily inedible; more so would it be on the day of the uprising.

“Rioting on the Streets in Bombay”, Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 18-23 February 1946.

Just how widespread was the disaffection became clear soon enough:  in less than three days, at the height of the strike, the revolt had spread to over 75 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26.  The British were inclined to respond with force, more particularly because, as Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India, put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the ‘example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.’  The alarm in the establishment can be gauged from the fact that, astonishingly, Admiral John Henry Godfrey declared that he was prepared to see the navy decimated but that he would not tolerate insurrection.  What is not less remarkable is the widespread support the striking ratings received from workers and the residents of Bombay who responded to the Naval Central Strike Committee’s call for a city-wide hartal with enthusiasm.  Though, as shall be seen shortly, neither the Congress nor the Muslim League, the two main political parties of the day, were supportive of the strike, common people engaged in uncommon acts of fraternization. Many of the ratings had been on a hunger-strike; others, besieged by British troops, had run out of food; but, as the newspaper accounts and other testimonials suggest, people freely distributed food to the ratings and shopkeepers even encouraged them to take whatever they needed and refused payment.  Meanwhile, the strike spread to naval establishments over the country, and in Karachi the HMIS Hindustan was subdued after a gun battle.  The state of affairs in Bombay is suggested by the headlines, generally spread across the entire length of newspapers, that appeared on February 23, the day after Bombay no longer seemed under the control of the colonial state: ‘Bombay in Revolt: City a Battlefield’ (The Hindustan Times); ‘Nightmare Grips Bombay’ (Dawn—then published in Bombay); and ‘Rioters Machine-Gunned in Bombay (The Statesman).

HMIS-Hindustan after the British reasserted their control.

Around 400 people would be killed in the conflict.  Yet, after all this, the strike came to an end on February 23—suddenly, all too suddenly. The capitulation of the Strike Committee is said to have been forced by the fact that, barring Aruna Asaf Ali, none of the political leaders were behind the strike.  One might reasonably expect that Gandhi, who at least took a principled stand against violence, would throw in his weight to persuade the ratings to give up their arms.  Just how much influence he could still exercise in such an affair is a question that few have asked.  It is, nevertheless, the position of the other principal political figures that has in the historiography of the naval mutiny come under scrutiny and sometimes withering criticism. Nehru is said to have wanted to rush to the sailors and lend his support to them, but the conventional narrative states that Patel, who had been authorized by the Congress to converse and negotiate with the members of the Strike Committee, dissuaded Nehru from doing anything so rash.  It is on Patel’s assurance to the ratings that their grievances would be addressed, and that equally they would not be punished if they surrendered, that they are said to have called off the strike.

As Kapoor has detailed in his book, 1946—The Last War of Independence:  Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, the story of the betrayal of the ratings is one of the more wretched chapters in the history of Indian nationalism and the failure of political leadership. The sailors were imprisoned, put into camps, dismissed without payment of past dues, and sent back to their villages.  They would be lost to history. Yet ‘failure’ is an anodyne word to describe the hard-boiled realism that prompted Patel, Azad, Nehru, and Jinnah to throw the ratings to the wolves.  That is a reasonable interpretation, especially from the standpoint of those who have always been inclined to view the Congress as a bourgeois organization that was only interested in the trappings of power.  Independence was on the horizon and an insurrection in the armed forces of the nation—a nation that was about to be parceled out between the Congress and the Muslim League—was not to be tolerated.  As Patel (in)famously wrote in defence of his action to persuade the ratings to surrender, doubtless with the steely pragmatism and determination for which he is now admired by the country’s political leaders, ‘discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with. . . . We will want the Army even in free India.’

There are far too many other interesting questions that emerge from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 that cannot be addressed here, but two points may, in conclusion, be raised for further reflection on the part of the reader.  The communists alone are credited with having given the ratings their full support, but one must recall that communists had lost ground owing to their failure to support the Quit India movement.  They had now found an opening for redemption that they were scarcely likely to give up.  What is of course in many ways distinctive about Indian communism is the fact that there are many strands within it, and that most Indian communists have long been reconciled to working within the constitutional framework.  One suspects that a more nuanced reading of the communist support of the mutiny is needed, more particularly because in most countries communist regimes have been ruthless in suppressing dissent within the armed forces.  Secondly, nearly every commentator has pointed to the fact, highlighted by the ratings themselves, that Hindus and Muslims found themselves joined in a common cause and exhibited what appear to be feelings of brotherhood. If that was indeed the case, then there is all the more reason, given the fact that some within India would like to move the country towards the path of a Hindu rashtra, to celebrate the ability to transgress the religious divide.  It is a pity that this act of insurrection, coming at the tail end of the long struggle for freedom, has remained hidden from history considering that in its course and outcome it has something in it for nearly everyone, not least for those who think that it hastened the end of the British Raj.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in.

For a Gujarati translation, 1946નો ભારતીય નૌસેના બળવો: ક્રાંતિકારી હડતાલ, બ્રિટન ધરાશાયી, click here.

See also a companion piece, substantially different, published in The Indian Express in February 2018 and republished at this site called “An Inconvenient Insurrection“.

Our Very Own ‘Nightingale’:  Lata ‘Didi’ and her Enduring Popularity

(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)

Vinay Lal

There has never been any question that Lata Mangeshkar, who passed on at the age of 92 on February 6 in Mumbai, was the most popular singer in India.  There have been endless number of affirmations of her popularity, but just why she may have been so popular, to which I shall turn in the second half of this essay, has been much less frequently explored.  Lata certainly never had any equal among female playback singers, though it is sometimes argued that her sister, Asha Bhosle, held her own for at least a period of time, and among male playback singers Muhammad Rafi alone quite possibly rivaled her in popularity. If Lata was the ‘Melody Queen’, he was the ‘Melody King’.  But Lata had the advantage over Rafi Sahib, who was a mere 55 years old at the time of his death, of longevity.  Asha has a large following, to be sure, and many claim that she was more versatile than her older sister. Apart from the question of whether Lata was deservedly more popular than Asha, this ‘debate’ is unlikely to be ever resolved and is best left to those who are avid about their partisanship and who have the time and inclination to press their passionate conviction upon others. 

As a testament to Lata’s popularity, many in the media have since her passing four days ago mentioned her apparently unrivaled repertoire of songs.  Some say that she sang in thirty-six languages, while others are content to mention ‘only’ around 15-20 languages.  Considering that most people cannot sing well in one language, unless they have had some training, a handful of languages would be enough to point to her extraordinary gifts. The huge commentary in the established media and the even greater outpouring of thoughts and sentiments on social media have all coalesced around the staggering number of songs Lata is thought to have sung.  Some have mentioned as many as 25,000, or 30,000, and as far back as 2004 the BBC, in introducing an article by Yash Chopra on the occasion of Lata’s 75th birthday, mentioned ‘50,000 songs’.  The obituary in the New York Times speaks casually of ‘tens of thousands of songs’ that Lata reportedly sang.  Indians have long clamored to get into the Guinness Book of Records for one record or another, and to many Indians it was a matter of pride that the Guinness Book acknowledged her as early as 1974 as ‘the most recorded artist in music history’, though the claim was disputed by Muhammad Rafi.  Just how this dispute was handled is a long story, but in 2011 the Guinness Book acknowledged Asha Bhosle for holding the world record for the largest number of ‘single studio recordings’.  Neither sister holds the record today, that honor having passed on in 2016 to Pulapaka Susheela Mohan who is a veteran playback singer in Telugu films, though she also sings in other languages including Tamil. 

Considering that India is a country obsessed with records and also renowned as a powerhouse of statistics, and that Indian film music aficionados number in the millions, it may be surprising that no one really knows how many songs Lata performed.  However, in other respects as well there is something askance and quaint in the widespread approbation of her as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Growing up in India in the late 1960s, the ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) book assigned in school ensured that we knew that the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was Lajpat Rai, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lokamanya (‘Beloved of the Nation’) was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and ‘Deshbandhu’ (‘Friend of the Nation’) was C. R. Das—and that the ‘Nightingale of India’ was Sarojini Naidu, not Lata Mangeshkar.  Sarojini Naidu was, of course, a feisty freedom fighter, a close associate of Gandhi and, after independence, Governor of the United Provinces.  It is a lesser-known fact that she was also an accomplished poet, indeed celebrated by more than one English writer as India’s best poet in English.  Sarojini Naidu was, however, no singer, and it was the expressive, lyrical, and emotive quality of her poetry that earned her, from Mohandas Gandhi, the sobriquet ‘Bharat Kokila’. 

Here Gandhi was following the English tradition that has long associated literature and poetry with the nightingale.  The English romantic poets, in particular, were enchanted with the nightingale, most famously among them John Keats whose ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ remains a staple in English poetry classes. It is perhaps this verse which captures the Indian public’s view of Lata’s ‘full-throated’ voice for the ages: 

                        Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

                             No hungry generations tread thee down;

                        The voice I hear this passing night was heard

                             In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

His friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous ‘Defence of Poetry’, did not doubt that the nightingale commanded the world—as did the poet:  ‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.’  Gandhi knew, however, that the nightingale is not an Indian bird; thus, he refers to Sarojini Naidu by the word ‘kokila’, the indigenous bird that most closely approximates the nightingale. More tellingly, though perhaps few in India at all care for such matters, only the male nightingale sings.  The female does not sing at all; the male nightingale, which has a vast and astonishing repertoire of over 1000 different sounds, compared to around 100 for a blackbird—the bird celebrated by the Beatles with the lines, ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—serenades the female, and that too mainly at night.

Still, even as one takes the measure of Lata’s popularity, a more enduring question remains to be understood.  What made her popular to the extent that she became practically the voice of the nation, and how did she remain at the top for decades?  To many, the answer is obvious:  she had a ‘golden voice’.  By this it is meant that her singing was flawless and her sur was perfect; her singing, it is claimed, was uniquely expressive and she could even get into the skin of the actress for whom she was singing.  Her biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir, states that Lata also had the gift of capturing the mood of the song and the meaning of the words.  Lata had grit and determination—and discipline, too.  To sing in films in the late 1940s and into the 1960s one had to know Urdu, and Lata had to learn it; and the story is famously told of the time when Dilip Kumar rubbed it into Lata that her Urdu had a little too much of dal-chawal in it!  Lata worked on her Urdu, to the extent that, as Javed Akhtar has related in a recent interview, he did not once hear her mispronounce an Urdu word.  But he suggests that none of this was sufficient to produce the magic that one associates with Lata, and he points out that within fifteen minutes of getting the lyrics for the first time, and not having heard the music either, she had virtually mastered the song.  There was some other quality Lata possessed that was uniquely her own, and Javed Akhtar attributes this to her ability to penetrate to the subtext, the meaning of a song that lay beyond the words.

Beyond even this, I would argue, there is something else that made it possible for Lata to become the heartthrob of the nation. She emerged on the national scene with a bang in 1949 by establishing her presence as a singer in several films, many of which became hits:  Mahal; Barsaat; Andaz; Bazaar; Dulari; and Patanga.  The historical context that saw her take the country by storm is critically important.  India had acquired its independence in 1947 and one of the many questions before the country had to do with the status of women.  Gandhi’s noncooperation movement of 1920-22 had brought women out into the streets for the first time and the trend accelerated with the Salt March and subsequent satyagrahas.  But, in most other respects, women were not part of the public sphere, and though the Constitution that was being drafted by the Constituent Assembly envisioned an equal place for women in Indian society, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged mainly in the domestic sphere. To take one illustration, though women played an important role in the communist-led Telengana Rebellion (1946-51), studies have shown that even their male compatriots expected women revolutionaries to give up their rifles and return to the kitchen once the rebellion was over. 

At the same time, the struggle for freedom was also built on the idea of service to, and sacrifice for, Bharat Mata.  The nation in most parts of the world is construed as a feminine entity, but in India this had resonance beyond the ordinary for many reasons, among them the fact that Hinduism, in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, has still retained a space for the feminine in various ways.  This can be seen in the attachment to goddess worship that is still found in nearly all parts of the country, though it is more pronounced in some parts of the country, such as Bengal, than in others.  Indian art during the freedom struggle from the 1920s until the attainment of independence is suffused with invocations to Bharat Mata.  In the aftermath of independence, the idea of Mother India had to be given a new incarnation—and then, fortuitously, Lata came along.  She represented the idea of the feminine principle in its least threatening form.  Where the prominent female singers of the previous generation had heavy, contralto voices, often having to sound almost like a man, as is evidenced amply by Malika Pukhraj and Zohrabai Ambalawali, Lata started off with a voice that was somewhat girlish and somewhat desexed.  The contrast is all too apparent in the very first film, Mahal (1949), where Lata and Zohrabai, both uncredited, first appeared together:  Lata sang ‘Aaayega aayega aanewala, which blew everyone away, but the intoxicating mujra, ‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi’, is performed by Zohrabai.  Lata’s was a voice that domesticated women, so to speak, and put them in their place as keepers of the hearth and custodians of the nation’s morality.  This placed Lata at a considerable remove from the generation preceding her, some of whom also had to struggle against the stigma attached to female singers.

As historians of the Hindi film song have argued, but more importantly as every listener who has heard Lata and Asha Bhosle at some length knows, there is a marked difference in the artistic trajectories of the sisters in one fundamental respect which has a bearing on the argument that Lata speaks for a certain kind of femininity which places her in a different relationship to the idea of the nation.  If Lata’s singing was more soulful, Asha’s singing had more body to it and exuded a kind of raw sensuousness—in part because Asha sang for actresses who had taken up roles where the heroine could to some degree project her sexual identity.  It is common knowledge that Lata would not sing the songs of the vamp, but Asha gave a sexual feel to feminine identity in ways that went beyond simply being reduced to a vamp or someone who did mujra songs. The womanliness that Asha’s voice embodied hinted at sensuousness, a comfort with one’s own sexuality, but only occasionally did it border on the salacious. 

If we had to put this in simpler terms, we can find the source of Lata’s popularity not only in everything that has been ascribed to her—perfect sur, flawless pronunciation, expressive soulful singing, and a genius for comprehending the mood of every song that went beyond the words—but also in the fact that she came to embody the idea of a virginal womanhood almost at the very inception of the nation.  (Some may find the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘virginal womanhood’ do not easily sit together, unless one was invoking some Indian conception of the ‘Virgin Mary’.)  No one, after all, speaks of ‘Asha Didi’.  Much work needs to be done to understand the magic wrought in India, and over India, by Lata Didi.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published under the same title on 10 February 2022 at abplive.in.

Chauri Chaura and the Destiny of India

What is Chauri Chaura?  It is the name of a dusty market town not far from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, where on this day, 100 years ago, the destiny of India may have been decided—and quite likely in ways that we have yet to comprehend.  Chauri Chaura boasts several martryrs’ memorials, in memory of those who allegedly gave up their lives to secure the country’s freedom from the yoke of colonial rule, and some years ago the Indian railways named the train that runs from Gorakhpur to Kanpur the Chauri Chaura Express.  Nevertheless, Chauri Chaura does not sit well besides the Champaran Satyagraha, the Salt March, or the Quit India Movement in the narrative of ‘the freedom struggle’ as a place that is to be remembered for the glory that it brought upon the country.  It is both present and absent in the national memory.

Shaheed Smarak [Martyrs’ Memorial], Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur District, Uttar Pradesh.

In early 1922, India was in the thick of the noncooperation movement (asahayoga) that Gandhi had launched in 1920.  The Khilafat movement had also taken hold of north India.  The Gorakhpur Congress and Khilafat committees had taken the lead in organizing volunteers into a national corps, and volunteers had branched out into villages to secure pledges of noncooperation, persuade people and traders to boycott foreign cloth, and help in picketing liquor shops.  The police sought to crack down on such political activity, occasionally wielding the baton on a volunteer, and there was tension in the air. 

On February 5, though some sources say February 4, a procession of volunteers sought to blockade the local bazaar at Mundera and made its way past the local police station where the thanedar issued a warning to retreat.  The crowd responded with taunts and jeers; the thanedar in turn fired some bullets in the air.  The apparent impotence of the police further emboldened the processionists; as the historian Shahid Amin has recounted, they rejoiced with the proclamation that ‘bullets have turned into water by the grace of Gandhiji’.  Then came the real bullets; three men died and several more were wounded.  Incensed, the crowd pelted the policemen with stones and pressed on, and the policemen retreated into the police station.  The crowd bolted the door from outside and set fire to the thana with kerosene from the bazaar.  Twenty-three policemen died:  most were burned to death, and those who survived the flames were hacked to death.

The colonial state moved promptly to exact retribution.  In police language, ‘the rioters had absconded’, but the precise identity of those who had partaken of ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ mattered less than the fact that mere association, signified for instance by having signed the pledge of noncooperation, was enough to establish guilt.  Neighboring villages were raided; suspects were ferreted out of hiding and rounded up; and before too long 225 men were charged and brought before the session court for a speedy trial.  Nineteen of the 172 men sentenced to death were eventually sent to the gallows.  They are now remembered as the ‘martyrs’ of Chauri Chaura.

The police station (thana) at Chauri Chaura, now reinstated in national memory as another site of martrydom.

No one, understandably, was as shaken up by the incident at Chauri Chaura as Mohandas Gandhi, already anointed the Mahatma.  Gandhi had pledged to bring swaraj to the nation in one year if the country was prepared to accept his leadership and adhere strictly to principled nonviolent resistance, and the Congress was on the verge of launching a campaign of ‘mass civil disobedience’ for which Gandhi had assigned responsibility to Sardar Patel.  On February 8, Gandhi wrote a confidential letter to members of the Congress Working Committee where he described himself as ‘violently agitated by the events in the Gorakhpur District’.  He also hinted that he was thinking of calling for the suspension of the Bardoli satyagraha: ‘I personally can never be a party to a movement half violent and half nonviolent, even though it may result in the attainment of so-called swaraj, for it will not be real swaraj as I have conceived it.’

Gandhi’s biographer, D. G. Tendulkar, wrote that he was at this time ‘the generalissimo of the Congress’; some others were inclined to use harsher language and would have characterized him as the ‘dictator’. Gandhi was of the view that the ‘mob’ violence at Chauri Chaura had shown that the country was not yet ready for swaraj.  The nonviolence of most Indians was the nonviolence of the weak, embraced not from conviction or even from an understanding of what is entailed by ahimsa, but only because it was expedient to use it among a people who were almost entirely unarmed.  Nonviolence was for Gandhi never merely a policy to be adopted or dropped at will, nor was it even just a mode of offering resistance; it was the only way of being an ethically informed person in the world. The conduct of volunteers pledged to use nonviolence had brought before him the palpable truth that India was far from being ready to embrace nonviolence, and that the continuance of the noncooperation movement boded ill for the country’s future.  Consequently, he prevailed upon the Congress Working Committee meeting at Bardoli, Gujarat, on February 11-12, to suspend the movement; moreover, the committee passed a resolution ‘deploring the inhuman conduct of the mob at Chauri Chaura in having brutally murdered constables and wantonly burnt the Police Thana and tenders its sympathy to the families of the bereaved.’

Headline from The Bombay Chronicle

It was but inevitable that the decision to suspend mass civil disobedience would be met with a storm of criticism.  His critics declared that, though the decision had come down from the Congress Working Committee, there was no question that it had done so at the behest of Gandhi.  The Mahatma was much lesser a person than he was made out to be, some charged, since he could not countenance opposition to his views and had acted unilaterally and with his customary authoritarianism.  The other serious charge was that Gandhi had shown poor judgment:  if he knew the country was behind him, he should also have known that India was on the cusp of freedom and that British administration had in some places been virtually paralyzed.  Jawaharlal Nehru, writing his autobiography in 1941, recalled the mood at the time: ‘The sudden suspension of our movement after the Chauri Chaura incident was resented, I think, by almost all the prominent Congress leaders—other than Gandhiji, of course. My father (who was in jail at that time) was much upset by it. The younger people were naturally even more agitated.’ It is sometimes said that Bhagat Singh, who was all of 15 years old at the time, was shattered by the decision—and that the revolutionary movement was born off the disenchantment with the thinking of the Mahatma.

‘I see that all of you are terribly cut up’, Gandhi wrote to Jawaharlal, ‘over the resolutions of the Working Committee.  I sympathize with you, and my heart goes out to [your] father.’  But to the argument that Motilal, Jawaharlal, Lajpat Rai, and many others had put forward, namely that it was absurd to let the unruly behavior of a ‘mob of excited peasants’ in some ‘remote village’ permit the outcome of a national movement, Gandhi had a clear and unequivocally straightforward reply that he issued in Young India on February 16.  Tendulkar has been nearly singular in recognizing, quite rightly, Gandhi’s long statement as ‘one of the most extraordinary human documents ever written.’  Gandhi explains why he commenced a five-day fast on February 12 and why he feels it necessary to undergo penance (prayaschit), and then cautions that the violence in Gorakhpur district should not be viewed as an aberration: ‘Chauri Chaura is after all an aggravated symptom.  I have never imagined that there has been no violence, mental or physical, in the places where repression is going on.’  In modern everyday parlance, the violence there was a wake-up call: ‘The tragedy of Chauri Chaura is really the index-finger.  It shows the way India may go, if drastic precautions be not taken.’

It is, in the historiography of Indian nationalism, a settled matter that Gandhi made a catastrophic mistake in calling for the suspension of the noncooperation movement.  His own reputation, on the standard account, took a nosedive; just a few weeks after the incident, he was hauled into jail on charges of sedition and fomenting disaffection against the government, and at a trial on March 20 he was found guilty and sentenced to a six-year term in prison.  For some years, Gandhi even appeared to some to have disappeared from the public view.  It would be another twenty-five years before India would attain independence, and his assassin was not alone in arguing that the supposed architect of Indian independence may have set back the cause of Indian freedom.  It is, of course, a contrafactual to argue that India may well have been free long before 1947 if Gandhi had not imposed his will on the Congress and pressed for a suspension of the civil disobedience movement.  But is another view possible?

In the years after Chauri Chaura and his release from prison, Gandhi would go on to grab the world’s attention with the Dandi march. His tour through strife torn Noakhali and his fast in Calcutta have been mentioned as among the most heroic moments in an epic life.  Chauri Chaura is, when not seen as a blot, largely obscured in the narratives.  I wish to suggest that, in withdrawing mass civil disobedience, Gandhi was extraordinarily daring and took what can be viewed as one of the boldest steps in world history to secure politics on an ethical footing. That colonial injustice was writ large did not allow him, in his view, to exonerate the participants in what he with characteristic bluntness called ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’.  The question of means in relation to ends in politics is inescapably present to those who have aspire to an ethical framework of action, but Gandhi’s much loftier conception of the ethical life did not lead to the calculus where the interests of a nation could be placed before the lives of even a few individuals. Who, he asked, was prepared to wipe the tears from the faces of the widows of the butchered policemen?  It is possible to argue that if India, far more so than most other countries that would be set on the path of decolonization, could persist with democracy and not slide into authoritarian political rule or military dictatorship, it may have had to do with Gandhi’s own principled adherence to nonviolence and the manner in which he took India along with him on that journey.

It is thus not ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ but rather the miracle of Chauri Chaura that we are called upon to think about at this critical juncture in the country’s history when Gandhi is openly derided and the Republic of India is on the precipice of an interminable decline into authoritarianism. We should be haunted both by ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ and the possibilities of redemption that knot nonviolence to violence.

First published at aplive.in under the same title with a truncated last paragraph. Access it here.

The published version at ABP (Gujarati) available in Gujarati as ચૌરી ચૌરા અને ભારતનું ભાગ્ય

Norwegian translation by Lars Olden available as Chauri Chaura og Indias skjebne

Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

Part III of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights.  Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan, as wooden characters.  It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on ‘true events’, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this artistic license permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility.  The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, as custodians of law and order and firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians.  The highly placed colonial official Major-General John Malcolm, one-time Governor of Bombay and a prolific author, was speaking for every one of his ilk when in 1823 he wrote that ‘almost all who from knowledge and experience have been capable of forming any judgment upon the question, are agreed that our power in India rests on the general opinion of the Natives of our comparative superiority in good faith, wisdom, and strength, to their own rulers’ (A Memoir of Central India, Vol 2, Appendix 18). And that was putting it in mild and even polite language, considering that James Mill thought of India as being in a ‘rude’ (primitive) stage of civilization and others wrote of the ‘savagery’ of Indians.  To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857.  If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.

Statue of Udham Singh, Amritsar, 1990.
Statue of Udham Singh, Amrtisar, 2018.

Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile.  When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on 13 March 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name of ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’.  Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’.  What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies:  ‘Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India’. Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable.  Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh, and Frank Brazil.  We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes.  The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease.  Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh.  Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled over in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded.   In an extended sequence lasting over fifteen minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded.  It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind:  1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.

*****

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a ‘world-class’ tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex.  The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand.  The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act.  Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male.  The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver.  The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would ‘send a wrong message’, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred.  However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year of him, that stand cheek by jowl.  One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a clean-shaven man, recognizable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.

Close-up of the outstretched arm of Udham Singh holding a lump of earth in his right hand, from a statue of him in Amritsar, 2018

There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity.  Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon.  The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that ‘more than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.’  An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing else but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that ‘might makes right’. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt.  Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.

(concluded)

See also Part I:  The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge, here.

Part II:  The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh, here.

The 3 parts together were first published in marginally shorter form as “The Enigma of Udham Singh: Jallianwala Bagh and the Solitude of Revenge” in Open magazine (print and digital, 5 November 2021), available here.

The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh

Part II of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterized Udham’s own life.  To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonized Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’.  The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one.  The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age.  Attempts to claim Udham as a Khalsa Sikh doubtless also have something to do with the fact that he was raised at the Central Khalsa Orphanage from 1907 onwards.  The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act.  We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler, carpenter, and engineer, and even as a lingerie salesman and as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol.  Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him.  Just why it took him more than twenty years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery.  But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years:  he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a keen if not voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books.  The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film point perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh.  The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a sharper sense of the solidarity of the working class.  Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative.  Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides.  The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927.  Apparently Udham’s many supporters seem to have swallowed whole the notion that revolutionaries can be forgiven not only their excesses but such derelictions of family duty and parental responsibility if for no other reason than that making “revolution” is a forbidding task and that revolutionaries must not be subjected to the standards of bourgeois society.  In the US, in any case, Udham would for some time have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as ‘Bengali Harlem’, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion.  These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.

Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests, or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma.  To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and he would have come to know that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression.  He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, ‘We had our Bloody Sunday’, a reference of course both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, ‘Your revolution and mine are the same.  You lamb, I lamb:  the butcher the same.’ But there is no hint that, in twenty years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as a HSRA member were quite limited.  He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of ‘revolution’, but slogans do not make a revolution.  Indians, V S Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of the HSRA, which was as much of a slogan-making factory as it was a bomb-making workshop.

‘Let the world know’, Udham says to detective inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, ‘that I was a revolutionary.’  We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. Udham was in the vicinity of the massacre and, the film strongly avers, arrived at the blood-soaked Jallianwala Bagh later in the evening; and he then took an oath that he would avenge the massacre.  He nursed this grudge for twenty-one years before felling O’Dwyer with shots from his revolver and thereby demonstrating his patriotism, but what is “revolutionary” about such a practice of politics?  It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence, and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi.  We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except in the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter into politics.  One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding country-made guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, ‘Inquilab zindabad’ (‘Long Live Revolution’).  The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of ‘insanity’ which had caused him ‘deep pain’. While expressing his condolences to ‘the deceased’s family’, Gandhi noted that ‘such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed’ (Statement to the Press, 14 March 1940).  Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving V. K. Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as ‘abhorrent’ but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to ‘make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home.  It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect’ (Harijan, 23 March 1940).

What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, the HSRA, and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial.  It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer.  O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration.  But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators.  Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes.  Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by the HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognized the political nature of their acts.  It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship to Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender.  Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:

            Udham:  I was in jail for four years [1927-31].  But not for a crime.

            Prosecutor:  Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they

                        had not committed a crime?

            Udham:  No, no, no crime.  I was fighting – fighting for freedom . . .

(to be continued)

See also Part One, The Making of Sardar Udham: A Massacre, a Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge.

The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge

Part I of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Udham Singh after his arrest by the police, 13 March 1940.

What’s in a statue?  Everything, I said to myself, as I chanced upon a road sign pointing to ‘Udham Singh Nagar’ as I was making my way down to Delhi from Corbet National Park one winter afternoon in 2009.  My instinct told me that Udham Singh Nagar was almost certainly named after Udham Singh and that a statue of the revolutionary, best known for carrying out a political assassination of a retired British administrator in 1940, was very likely going to be found in the town centre.  Indeed, asking the driver to take the slight diversion, we came upon the statue of Udham Singh soon enough.  It was surrounded by fruit vendors; upon my asking some of them, and the customers, if they knew whose statue it was, I was met with blank stares.  People seemed puzzled at my interest in it; one man was snoozing by its base, while others took refuge under the roof top over the statue from the glaring sun.  One cheeky fellow remarked that I seemed educated and I had only to read the plaque to become enlightened.  Just what makes a person speaking in the ‘vernacular’ rather than in English still look ‘educated’ in India—the person’s deportment, a certain bearing, his or her apparel, a SLR camera in hand—is an interesting question in itself.

Statue of Udham Singh, Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2008.

The Austrian essayist and crafter of the modernist novel, Robert Musil, wrote rather presciently that ‘the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them.  There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.’  It is extraordinary that statues are everywhere around us and we are generally quite oblivious of them, except perhaps to remember them as landmarks or when giving directions. Whoever thinks that a statue is meant to jog the memory, or call to mind the achievements or merits of a ‘great person’, knows little about signification.  Around the statue of Udham Singh, in a town named after him, no one appeared to know who he was.  Yet it was unmistakably him, even if there had been no plaque identifying him:  clean-shaven, suited and booted, a pistol in his extended right hand.  Someone not familiar with the iconography of India’s modern martyrs may have mistaken him perhaps for Bhagat Singh, but the younger revolutionary who was Udham Singh’s idol sports a trilby that sits at a slight angle on his head and he is never, almost never, shown with a revolver.  As is true of most statues, it was evidently in need of a thorough washing; in the few minutes that I was there, a few pigeons landed on it and dropped their poop.  Whether the statues are of Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, Lenin or Lincoln, war criminals or generals, swindlers or altruists, pigeons treat them all alike.  So, perhaps, there is nothing to statues.  But nevertheless there is, as shall be seen, many a tale that hangs on an Udham Singh statue.

*****

It was the late afternoon of April 13, 1919.  Spring was in the air; so too was dissent.  Amritsar had for the last few days been seething with unrest as the nationalist agitation gathered strength and on April 11 an elderly Englishwoman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten before being taken to safety by some Indians.  As E. M. Forster once astutely remarked, the phrase ‘women and children’ makes the Englishman feel sanctimonious and is enough warrant to provoke him to righteous fury.  Amritsar and most of the Punjab were placed under martial law and the commanding officer at Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer, imposed Section 144 which prohibited unlawful assemblies.  People from neighbouring towns and villages were still pouring into the city and the 13th was the first day of Baisakhi.  Perhaps as many as 20,000 people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, in adamant defiance, as Dyer was to explain later, of his orders.  Commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, Dyer appeared at the walled enclosure of the bagh and ordered firing without warning upon the unarmed crowd.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of ‘the innocents’:  men, women, and children were all fair game. The firing stopped only when the troops ran out of ammunition.  At least 379 people died that day; another 1000 or more were wounded.  Testifying later before an inquiry committee known after its chairman as the Hunter Commission, appointed by the British to inquire into the ‘Punjab Disturbances’, Dyer was candid enough to admit that had the sole entrance to the enclosure not been so narrow as to prevent the armored car which was trailing him from being brought into the bagh, he would almost certainly have used the machine gun with which the vehicle was equipped to mow down the crowd.

Jallianwala Bagh, Amrtisar, 1919. Photograph: Photograph: Zeutschel Omniscan. Source: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Udham Singh, born in Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab on 26 December 1899, was not all of twenty when the Amritsar massacre took place. Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s just released lengthy biopic, tells his tale, or rather the story of his single-minded resolve to avenge the massacre.  The film is but one of many recent attempts to install the ‘revolutionary’ who carried out the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer twenty-one years after the massacre and paid for it with his life at the center of our political imagination, but it also invites our attention with the claim that ‘it is based on true events’.  Udham Singh was in Amritsar that fateful night, according to the film, but had fortuitously skipped the meeting at the bagh.  Though the film naturally does not confuse Dyer with O’Dwyer, a common enough confusion on the part of many, there appears to be some evidence that Udham did confuse the two Irishmen at least on some occasions.  It would not have been the first time that the self-proclaimed nationalist revolutionaries had erred in this fashion:  some may remember that, in a case of mistaken identity, Bhagat Singh and his comrades shot dead Assistant Superintendent of Police John Saunders when they were intending to assassinate Superintendent of Police James Scott. O’Dwyer was then the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab and, as the film makes amply clear, he was consistently supportive of the action that Dyer took that day.  Udham was poorly educated and it is not clear what he knew of O’Dwyer; strikingly, neither the film, nor any scholar who has worked on Udham Singh, has put forward an explanation as to why he from the outset planned to kill O’Dwyer rather than Dyer. It may be said that the choice had serendipitously been made for Udham:  the butcher of Amritsar, as Dyer came to be known, died of arteriosclerosis in 1927 after a long illness.  Now there remained O’Dwyer, perhaps the more malignant architect of an ‘episode’ that Winston Churchill denounced, not without some pomposity, as ‘without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire . . . an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’

A news item from The Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1919. The news of the massacre was suppressed in the British press and it was not until eight months later that it was reported at some length in British newspapers.

(to be continued)

Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

Georgian translation by Ana Mirilashvili available here.