*Fidelity to the Constitution of India:  An Illiterate Muslim Woman and Her Relentless Search for Justice

Do not be surprised if you never heard the name of Bilkis Bano. Much of the world is unlikely to have heard her name.  From a conventional standpoint, she has absolutely no claim on the world’s attention.  She is a Muslim woman of little education and from a working-class background.  She commands neither looks nor wealth.  It is all but inconceivable that she would ever have a “wardrobe failure”, if only because she has barely enough to wear.  If all this were not enough to make her into a non-entity in a world that is dazzled only by riches, the inanities of ‘celebrity culture’—ask the Kardashian sisters, and they could write a modern-day epic with their thousands of mindless exploits, still counting—or “achievements” as these are usually understood, Bilkis Bano is also “damaged goods”.

BilkisBanoApr2019

Bilkis Bano with her husband, Yakub Rasool, at a press conference in New Delhi, April 2019.

The year was 2002.  Muslims were being slaughtered in Gujarat.  Its Chief Minister at the time, Narendra Modi, later claimed before a special investigative team that he was unaware of the hundreds of killings that were taking place practically under his nose.  Thousands of people were injured, killed, maimed, wounded in spirit; few suffered as much as Bilkis Bano, a 21-year old who on March 3 was gang-raped in her village home near Ahmedabad while she was seven months pregnant.  Bano’s 3-year old was also killed before her very eyes.  Altogether 14 members of her family were murdered.  Bano was left alive, as the killers thought, to nurse her wounds—and, more importantly, to serve as a palpable reminder to members of her community of how they should mind their place in a predominantly Hindu society.

GujaratKillings2002GujaratKillings2002.2

In January 2008, nearly six years after Bilkis Bano was abandoned by her rapists as among the living dead, a special court convicted 11 men of murder, rape, and criminal conspiracy and sentenced them to life imprisonment.  I then argued in an editorial piece, “Mother Courage”, for the Hindustan Times (4 February 2008) that Bilkis Bano be awarded the Bharat Ratna [literally, “Jewel of India”], which is the highest civilian honor available to an Indian citizen and had thus far only been conferred on fewer than 40 people since its inception in 1954.  “In the loud din being heard these days over the emergence of a new, young, and confident India, typified as much by India’s cricketing triumphs as by the launch of a dream car for the ‘common man’ and brash talk of India as a global power,” I wrote at that time, “Bilkis represents a genuine ray of hope that there is something to live for in the idea of Indian democracy.”

BilkisBano2018

Bilkis Bano with her husband and daughter a year ago in New Delhi, shortly before a Supreme Court hearing. Credit: Shome Basu.

My argument would have seemed bizarre to those who are aware that the Bharat Ratna is supposed to be conferred on those who have rendered exceptionally meritorious public service to the nation or whose accomplishments do the nation proud.  Many of its recipients have doubtless been worthy of this supreme civilian honor, among them eminent practitioners of the arts such as Satyajit Ray, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. Close to half of the awardees of the Bharat Ratna, including six former Prime Ministers, held high political office.  It is understandable that the luminaries so honored should include Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as the country’s first Prime Minister for seventeen years but whose formidable place within the struggle for independence is equally indisputable.  One need not even speak of his large and rather rich corpus of writings and his mastery of English prose.  Nevertheless, it is worth asking why the notion of “public service of the highest order” has been so narrowly defined as to preponderantly favor those who, as holders of elected office, were perforce performing their duties—and sometimes, to be candid, abusing the privileges of their office.  The real question is not whether all recipients of the Bharat Ratna honored for “public service” have been worthy of the honor, but whether holders of office, who are getting recognition enough, should at all be rewarded.

Bharat-Ratna

So what might qualify Bilkis Bano, an illiterate woman, for the Bharat Ratna?  Where most others in her situation would have succumbed and fled to safety, Bano filed a First Information Report (FIR), something that people in her position are rarely able to do so, and thus compelled the police—and, later, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)—to open an investigation against the suspects.  We must weigh her remarkable resolve against the fact that the middle class in Gujarat would, just months after the pogrom against the Muslims, vote Mr. Modi back into power, which he would certainly have interpreted as an endorsement of the chilling culture of authoritarianism and militant Hindu nationalism which he encouraged in his home state and which he has since then carried over into the rest of India.  Mr. Modi has spoken of the Gujarat “model of development”, but the state which gave the world Mohandas Gandhi has in the last two decades become India’s laboratory for seeding new modes of barbaric hatred.  Some portions of India, judging from the news in last few years, seem intent on emulating Gujarat’s model of hate.  In her quest for justice, Bano received not an iota of assistance from the state government; to the contrary, since her life was under constant threat, she had to move more than a dozen times, and her apprehensions that witnesses could be harmed and the evidence tampered with were doubtless well-grounded. Her lawyers successfully had the court case, which commenced in Ahmedabad, shifted to Mumbai.

The trial dragged on but Bano was not one to be intimidated.  Few would have thought her likely to have such resilience. I have already spoken of what transpired in 2008:  though her rapists and the killers who snatched members of her family from her were convicted, the court found the evidence inadequate to convict either the policemen who characteristically failed to come to her aid or the doctors who tampered with the medical evidence.  Yet Bano persisted:  finally, in July 2017, a court convicted seven policemen and doctors of criminal negligence in the performance of their duties.

Bilkis Bano is now, this week, once again in the news.  Her quest for justice, it appears, has finally come to an end.  The Supreme Court of India has directed the state government of Gujarat to pay her Rs 50 lakhs (nearly $72,000), provide her with a job, and furnish her accommodation. For every Bilkis Bano who has prevailed, there are tens of thousands of ordinary women and men in India whose sufferings have not even entered the history books.  While the ruling in the Supreme Court might justly be celebrated, dozens of other cases languish in the courts.  Nevertheless, for the moment we must be focused on how we might understand the singular achievement of Bilkis Bano.  Though Bilkis is not a lettered woman, she recognized that the communal outlook is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat that no institution of either state or civil society can be said to be free of its grip or reach.  She did not wilt under rigorous and aggressive cross-examination by the defence, unflinchingly identified all the accused in court, and could not be cowed into abandoning or contradicting her testimony.

Remarkable as all that is, there is still something more exceptional about Bilkis Bano.  The rich in India have been opting out of the state over the course of the last two decades, except of course in the matter of receiving subsidies in the form of tax breaks, easy access to credit lines, and so on.  They certainly have no use for the Constitution of India.  Bano’s courage, dedication to the truth, and faith in the judicial system offer a faint glimmer of hope that Indian democracy is not entirely moribund.  It appears that her husband and lawyers stood by her through the long dark years while she struggled for justice, but the greater marvel is that Bano sustained her faith in the Constitution of India when all the odds were stacked against her.   The Constitution is the only document that every Indian can stand by, and perhaps that may one of the many reasons why so few are willing to put their trust in it.  The educated in India should take some lessons from Bilkis Bano.

There is not the remotest possibility that Bilkis Bano will receive even the slightest recognition from the Gujarat Government or even the Government of India. It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of an needle than for her to be conferred the Bharat Ratna.  I would not be surprised if the Gujarat Government, which has abandoned the slightest semblance of decency or moral probity, found some way to dodge, dilute, or desecrate the orders of the Supreme Court.  But, whatever the outcome, it is more than a minor relief to know that at least one Indian citizen, and that too a person who is unlikely to appear on any one’s mental horizon, is prepared to defend the Constitution of India with her life.

 

 

 

*“The Problem of Kashmir” and the Inner Demons of India & Pakistan

(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)

Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable.  Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified.  Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems.  Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net.  The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment.  One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.

Zia-ul Haq

Muhammad Zia-ul Haq ruled as President of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988. He declared martial law in 1977; he died in a plane crash. The Islamicization of Pakistan did not, contrary to common belief, commence with him; but the pace of Islamicization doubtless greatly increased under him. He is shown her with army staff officers; photo: White Star archives.

However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper.  It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials.  The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society.  Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago.  India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common.  But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today.  What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged.  Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past.  The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims.  This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.

AmjadSabri

Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Qawaali singer, was assassinated in June 2016 in broad daylight in Karachi.

India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism.  The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length.  Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus.  The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence.  The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly.  Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence.  Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000.  Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’.  The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.

NarendraDabholkar

Narendra Dabholkar, an Indian secular intellectual who was a staunch advocate of rationalism, was assassinated by two gunmen in Pune on 20 August 2013.

Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality.  Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus.  What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.

BabriMasjid

The Babri Masjid, a sixteenth century mosque in the North Indian city of Ayodhya, was destroyed by Hindu militants on 6 December 1992.

As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework.  If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo.  Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings.  I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders.  Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”.  I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.

(concluded)

The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).

*Nationalism in South Asia:  India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism

(in two parts)

Each time Pakistan and India make the news together, one can expect that the long-festering conflict between the two countries has taken a turn for the worse.  Nearly every American story on this conflict begins with (and often does little to proceed beyond) the observation that the two countries have fought three wars with each other since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, and have on several other occasions been on the verge of war.  The most recent round of this conflict, revolving largely around the disputed status of Kashmir, was precipitated by what India, and most likely the world, viewed as a “terrorist” attack on a convoy of its soldiers in February.  (Why only most likely:  we are all aware of the adage that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.)  A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into a truck carrying Indian soldiers from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) near Pulwama on a road leading into Srinagar, killing forty soldiers.  India responded to this deadly attack with an unprecedented aerial assault, designed to liquidate a terrorist training facility beyond the “Line of Control”, the de facto border that separates the two countries.  At least one Indian fighter jet was shot down; though the Pakistanis initially claimed to have shot down two Indian jets, they were not able to produce the debris of two aircraft and hours later, without any explanation, the Pakistan government revised the figure downward to one jet.  But difficulties in Pakistan’s narrative are a minor gloss since, as nearly everyone who is not wholly partisan to the conflict can discern, India almost certainly came off much worse in the propaganda war and in its ability to manipulate the media.  The initial Indian claims to have eliminated a terrorist camp and killed 300 terrorists could not only not be verified, but are quite likely fictitious; indeed, according to most commentators, Indian jets, challenged by Pakistan’s aerial defense, were compelled to shed their payload in a hurry and the bombs appeared to have fallen on barren land.  The details remain murky, but fears that the situation would escalate into an outright war appear to have eased with Pakistan’s return of an Indian pilot, whose fighter jet was shot down by the Pakistanis, within days of his capture.

AttackOnIndianConvoy

The attack on the Indian convoy at Pulwama, outside Srinagar.

The United States, China, and other powers have repeatedly urged both Pakistan and India to seek diplomatic solutions to “the problem of Kashmir”. India has for the last two decades insisted that Pakistan cease to allow its soil, or the territory under its control, to be used by terrorists to initiate attacks in India, and it has also called for Pakistan to take concrete action against known militants such as the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar.  Although the United Nations declared Jaish-e-Mohammed a terrorist organization in 2001, previous Indian attempts to have Azhar himself be branded a terrorist have been stymied by China.   In mid-March, the UN effort, spearheaded by the US, Britain, and France, to render Azhar into a pariah was once again blocked by China, which put on hold their request to blacklist him, an action that would have had the effect of placing him on a global travel ban, freezing all his assets, and making it somewhat difficult for him to acquire arms.  In recent days, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson is on record as saying, “China’s position is very clear. This issue should be resolved through cooperation. We don’t believe that any efforts without the consensus of members will achieve a satisfying result.”  Such anodyne diplomatic language is barely surprising:  the consensus to outlaw Azhar exists, barring, of course, the inclinations of Pakistan and China itself.  Whether China, which like nearly every other country, is on paper pledged to do everything to remove the scourge of terrorism but is only emboldened to act when its own national interests are in question, is even remotely interested in joining the rest of the world in outlawing Azhar is thus seriously questionable.  We may say that China has in fact acted in its own national interest:  it is, above all, committed to its One Road One Belt in which Pakistan occupies a significant place.  One might have thought that China, which has scarcely hesitated to place its own innocent Muslims in camps which are far more than reeducation camps and yet something lesser than concentration camps, would be eager to do its bit to bring a terrorist acting in the name to Islamic resurgence to heel, but it is not about to squander its ambitious designs merely to add some element of discomfort to one terrorist’s life.

JeMChiefMasoodAzhar

JeM Chief, Masoor Azhar.

There is, in any case, every reason to doubt whether a diplomatic victory by India in the matter of Azhar, should that materialize, would have any significant impact on militant activity. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), whose leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed masterminded the terrorist attacks of November 2008 across multiple sites in Bombay over four days, was placed under UN mandated sanctions in March 2009, yet moves around in Pakistan with near impunity.  The United States has placed a $10 million bounty on his head, and every now and then the Pakistani authorities put him behind bars only to release him a few days later.  Even though there have been terrorist attacks within Pakistan itself, mainly targeting Shias, Christians, and other supposed infidels and apostates, the temptation to play with fire is too strong.  The supposition, on India’s part, that militant activity can be brought under control through vigorous diplomatic efforts is as fallacious as it is wholly insensitive to the consideration that, even as Pakistan has encouraged terrorist activity with the hope of keeping the embers of revolt in Kashmir burning, some militant elements are not merely beyond its control while others act with the connivance of the state.  Militants have had a free run, and will continue to do so:  absolutely nothing, and certainly not platitudes from its present Prime Minister, Imran Khan, points to Pakistan’s willingness to forgo what it deems to be the only weapon it wields in its attempt to be heard in the din of contemporary politics.

Balakot

Pakistan took journalists to this site at Balakot where the Indian Air Force (IAF) claims to have wiped out a JeM terrorist training camp.

Pakistan, it should also be noted, has been quite adept at waging a diplomatic and media offensive against India at every turn.  Imran Khan’s brilliant quip, describing Pakistani jets’ forays into Indian territory and anticipating its eventual release of the captured Indian pilot, sums up its victory in the latest round:  “They hit our trees, so we thought we would hit their stones.”  If the Indian position has pivoted around the view that Kashmir is an internal affair, calling strictly for bilateral talks and agreements between the two countries, Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir conflict.  It not only rejects India’s argument that intervention by foreign powers constitutes the abrogation of Indian sovereignty—which, in any case, Pakistan does not recognize with respect to Kashmir—but has also invoked the matter of humanitarian relief for besieged Kashmiris.  Pakistan has acted on the supposition that it can enlist the aid of Muslim-majority countries in the name of Islamic brotherhood, and that the liberation of Kashmir’s Muslims contributes to the liberation of Muslims globally.  But Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive, however adroitly it has been carried out, has no prospect of succeeding in the long run.  It is not only that prolific terrorist activity has given Pakistan a bad name, and in some marginal respects even rendered Pakistan into a semi-pariah state, or that India is bound by the logic of the nation-state to be inflexible in its hold over Kashmir.  There is also something of an international consensus, even if it is not always openly conceded, that the Simla Agreement, which the two countries signed in the wake of Pakistan’s defeat in the war of December 1971, legitimately allows India to press for a bilateral rather than international solution to the dispute over Kashmir.

 

(to be continued)

*Frightfulness in Late Colonial India: Dyerism & the Aftermath of an Atrocity

Part III (Final Part) of The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

Gandhi would go on to 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 and thus he moved on.  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 was, however, not even remotely akin to 1857, if only because the Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and, moreover, 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.  The Commission held hearings over several months, in Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, and various other cities. Both O’Dwyer and Dyer chafed at this inquiry, and 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.

HunterCommissionAmrtisarEvidence

Amritsar was one of the many cities in the Punjab, and elsewhere in India, where the Hunter Commission collected testimony. The Evidence ran into five volumes, published by the Government of India in 1920.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Much as Indians such as Tilak, Nehru, and Gandhi had demonstrated their mastery of the courtroom, so the Congress showed that they had a command over the inquiry commission both as a form of governance and as a form of knowledge. Indian affairs had never drawn much interest in Parliament, but, quite 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 his criticisms of Dyer did nothing to endear him to the General’s supporters and the defenders of the political authoritarianism associated with the Punjab tradition.  Conservatives charged the government with throwing Dyer to the wolves.  For every person prepared to critique Dyer, two stood forward to defend him.  The Hunter Commission had found him guilty only of an error in judgment, exercising excessive force, and having a somewhat mistaken conception of his duties.  Dyer nevertheless could not be permitted to continue in his position, and he was dismissed from the army, even if many senior officers in the Army Council demurred, at half-pay. All this was enough to outrage the English public, for whom, the same Orwell had once remarked, liberty was like the very air they breathed.  A hero had been unfairly maligned, and the Morning Post raised funds in support of “The Man Who Saved India.”  At its closing, the Fund amounted to over 26,000 Pounds, or a little over 1.1 million Pounds in today’s currency.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though arteriosclerosis cut his life short.

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Tagore described the incident in a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood 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.  The day of reckoning that O’Dwyer had spoken of had come, if unexpectedly.  What most accounts occlude is a stunning little detail: when captured, and in subsequent police documents, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohamed Singh Azad, so to taunt the British whose entire Indian adventure had been tainted by their willful determination to characterize India as a land of eternal communal tensions.  And then there was Gandhi, who with his gift for neologisms coined the word “Dyerism” to signify the repressive 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.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 1.07.22 PM

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.  Dyer, on all accounts, remained unrepentant to the end of his life, but was Churchill ever afflicted by remorse?  It cannot be said that remorse is part of the story of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Remorse, it should be clear, is not part of the lexicon of any colonial state.

(concluded)

Parts I and III together appeared, in a slightly different version, as “100 Years Later:  The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh” in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 April 1913), with some original artwork commissioned by the newspaper.  Access the article here.

For Part I of this blog essay, click here; for Part II on “The Crawling Lane”, which is not included in the Hindu version, click here.

*The “Crawling Lane”:  A Colonial Atrocity and Extreme Humiliation

Part II of “The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh”

The incident of the Crawling Lane is usually noted in passing, often as a footnote to the ‘greater’ atrocity of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Some accounts of the massacre at the Bagh altogether omit any mention of what transpired on the Kucha Kaurianwala, a street that enters the historical record as the “Crawling Lane”. But it forms more than an unusual and especially revolting chapter in the annals of colonial atrocities, offering vivid insight into how humiliation features as a motive force in history.

CrawlingLane

Soldiers of the 25th Country of London Cyclist Batallion enforcing the ‘Crawling Order’: a contemporary photograph by an unidentified photographer.

Consequent to the arrest of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew on April 11, the crowds that had gathered together to voice their opposition to their arrest took matters into their own hands. That same day, Miss Marcella Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a resident of Amritsar for over fifteen years, was unable to escape the wrath of the crowd.  As she was bicycling down the Kucha Kaurianwala, she was set upon by a crowd that knocked her down from her bicycle, and then delivered blows to her head with sticks.  Miss Sherwood rose to her feet, and had just started to run when she was again brought down by the force of the blows that struck her. On the subsequent attempt she reached a house but the door was slammed shut in her face.  She was again beaten and left on the street in a critical condition. The crowd then dispersed. Miss Sherwood was soon thereafter rescued:  an Indian doctor attended to her at Govindgarh fort, where European women and children were gathered together, and eventually Miss Sherwood was put on board a ship sailing for England.

For the next two days the city of Amritsar was quiet, but to the British it appeared that cry of revolution was resounding in other parts of the Punjab.  The massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh took place on April 13:  General Dyer had sought to create a ‘wide moral impression’ and cower the entire city into abject submission. Nevertheless, keeping in mind the staggering loss of lives, it is germane that many Indian nationalists such as Gandhi saw in the events following in the wake of the massacre yet a greater national humiliation.  On April 19, Dyer promulgated the so-called ‘crawling order’, which remained in effect until its revocation a week later.  A flogging booth was placed in the middle of the lane where Miss Sherwood fell, and both ends of the street—some 200 yards long—were manned by soldiers, who were entrusted with the task of enforcing the order that any Indian, the streets’ residents not excepted, who traversed it did so, to use the language employed by Dyer, ‘on all fours’.  Jawaharlal Nehru attempted to set straight the record, in a letter to the editor of The Bombay Chronicle that appeared on 6 October 1919, and after Gandhi had written on the “hands and knees” order, on what exactly constituted the ‘crawling order’: “The evidence of respectable citizens of Amritsar shows that people were made to crawl not on their hands and knees but on their bellies after the manner of snakes and worms.” Any infraction of the order was punished immediately with a number of lashes administered at the flogging post.  It is thought that around fifty people were compelled to undergo the indignity of crawling on their bellies.

PublicFloggingInAmrtisar

A public flogging in Amritsar, 1919.

“It seemed intolerable to me”, Dyer was later to write, “that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.  Civil law was at an end and I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case.” Testifying later before the official committee that began its deliberations on the Punjab disturbances more than six months after the incidents in question, Dyer stated that he “also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.”  His primary motivation was to punish “the wicked”, and though he could have chosen any number of ways to implement his resolve, he “also” wanted to render the street “sacred”. But what could Dyer have meant in declaring his resolve to keep the street sacred?  And by what reasoning did he seek to uphold the idea of the sacred through the infliction of the gravest form of humiliation upon others?  Dyer claimed that he had fired at the Jallianwala Bagh to save lives: if the way to save lives is to kill people, then surely it is not inconceivable that the way to the sacred is through the treacherous path of the profane. Dyer’s action in keeping the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted “sacred” cannot be reduced to an inversion characteristic of colonial discourse.

The Government of the Punjab, in its own report, depicts the assault on Miss Sherwood as the most dastardly act imaginable.  The crowd that pursued Miss Sherwood is said in the report to have raised cries of “Kill her, she is English.”  “The witnesses who are particularly good and have been entirely unshaken in cross-examination”, states the report, “prove that towards the end of the chase she was seized by Ahmad Din, who seized her dress and threw her down.  His brother, Jilla, pulled off her hat.”  Her assailants, let it be noted, are named as Muslims; her rescuers would be descried as “Hindus”:  perhaps another attempt, I am tempted to think, to sow division among Indians. Another man “caught her by her hair” and then struck her on the head with one of his shoes.  Here, quite unmistakably, one detects the spectre of the Rebellion of 1857-58: nothing had outraged English sentiments more than the assault on Englishwomen, though an inquiry initiated at the behest of the Viceroy, Lord Canning, in the aftermath of the Rebellion had established that no Englishwoman was subjected to sexual assault. Miss Sherwood was certainly at the mercy of her assaulters, and if nothing was more inaccessible to the Indian male than a white woman, here was a rare opportunity to make good that deficiency.  In the event, the “savage mob which had been shouting ‘Victory to Gandhi’ [and] ‘Victory to Kitchlew’ raised the cry ‘she is dead” and moved on. Then, several days later, Dyer inspected the spot where she “ultimately fell”, and ordered a “triangle”, or whipping post, to be set up at that spot.  Two British pickets were also posted, one at either end of the street, “with orders to allow no Indians to pass, [and] that if they had to pass they must go through on all fours.” In the more graphic language of the Congress Committee, “the process consisted in the persons laying flat on their bellies and crawling exactly like reptiles.”

To see what may have been running through his mind, and to surmise at the moral and political framework upon which Dyer was undoubtedly relying, we must turn to his letter of 25th August 1919 to his superiors, his letter of 3rd July 1920 to the War Office, his testimony before the Hunter Committee, and the findings of both the Hunter and Congress committees.  “A helpless woman had been mercilessly beaten,” wrote Dyer,  “in a most cruel manner, by a lot of dastardly cowards.”  She was beaten with “sticks and shoes” and knocked down several times.  “To be beaten with shoes”, Dyer wrote in his report of August 25th, “is considered by Indians to be the greatest insult”, and he admitted that it seemed “intolerable to [him] that some suitable punishment could not be meted out.” Dyer says, “I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case”, and suddenly he had this ‘brain-wave’. What could be more “suitable” than to make them crawl?  What could be more ‘natural’ than that for a human being, or at least a human being born and bred in an Oriental country?  Let us hear Dyer in his own words, and allow him that hearing that he, who fired upon a crowd without so much as issuing a warning, constantly complained of not receiving:

The order meant that the street should be regarded as holy ground,

and that, to mark this fact, no one was to traverse it except in a

manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the

East be traversed.  My object was not merely to impress the

inhabitants, but to appeal to their moral sense in a way which I

knew they would understand.  It is a small point, but in fact

‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go down on all

fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation

to holy places.

To add to Dyer’s formal explanation of his order, we must consider also his evidence before the Hunter Committee.  “We look upon women as sacred or ought to”, he explained, and since the sacred had been rendered profane, the act of desecration would have to be undone.  Some readers of E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India (1924), may recall Mrs. Turton’s initial resolve to rally Englishwomen to the support of Miss Adela Quested, a younger English lady just arrived in India who imagines that she has been the victim of an Indian male’s irrepressible sexual lust:  Indian men, she states, “ought to crawl from here to the caves on their hands and knees whenever an Englishwoman’s in sight, they oughtn’t to be spoken to, they ought to be spat at, they ought to be ground into the dust . . .”  But let us return to our narrative: The profane, Dyer gives it has opinion, would have to be retransformed into the sacred:  “I also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred.  Therefore I did not want anybody to pass through it.” Woman, because she is sacred, evokes reverence and requires worship; reverence demands obeisance, the forms of which may vary from culture to culture; and since in the East “a place of special sanctity” is “naturally” traversed by going on all fours, on bended knees, or by crawling like a reptile, why not have the natives enact this transaction on ground recently consecrated as “sacred”, ground ‘holy’ by virtue of its association with a ‘holy’ person?

Miss Sherwood, an unmarried English woman, serving as a missionary and nurse, certainly did not represent motherhood, the citadel of sanctity, and to this extent she was no beacon of light showing women the way to a good, productive, and bountiful life; but she did stand for chastity, that other great ideal cherished by the Britisher as an ornament to womanhood, an ideal which particularly in a hot country of dangerous female sexuality stood to glorify the virtues of the European woman.   Here was a woman who, motivated only by the purest intentions, a servant to the ethic of tender caring, had devoted herself to the care and uplift of Indians.  And how did these ungrateful wretches reward her, except to shower her with beatings from shoes and sticks?  Imagining Miss Sherwood as a Virgin Mary or a Florence Nightingale, Dyer erected a monument to her chastity, and did so at the spot where she “ultimately fell”. Miss Sherwood survived her attack, but Dyer had already imagined her dead—thus we hear of the spot where she “ultimately fell” not just “fell”—and indeed her ‘martyrdom’ would have served him even better.

If we may speak of the architecture of holy spaces, then it is possible to speak of the “sacred street” as a Hindu temple, the whipping post as the sanctum sanctorum.  Before the deity the worshipper must grovel, reduce himself to zero, punish himself for his sins and excesses, make himself feel contemptible.  This is not the Hindu temple we know, but that is altogether beside the point, for we have only to think of the temple which Dyer had constructed in his “brain”, which as he says “at that time had a lot to do.” Dyer stated that “in fact ‘crawling order’ is a misnomer; the order was to go on all fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation to holy places.”  Here is not one claim, but several:  what Dyer is enumerating in respect of the terms of the order is really a fact, as contrasted to opinion, and therefore beyond dispute; secondly, whatever his critics may say, the natives understand him; thirdly, the natives at least would recognize the space he had consecrated as “holy ground; and, finally, the natives were only being asked to assume an “attitude” with which they were familiar, the familiar here being construed moreover as inoffensive.

The contention that both by nature and by custom the natives are used to such an attitude is particularly worth exploring.  Dyer argued that the street was not to be traversed “except in a manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the East be traversed.”  But why “naturally”—because by nature the Orientals assume an attitude of reverence and obsequiousness in a place of “special sanctity”, or because custom and habit have made the assumption of such an attitude natural?  It is quite likely that Dyer intended both the readings, but what is equally remarkable about both is Dyer assumption’s that he can penetrate the native mind, and even tell the native that he must live up to his nature and customs.  Habituated since time immemorial to despotic rule, the native accepts as “natural” a great many patterns of conduct entailing obsequiousness, loss of dignity, humiliation, indeed the effacement of self—conduct that no Englishman would tolerate.  ‘Civilized’ conduct was thus an affront to the native:  it contradicted his modes of thought and behavior, reversed the ‘natural’ order to which he was accustomed, and held out the threat of creating within him a turmoil from which he could seek no escape.

(to be concluded)

For Part I, click here.

For Part III, click here.

This essay is extracted, with minor modifications, from the author’s long article, “The Incident of the Crawling Lane:  Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919”, Genders 16 (Spring 1993), 35-60, which can be accessed from the author’s MANAS site.  Click here for the article (not a PDF version, however).

 

 

 

*The End of Empire: The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

I:  The “Event” and its Political Backdrop

(in multiple parts)

It has often been said that Britain lost its empire the day when, one hundred years ago, 55-year old Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered 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 entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to admit two armoured cars with mounted machine guns that Dyer had brought with him; perhaps, to compensate for that shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”:  women, men, and children were all legitimate targets, and at Dyer’s directions the troops deliberately aimed at those desperately seeking to clamber over the walls to safety.  Some people doubtless jumped into a deep well, and thus to their death, located at the northern end of the Bagh, on the other side of the Bazar Lakar Mandi. 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.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men:  “Good shooting.”  The Sunday picnic was over, and the men could take pride in their training:  “We have done a jolly good thing.”

ReginaldDyer

Colonel Reginald Dyer (acting Brigadier-General), a veteran of Frontier warfare.

 

Spring was in the air:  April 13 was Baisakhi, 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.  The end of World War I, to which ironically subjugated Indians had contributed with their own blood, brought forth not intimations of greater freedom but repression.  A Declaration by Secretary of State Edwin Montagu in August 1917 had provided more than a ray of hope to those Indians were still inclined to believe in the goodwill of the British.  It promised, in its most famous line, “Increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.”  Montagu had just assumed office, and the British were still in need of India’s men and material wealth in support of the war.  Some might thus attribute the seemingly generous statement of intent on the part of the British to make Indians capable of self-government as resulting in equal parts from the naivety of a British politician who did not sufficiently appreciate the British resolve to hold India and from a stratagem to keep India involved in a war not at all of its making and in which it had no stakes as such.  The Montagu Declaration would be followed, in mid-1918, by the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” which led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils.  Though British conservatives predictably railed against these concessions, the so-called liberal element in Indian politics grumbled that the reforms amounted to very little.  One might say that, as soon as the war was over, the British lion bared its fangs.  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 with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.”

JalllianawalaBaghSimplicissimus

A rendering of the massacre by the German artist Eduard Thony from the German magazine Simplicissimus, January 21, 1920 issue (p. 615). From the Heidelberg Digital Library.

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.”  In the Punjab, however, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer did not take kindly to the slightest expression of defiance of colonial authority and saw the “spectacle” as anything but “wonderful”.  He fancied himself a great upholder of the ‘Punjab tradition’, or the idea that ordinary Punjabis were simple folk without any interest in politics who had reposed their trust in the government and therefore deserved protection from corrupt urban-based nationalist Indians.  The iron hand of the colonial state had saved the Punjab from the “mutiny” of 1857-58 and its corrosive effects and the peasantry of this state, according the adherents of the ‘Punjab tradition’, expected the government to preserve “law and order.”  At a meeting of the Legislative Council in Lahore, O’Dwyer ridiculed the “recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts”, describing them as indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he ominously warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

AmritsarStreetsApril1913

Amritsar, April 1913.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving betrayed the fact that 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.”  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity 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 think otherwise.

AmritsarIncidentsUnknownPhotographer

“The spot where Miss Sherwood was assaulted”, reads the caption on a photograph from that time. The photographer remains unidentified.

(to be continued)