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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
(to be continued)