*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.”

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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.

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*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.

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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).