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:


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