The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

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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.


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.


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 Scottish Referendum: A Desirable Dissolution of the Union of Great Britain

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”:  so William Butler Yeats famously wrote in his much-quoted poem, “The Second Coming”.  Some in Britain, contemplating the prospects of the dissolution of the Union of England, Scotland, and Wales, effected in 1707 and modified in the twentieth-century to accommodate the Unionists in Northern Ireland who resisted the idea of an independent Ireland, are warning of the impending anarchy if a majority of Scots should cast a ballot in favor of independence in Thursday’s referendum.  The beauty of the ballot, which will ask voters, “Should Scotland be an Independent Country”, and then signal their choice with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, resides in its simplicity; and it is precisely this simplicity which is no doubt the envy of many around the world—among others, Palestinians, Kurds, Basques, Kashmiris, Nagas, Texans, even some Californians and, if we may constitute such people as a ‘nation’, the gun-toting fanatics of the National Rifle Association in the US—who would certainly like to weigh in on the question of their independence.  However, the simplicity of the Scottish referendum resides in other considerations, too:  watching developments in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, nor are these the only places where the question of secessionism and new political formations looms large, one admires the Scots for attempting to settle this question through something other than the gun.  Malcolm X might have thought the ballot little better than the bullet, and he doubtless had good reasons to do so in a country where in many places the African American could only cast his ballot at the risk of receiving a bullet in his chest, but in today’s politics too little constructive use is made of the ballot.  The Scottish referendum, if nothing else, gives one hope that American-style electoral democracy, a furious sound show signifying absolutely nothing except the lifelessness of an American politics that has been consumed in equal measure by money and sheer stupidity, is not the last word in electoral politics.

Many are the arguments that have been advanced by both the proponents and detractors of Scottish independence.  Not surprisingly, nearly all the arguments that have been encountered in mainstream media—print, digital, television, social networks—verge on the economic and what might be called the narrowly political.  England’s three major political parties, though here again there is little that any more really distinguishes them from each other, have spoken in one voice in suggesting that the dissolution of the Union will be a major blow to Scotland itself.   It has been argued that bereft of its Union with England, Scotland would experience job loss, the advantages of the British pound, and the flight of capital; as a small nation-state, it is likely to become quite invisible and would be without the benefit of the political and economic security umbrella under which it is presently sheltered.  The advocates of Scottish independence argue quite otherwise, insisting, before anything else, that the Scots must be in a position to decide their own future and political outcomes.  Scotland’s priorities, argue the proponents of independence, are poorly reflected in the constitution of the British government.  There is little appetite in Scotland, for instance, for foreign wars, and a good many people would be only too happy to be rid of the nuclear submarine base.  Scotland has 59 Members of Parliament in Westminster, but only one of those belongs to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Tory party.  On the economic front, the cheerleaders for Scottish independence have argued that Scots are much more hospitable towards the idea of a welfare state than the English, and working-class support for Scottish independence is particularly high.  The notion that revenues from the North Sea oil and natural gas fields would, in the event of independence, be used only for projects to advance the advance of the Scots is often trumpeted as the clinching argument, though it is germane to point out that the 8 billion dollars in North Sea energy revenues that the British government received in 2013 amount to about only about three percent of the Scottish economy.

If there is to be a compelling argument for Scottish independence, it must surely also emanate from the tortuous history of the Union and the brutality with which the Scots were treated by the English for the greater part of two centuries.  To suggest this is by no means to excuse the Scots from the part they played in forging the British empire; indeed, they occupied a disproportionately prominent role in Indian administration.  But it is perhaps a truism that only those who have been brutalized go on to brutalize others, and the first principle for the student of colonialism is to come to the awareness that the English did not practice in their colonies in Asia or Africa anything that they had not first tested out on their subjects in Scotland and Ireland. The story of how Europe underdeveloped its various others, not least in the British Isles and in what is called Eastern Europe—just what was “Eastern Europe” becomes amply clear from the writings of the so-called Enlightenment giants such as Voltaire, for whom “Eastern Europe” was nothing more than the point at where the allegedly savage and animal-like Slavs began to predominate in the population—need not be rehearsed at any great length at this juncture, but a few fragments of this history are essential to convey the enormity of English injustice.  Following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, an attempt by “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to win the British crown for the Stuarts, Scottish Highland clansmen, who aided in this failed attempt, had to bear the burden of callous retribution.  What the English effected in Scotland was nothing short of ethnic cleansing:  the clan system was destroy

"Last of the Clan", a painting by Thomas Faed,   c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

“Last of the Clan”, a painting by Thomas Faed, c. 1865 (Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow)

ed and in various other ways the English struck at the heart of the Scottish way of life.   The tartan plaid and kilt were banned by the Act of Proscription of 1746-47—in the precise language of the act, which would not allow for any lesser penalties, the offence of wearing Highland clothing would attract “imprisonment, without bail, during the space of six months, and no longer; and being convicted of a second offence” would make the offender “liable to be transported”.  Highlanders were deprived of the right to own arms, and similarly Gaelic could no longer be taught in schools.  One might easily add to this list of persecutions, but nothing summarizes better what would become the pacification—an ugly word, which describes well how colonial powers acted with utter disregard for human life in their colonies—of the Scots than what is known to historians as the “Highland Clearances” which led to the mass-scale removal of the population of the Highlands, leaving it, wrote the popular historian John Prebble, “void of most, possibly 85-90%, of its people, trees and forests.”

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

Memorial Stone marking the site of the Battle of Culloden, 1746

In his charming but now little-read book, Two Cheers for Democracy, E. M. Forster, while championing English-style democracy over other forms of government, withheld the third cheer.  The English, he argued, had one insufferable vice:  hypocrisy.  How far this is peculiar to the English rather than a common condition afflicting a good deal of humankind is a question that need not be addressed at the moment.  Taking my cue from Forster, the argument for Scottish independence certainly deserves two cheers.  England, frankly, has not been humbled enough:  its immigration policies continue to be rotten, its visa regimes for citizens of its former colonies are not merely absurdly insulting but draconian, its disdain for the contributions of its own working class to the shaping of a humane society is appalling, and virulent racism is encountered in nearly every aspect of English life.  The nonviolent break-up of Great Britain is a most desirable thing; one hopes that if the referendum for Scottish independence succeeds, it will be eventually be a prelude to even more desirable outcomes, such as the break-up of the United States, which is far too big and powerful for its own good and certainly for the good of the rest of the world.  Secondly, no arguments are too strong for the devolution of power, the decentralization of authority, and autonomy for people who might choose their independence for ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other reasons.  There is, to put it in another language, an optimum size for a nation-state, and a great many nation-states are already far too big to both be governed efficiently and at the same time give all their people equal opportunities for their just advancement in various domains of life.  Nevertheless, there is something to be wary about in the demand for Scottish independence:  nationalism is almost always accompanied by a diminishing capacity for self-reflection.  When the Union dissolves, who will the Scot set himself or herself up against to know better his or her own self?  This is the problem that nationalism has not yet been able to resolve, and there is little to suggest that Scottish independence will yield new wisdom on this old and intractable problem.

The emptying out of the Highlands:  A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773

The emptying out of the Highlands: A pamphlet on Scottish emigration, Glasgow, 1773