Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

Part III of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights.  Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan, as wooden characters.  It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on ‘true events’, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this artistic license permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility.  The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, as custodians of law and order and firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians.  The highly placed colonial official Major-General John Malcolm, one-time Governor of Bombay and a prolific author, was speaking for every one of his ilk when in 1823 he wrote that ‘almost all who from knowledge and experience have been capable of forming any judgment upon the question, are agreed that our power in India rests on the general opinion of the Natives of our comparative superiority in good faith, wisdom, and strength, to their own rulers’ (A Memoir of Central India, Vol 2, Appendix 18). And that was putting it in mild and even polite language, considering that James Mill thought of India as being in a ‘rude’ (primitive) stage of civilization and others wrote of the ‘savagery’ of Indians.  To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857.  If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.

Statue of Udham Singh, Amritsar, 1990.
Statue of Udham Singh, Amrtisar, 2018.

Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile.  When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on 13 March 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name of ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’.  Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’.  What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies:  ‘Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India’. Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable.  Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh, and Frank Brazil.  We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes.  The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease.  Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh.  Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled over in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded.   In an extended sequence lasting over fifteen minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded.  It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind:  1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.

*****

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a ‘world-class’ tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex.  The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand.  The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act.  Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male.  The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver.  The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would ‘send a wrong message’, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred.  However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year of him, that stand cheek by jowl.  One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a clean-shaven man, recognizable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.

Close-up of the outstretched arm of Udham Singh holding a lump of earth in his right hand, from a statue of him in Amritsar, 2018

There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity.  Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon.  The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that ‘more than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.’  An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing else but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that ‘might makes right’. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt.  Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.

(concluded)

See also Part I:  The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge, here.

Part II:  The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh, here.

The 3 parts together were first published in marginally shorter form as “The Enigma of Udham Singh: Jallianwala Bagh and the Solitude of Revenge” in Open magazine (print and digital, 5 November 2021), available here.

The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh

Part II of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterized Udham’s own life.  To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonized Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’.  The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one.  The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age.  Attempts to claim Udham as a Khalsa Sikh doubtless also have something to do with the fact that he was raised at the Central Khalsa Orphanage from 1907 onwards.  The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act.  We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler, carpenter, and engineer, and even as a lingerie salesman and as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol.  Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him.  Just why it took him more than twenty years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery.  But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years:  he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a keen if not voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books.  The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film point perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh.  The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a sharper sense of the solidarity of the working class.  Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative.  Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides.  The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927.  Apparently Udham’s many supporters seem to have swallowed whole the notion that revolutionaries can be forgiven not only their excesses but such derelictions of family duty and parental responsibility if for no other reason than that making “revolution” is a forbidding task and that revolutionaries must not be subjected to the standards of bourgeois society.  In the US, in any case, Udham would for some time have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as ‘Bengali Harlem’, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion.  These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.

Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests, or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma.  To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and he would have come to know that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression.  He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, ‘We had our Bloody Sunday’, a reference of course both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, ‘Your revolution and mine are the same.  You lamb, I lamb:  the butcher the same.’ But there is no hint that, in twenty years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as a HSRA member were quite limited.  He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of ‘revolution’, but slogans do not make a revolution.  Indians, V S Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of the HSRA, which was as much of a slogan-making factory as it was a bomb-making workshop.

‘Let the world know’, Udham says to detective inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, ‘that I was a revolutionary.’  We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. Udham was in the vicinity of the massacre and, the film strongly avers, arrived at the blood-soaked Jallianwala Bagh later in the evening; and he then took an oath that he would avenge the massacre.  He nursed this grudge for twenty-one years before felling O’Dwyer with shots from his revolver and thereby demonstrating his patriotism, but what is “revolutionary” about such a practice of politics?  It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence, and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi.  We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except in the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter into politics.  One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding country-made guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, ‘Inquilab zindabad’ (‘Long Live Revolution’).  The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of ‘insanity’ which had caused him ‘deep pain’. While expressing his condolences to ‘the deceased’s family’, Gandhi noted that ‘such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed’ (Statement to the Press, 14 March 1940).  Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving V. K. Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as ‘abhorrent’ but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to ‘make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home.  It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect’ (Harijan, 23 March 1940).

What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, the HSRA, and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial.  It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer.  O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration.  But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators.  Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes.  Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by the HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognized the political nature of their acts.  It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship to Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender.  Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:

            Udham:  I was in jail for four years [1927-31].  But not for a crime.

            Prosecutor:  Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they

                        had not committed a crime?

            Udham:  No, no, no crime.  I was fighting – fighting for freedom . . .

(to be continued)

See also Part One, The Making of Sardar Udham: A Massacre, a Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge.

The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge

Part I of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Udham Singh after his arrest by the police, 13 March 1940.

What’s in a statue?  Everything, I said to myself, as I chanced upon a road sign pointing to ‘Udham Singh Nagar’ as I was making my way down to Delhi from Corbet National Park one winter afternoon in 2009.  My instinct told me that Udham Singh Nagar was almost certainly named after Udham Singh and that a statue of the revolutionary, best known for carrying out a political assassination of a retired British administrator in 1940, was very likely going to be found in the town centre.  Indeed, asking the driver to take the slight diversion, we came upon the statue of Udham Singh soon enough.  It was surrounded by fruit vendors; upon my asking some of them, and the customers, if they knew whose statue it was, I was met with blank stares.  People seemed puzzled at my interest in it; one man was snoozing by its base, while others took refuge under the roof top over the statue from the glaring sun.  One cheeky fellow remarked that I seemed educated and I had only to read the plaque to become enlightened.  Just what makes a person speaking in the ‘vernacular’ rather than in English still look ‘educated’ in India—the person’s deportment, a certain bearing, his or her apparel, a SLR camera in hand—is an interesting question in itself.

Statue of Udham Singh, Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand. Photo: Vinay Lal, 2008.

The Austrian essayist and crafter of the modernist novel, Robert Musil, wrote rather presciently that ‘the most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them.  There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.’  It is extraordinary that statues are everywhere around us and we are generally quite oblivious of them, except perhaps to remember them as landmarks or when giving directions. Whoever thinks that a statue is meant to jog the memory, or call to mind the achievements or merits of a ‘great person’, knows little about signification.  Around the statue of Udham Singh, in a town named after him, no one appeared to know who he was.  Yet it was unmistakably him, even if there had been no plaque identifying him:  clean-shaven, suited and booted, a pistol in his extended right hand.  Someone not familiar with the iconography of India’s modern martyrs may have mistaken him perhaps for Bhagat Singh, but the younger revolutionary who was Udham Singh’s idol sports a trilby that sits at a slight angle on his head and he is never, almost never, shown with a revolver.  As is true of most statues, it was evidently in need of a thorough washing; in the few minutes that I was there, a few pigeons landed on it and dropped their poop.  Whether the statues are of Gandhi or Bhagat Singh, Lenin or Lincoln, war criminals or generals, swindlers or altruists, pigeons treat them all alike.  So, perhaps, there is nothing to statues.  But nevertheless there is, as shall be seen, many a tale that hangs on an Udham Singh statue.

*****

It was the late afternoon of April 13, 1919.  Spring was in the air; so too was dissent.  Amritsar had for the last few days been seething with unrest as the nationalist agitation gathered strength and on April 11 an elderly Englishwoman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten before being taken to safety by some Indians.  As E. M. Forster once astutely remarked, the phrase ‘women and children’ makes the Englishman feel sanctimonious and is enough warrant to provoke him to righteous fury.  Amritsar and most of the Punjab were placed under martial law and the commanding officer at Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer, imposed Section 144 which prohibited unlawful assemblies.  People from neighbouring towns and villages were still pouring into the city and the 13th was the first day of Baisakhi.  Perhaps as many as 20,000 people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, in adamant defiance, as Dyer was to explain later, of his orders.  Commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, Dyer appeared at the walled enclosure of the bagh and ordered firing without warning upon the unarmed crowd.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of ‘the innocents’:  men, women, and children were all fair game. The firing stopped only when the troops ran out of ammunition.  At least 379 people died that day; another 1000 or more were wounded.  Testifying later before an inquiry committee known after its chairman as the Hunter Commission, appointed by the British to inquire into the ‘Punjab Disturbances’, Dyer was candid enough to admit that had the sole entrance to the enclosure not been so narrow as to prevent the armored car which was trailing him from being brought into the bagh, he would almost certainly have used the machine gun with which the vehicle was equipped to mow down the crowd.

Jallianwala Bagh, Amrtisar, 1919. Photograph: Photograph: Zeutschel Omniscan. Source: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

Udham Singh, born in Sunam in the Sangrur district of Punjab on 26 December 1899, was not all of twenty when the Amritsar massacre took place. Sardar Udham, Shoojit Sircar’s just released lengthy biopic, tells his tale, or rather the story of his single-minded resolve to avenge the massacre.  The film is but one of many recent attempts to install the ‘revolutionary’ who carried out the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer twenty-one years after the massacre and paid for it with his life at the center of our political imagination, but it also invites our attention with the claim that ‘it is based on true events’.  Udham Singh was in Amritsar that fateful night, according to the film, but had fortuitously skipped the meeting at the bagh.  Though the film naturally does not confuse Dyer with O’Dwyer, a common enough confusion on the part of many, there appears to be some evidence that Udham did confuse the two Irishmen at least on some occasions.  It would not have been the first time that the self-proclaimed nationalist revolutionaries had erred in this fashion:  some may remember that, in a case of mistaken identity, Bhagat Singh and his comrades shot dead Assistant Superintendent of Police John Saunders when they were intending to assassinate Superintendent of Police James Scott. O’Dwyer was then the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab and, as the film makes amply clear, he was consistently supportive of the action that Dyer took that day.  Udham was poorly educated and it is not clear what he knew of O’Dwyer; strikingly, neither the film, nor any scholar who has worked on Udham Singh, has put forward an explanation as to why he from the outset planned to kill O’Dwyer rather than Dyer. It may be said that the choice had serendipitously been made for Udham:  the butcher of Amritsar, as Dyer came to be known, died of arteriosclerosis in 1927 after a long illness.  Now there remained O’Dwyer, perhaps the more malignant architect of an ‘episode’ that Winston Churchill denounced, not without some pomposity, as ‘without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire . . . an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’

A news item from The Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1919. The news of the massacre was suppressed in the British press and it was not until eight months later that it was reported at some length in British newspapers.

(to be continued)

The Fear of Dissent:  India’s New Colonial Masters

CABProtestsAssam

Protest in Assam against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed into law as Citizenship Amendment Act on 12 December 2019.  Source: Zee News.

There is almost nothing as fearful as a lawless state.  India is on the brink of being such a state, as the actions taken by the government to squash dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) so clearly demonstrate.  It is not “lawless” in the sense of being a political despotism, “empty of law” as India’s former colonial rulers characterized the supposed state of the country before they took the reins in hand.  India is on the verge of being “lawless” in the more unsettling and insidious sense of falling into a system of political authoritarianism where law itself is deployed to subvert both the spirit of law and the rule of law.

Continue reading

*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).