*Frightfulness in Late Colonial India: Dyerism & the Aftermath of an Atrocity

Part III (Final Part) of The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

Gandhi would go on to describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation.  Once the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh had stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. He would later state that no one asked for his help and thus he moved on.  The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air: this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification.”  O’Dwyer, who signaled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation which recalled the Rebellion of 1857-58.  Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of the Mutiny loomed over the prolific debates about the measures taken by the British to contain the disorders.

1919 was, however, not even remotely akin to 1857, if only because the Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and, moreover, the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered the phase of plebian protest.  Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.  The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an inquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by Lord William Hunter of Scotland.  The Commission held hearings over several months, in Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, and various other cities. Both O’Dwyer and Dyer chafed at this inquiry, and many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London.  The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality.  Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot” he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect.  Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgment of experienced officers.

HunterCommissionAmrtisarEvidence

Amritsar was one of the many cities in the Punjab, and elsewhere in India, where the Hunter Commission collected testimony. The Evidence ran into five volumes, published by the Government of India in 1920.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Much as Indians such as Tilak, Nehru, and Gandhi had demonstrated their mastery of the courtroom, so the Congress showed that they had a command over the inquiry commission both as a form of governance and as a form of knowledge. Indian affairs had never drawn much interest in Parliament, but, quite unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”.  Montagu was grateful for the service that Dyer had rendered to the Empire.  Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so from none other than a motive “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism.”  Montagu went on to charge Dyer for “indulging in frightfulness.”  The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians:  “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in World War I.  That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.

The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practicing Jew, a suspect figure, and his criticisms of Dyer did nothing to endear him to the General’s supporters and the defenders of the political authoritarianism associated with the Punjab tradition.  Conservatives charged the government with throwing Dyer to the wolves.  For every person prepared to critique Dyer, two stood forward to defend him.  The Hunter Commission had found him guilty only of an error in judgment, exercising excessive force, and having a somewhat mistaken conception of his duties.  Dyer nevertheless could not be permitted to continue in his position, and he was dismissed from the army, even if many senior officers in the Army Council demurred, at half-pay. All this was enough to outrage the English public, for whom, the same Orwell had once remarked, liberty was like the very air they breathed.  A hero had been unfairly maligned, and the Morning Post raised funds in support of “The Man Who Saved India.”  At its closing, the Fund amounted to over 26,000 Pounds, or a little over 1.1 million Pounds in today’s currency.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though arteriosclerosis cut his life short.

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Tagore described the incident in a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”  More than twenty years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 years old at the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver.  The day of reckoning that O’Dwyer had spoken of had come, if unexpectedly.  What most accounts occlude is a stunning little detail: when captured, and in subsequent police documents, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohamed Singh Azad, so to taunt the British whose entire Indian adventure had been tainted by their willful determination to characterize India as a land of eternal communal tensions.  And then there was Gandhi, who with his gift for neologisms coined the word “Dyerism” to signify the repressive apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 1.07.22 PM

Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.”  Churchill of course had a way with words, and so he continued:  “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”  But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”?  As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it:  the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.  Dyer, on all accounts, remained unrepentant to the end of his life, but was Churchill ever afflicted by remorse?  It cannot be said that remorse is part of the story of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Remorse, it should be clear, is not part of the lexicon of any colonial state.

(concluded)

Parts I and III together appeared, in a slightly different version, as “100 Years Later:  The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh” in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 April 1913), with some original artwork commissioned by the newspaper.  Access the article here.

For Part I of this blog essay, click here; for Part II on “The Crawling Lane”, which is not included in the Hindu version, click here.

*Eulogy for the Unsung: The Death of Bo and Boa Sr.

The Great Andamanese relaxing by the water, 1920.

Great Andamanese Couple, 1876

Great Andamanese children & Maurice Portman, 1874

An indescribable feeling of sadness crept over me when I read some days ago of the passing away of Boa Sr., the last known speaker of Bo (also known as Aka-Bo and Ba), one of ten languages belonging to the Great Andamanese group.  Though Boa Sr. had learnt Hindi and was able to converse with the outside world, over the last three decades she remained Bo’s sole speaker.   What great many thoughts could she not convey to others?  How must she have felt to know that she was the only surviving speaker of a language and the link to a world that only she could apprehend?  How must it feel to know a language and yet not be able to communicate in it with anyone else?

In an earlier time, Boa Sr. would have been rendered into a museum piece.  Her death brought to mind the fate of Truganini, the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals.  The few thousand Tasmanian aboriginals encountered by European colonizers had, through genocide, disease, and murderous neglect, been reduced to 47 women, men, and children by 1847, and for the last three years, before her death in 1876, Truganini led a solitary existence in Hocart as the last Tasmanian aboriginal.  Shortly thereafter, her skeleton would be exhibited for the benefit of the curious-minded and the scientific-minded alike.  Those were the indignities to which people such as her, and the Andamanese, have been subjected since they came into contact with what is called ‘civilization’.  In the barbarous language of the day, occasionally still encountered when, for example, the Americans come into contact with ‘unruly’ tribesmen in Afghanistan, the unquestionable duty of the Europeans was to pacify the wild islanders.

The Andamans have long been the haunt of anthropologists and criminologists. In the mid-19th century, the British established a penal colony at Port Blair, reserving the infamous ‘circular jail’, also studied by those who are entranced with the idea of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, for political prisoners transported for life.  A man sent across the kaala paani [literally, ‘the black waters’], so the British figured, was as good as dead, and not merely because no “convict” was expected to return alive to civilization.  Before the convict entered into what we might call ‘social death’, he was supposed to have suffered what we might understand as ‘psychic death’ since the passage across ‘the black waters’ was deemed to have led the person to lose caste.  That, in the British view, was horrible enough a suffering for a caste Hindu.  Later in the 19th century, as anthropometry and craniology, among many of the other supposed sciences gifted by the West to the rest, became the rage among European and American scientists, anthropologists, criminologists, and psychologists, the British began to arrive in the Andamans with rulers and other measuring instruments.  The intent was to ascertain where the Great Andamanese belonged in the ‘scale of civilization’, a determination that apparently could be made by measuring the distance from the navel to the nose, from the nose to the eyebrow, and so on.  No wonder idiocy is known by many names!  The only firm lesson to be learnt from all this appears to be that if one wants to lead a European somewhere, lead him by the nose.

The twin processes of pacification and assimilation had the unsurprising consequence of decimating the population of the Andamanese and other tribes on the Andaman islands.  Some tribes were rendered extinct – the Aka-Kol in 1921, the Oko-Juwoi and the Aka-Bea by 1931.  In 1858, when the Great Andamanese first came into contact with the British, they numbered around 5,000 people.   Attempts with which we are familiar from the long history of colonialism to ‘civilize’ them were, of course, nothing but another name for genocide.  In one experiment, children born between 1864 and 1870 were placed in what came to be called ‘Andaman Homes’, but none of the 150 children lived beyond the age of two.  Nevertheless, the colonial administrator Maurice Portman gave it as his opinion that ‘Under any circumstances the Homes should certainly be maintained until the whole of the Andaman Tribes are friendly’ [quoted in Madhusree Mukherjee, The Land of Naked People (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 66].  One way to ensure that people are friendly, which is to say not hostile, is to eliminate them.  In 1901, the Census still recorded 600 Great Andamanese, but by 1951 their numbers had been reduced to 23.  The Sentinelese, who have miraculously evaded all attempts at contact, had been reduced to 10 in number by 1951. Today, according to the Indian linguist Anvita Abbi, who came to have a close association with Boa Sr. over the last decade and whose work in the Andamans is reflected in the “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese” (VOGA) project, there are about 50 Great Andamanese still alive.

The Great Andamanese, we are told in this obituary of Boa Sr. published in Survival International, “are thought to have lived in the Andaman Islands for as much as 65,000 years, making them the descendants of one of the oldest human cultures on Earth.”  If it were true, one should marvel at this fact – and consider the possibility that, in this age of dazzling technology, that unbroken link may be snapped before our own eyes.  Either way, the question of just who the Andamanese are, and what they represent for the history of humankind, is not easily resolved.  For even the most well-intentioned linguists and anthropologists, the Great Andamanese – and the other three main groups on the islands, namely the Jarawa, Onge, and Sentinelese – still represent principally a crucial picture of the puzzle about the origins of human societies, language groups, the migrations of people and their languages, and so on.  The quest to know everything, manifested in Enlightenment-inspired projects to create vast compendiums of knowledge, remains undiminished, even if we are committed to multiculturalism and diversity and are more cognizant of the genocidal policies that led to the extermination of entire tribes and their cultures.  How we can best be committed to such ecological survival of plurality without instrumentalizing humans, animals, or nature is an ethical question that may determine the course of the future.