100 Years of The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

 13  April 2019 will mark a 100 years of the notorious Jallianwala Bagh massacre - which had a profound and long-lasting impact on India’s anti-colonial freedom struggle and its collective memory to this day.

To remember Jallianwala Bagh in today’s India is not a mere act of homage to a page from past history. In April 2019 we are in the midst of a crucial election which will decide whether or not the forces who betrayed India’s freedom struggle and are doing their best to divide India on communal lines. At such a time, to remember Jallianwala Bagh is to recall how the massacre was a product of the British colonialist’s profound fear of Hindu-Muslim unity and united resistance - which for them called up the spectre of the 1857 First War of Independence, in which that unity had first manifest itself into national anti-colonial sentiment.

The British colonial memory wants to recall Jallianwala Bagh as a “monstrous” exception to the otherwise benign rule - as an ‘un-British act’ by one bad apple - General Dyer. In fact, the massacre was a product of the systemic racism and colonial repression and brutality that marked the British Raj from start to finish. Jallianwala Bagh can be understood only alongside the Rowlatt Act, the sedition law, Section 144 and other draconian colonial laws. After all, the gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, which was in protest of the Rowlatt Act and the arrests and deportation of Indian nationalist leaders, was called an ‘unlawful assembly’ violating Section 144 by the British: this was the pretext for the massacre.           

That being the case, to remember Jallianwala Bagh today is also to remember the shadow of Jallianwala Bagh in today’s governance by those whom Bhagat Singh called the “kale angrez” (the black colonialists - i.e the modern Indian ruling class.) Why did the Indian state retain the draconian arsenal of the British colonial apparatus - its AFSPA and Sedition law and Section 144, and enact its own Rowlatt Act type laws like TADA, POTA, MCOCOA, UAPA? Can we think of the situation in Kashmir today without being reminded of Jallianwala Bagh? When an Army Major is given a medal for tying a civilian to a jeep and parading him, the impact on Kashmiri civilians is not very different from the crawling orders issued by General Dyer. Independent India has a long record of police firings on unarmed protestors - on landless Dalit labourers, on adivasis, on farmers, on people protesting dangerous projects. In one of its final acts as a Government, the Modi regime has sent all States a proposal for draconian AFSPA-type amendments to the Indian Forest Act to allow forest officials the power to shoot people without any liability and find persons guilty of crimes based on material found with them.

India’s state machinery still behaves in arrogant colonial ways towards India’s poor and marginalised. Racism, bigotry, and even a paranoid tendency to profile the oppressed as ‘violent and dangerous’ is still rife in India’s administrators, police, and armed forces. To remember Jallianwala Bagh today is to pledge to change and transform India to rid it of this colonial legacy.

April 1919: The Ferment

Spring brought many exciting new winds to India and Punjab in 1919: most of all, the Russian Revolution of 1917, which was especially inspiring to young Indians. The Ghadarites (many of them from Punjab) had made their heroic, but failed bid to repeat the 1857 War of Independence and liberate India from colonial rule. Their failure in no way diminished their appeal, especially to young Indians. The First World War had just ended, and prices of rice, wheat, bajra had doubled; and salt prices had tripled.    

The ‘Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919’ - or the Rowlatt Act as it was known - was passed in March 1919 by the Imperial Legislative Council. This law sought to make the draconian provisions of the wartime Defence of India Act (1915) a permanent feature of British colonial governance in India. The British Raj wanted the law because they feared a resurgence of the Ghadar type of revolutionary uprising, and were also hyper-aware of the potential impact of the Russian Revolution on India and other British colonies.

The Act (drafted on the recommendations of the Rowlatt Committee chaired by a judge, Sir Sidney Rowlatt) authorised the British government to arrest anybody suspected of terrorist activities, detain them for up to 2 years without trial, search a place without a warrant, and impose severe restrictions on the freedom of the press. The Act allowed for arbitrary arrest and conviction, since the accused were denied the right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial.  

There were widespread protests against the Rowlatt Act and a huge response to the hartal (strike) called by Gandhi. This movement which began on 6 April was known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha.

British Fear of 1857

Historian Kim A Wagner, author of a book on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre published this year (Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making Of The Amritsar Massacre, Penguin Random House, 2019), observes in his very first chapter that “In the British colonial imagination, the ‘Mutiny’ never ended and in India, the ruling class were surrounded by constant reminders of the potential dangers of ‘native rebellion….the very notion of the ‘Mutiny’ did not refer simply to a historical event as much as a particular colonial outlook - a cause of persistent panic but also a blueprint for maintenance of colonial control in the form of exemplary punishment and indiscriminate violence.” (p 16) The smallest things in April 1919 in Amritsar - non-violent protests by unarmed people demanding release of their arrested and deported leaders Dr Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlu, the slogans of Hindu-Muslim unity - were enough for the British administrators of the city to fear a repeat of 1857 and demand military resources like machine guns and troops ready to repeat the slaughter of Indians that followed 1857.  

The Rowlatt Committee Report itself, in Wagner’s words, “presented a carefully crafted narrative” which referred to “the threat of revolutionary nationalism” in the racist language of “poison” or “virus” which spread through contagion. This racist language had been especially visible in colonial discussions of the 1857 uprising also. (Wagner, p 43-44) The Report reflected the colonial racist outlook whereby anti-colonial agitations were seen to be a product of innate, irrational hatred fanned up by seditious “ringleaders”, since the Indian subjects were not seen as capable of rational political aims. And if the whole agitation is seen as a case of irrational and “beguiled youth” being instigated by a handful of mischief-makers, rather than as a political movement, then of course repression was the only remedy, not negotiations and talks. (Again, parallels from modern India inevitably come to mind - where the adivasi people in Bastar or Kashmiri people in the Valley are painted as “misled” by some outsiders (“Pakistan” or “urban Naxals”), where the entire civilian population is feared by the very forces which hold it, for all purposes, under military control, and where political questions raised by the people are avoided.)

The Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab Michael O’Dwyer was advised by the Amritsar-based Civil Surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel Smith, who claimed an intimate knowledge of Amritsar and told O’Dwyer that a “Russo-German Bolshevist organisation” was behind the Rowlatt protests and was planning another hartal after the 6 April one, on which occasion he claimed “the red flag would be heaved up everywhere at the same time.” This was rubbish - but it fed into the paranoid imagination of the colonial administrators of Punjab, who believed that a huge force must be marshalled to deal with such an uprising.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
Jallianwala Bagh massacre - a painitng.

Hindu-Muslim Unity

Wagner’s book notes that Ram Navami “was primarily a Hindu festival but on 9 April 1919 it came to serve as a marker of Hindu-Muslim unity” with Hindus and Muslims openly drinking water, milk and sherbet from the same vessels. It quotes a contemporary journalist KD Malviya describing the festivities in Amritsar that year: “The procession was the grandest of recent years. Thousands of Muhammadans led by Dr Kichlu joined the Hindu god’s triumphal march and rent the skies with the soul-entrancing swell of ‘Hindu Musalman ki-jai.’ Thousands raised their cries to bless Doctors Kitchlu and Satyapal and Mahatma Gandhi was not forgotten in the joyous enthusiasm of the day.” Wagner writes how the Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Irving was agitated and apprehensive to see a street performance by Muslim boys as part of the “Hindu” procession: “The very notion that Hindus and Muslims might genuinely find common ground was a cause for great concern to men such as Irving. The ‘natural state’ of Indian society was presumably defined by communal conflict and the unity displayed on 9 April was as a result regarded with the greatest suspicion.”

We may reflect here on what this means for us today. The British colonial rulers assumed communal conflict to be the natural state of Indian society - and look at the most innocuous expressions of Hindu-Muslim friendship and unity with suspicion - exactly as the RSS and BJP do today! This communal outlook - which leads to demands by the BJP-RSS social media troll gangs for banning of a detergent advertisement showing friendship between Hindu and Muslim children - is not “bhartiya” (Indian) at all, it is a British colonial import. It is this British colonial attitude that Deen Dayal Upadhyay displayed when he wrote that we must “change the 30-year old policy of Hindu Muslim unity … If we want unity, we must display Indian nationalism which is Hindu nationalism, and Indian culture which is Hindu culture.” (Upadhyay, Akhand Bharat [Undivided India], 1953) It is the same when Narendra Modi’s book Social Harmony (edited by Kishor Makwana and available on Modi’s website www.narendramodi.in) explicitly opposes the slogan ‘Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai.’

The Day After Baisakhi              

On April 10 1919, the Dr Kitchlu and Dr Satyapal were picked up for deportation to the Kangra Valley. Gandhiji had been arrested the previous day at Palwal. At news of the impending deportation of their leaders, a sea of thousands of people came out on the streets in Amritsar. They sought to observe a hartal, march in a procession and offer an oral petition (faryad) asking for the release of the two leaders. Although this massive crowd was peaceful and did not attack anyone, it was seen as a dangerous “unlawful assembly” violating the 1860 Section 144 CrPC. As a result, the British forced fired on and killed several unarmed protestors. This unprovoked firing further enraged people. Subsequently, some British civilians - two railway guards, a woman doctor who made racist remarks justifying the victims of the firing, and a teacher Miss Sherwood were targeted by angry crowds.

Bullet marks on a wall in Jallianwala Bagh
Bullet marks on a wall in Jallianwala Bagh

The Massacre

The British refused to recognise that their own actions had provoked the angry and violent demonstrations on April 10. Even belatedly, they did not open negotiations on the protestors’ demands. Instead they assumed another “Mutiny” was imminent, the “rabble” had been “worked up” for plunder and murder and would need to be put down, and got in additional troops and machine guns into Amritsar. April 13 was Baisakhi - by that day, the angry crowds had calmed down. In the evening at 4.30, around 20,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh - many of them were there to hear political leaders address a public meeting against the deportation of leaders and the firing on protestors, but a very large number were villagers visiting Amritsar for Baisakhi. The latter, especially, had no inkling or apprehension of a massacre. That morning General Dyer's troops had conducted a march through the city, announcing that any gathering would be “dispersed by force of arms if necessary.” While the villagers did not know of this announcement, the others who had come for the public meeting also did not really expect violence since the police or troops had made no effort to prevent people from assembling, or even to prevent activists from beating drums in street to publicly mobilise for the meeting.

General Dyer left the armoured cars with machine guns outside the maidan because the gate was too narrow for them to pass. The troops took positions and took aim, and even then the gathering did not believe they would fire because there was no warning to disperse. The firing began unannounced, 1,650 rounds were fired, at least 379 persons including children were brutally massacred.     

In the week that followed General Dyer implemented the “crawling order” forcing Indians to crawl on the street where Miss Sherwood had been attacked.

Not An “Extraordinary” Event

When British PM David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, his message in the visitor’s book referred to Winston Churchill calling the massacre “monstrous”. Churchill’s actual speech in the House of Commons on 8 July 1920 called the massacre “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” He claimed that the massacre, and violence and usurpation in general, was “absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things.”

Of course, the way the 1857 uprising was put down - with bloodletting, public torture, executions and display of bodies on trees - proved that brutality was hardly “foreign to the British way of doing things.”

As Wagner notes, “Churchill’s description of the Amritsar Massacre … was profoundly misleading and Dyer’s actions… were neither ‘without precedent’ nor ‘foreign to the British way of doing things.’” Wagner instead quotes the Labour MP JC Wedgwood who had said “we want to change the system that produces General Dyers.” (Wagner, p 253)

In fact Wagner reminds us that Frederick Henry Cooper, who had been Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar during the 1857 uprising, had justified the mass slaughter of sepoys as “the only way to strike terror into a semi-barbarous people.” (Wagner, p 254) Dyer defended himself in almost the same words: “I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce…It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect…not only on those present but more specially throughout the Punjab.” (Wagner, p 169) Dyer, who had served in Burma, the North-West Frontier, Persia and Baluchistan, “was steeped in the tradition of colonial warfare and thoroughly familiar with the logic of exemplary force.” (Wagner, p 141)

Dyer made it clear that he felt he must fire and inflict maximum injuries, because the British force must command fear, not laughter, in a “native” population. Had he dispersed the crowd without firing, he said, the people “would have laughed.” Dyer admitted later that one had to have a greater fear to be brave, but as Wagner notes, “his was a fear caused by a paranoid colonial imagination, rather than a clear-headed assessment of the situation confronting him.” (Wagner, p 165)            

The Aftermath

Wagner’s last chapter reflects on the lasting impact of Jallianwala Bagh. He quotes Saadat Hasan Manto, who grew up in Amritsar, in his story “For Freedom’s Sake”:

“You know, Ghulam Ali, don’t you, how this well was once filled to its mouth with the bodies of people slain in the firing? Today everybody drinks from it. It has watered every flower in this park. People come and pluck those flowers. But strangely, not even a drop carries the salty taste of blood. Not a single petal of a single flower has the redness of blood in it. Why is that?

I vividly remember that as I spoke I had looked at the window of a neighbouring house where, it is said, a young girl had been shot dead by General Dyer as she stood watching the massacre. The streak of blood had begun to fade on the old lime wall behind the window. Blood had become so cheap that spilling it no longer affected people as it once had.”

The plants and flowers are all scorched or withered

Deprived of its scent, the pollen is scattered like a stain on the ground

Alas! This lovely garden is drenched in blood

Come spring, dear king of seasons, but come quietly

This is a mourning-place, so make no noise

— Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, ‘Jallianwala Bagh Mein Basant’ [Spring in Jallianwala Bagh] (1929) from Wagner, p 260)

A painting on Jallianwala massacre
A painting on Jallianwala massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre had a huge impact on the freedom struggle and in shaping the imagination of young Indians of its generation. Bhagat Singh, a child at the time of the massacre is believed to have visited the garden and kept a handful of mud as a souvenir. Shaheed Udham Singh (who killed O’Dwyer to retaliate for the massacre) is also believed to have witnessed the massacre as a child. Whether or not these beliefs are true, the fact remains that the massacre, like 1857, drove home the unvarnished nature of the British Raj.

In 1953 (before even the 1857 uprising) Marx wrote of the British rule in India “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” - (Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” New York Daily Tribune, January 22, 1853)

It was this nakedness that Jallianwala Bagh unveiled to Indians. But today, it will not do just to remember the massacre as a piece of colonial brutality and a key chapter from the history of India’s freedom struggle. Understanding how the British rulers and soldiers like Dyer saw the Indian people, we must ask why India’s own rulers and soldiers seem to see vast sections of people in the same way; how “the system” in India is producing Jallianwala Baghs and Dyers over and over again.

Bhagat Singh warned of white rule being replaced by an equally tyrannical brown rule, Ambedkar too warned of the way in which Indian rulers will simply enjoy the freedom to shoot Indians as the colonial powers did. Let us end with his warning, which should be read out loud at each and every Indian event commemorating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre centenary.    

Speaking in the then Bombay Legislative Assembly in 1939 on an instance of police firing on workers, he said, “I frankly say that I was horrified by the argument that he (Sir Edward Thompson - ed/) advanced (in support of India’s demand of Home Rule - ed/). …The one thing that convinced him, he said, in favour of Irish home rule was this: So long as the rebellion was going on, no Englishman could shoot an Irishman, however violent his action was, because if an Englishman shot an Irishman, the whole Irish country went up in arms. He said that as soon as home rule was granted, it was possible for Cosgrave to shoot Irishmen, and nobody rose in rebellion against it. He said that one advantage that the Englishman would have from home rule to India would be that the Indian Ministers would be able to shoot Indians without any qualms.

…if home rule means nothing else … than that our own Minister can shoot our own people, and the rest of us merely laugh at the whole show or rise to support him because he happens to belong to a particular party, then I say home rule has been a curse and not a benefit to all India.” (Bombay Legislative Assembly Debates, Vol. 5, pp. 1724-27, dated 17th March 1939)