Subhash Chopra on a book that recalls a shocking and shameful episode in Britain’s colonial past
The Rowlatt Act of 1919, denounced by the Indian press and public as the ‘Black Act’, was the trigger for the unrest that led to the notorious Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 13 April that year.
As the only newspaper at the time to investigate and chronicle the massacre, The Tribune was a lone voice of dissent against the iniquities of British rule in India. Now, to mark the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh, Martyrdom to Freedom: 100 Years of Jallianwala Bagh is a timely and compelling reminder of that bloody event, combining a collection of articles from The Tribune’s archives with essays by some of modern-day India’s best known authors and historians.
N.N. Vohra, President of the Tribune Trust, opens the book with an informative foreword. He is well placed to do so: his maternal grandfather, Chintram, spent ‘nearly two decades’ in British jails, while his maternal uncle was the legendary Sukhdev Thapar, who was hanged by India’s colonial rulers, along with his comrades Bhagat Singh and Rajguru, in the freedom struggle that led to the martyrdom at Jallianwala.
Editing this volume is The Tribune’s current editor, Rajesh Ramachandran, who salutes his 1919 forerunner Kalinath Ray as ‘the man who dared to give bad news’.
Martyrdom to Freedom recounts the history behind the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh. Stories surrounding the revolutionary Ghadar movement had convinced the imperial hierarchy that new measures were urgently needed to counter it, especially as the existing Defence of India Act was about to expire. The Punjab government, led by Lt-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer, lobbied the government in Delhi, and the resulting Rowlatt Act, passed on 18 March 1919, allowed the arrest and imprisonment of suspects without trial, and further gagged the press.
In an editorial, included in the book, Lahore’s daily Tribune promptly denounced the passage of this Act as a ‘Colossal Blunder’ and vainly asked the government to show some ‘chivalry’ for its reversal. Further editorials called the measure an ‘apotheosis’ of foolishness’ and a ‘Blazing Indiscretion’, for which the paper’s then editor Kalinath Ray was convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment – though, on appeal, he was released after four-and-a-half months. The paper was also fined 2,000 rupees.
Why, wondered The Tribune, was Governor O’Dwyer allowing such measures in the final few days of his tenure? After all, his retirement was due in April.
The rulers and the ruled seemed set on a collision course. Mr M.K. Gandhi, who had returned from South Africa and was now in Bombay, issued a call to oppose the draconian Act with a nationwide hartal (shutdown) on 6 April. Events were moving fast. Gandhi, who had not yet gained the public esteem that made him the Mahatma, made plans to visit Amritsar. He was picked up near Palwal on the outskirts of Delhi and promptly sent back to Bombay. This infuriated the people of Amritsar, where prominent local leaders like Dr Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew were already under police watch for opposing the Rowlatt Act and other government policies. Hindus and Muslims were uniting at protest meetings. The Hindu festival of Ram Navmi was being held on 9 April, with Muslims joining in the celebrations amid chants of ‘Hindu Musalman ki Jai’, spurred by the Khilafat movement, the Muslim community’s opposition to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, with Gandhi supporting the defence of the Caliphate. This unnerved the authorities.
Next day, on 10 April, Governor O’Dwyer, over-cautious as ever, took the pre-emptive action of quietly arresting Dr Satyapal and Dr Kitchlew and dispatching them to Dharamsala hills to head off any trouble. The angry citizens of Amritsar launched a petition demanding the release of these leaders, and the authorities set up armed pickets at various points in the city when clashes broke out. Several people, including five Englishman, were killed and many were injured, among them a Mission school superintendent, Miss Marcella Sherwood, who was viciously attacked and left for dead. The rulers’ fury knew no bounds.
And so the fuse was lit. General Reginald Dyer sent a number of soldiers from his brigade headquarters in Jullundur to Amritsar as sporadic violence occurred all over the city. Dyer arrived in the city on the evening of 11 April and set up HQ in Ram Bagh; then, the next day, hemarched with his troops through the city, with proclamations banning public meetings and imposing Section 144,which prohibited gatherings of more than four people.
April 13 was the harvest festival day of Baisakhi (Visakhi in Punjabi). Ignoring all these proclamations, which many were unaware of, people poured into the Jallianwala Bagh, the city’s main open ground, hemmed in by houses and walls with only narrow exits.
General Dyer took some of his troops through the city in the forenoon and found the citizens still gathering, in defiance of his orders. He demanded that the proclamation be repeated, though it was no doubt badly delivered, as on the previous occasion. Again it was ignored.
Come the fateful evening, at just after five o’clock the General marched 50 armed men – 25 Gurkhas and 25 others, including Baluchis– into the Bagh, which he had never visited before. No reconnaissance of the spot had been carried out. Another contingent of 40 Gurkhas, armed only with khukris, and two armoured cars were posted just outside in the street. Viewing the ‘insolent’ citizens still gathering and chatting, he had, as he later said, ‘thirty seconds’ to make up his mind. So he ordered, ‘Fire.’
The firing went on for less than 10 minutes, Dyer later told the Hunter Committee of Inquiry. ‘I looked upon the crowd as rebels and considered it was my duty to fire and fire well.’ Asked by Lord Hunter if there was any other cause for his actions, the General replied: ‘No, sir. I looked upon it as a duty – a very horrible duty.’ To committee member Justice Rankin, the General added: ‘I think it was a merciful act. I thought I should shoot well and strong, so that I or anybody else should not have to shoot again.’
The Congress Commissioners’ verdict on the ensuing Hunter Report as a ‘whitewash’, as carried by The Tribune on 8 May 1920, stands out even today. It called the Hunter report a ‘laborious attempt to whitewash almost everything that was dark in this darkest of all chapters in the history of England’s relations with India’. The paper’s review points out that, even though the majority of the government-appointed Hunter Committee held General Dyer guilty of ‘a grave error’, it let Governor O’Dwyer off ‘scot-free’. Furthermore, the official ‘tribute’ to the Governor’s ‘great energy, decision and courage’ in a period of ‘exceptional difficulty’ was something ‘more than an insult to the people of India’, averred The Tribune at that time.
Lastly, Winston Churchill’s description in the House of Commons of the Amritsar massacre debate as ‘a monstrous event’ and one ‘without a parallel in the modern history of the British empire’, while high sounding, skirts the core issue. As Secretary of State for War, Churchill concurred with the opinion that General Dyer’s action at Jallianwala Bagh was a mere ‘error of judgement’, deserving only the least of the three punishments listed by him, namely, loss of employment and compulsory retirement with half pay – an astonishing acquittal for a massacre of innocents.
One criticism of this otherwise excellent book is the absence of pictures of the dramatis personae. These are sorely missed, as they would provide visual impact to the book’s powerful words. In addition, chapters on Shaheed Udham Singh and historian V.N. Datta could have been placed closer to each other and made more compact, and a bigger, at least double-page, map of old Amritsar would also have been helpful.
But these are not major reproaches. With its historic material, personal testaments and insights from authors including Ramachandra Guha and Navtej Sarna, Martyrdom to Freedom is a poignant and significant contribution to Indo-British history.