About Reparation and Atonement thereof, and lessons in civic nationalism
Faizi O Hashmi | April 12, 2020
Also read previous columns on similar themes:
Let us recall the makers of a nation
A history of identity: remembering forgotten heroes of 1857
We are approaching the dreaded anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of Indians a hundred-and-one years ago, on 13thApril, which constitutes the goriest crime committed by forces of occupation anywhere in the colonial world. It was premeditated, indictable, first-degree felony that left about a thousand Indians dead and many more maimed. A framework is presented here through this brutal incident from Indian history – there are several from ancient to modern times but not quoted for brevity – to look at the rising trend of promoting what is called Ethnic Nationalism by historical sociologist, Anthony D. Smith, as against Civic Nationalism of the other type. There is an aggressive body of activists, regularly occupied with the business of furthering this cause and in trying to physically correct the ‘wrongs of history’. We have no idea what serious efforts these elements have made to avenge the carnage and the humiliation experienced by our countrymen at the Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.
The firing on unarmed civilians stopped only after the soldiers exhausted their bullets. That means, the casualty could have been even higher if the ammunition was not over. The dead constituted all the three major communities in good number and even women and children. Both the Lt. Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer and Col. Reginald Dyer who carried out the indiscriminate shooting were given no punishment by the British Crown. It was thus a loud declaration by the perpetrators of this horrific crime about the total subjugation of the Indian nationhood to the British supremacy. But we don’t hear any war cries for reparation from Britain, whereas this would be more meaningful and doable due to the uninterrupted continuity of the British monarchy ever since compared to the Turkish/Afghan/Mughal dynasties that have gone into the dustbins of history.
Presiding over the ‘wounded civilisation’, Viceroy Lord Chelmsford in his report to London explained away Dyer’s role, “…in the face of a great crisis an officer may be thrown temporarily off the balance of his judgment”. To rub salt to injury, O’Dwyer – who would later be shot dead by Udham Singh in Caxton Hall, London in 1940 – was given a clean chit by the Viceroy: he “was largely responsible for quelling a dangerous rising which might have had widespread and disastrous effects on the rest of India”. Dyer went to the grave without any punishment either from the British or by an Indian. It would be interesting but inconceivable to contemplate finding Dyer’s 7th or 8th generation by our present day vigilantes and punish them for the real wrong he visited upon our people in 1919.
The backdrop of the monstrosity may be recounted briefly. Punjab was restive since the promulgation of the Rowlett Act (The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919) and had seen intermittent violent protests in March. An all-India Hartal was observed on Sunday, 6th April 1919, denouncing the ‘Black Act’. The agitators in Amritsar burnt down some public properties including banks and three managers were killed on 9th April. The Town Hall was also burnt down. The police frequently resorted to firings leading to several casualties. On 10th April, Miss Marcella Sherwood, an English missionary, was the object of ire and beating in a lane of Amritsar by some Indians. The British commander Col. Dyer, who would conduct the shootings in Jallianwala Bagh three days later and would be hailed for his heroics as the ‘saviour of Punjab’ by the same Miss Sherwood, issued an order that every Indian who passed through that lane would cross it crawling on his four limbs and it was verily enforced. The degradation and indignity of this order can hardly be imagined.
It was in this charged atmosphere that orders of deportation for Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kichlew came into circulation. The public reacted agitatedly, spontaneously and a public meeting was called in the nearby park to condemn the deportation of two leaders. By way of a passing remark, let us note that Saifuddin Kitchlew, born in Amritsar, BA from Cambridge, PhD in Germany, opposed partition, refused to leave India and shifted from Amritsar to Delhi in 1947 after his huge house in Amritsar was burnt down during the communal conflagration.
We may note words of Dyer during inquiry, “…I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well”…further …“to create an impression on the rest of Punjab”. But the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’ (to quote the title of a book by Nigel Collette of the British Army) does not attract the same spite and hate for a relatively recent ‘historical wrong’ as reserved for the medieval rulers. The imposition of Martial Law in Punjab saw further oppression, massive arrests, torture in custody, shoot at sight orders etc.
The national leaders felt betrayed and helpless. Mahatma Gandhi renounced his Kaisar-i-Hind medal. Gurudev Tagore returned his Knighthood with a bleeding heart, “...the time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings’.
But the British authorities did not see the massacre in that light. For them, it was only an issue of public order. The Imperial Government never offered any apology for the killing of innocent people for the remainder of the twenty-eight years that they ruled India, or thereafter as Head of the Commonwealth of Nations. The reluctance continues. Britain seems to have finally declined to offer any apology for ‘things that happened in the past’ as announced by Junior Foreign Minister, Mark Field in the House of Commons. But he need not ‘Mark’ his ‘Field’ for fear of reprisals from those ought to ‘correct history’.
Incidentally, it was also a period of active cooperation between Hindus and Muslims. Ram Navmi was celebrated jointly by Hindus and Muslims on 9th April 1919. But this camaraderie was viciously sabotaged on several occasions especially after the massacre – even as the hardships of martial law continued without treatment to the injured or succour to those dying every day of bullet wounds – by setting a person of one community against the other as prosecution witness, all under duress of incarceration or simply elimination.
Predictably, Indians were tried by the British soon after the Massacre for violating the law in Jallianwala Bagh before Mr Justice Broadway, involving 15 Indian nationalists. The freedom fighters were charged under Sections 121-121A, 124-1, 396, 302, 326, 426, 147, 436, 120B, 506 of the IPC. The accused included Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, Satyapal, Badr-ul-Islam Ali Khan, Mohd. Bashir, Kotu Mal, Narain Das Khanna, Gurdial Singh, Bhawan Nand, Dina Nath, Gurbaksh Rai, Ghulam Nabi, Ghulam Mohd, Abdul Aziz, Mohd. Ismail, and Moti Ram Mehra. The representation of the communities may be noted.
Josh Malihabadi, (of “kya Hind ka zindan kaanp raha hai…” fame), the progressive, fiery Urdu poet who forced by circumstances left for Pakistan only in 1954, had penned tribute to Bhagat Singh and Jallianwala Bagh like this,
“Voh Bhagat Singh ke ghum mein ab bhi dil nashaad hai
Uski gardan me jo dala tha voh phanda yaad hai
“Zehan mein hoga ye taaza Hindion ka dagh bhi
Yaad to hoga tumhen Jallianwla bagh bhi”
We have many days of rejoicing in our country reflected through various festivals. Taking a cue from Josh, why cannot we have a ‘Day of Grief and Mourning’? I would submit that the date, 13th April 1919, would easily qualify for this unhappy distinction when the blood of Indians flowed like water irrespective of creed, gender or age. Unfortunately, Amritsar would bleed again in 1947 but that time in fratricidal feud.
The list of ‘historical wrongs’ is fairly long, from Kalinga to the end of the Freedom Struggle, brutal shootings, hangings of freedom fighters – even after discounting some highly emotive ‘contemporary wrongs’ of 1984 and 2002 – and should include Japanese brutalities on Indians in Andaman & Nicobar Islands during 1942-45 – a fact that would not be even known to many, and the gruesomeness and indignities suffered at the hands of the British by our countrymen in the Kaala Paani. Realism would be that the past, good or bad, cannot hold a nation back nor can it be undone. Every culture, every age has its ‘dark phases’. Howsoever, one may desire its responsibility cannot be fixed on the present generation. Moving on has to be the only option.
Faizi O. Hashmi is a retired IAS officer.
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