Jallianwala 100 years later: Through the glass darkly

New Delhi, Delhi, India Apr 13, 2019, 02.40 PM(IST) Written By: Makarand R Paranjape

Just like Cameron, ex-PM Theresa May speaking at the Vaisakhi reception at Downing Street in London in May stopped short of an apology, referring to the massacre as a "shameful scar" on British Indian history. "We deeply regret what happened and the pain inflicted on so many people," the ex-prime minister told the Indian gathering. No one who has heard the accounts of what happened that day can fail to be deeply moved. No one can truly imagine what the visitors to those gardens went through that day one hundred years ago. "It was - as the former prime minister H H Asquith described it at the time - 'one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history'." Photograph:( ANI )

Story highlights

Today, we want an unconditional apology from the British, but what about those who actually opened fire, the Indian soldiers who served the British?

Baisakhi, April 13, 1919. A hundred years ago on the Punjabi New Year’s day, British Indian troops fired 1,650 rounds of bullets into a large crowd of unarmed civilians assembled peacefully at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. Among the 1,100 injured and 379 killed according to colonial records, were women and children, young and old, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. The actual fatalities were probably much higher, with independent sources putting the figure close to 1,500. Not long after independence, in 1951, this small walled garden close to the Golden temple, was declared a national monument. 

On that fateful day, Brigadier General REH. Dyer, just arrived from Jalandhar Cantonment, virtually imposed martial law on the city. He banned all public meetings, convinced by his informants that a major insurrection was afoot. This prohibition was not widely publicised. Many villagers had gathered at the Jallianwalla Bagh to celebrate the Hindu-Sikh festival. Hearing of this large assembly, Dyer ordered a platoon of nearly 100 troops consisting of soldiers drawn from Sikh, Gurkha, Baluchi, and Rajput battalions to position themselves on a raised embankment nearby. He then commanded them to shoot at the crowd for some ten minutes.

Entering the Jallianwala Memorial today, one cannot but help notice that except for the narrow entrance, there would have been no way out for the terrified crowd. In the melee that ensured the round after round of deadly gunfire, many jumped into a well on the premises, but perished anyway, suffocated or drowned. Bullet marks on the walls of the park bear silent testimony to the atrocity that forever changed the relationship between imperial authorities and Indian subjects. No clear official apology has been forthcoming from our erstwhile rulers yet, although several pious regretful sentiments have been reported by worthies as varied and as far apart in history as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the serving incumbent, Teresa May. 

Justin Rowlatt was BBC’s South Asia correspondent till last year. His great-great-grandfather, Sir Sidney Rowlatt, authored the notorious Rowlatt Act behind many of the Punjab disturbances, Justin was unsure of how he would be treated in India. Fearing hostility, he was surprised and humbled by how spontaneously Indians warmed up to him, despite the deadly history that connected his family with our country. “I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I did when I visited Jallianwala Bagh,” he recalls in a moving account, “I certainly wasn’t expecting to cry…I have more reason than most to feel ashamed and humbled by what happened at the Bagh. That’s because the demonstrators who were killed by British troops had gathered there to protest against a repressive law inspired by and named after my great grandfather.” 

The Rowlatt Act, dubbed as “no Dalil, no Vakil, no Appeal,” was a draconian measure to curb expressions of anti-colonial sentiment. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Tushar Gandhi, reportedly went to the extent of telling Justin Rowlatt, “I appreciate your great grandfather’s role to provide the final nail in the coffin of the Empire.” Mahatma Gandhi, himself prevented from entering Punjab on April 10, 1919, was sent back to Bombay from Palwal, not too far from Delhi. It would be almost year later, on March 25, 1920 that he would submit his own detailed report and assessment of what happened on that fateful day. This fact-finding report by the Mahatma is a classic anti-colonial document of highest ethical standards even against a pitiless adversary. 

The world did not know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on till many months after. Punjab was under Martial Law, with a news blackout. A careful reading of major English and North American newspapers of April 14, 1919, shows no reference to the massacre. Distorted snippets released mostly from Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, only mention riots and unrest in Punjab. It was only a strong outcry from Indians that forced the British Government to appoint the Hunter Committee six months later October 14, 1919. It is only by December 1919 that the massacre began to be acknowledged. The Hunter Committee report was released on March 20, 1920. 

Today, we want an unconditional apology from the British, but what about those who actually opened fire, the Indian soldiers who served the British? How is it that none of their descendants have said sorry? We didn’t hesitate to kill our own in service of the empire. Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were united against the empire because of the Jallianwala massacre. But the Partition, and the bloodbath leading up to and beyond it, undid that unity, quite exceeding the sorrows and deaths of Jallianwala. Even today, India and Pakistan are fighting a costly if undeclared war. The monster that stares us in the mirror is not just our former colonial master but our own self.

(This article was originally published on The DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)