The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 8, 2000
Time Off

Villains and heroes
By Manohar Malgonkar

PSYCHOLOGISTS argue that, what makes villains villians, and heroes heroes is the same impulse: A paranoiac urge to prove themseles. There must be some truth in this because in most cases those who are honoured as heroes in some countries or by some people, are despised as villains in other countries and by other people.

Who, for instance, is the twentieth century’s most infamous person? — every schoolboy knows the answer: Adolph Hitler. The man who killed millions and whose hatred of the Jewish race was so intense that to him even the children of Jewish parents were only fit to be flung into gas ovens.

There are insane people in every society. The mystery here is that this mad man should have been able to make himself the absolute leader of one of the most civilised people in the world. They not only submitted themselves to his will but zealously carried out his most bloodthirsty commands. By their continuing and unquestioning obedience to Hitler they unfortunately created the impression that they too, shared their master’s aims, to create a new world order uncontaminated by the presence of Jews and gypsies and, by extension, all Blacks browns, orientals — a clinically clean, Aryan paradise!

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What could have inflamed such a fanatical hatred of Jews in Hitler? Some childhood abuse, a slight or insult in later life; some secret knot of guilt — who can say? For while the desire to succeed, to do better in life than those around you is a perfectly normal impulse, to kill vast numbers of people, to conquer distant countries and subjugate their people is surely a symptom of madness. And it is precisely this, the abnormality, the touch of paranoia, that separates the rest of mankind from its heroes as well as villains.

Napoleon then, a tiny strutting soldier. Was it the consciousness of his lack of inches that drove him on and on? And was Alexander the Great’s insatiable lust for new lands to conquer his defence against some inner guilt? Gibbon mentions how he was indebted to his mother for his elevation to the throne, and that at his mother’s insistence, he had to banish his newly- married wife to Africa because she, his mother, did not want another woman to share her son’s affection. Other historians go so far as to suggest an Oedipus complex, among them A.B.Burns who accuses him of having become "sexually cold." Whatever it was, it drove the man — or boy, really, for Alexander was barely out of his teens — to conquer what was then believed to be the entire world.

But why go to Europe to look for examples of people with sick minds who became either heroes or villains or both? — we have plenty of our own, with their stories faithfully recorded.

Such as a particularly unprincipled character among the East India Company’s servants, who suffered from such unbearable fits of depression that he once tried to kill himself with his own pistol. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) the shot did not go off. Destiny itself had intervened, having singled out the man for a historic role: Robert Clive. He founded the Company’s empire, and in the process, made a private fortune. But no matter how rich he became, or how powerful, those fits of depression never left him, and finally he succumbed to them — by blowing his brains out.

That empire which Robert Clive had founded on behalf of his employers, created its own mythology, its mystique, its flamboyant style, as the ultimate projection of the British public school spirit, which, in turn, defined the caste system of the men who ruled the Raj: those who had been to the right public school were the sahibs, the nobility, the nuts and bolts and the beams of the steel frame. The others who had somehow sneaked into the sahib services — the ICS and the army — were, well, not pucca-sahibs.

All of which brings me to a key question: who is the most infamous person of the Raj’s last fifty years?

Here again, every schoolboy — well every Indian schoolboy — knows the answer; General Reginald Dyer, the man who perpetrated the Jallianwala massacre. It is an open place surrounded by the walls of houses and sunk below street level. "Like a prison exercise yard," James Morris tells us. Here a crowd of around five thousand people had gathered for what was to be a protest meeting, and even Phillip Woodruff, a formidable protagonist of everything that the Raj stood for, concedes that most of them were "peasants who had come in for a fair."

Dyer’s task was to disperse the "mob of dangerous agitators," as even the courts later described the crowd. Dyer saw in them a threat to the safety of his soldiers and more, a threat to the Empire itself. He, Dyer, had been chosen by destiny to save the Great British Empire. He ordered his troops to kneel down, aim and fire, right into the body of the crowd.

It was over within minutes, or in just as many minutes for a body of trained troops to fire off fifteen hundred rounds, when their ammunition gave over. 390 killed, about 1500 wounded, was the official casualty list. But of course, no one has trusted those figures. Double that number would be a reasonable estimate.

And remember that Dyer did not stop the firing; it stopped on its own because his soldiers had exhausted the ammunition. His testimony leaves one with the impression that, if only he had a few more boxes of ammunition, he would have liked nothing better than to go on killing the men, women and children till no one was left alive; that it was to his regret that he had left the job only half done.

At that, there were those who could see that, given these limiting factors, Dyer had done a heroic job of saving the empire for its rulers, and in token of gratitude Britain’s House of Lords passed a motion appreciating his services, more practically, the voice of the empire, the Morning Post, passed the hat among its subscribers and raised £ 25,000, as a cash award for General Dyer. And somewhat inexplicably, the guardians of the Golden Temple at Amritsar enrolled Dyer into the brotherhood of the Sikh Religion.

The civilised world was shocked, as much at the deed as the effrontary of its perpetrator for expressing disappointment that he should not have been provided with sufficient ammunition to the job properly. What the ‘natives’ thought of it all, was of no account. Winston Churchill’s attitude, revealed in what he was later to tell Lord Irwin who had asked him to update his views on India by talking to some Indians, that he was "quite satisfied with his own views on India and did not want them disturbed by any bloody Indian", sums it up.

Still, there were thinking men even among the Empire’s servants who were shocked at the savagery with which Dyer had carried out his mission, and Dyer’s own later testimony supports their understanding of his motives. It is clear that he tended to look upon his assignment as his moment of truth: a chance to show the pucca-sahibs that he, Reginald Dyer, was the equal of any sahib who had been to Eton or Harrow, that when it came to the crunch, he, too, would not falter in the service of the Empire.

Phillip Woodruff, himself a member of the steel frame and indeed its spokesman, hazards a guess when, in his The Men who Ruled India he muses:

"At such a moment, every influence in a man’s life may play a part in it, and it may be relevant that Dyer had been educated in India at Bishop Cotton School, where most of his companions were the sons of European subordinates or people of mixed blood."

Enough reason?

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