Revisiting VN Datta’s monograph that set the record straight on Jallianwala tragedy

Revisiting VN Datta’s monograph that set the record straight on Jallianwala tragedy

Jallianwala Bagh: A Groundbreaking History of the 1919 Massacre by VN Datta. Penguin Random House. Pages 248. Rs 399

Mani Shankar Aiyar

Owing to its association with the “frightfulness” of Dyer mercilessly mowing down 700 blameless Indians without cause, Baisakhi in April brings to mind the opening lines of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land, mixing

Memory with desire…

In 1969, on the 50th anniversary of the ghastly event, historian Vishwa Nath Datta, born and brought up in the vicinity of the Bagh and, therefore, personally acquainted with many of the survivors and loved ones of those brutally shot down, brought out this monograph of under 150 pages to tell the historical truth of what happened; why it happened; how participants and observers, British and Indian, reacted to the gory bloodletting of innocent hundreds; and what were its far-reaching consequences for Indo-British relations and the End of Empire. Now, a hundred years on, Datta’s daughter, Nonica, herself a professional historian at JNU, has reissued the publication with a lucid and enlightening introduction of her own.

Datta’s research tells the historical truth of what happened; why it happened; how participants and observers reacted.

Datta throws away the telescope that others have used to portray what happened that gruesome day and instead focuses his microscope on the events. In doing so, he not only squeezes out the tearful memories of those who had been there during the 10 grim minutes of the ruthless shoot-to-kill orders, but also delved deep into the hitherto rather neglected record of the suppressed sixth and seventh volumes of the Hunter Committee report that included the text of the evidence led by the witnesses before the committee in camera. In doing so, much in the manner of AJP Taylor looking into the actual records of ‘The Origins of the Second World War’, Datta’s meticulous and objective researches peel away layer after layer of the palimpsest of motivations, actions and justifications advanced to drill down to the truth of what happened, stripped of the politically convenient fabrications which have stained both the nationalist and Imperial narration in which both sets of narrative have been wrapped. This is historiography at its most outstanding.

Datta definitively sets at 1,650 the number of bullets fired to kill some 700 victims. The traditional nationalist and Imperial versions had erred by respectively exaggerating or underestimating the actual numbers. Having settled the numerical argument, Datta etches the background to the unrest in Amritsar and much of Punjab: the continuing impact of the Ghadar movement launched on the eve of the Great War; the insensitive drive to trick three-and-a-half million young men into “volunteering” to fight for the Allies in someone else’s war far beyond their own hearths and homes; the callous neglect of those who had been demobilised; the indifference to the pitiful economic plight of rural Punjab, “hit extraordinarily hard by the unprecedented rise in the cost of living” as “famine swept across the country” and “India suffered one of its worst harvest failures for many years”; the subsequent denial of promises of self-government made earlier; the Home Rule agitation led by Annie Besant and Lokmanya Tilak; and the continuation through the Rowlatt Act of the excesses of war time punishments for “sedition”.

Meanwhile Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, and the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, jointly announced their eponymous reforms that explicitly ruled in “self-government” for India as the eventual goal of British Imperial policy. But what they regarded as path-breaking Indian nationalists of all hues dismissed as derisory. Meanwhile, Hindu-Muslim unity was forged at the simultaneous 1916 Lucknow sessions of the Congress and Muslim League and the growing concern of the Indian Muslim community over the overthrow of the Sultan of Turkey and the Caliphate he represented. The Congress, and Gandhiji in particular, shared that concern. Out of this political maelstorm which had Amritsar as its epicentre and was to be the venue of the annual Indian National Congress later that year, Gandhi emerged as the unchallenged and unchallengeable leader of the freedom movement. Against this larger background, Datta details the events in Amritsar from end-March to mid-April 1919 that set the stage for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

The last phase of the “disorders”, as the authorities chose to name the eruption, had begun in January-February 1919, with Doctors Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satyapal mobilising Muslims and Hindus in a joint protest against the iniquities of the Imperial regime, symbolised by the twin Rowlatt Bills, the more important of which was passed into a single Act. A series of meetings to protest the Bills was held, “marked by an increasing use of violent language”. The initial agitations received a significant impetus when a hartal was declared on March 30 and Jallianwala Bagh entered the history books with a massive public rally held there on the evening of the same day under the presidency of Kitchlew. Satyapal was present but silent for he had been served with orders to not make any public speeches. Dr Kitchlew was served with the same prohibitory orders on April 4. Amritsar, hitherto seen as “one of the most peaceful cities in India”, became, in the eyes of the rulers “the scene of rebellious outrage”.

They brought it upon themselves for it was the denizens of Amritsar who were outraged at the gagging of their leaders. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the show of police force on April 6, the hartal that day was more complete than on March 30, and yet “the day passed off peacefully”. This had a great deal to do with Kitchlew, who “as a follower of Gandhi, did not support the use of violence” and could not be held responsible for the “criminal deeds” of the mob that gathered on April 10 as news of Kitchlew and Satyapal’s detention and deportation to Dharamsala percolated to the crowd, “excited, fervent, earnest, shouting slogans and moving with one will, driven by the urge to protest vigorously against the authorities”, already angered by news of the arrest of Gandhiji the previous day at Palwal, south of Delhi, as the Mahatma attempted to board a train to Punjab.

With neither Kitchlew nor Satypal to lead them in the non-violent direction of Satyagraha, the crowd soon turned into an embittered mass. They hit out at the noses of the maddened horses of the mounted police and started heavy brick-batting, “badly stoned by a large mob, a very dense crowd” uttering a “murderous yell”. From the perspective of the demonstrators, it was perhaps the dying utterance of a boy of 16 that captured the essence of the spirit that animated them: “Hindu Mussalman ki jai,” he whispered as he expired.

But the violence was real enough. Banks were broken into and looted. Some of the European staff was beaten to death. Miss Marcella Sherwood, working in Amritsar for the last 15 years on behalf of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society for the education of the girl child of all communities, was assaulted as she cycled down Kauriyanwalla Street and left for dead until “she was picked up by some Hindu shopkeepers who revived her and gave her first aid”. Datta concludes: “In view of the incidents of 10 April, the deportation of the two popular leaders, Kitchlew and Satyapal, appears to have been a disastrous measure… It was only from 10 April that events took on a sinister character.”

Brig Reginald Dyer arrived from Jalandhar on the evening of April 11, determined to save the Empire from insurrection. He came from a family that for over a century had been associated with the conquest and consolidation of colonial rule in the country. A competent linguist, he spoke Urdu, Hindustani, Punjabi and Pushtu, besides Persian. He was informed on arrival by deputy commissioner Miles Irving that Amritsar had turned “impenitently hostile”. An aerial survey Dyer ordered next day showed that “insolent and truculent” crowds were gathering at various points in the city at the behest of second rank leaders such as Chowdhury Bugga Mal and Pandit Dina Nath, in the absence of the deported duo, Kitchlew/Satyapal, raising the slogan of “Hindu Mussalman ki jai”. At 9am on the 13th, a proclamation was issued by Dyer in Urdu and Punjabi prohibiting “any kind of procession” or “gathering of more than four persons” and liable to be “dispersed by force of arms if necessary”.

The people, however, responded to the call of Kanhaiya Lal to gather at Jallianwala Bagh at 4.30 pm to listen to messages received from Kitchlew and Satyapal. Dyer assembled a striking force of 90 armed soldiers, backed up by two armoured carriers fitted out with machine guns, to take on a peaceful, unarmed gathering of non-violent protesters and several holidaymakers lounging in the park. He had to leave the armoured carriers behind as they could not enter the narrow lane through which the soldiers had marched. Otherwise, Dyer later boasted, he would have swept the crowd with machine gun fire. As it was, he lined up the Gorkhas on his left and the Baloch on his right and immediately on arrival “opened fire” and kept it up for 10 minutes, with two breaks of a minute each, during which time, “1650 rounds of .303 Mark VI ammunition were fired”, leaving “not a corner where people were not dying in large numbers”.

Corpses piled up in the vicinity of the podium and at the small openings in the surrounding walls, where the soldiers were ordered by Dyer to concentrate their fire on those attempting to flee in panic. Those who escaped with bullet injuries collapsed in the gullies outside. Dyer claimed, “Hesitation I felt would be dangerous and futile.” While speculation on the numbers killed will never end, Datta, piecing together the evidence, including that of eyewitnesses and survivors and weighing the alternative numbers that ranged from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand, concludes that about 700 died on the spot while “at least three times that number” received injuries. Datta accepts that there were perhaps no women victims of the shooting (although, obviously, those widowed endured a lifetime of loss and suffering), but several children and teen-aged boys were shot and some of the victims were suffocated as the crowd fell over each other in the surge to escape. None was armed.

Jallianwala Bagh marked several divides: between the European and Indian members of the Hunter Committee; between the (British) Government of India and His Majesty’s Government in London; between the generality of opinion among the British in India and the home audience; between the House of Commons and the House of Lords; and between wings of the Tory party who were respectively appalled by what Dyer had done and others who applauded. It also divided opinion among those who thought Dyer’s actions had forestalled another 1857 and others who believed he had immorally undermined the ethics of Empire. But it did unite Indian opinion as had not been seen in the previous three-quarters of a century of Imperial rule, never better summed up than by the author’s father who wrote under his literary name (taqallus) Qasir:

Ab to hai apne sud o ziyan par nazar mujhe

Voh din gaye ke labh pe mere ji hazoor tha.

Our eyes were opened to right and wrong

No more would we be bound to unquestioning servitude. (English translation by the reviewer)

There were three Indians appointed by the Government to the Hunter Committee: Sir Chimanlal Setalvad; Sahibzada Sultan Khan; and Lala Jagat Narayan — damningly dismissed by MR Jayakar of the alternative Congress committee as respectively ‘weak and submissive’, ‘inaudible’ and ‘strong but inartistic’. Of course, the committee was neither a “Royal Commission” nor a “Parliamentary Committee”, but a body nominated by the government and headed by a former solicitor-general of Scotland with no previous acquaintance with India. Yet, it cannot be denied that they were all pretty sharp with Dyer who made the mistake of defending himself instead of through an attorney. And, so, he made horrific confessions to the committee including: “It did not take me thirty seconds to make up my mind …I was going to fire until they dispersed”; “I thought it my duty to go on firing until it dispersed. If I had fired a little, I should have been wrong in firing at all… then they would come back and laugh at me”; “I had made up my mind that I would do all the men to death if they were going to continue the meeting”; “if the possibility had been there, the probability is that I would have opened fire …with the machine guns”; “it was a merciful act though a horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it”.

Dyer had damned himself. While “both the Indian and the European members justified the firing”, they also jointly concluded that Dyer had “a mistaken conception of duty” and “started firing without giving the people who had assembled a chance to disperse”, as also that he “continued firing for a substantial time after the crowd had commenced to disperse”. They also jointly held that “it is not proved that a conspiracy to overthrow British power had been formed prior to the outbreak”.

While the Government of India prevaricated on the question, ES Montagu, on whose insistence the Hunter committee had been constituted, took the initiative to press for the punishment of Dyer for his excesses, principally to smoothen the way to Indian acceptance of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms as a positive step towards meeting Indian aspirations. While general opinion among the British in India lauded Dyer as a hero, the note prepared by the Home Member for the Viceroy’s Executive Committee held that Dyer had acted “beyond any reasonable requirement of the case”, “showed a disregard for human life” and “a misconception of his duty”. It recommended that “he should be relieved of his command without delay and that he should be called upon to retire or be compelled to do so”. On March 23, 1920, Dyer was summoned to Delhi and informed that “the commander-in-chief had decided to relieve him of his command”. He sailed to England a “broken” man on April 10, exactly a year after the events of that day had brought him post-haste to Amritsar.

It was not, however, the end of the Dyer saga. The Dyer case came before the Army Council on May 14, days after Dyer sighted the “white cliffs of Dover”. Extraordinarily, the indictment was led by that arch Imperialist Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War. He was strongly opposed by Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, a war hero. It was eventually decided to give Dyer an opportunity to defend himself before the Army Council. This time, he sensibly secured the most able legal counsel available. His written submission held that while Hunter had seen only an “unlawful” assembly, he had seen “rebellion” and, therefore, the object he sought was “the right object”; the force he used was “not excessive”; any lesser use of force would not have achieved the “effect desired”. Nevertheless, the Army Council decided that Dyer should not be given “further employment” even “outside India”.

The issue went before Parliament. In the House of Commons, Montagu led the attack, ably supported by Churchill and others, including Col Wedgewood. Montagu’s condemnation was based on repudiating Dyer’s doctrine of “frightfulness and racial humiliation”. “Are you going to keep India by terrorism?” he asked, adding, “We hold British lives sacred, but we hold Indian lives sacred as well”. Churchill thundered, “‘Frightfulness’ is not a remedy known to British pharmacopeia.” He described Jallianwala Bagh as a “monster event”, an event “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British empire”. Former PM Asquith described it as “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history” while a future PM, Bonar Law, held the action to have been “wrong, entirely wrong”. Col Wedgewood said Dyer had given “to English history the worst blot” since “we burned Joan of Arc”. When the House divided, Dyer stood condemned by a vote of 230-129.

That, however, was reversed in the House of Lords where despite Churchill’s comrade-in-arms, Lord Birkenhead (FE Smith), giving the Government’s position his support, the vote went against the Treasury benches, 86-121. The London Morning Post set up a fund for Dyer that attracted a subscription of 26,000 pounds sterling, a huge amount for its time, while one Miss Florence Holland of Mussoorie issued a public notification for funds to present a “Sword of Honour and Purse” to the “Saviour of Punjab”. There was again no closure. Not even at the 50th anniversary of India’s independence when the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was heard remarking as they walked to Jallianwala Bagh, “But Reggie told me only about 200 died”!

But the freedom movement, as Datta remarks, “at last acquired a national character”. His daughter, Nonica, deservedly has the last word: “Some books never cease to be relevant. Jallianwala Bagh is one such”.

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