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‘Jallianwala Bagh’ review: Fresh light on Jallianwala

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, a hundred and two years ago this Baisakhi, fundamentally changed the tempo and direction of India’s freedom struggle. Gandhi, convinced that cooperation with the colonial government was not possible after this “wanton cruelty and inhumanity almost unparalleled in modern times” returned his war service medals and became an implacable foe of the Raj; Tagore renounced his knighthood; Lenin deplored the shooting and Churchill denounced the massacre as a “monstrous event.” A turning point, according to Nehru, in Anglo-Indian relations, the event shook India’s faith in British justice and good intentions and set the stage not only for Gandhi’s non-violent struggle but also for determined political resistance in Punjab and the emergence of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh.

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Yet, for an event that has become a metaphor for racial brutality and inhumanity, there was surprisingly little scholarship attached to it in the decades that followed; perhaps its ramifications were still being played out. There were hagiographic or defensive books such as A Life of General Dyer by Ian Colvin, Massacre at Amritsar by Rupert Furneaux and Six Minutes to Sunset by Arthur Swinson. But the massive material available — the official records, the evidence collected by the Disorders Inquiry Committee (popularly known as the Hunter Commission) and the rival Congress Inquiry Committee, the Parliamentary debates in London, the oral histories of survivors and witnesses — was fittingly waiting for a scholar from Amritsar, born only a short distance away from the scene of the crime, to do it full justice.

Deep empathy

That V.N. Datta certainly did in his 1969 work Jallianwala Bagh, now republished by Penguin with a preface by his daughter and distinguished historian, Nonica Datta; an enlightening interview with her father in his last days adds fresh value to the volume. Datta had a deep empathy for Amritsar given his insider’s instinctive feel and the experience of growing up amidst the shared memories of suffering, pain and horror caused by the massacre. This empathy, combined with a professional historian’s clinical approach, is evident behind this magisterial treatment of the massacre. Besides his focus on oral histories and private papers, Datta’s work was enriched by his discovery in 1966 of Volumes VI and VII of the Hunter Commission evidence. These volumes, which included secret reports of the British government and in-camera evidence — including critical testimonies by Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer (assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940) and Chief secretary J.P. Thompson — had been suppressed on grounds of political and military exigencies. Datta later edited and published this material as New Light on the Punjab Disturbances in 1919; the volume is now a rich resource for subsequent scholarship.

Datta’s wide-angle approach treats the massacre not as an isolated episode but as a clash between nationalist aspirations and imperial policies. The build-up is a layered one: the Ghadar movement, the inadequacy of moderate Congress methods, Gandhi’s emergence, the First World War, international trends towards self-determination and the woefully short Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms towards eventual self-government in India.

Stifling dissent

The War had cost India dearly in men and materials: war gifts and loans, rising prices of essential goods, new taxes and harsh recruitment policies had added to the tribulations of famines, failing harvests and plague outbreaks. Punjab was the hardest hit: with just one-thirteenth of the country’s population, it had contributed 60% of the recruits. O’Dwyer, an arch-imperialist, had ruled the province with an iron hand for six years, stifling all dissent and opposition. The iniquitous Rowlatt Act was a spark thrown on this tinderbox; one third of all hartals against this Act took place in Punjab. The deportation on April 10 of the popular Punjab leaders Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satyapal resulted in direct clashes between the people and the authorities. In the ensuing violence, five Europeans and about 20 Indians were killed and the missionary, Marcella Sherwood, was assaulted. The stage was set for the arrival of Brigadier General Dyer, the massacre of April 13 and the imposition of Martial Law.

Datta uses textual evidence and witness accounts to detail these days without exaggeration or nationalistic grandstanding. He concludes that about 700 people were killed on April 13 and the possibility of the agent provocateur Hans Raj conniving with the British is not ruled out. He humanises the crowd to reveal that it was no gathering of political activists but of ordinary citizens, farmers, craftsmen and labourers and that there were no women present. He dismisses the specious argument that Dyer’s arteriosclerosis was responsible for impaired judgment and demonstrates Dyer’s cold-blooded planning and clinical use of maximum force to teach the people of Punjab a lesson. Encouraged by his superiors and the laudatory British press, he was convinced that he had performed his rightful duty with distinction.

The book goes beyond the massacre to analyse the conclusions of the Hunter Commission, the Parliamentary debates in London and the impact on India’s freedom struggle. If one has to read only one book on this tragic episode of Indian history, then this slim volume — path-breaking, authentic, balanced and sober — is all one needs to read.

Jallianwala Bagh; V.N. Datta with an introduction by Nonica Datta, Penguin Random House, ₹399.

The reviewer is the former Ambassador of India to the U.S. and High Commissioner to the U.K. He is the author of the novel The Exile and of several other works of fiction and non-fiction.

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