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Editorial Articles

Volume -2, 13 - 16 April 2019



The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

The Panjab which had done most in contributing to the war effort was the most adversely affected of the provinces. In addition it had the misfortune of being ruled by Michael O'Dwyer, one of the worst specimens of Morley's Tchinovniks. The Rowlatt Bill had, as it were, sprinkled salt over the Panjab wounds. It brooked 'no vakil, no appeal, no dalil (argument),' and threatened every public worker with dire consequences at the bidding of officers like O'Dwyer.

As the strains and stresses were greater in the Panjab, the agitation there was more extensive and intensive than in any other province. There was greater fervour, more strident emotions, larger gatherings of crowds, and all this tended to rowdy demonstrations, alarm of authorities and frequent clashes. Panjab had achieved a reputation for turbulence since the agrarian troubles of 1907. The conditions had greatly deteriorated since then. The province was feeling a sense of deep frustration and Gandhiji's call had an electrifying effect upon the people.

Already many meetings of protest had taken place all over the province. On the 6th April hartals were staged in Lahore and other towns. The Governor reacted fiercely. He told the provincial Legislative Council in a minatory speech :

"I, therefore, take this opportunity of warning all who are connected with political movements in the province that they will be held responsible for the proper conduct of meetings which they organise, for the language used at, and the consequences that follow from such meetings."

The Tribune stigmatised the speech as blazing indiscretion.

On the 10th of April on the receipt of the news of Gandhiji's arrest a procession was taken out at Lahore. The police fired upon the student processionists. A crowd and a meeting were subjected to shooting. Three local leaders were deported.

But what happened at Lahore pales into insignificance compared with the horrors at Amritsar. Here protest meetings had started in February. On 23rd March was held a meeting in support of the Satyagraha movement, followed by another after 6 days to announce and explain the hartal on the 30th.

The immediate reaction of the authorities was to prohibit one of the leaders, Satyapal, from speaking in public. This did not frighten the citizens and on the 30th a hartal was observed and a meeting was held in Jallianwala Bagh. On the 4th April another leader, Saifuddin Kitchlew, was served with a similar notice as Satyapal and a number of others were restrained. On the 6th a complete hartal was observed but peace was maintained. The Deputy Commissioner was chagrined and immediately asked for additional military force. On the 9th April there was a Hindu festival and large processions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs streamed through the streets.

Gandhiji who at the invitation of the leaders was travelling to the Panjab was stopped at Palwal and prohibited from entering the province.

On the next morning (10th April), Kitchlew and Satyapal were deported from Amritsar. The two incidents infuriated and provoked the people. Mobs gathered to see the Deputy Commissioner and entreat him to cancel the orders. The military pickets tried to stop them from moving towards the Deputy Commissioner's House. The mounted police then fired on the crowd causing some deaths and injuries to many others. The mob was filled with anger. There was a

melee, firing took place from one side and stone-throwing from the other. More crowds gathered and were hailed with bullets. Then the maddened mob broke all bounds, brutal acts of destruction-arson, plunder and murder followed. O'Dwyer in depriving Amritsar of its leaders pledged to non-violence had sown the wind, and India reaped the whirlwind-the crop of a massacre of innocents.

Amritsar was handed over to the military authorities on the 11th and Brigadier Dwyer took charge the same night. Proclamations were issued on the 12th and 13th April giving warnings of dire consequences if meetings were held or processions taken out and violence indulged in.

The reaction of the people was to make a protest against these threats. A meeting was summoned at the Jallianwala Bagh in the afternoon of 13th April. Dwyer regarded it as a challenge to his authority and decided to disperse it by force, to make an example and teach a lesson.

The Jallianwala Bagh was an open enclosure surrounded by buildings with only one narrow entrance through which an armoured car could not pass. There were three or four small openings on the other side. In this enclosure, according to various estimates, fifteen to twenty-five thousand people had gathered. They were peacefully listening to the speeches of the leaders when Dwyer and his men appeared at the main gate. Dwyer immediately deployed his troops and without any warning, opened fire. Men fell dead in hundreds, many were crushed in the blind stampede that ensued. The dead piled up, the wounded lay in agony groaning and crying for water, but the fire continued till the ammunition was exhausted. Dwyer then moved away from the slaughter house proudly surveying his handiwork, unconcerned about the dead and the wounded.

The exact figures of the killed and the injured will never be known, whether 379-which was the official version-died, or one thousand, is irrelevant. The fact is that while the Government in England was announcing its intention to train Indians for self-government through political reforms, its agents in India were actually giving Indians lessons in Rightfulness to develop the qualities of servility, cowardice, hypocrisy and sycophancy.

Jallianwala Bagh massacre was not an isolated incident, it was only one among the large number of instances of the general policy of terrorising the people pursued in the Panjab. In Amritsar the massacre was followed by clamping the curfew order which remained in force for two months. What was worse, water and electricity supply were cut off. Flogging and whipping were common and an order was given that anyone passing through the lane in which an Englishwoman, Miss Sherwood, had been assaulted, should crawl through it on his belly. Numerous people were tried under the martial law, proclaimed on April 13, numerous people were sentenced-many to death, others to transportation for life and various terms of imprisonment.

At Lahore a procession was fired on thrice on the 10th and again on the 17th. On the 16th three respected leaders of Lahore-Rambhaj Dutt Chowdhury, Harkishen Lal and Duni Chand, were invited to the Deputy Commissioner's house, arrested and deported. Martial Law was declared and the hartal broken by military force. The martial law regime from 15th of April to 29th of May was a horrid tale of atrocious dealings-commandeering of transport, stopping of free distribution of food to the needy, convictions by the summary courts, imprison-ment, stripes, public flogging, marching students 16 miles a day in the hot midday sun of May, etc. Even so eminent a scholar as the Minto Professor of Economics in the Calcutta University, Manohar Lal, was thrust into prison without cause shown, all with the deliberate purpose of humiliating and terrorising the people.

In Kasur (near Lahore and Amritsar) on the 13th April the mob excited by the news from Amritsar committed arson and plunder. The authorities proclaimed martial law. The horrors of Lahore and Amritsar were repeated. The military officer in charge exercised his ingenuity to impose fancy punishments.

At Gujranwala bombs were thrown on a boarding house, machine guns were fired into villages and in the city to produce 'moral effect' Indiscriminate arrests were made and people were subjected to humiliation, flogging and many indignities.

The gruesome tale was repeated at numerous other places. The Panjab was treated more or less as an enemy country newly conquered. Its people were taught not to dare challenge or criticize Government on pain of condign punishment.

The English officials-civil and military, appeared on the stage in their true colour, with the thin veneer of civilization suddenly scrubbed out. They were gripped by fear, scared by shadows, and behaved like animals at bay, ferocious and bloodthirsty. O'Dwyer, the wilful and overbearing mentor, gave up the pretension of the moral basis of British rule and confessed his belief in the naked rule of the sword. His myrmidons excelled each other in relating their misdeeds before the Commission of Enquiry and exhibited no sense of shame or remorse.

"The Panjab was isolated, cut off from the rest of India ; a thick veil seemed to cover it and hide it from the outside eyes," exclaimed Jawaharlal Nehru. But gradually the news percolated and India was convulsed. "Jallianwala Bagh kindled a conflagration throughout India." There was an outburst of condemnation from every side, Rabindranath Tagore's renunciation of the knighthood conferred upon him by the British Government was a grand gesture repudiating the ruler's title to be the dispensers of recognition and honour.

Demands were made for the recall of O'Dwyer and Chelmsford. Indemnity for the prisoners was pressed and enquiry in the Panjab happenings urged, both in England and in India.

In England on behalf of the Home Rule League and the Liberal Federation deputations of eminent Indians were at work, giving evidence before the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Among them were Vithalbhai Patel, Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Mrs. Besant, Surendranath Banerjea, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Srinivasa Sastri and others. They impressed upon the Secretary of State the urgency of an enquiry into the recent events in order to pacify public opinion.

Montagu knew that the policy of ruling India by the sword alone was impossible, because you can do anything with bayonets but sit on them. He realised that the government-foreign or indigenous, could not rule a people for any length of time without the willing support of unquestioning acquiescence of a section of the effective classes of the people. Besides, he had a personal stake in the Indian affairs. He had worn himself out to process the Reforms and was naturally most anxious for their success. He made up his mind and in the Budget debate on May 22, gave a promise to hold an enquiry. He wrote to Chelmsford that "this method of government (O'Dwyerism) always brings sooner or later its rewards."

On July 17, he wrote to the Viceroy about Dwyer. He said, "It was the savage and inappropriate folly of the order which rouses my anger. I cannot admit that any service that Dwyer has rendered anywhere can atone for action of this kind and I am very much worried that he should have escaped punishment for an order, the results of which are likely to be permanent."

On August 6, 1919, Sinha, Under Secretary of State for India, speaking in the House of Lords repeated Montagu's promise of May 22, and stated, "You cannot have disturbances of this kind and of this magnitude without an enquiry into the causes and into the measures taken to cope with these disturbances."

But Montagu's misfortune was "that the powers that be in India-the services-are wholly against us", so he tried to persuade the Governor General, "Don't let us make the mistake of defending O'Dwyerism, right or wrong. Nothing is so fatal to the British prestige in a developing country like India as a belief that there is no redress for mistakes, and, that whatever an official does, he will be backed, and not only that he will be backed, but his methods will be perpetuated."

The Government of India stiffly opposed the proposal for an enquiry. But the Secretary of State had already committed himself and the Viceroy had no alternative but to yield. The Committee was announced on October 14, 1919, with Hunter as Chairman, four Englishmen, and three Indians-Setalvad, Sahibzada Sultan Ahmed Khan, and Jagat Narain, as members.

The Committee examined a large number of witnesses including Dwyer, the martial law officers, army officers and civil officers, and many persons involved in the disturbances. The Government of the Panjab placed at their disposal a large quantity of records, including the proceedings and orders of the Martial Law Courts and the Commissions. But the Committee was boycotted by the Congress "in view of the situation created by the refusal of the Government to accede to the request for the temporary release on adequate security of the principal Punjab leaders undergoing imprisonment', and the political leaders refused to appear before it.

The Committee's report was not unanimous-the European members who were in a majority signed one report, the three Indian members prepared a separate report. The findings of the majority report were :

(1) that the disturbances were of the nature of a rebellion which might have developed into a revolution ;

(2) that the outbreaks were the result of the work of a definite organisation and were all connected;

(3) that the proclamation of martial law in the' circumstances was wholly justified ; and that firing was necessary to put down the mob excesses ;

(4) that the Government of India was blameless;

(5) that Dwyer's action was open to criticism for firing without warning and continuing the fire too long and excessively; that Dwyer's object of producing a sufficient moral effect was a mistaken conception of duty.

The minority disagreed with the first two findings, agreed that firing was justified, but the punishments like crawling, confiscation of property, flogging, salaaming, etc. were intended to terrorize and humiliate Indians.

On Dwyer's conduct the Indian members commented more severely than the European. They compared his acts with the acts of Rightfulness committed by the Germans in Belgium and France in 1914. They wrote, "We feel that Dwyer by adopting an inhuman and un-British method of dealing with the subjects of His Majesty the King Emperor, has done great disservice to the interest of British rule in India."

The Congress had appointed its own Committee of Enquiry. The Commissioners were Motilal Nehru (who resigned on having been elected President of the Congress of 1919), Fazlul Haq (who could not attend owing to important business), M. R. Jayakar (in place of Fazlul Haq), C. R. Das, Abbas Tyabji and M.K. Gandhi. They signed their report on February 20, 1920.

The Committee squarely charged Michael O'Dwyer, "who almost invariably appealed to passion and ignorance rather than to reason" and should how "serious a responsibility he incurred in misleading both the people and his superiors". They accused him for using oppressive methods in recruiting soldiers for the war thereby creating the spirit of resistance and dissatisfaction which culminated in the disturbances of April 1919. The report went on to observe:

"We feel tempted to say that he (O'Dwyer) invited violence from the people, so that he could crush them. The evidence shows that he subjected the Punjabis to the gravest provocation under which they momentarily lost self-control."

About Chelmsford they expressed the opinion : "Whilst, therefore we do not think His Excellency was willingly neglectful of the interests of those who were entrusted to his charge by His Majesty, we regret to say that His Excellency Lord Chelmsford proved himself incapable of holding the high office to which he was called, and we are of opinion that His Excellency should be recalled."

After carefully sifting all the evidence they came to the conclusions:

(1) "there was no conspiracy to overthrow the Government in the Punjab,"

(2) "no reasonable cause has been shown to justify the introduction of martial law,"

(3) "the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a calculated piece of inhumanity towards utterly innocent and unarmed men, including children, and unparalleled for its ferocity in the history of modern British administration."

The Government of India considered the Hunter Committee report and came to the conclusion that Dwyer's action at Jallianwala Bagh was indefensible, that he went beyond any reasonable requirement of the case and that he misconceived his duty. It was, therefore, considered unwise to allow him to continue to hold his position. He was consequently retired from office on March 23, 1920.

A debate was raised in Parliament concerning Dwyer's case. Montagu defended the decision of the Government of India on the ground that Britain could not retain its hold upon India by terrorism. Churchill supported the Indian Government and repudiated the theory that Dwyer had Saved the Empire by his ruthlessness. He called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre "a monstrous event", "the greatest blot that has been placed upon it (English history) since the days gone by when we burned down Joan of Arc". Bonar Law condemned Dwyer. Yet when votes were taken as many as 129 voted in favour of Dwyer against 230 who supported the Government.

In the House of Lords the Conservatives including many retired Anglo-Indian officials, vindicated Dwyer by a majority vote. The Government, however, stuck to its decision, censured Dwyer and deprived him of his command.

This led to a reaction in his favour. A huge fund was raised-£26,000, which was presented to him with a sword to mark the approbation of his services by his admirers.

In the meanwhile Gandhiji shocked by the violence in the Panjab (Amritsar, Lahore, Kasur, Gujranwala, etc.), Gujarat (Ahmedabad, Viramgam, Nadiad), and Bengal (Calcutta) complained with a lacerated heart, "1 had called upon the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake of mine seemed to me to be of a Himalayan magnitude." He announced his decision to suspend passive resistance.

Unfortunately little change was visible in the attitude of the Government. The Martial Law regime was prolonged on the plea that the Afghans were hostile and had started an attack on the border. This led to the resignation of Sankaran Nair from the membership of the Viceroy's Executive Council.

An ordinance was made which delegated powers to the Panjab Government whereby any offence committed on or after 30th March, 1919 could be transferred to the Martial Law Tribunal. Gandhiji had already been externed from the Panjab. C. F. Andrews who was deputed to visit the Panjab and report was prohibited from entering. Later Eardley Norton, the lawyer, sent to defend the accused was similarly treated. Horniman, editor of the Bombay Chronicle, was deported from India for his criticism of the Panjab Government. The Government of India expressed its approval of the policy of O'Dwyer and shut its eyes on the misdeeds of the officers. Even before the Commission of Enquiry had started work, an Indemnity Bill was passed to protect the officers who had been concerned in the administration and who might have been found guilty. The British Committee of the Indian National Congress remarked, "Prussianism could go no further."

(Excerpt about Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (13 April 1919) from the book, History of the Freedom Movement in India (Vol I) by Eminent Historian Dr. Tara Chand published by the Publications Division, Govt. of India, www.publications division. nic.in

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