Vol. XLIII No. 27 July 07, 2019

Centenary Observation of Jallianwala Bagh

WHO killed the unarmed Indians in Jallianwala Bagh? Not General Dyer, he did not fire a single shot, he commanded to fire; the Indian soldiers of the British Indian army killed more than 1,000 people on April 13, 1919 on the Baisakhi day. These were the startling words of Irfan Habib, an eminent historian while speaking on the centenary observation programme on Jallianwala Bagh massacre organised by SAHMAT at Delhi on June 29.

While giving a contemporary narration of that period, of similar orders being opposed by the British Indian army contingent in Peshawar(Garhwal regiment), where the Indian army refused to fire at the Pathans and the Singapore mutiny of the Indian soldiers; he said, the present day Indian army does not celebrate these events. The Indian army does acknowledge the martyrdom of 40 soldiers who were killed by the British in Singapore owing to their rebellion against the British Empire.  Rather the Indian army celebrates the Battle of Haifa where the British Indian Army captured the Haifa town and handed it over to the Israel. A centenary of Haifa was observed recently by the Indian army.  The incorporation of Indian National Army(INA) soldiers after India’s independence was strongly opposed by the army. Giving a stark lesson, which emanates from Jallianwala Bagh, he said humanity is much wider than ‘narrow nationalism’.

A book titled “Jallianwala Bagh-100 years” published by SAHMAT was also released by Professor Irfan Habib and Kumkum Sangari who chaired the meeting.

Professor Irfan gave a vivid description of the events that led to the Jallianwala Bagh mobilisation and then to such indiscriminate firing by the army. He said that after the 1857 suppression, a serious exercise towards independence began with the formation of the Congress in 1885. Congress was like a parliament, but it remained a middle class mobilisation till 1909, when some electoral principle was introduced. There was no mass movement linked to it.

Irfan Habib said, during that period things started to change and two important developments took place. Firstly, there was growth of radicalism and a new pattern of mass struggles got developed. Radicalism was mainly linked to Punjab and it took the lead. Mass radical organisation was formed by the name of Ghadar. He explained that a fact hardly known about them(Ghadar leaders) is that over 8,000 peasants from Punjab who were in USA and Canada came back to India after giving up their economic prospects. Though the returned Ghadar revolutionaries tried to raise the banner of freedom through armed rebellion but they were unsuccessful in their effort. Fifty five Ghadarites were hanged; Habib Abdullah was hanged for the only reason that he had donated money to the Ghadar movement. The impact of the Ghadar brought in a new form of radicalism to the Indian freedom struggle. During the World War 1, soldier mutinies occurred in Singapore and other places.

Another change that happened during that period was the new form of mass struggle. This mass campaign of civil disobedience was led by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa. The Indian communities were mobilised, such mobilizations later turned into Satyagrah. Even women were imprisoned and more than 8,000 Indian minors went on strike. Owing to the severe repression, the then Viceroy had to say that “White should behave in a civilized manner”.  The South African movement was a precursor to the Indian mass movement. Gandhi arrived in India in 1915 and he tried three major actions; Champaran satyagrah of peasants in 1917, Nilgiri-Kheda planters strike in 1918 and the Ahmedabad workers strike. Thousands of workers participated in these actions. According to Irfan Habib, ‘classes’ for the first time were brought into the national movement. This was a significant change that Gandhi brought to the India’s freedom movement.

Rowlatt Act was brought to contain this change of people’s participation and limit them. It was a measure of political control. The British were wary of popular unrest and appointed a committee headed by Rowlatt, a judge. The report termed India as endangered with revolutionary activities, hence strong laws were required to check these activities. Gandhi organised strong opposition to it and an all India mass struggle was unleashed. It was a very ambitious plan and later Gandhi himself called it a Himalayan blunder. Professor Irfan explained that Gandhi traveled length and breadth of India in a 3rd class compartment of the trains and mobilised the people against it. On April 6, 1919, all India hartal(strike) call was very successful. Before that on March 30, there was a strike in Delhi which was met with strong police repression and unprovoked firing took place on people at Old Delhi railway station. The April 6 strike was extremely successful in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras. The British government was shaken and realised the importance of the movement. On April 9 Gandhi while going to Punjab was offloaded in Delhi and sent back to Bombay. Gandhi was termed as a conspirator and two more conspirators, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal were ousted from Amritsar. Their ouster became an immediate reason for mass protests in Amritsar.

The agitation continued in Punjab and on April 10, a procession that was crossing the Railway Bridge in Amritsar was fired at, in which 20 people got killed. Out of panic and run off after the firing a few Europeans also came into conflict with the agitationists and five of them got killed.

There was an opinion amongst the Europeans that the Indians must be taught a lesson and Michael O’Dwyer the Lieutenant Governor general of Punjab got the electricity and water supply cut to the Indian colonies. Massive arrests were made and particularly the middle class people were targeted. He handed over the city to General Dyer.

It was in this background that a meeting was announced at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919 in which over 20,000 people participated. Reginald Dyer the military general came with troops of the Indian army and blocked the main gate and opened fire. 1,650 rounds were fired till the Indian army got exhausted of gun powder. Though the British account 370 deaths, but the actual number of people who died was more than 1,000 and over 3,000 got injured.

There were protests against these killings. In Lahore there was firing and the teachers and students participating in the protests were forced to walk five miles and then put in prison. In Gujranwala(now in Pakistan), the army used aero planes to bomb in the vicinity of the protests. Eighteen persons were hanged on mere suspicion. There was violence in Ahmedabad as well and large buildings were burnt. Gandhi suspended the agitation on April 16. The Congress formed a committee to take evidence of the Jallinawala Bagh massacre and it was to evade embarrassment to the British government for not even holding an inquiry into it, that it formed a committee called Hunter committee, which was comprised of majority Europeans and just three Indians who too were loyal to the government. Hunter was a British loyal and it (the committee) completely whitewashed the incident and absolved the guilty officials; however it could not whitewash Jallianwala Bagh.

After Professor Irfan’s speech an interactive session was also organised and questions were asked from the audience. Later a poem recitation was done by Sohail Hashmi titled ‘Punjab Ka Hatyakand’(massacre of Punjab). Lokesh Jain read a story of Manto called Tamasha and Mala Hashmi and Brijesh from Jan Natya Manch recited another poem from an eyewitnesses account on Jallian wala Bagh.