Evils of Empire: The 1919 Bloodbath on Baisakhi
The enormity of the outrage of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, which took place 100 years ago next month, almost obscures its context. Despite the bloodshed and arrogance of the killing of innocents, it was a catalyst for numerous changes in Asia as a whole.
Wrongdoing that was once swept under the carpet is now being re-examined, with people asking important questions about the UK’s reliance on slavery and colonialism. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 lifted the curtain behind the colonial enterprise of the British Raj and showed just how heartless and unethical it really was.
Yet some today remain ignorant about Empire and how cruel and punitive that dark era of history held firm to its mercantile spirit. How, then, might these tides of irate, hateful ignorance be reversed?
Only by ending the hushed reverence surrounding the idols and idiocies of our undigested Imperial past — and present.
The centenary of the #AmritsarMassacre next month will doubtless be a case in point.
This bloody massacre captured the mood in India a century ago like no other. To gauge its context, we have to understand what was happening within India as World War I came to a close. ‘Non-cooperation’ was an act of major politicisation throughout the continent, spearheaded by the Khilafat and anti-Rowlatt Act movements in India. This was earmarked by the steady surge of nationalism with Gandhi at the helm, and actually mirrored a wider pan-Asian trend broadly coinciding with anti-colonial movements elsewhere that year: the revolution in Egypt, the May 4th Movement in China and the March 1st Movement in Korea.
While the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movements coalesced in the sense of marking communal Hindu-Muslim unity, it was the reaction to the April 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre that marked the moment when Indians were forever alienated from their imperial masters.
On April 13, 1919, the on Baisakhi day, consecrated by Guru Gobind Singh with the baptism of the Sikhs, large crowds assembled at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. They included men, women and children. Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer who had arrived in the town two days earlier with his force came to the scene, blocked the only exit and started firing on the unarmed innocent people with machine-guns (deprived of the chance to use tanks with mounted weapons due to the narrow entrance to the Bagh). The record says that 378 people were shot dead on the spot and many times that number were wounded. The Sikhs were the largest in number to suffer casualties, but Hindus and Muslims perished as well.
All in the space of a brutal and frenzied ten minute period.
To add insult to injury, the government declared martial law and retaliatory measures were in evidence all over the province, some of which were grotesquely humiliating, steeped in a racist patina that showed that the Indian was still an undesirable in the eye of the colonial master-no matter how much he or she wanted to aspire to be like them.
Following critical remarks made about his conduct in Jallianwala Bagh in a government commission of inquiry, General Dyer was advised to retire from the army. He resigned his commission but received something akin to a hero’s welcome, or so it seemed to many Indians then, awaiting him in London. A censure motion in the British House of Commons, against the government, for the treatment meted out to General Dyer did not pass but those supporting Dyer were numerous.
Public opinion in India was disturbed when in the House of Lords the government lost by a significant number the motion against it: ‘This house deplores the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of order in the face of rebellion.’
Perhaps what angered public opinion equally was a public appeal for funds for Dyer — in response to a campaign started by a newspaper. In the space of a few weeks over £25,000 — quite a substantial amount back then — was raised and a good proportion of this came from British people living in India (including some Indians!). Clearly for many in India, this British response to the Jallianwala outrage reflected the realities of racism and colonial domination.
It was clear this was a turning point to those already within political movements and to those who were growing into adulthood and wanted to start anti-imperialism movements of their own (for example, Bhagat Singh).
In 1919, the resentment over support for Dyer, the repression of the colonial state after the end of World War I notwithstanding the fact that Indian troops had contributed significantly to the British victory, the growing numbers in the national movement who felt that representative government was now within arm’s reach — all this had now a single focus of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
It was now clear to the populace what the British empire really stood for, that it was true to its original aims-to benefit the colonial state through resource extraction and extortion of its colonies, the dominant economic policy across colonies was accumulation of wealth for the colonial administrators and British citizens.
The track record of violence under the empire, employed as a means of stifling potential opposition, was of greater insult and the events of Jallianwala Bagh typified that. The massacre made clear the blatant disregard for the lives for whom the colonial masters were responsible.
What chance is there of an apology in this centenary year? Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, has said that now is the ‘time to reflect’ on whether an apology is deserved. An apology would only be the start of an important conversation for it is clear that it is among the ivory towers of our universities, where we must challenge the often uncritical teaching of British imperialism and to stop the magnificent spread of Raj nostalgia in its tracks.
We need a curriculum based on an honest, contextualised reading of British history which teaches about the brutality of colonialism. It should educate children about the economic, political and social advantages they enjoy today as a result of the colonial extraction and plunder their country engaged in during the colonial era. In the hundred years since the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, the volatile atmosphere in Punjab at the time has been forgotten, as also the true horror of the event itself. The details of the widespread agitation against the Rowlatt Bill, which led to the gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, begs a nuanced and unbiased documentation — as does the larger canvas of the revolt and rebellion in the country.
Many Britons have grown up believing their homeland saved and civilised the world, while atrocities, genocide and human rights abuses often go unmentioned. Successive governments have failed to narrow this knowledge gap, whether by setting up truth commissions, establishing a museum of colonialism or teaching schoolchildren about colonialism as part of the standard curriculum.
Embarrassing facts are neatly filed away, labelled as “the past”, and on the rare occasions that the archives are inspected, damning evidence is nowhere to be seen.
To close I will quote Indian Congress MP and scholar of imperial history Shashi Tharoor, who opined “We need to know history on its own terms. If you don’t know where you come from how will you know where you are going.”
It is now time future generations know exactly where they come from.
Saurav Dutt is the Author of ‘Garden of Bullets: Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh’ released to mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. He writes for The Times of Israel, American Herald Tribune and IB Times.