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Amritsar, April 1919: Mass Murder in an Indian Garden – the Primary Sources.   Leave a comment

Background – The Rowlatt Act, ‘Satyagraha’ & ‘Hartal’:

13-14 April 1919 marks the centenary of the Massacre at Amritsar, India, a tragic event, the aftermath of which led to the growth and development of the Indian independence movement. Early in 1919, The Rowlatt Act was passed providing special powers to the Government to suppress movements aimed against the State. It authorised arrest and detention without trial of persons suspected of anti-government activities. Gandhi was recovering from a long illness which began with an acute attack of dysentery when he read in the papers the Rowlatt Committee’s report which had just been published. Its recommendations startled him. He went to Ahmedabad and mentioned his apprehensions to Vallabhbhai, who came to see him almost daily:

‘Something must be done,’ said I to him. ‘But what can we do in the circumstances?’ he asked in reply. I answered, ‘If even a handful of men can be found to sign the pledge of resistance, and the proposed measure is passed into law in defiance of it, we ought to offer Satyagraha at once. If I was not laid up like this, I should give battle against it all alone, and expect others to follow suit. But in my present condition I feel myself to be altogether unequal to the task.

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A small meeting of ‘satyagrahi’ was called. ‘Satyagraha’ meant ‘clinging to truth or spiritual force as against physical force’ or ‘non-violent resistance.’ Gandhi wrote in his ‘Experiments with Truth’ that:

A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws … that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just, and which are unjust and iniquitous. … My error lay in my failure to to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seemed to me of Himalayan magnitude. … I realised that before a people could be fit for for offering civil disobedience they should thoroughly understand its deeper implications. That being so, before re-starting civil disobedience on a mass scale, it would be necessary to create a band of well-tried, pure-hearted volunteers who thoroughly understood the strict conditions of Satyagraha. They could explain these to the people, and by sleepless vigilance, keep them on the right path. … Whilst this movement for the preservation of non-violence was making steady through slow progress on the one hand, the Government’s policy of lawless repression was in full career on the other. …

As all hope of any of the existing institutions adopting a novel weapon like Satyagraha seemed to Gandhi to be vain, a separate body called the ‘Satyagraha Sabha’ was established. However, it soon became apparent to him that some of its members were sceptical about his emphasis on ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), but in its early stages, the movement quickly gained momentum. The Bill had not yet been enacted when, still in a very weak condition, Gandhi received an invitation to go to Madras, and he decided to take this risk of the long journey. Once there, he met daily with lawyers there to discuss plans for fighting back, but he could think of no other tactics than holding public meetings. He felt at a loss to discover how to offer civil disobedience against the Rowlatt Bill if it was finally passed into law. It could only be disobeyed if the government made room for disobedience. Failing that, could they disobey other laws and, if so, where was the line to be drawn? These and a host of other questions formed the basis of their discussions. While these went on, news reached them that the Rowlatt Bill had been published as an Act:

That night I fell asleep while thinking over the question. Towards the small hours of the morning I woke up somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in that twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke upon me – it was as if in a dream. Early in the morning I related the whole story … “The idea came to me last night that we should call upon the country to observe a general ‘hartal’. Satyagraha is a process of self-purification, and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to me to be in the fitness of things that it should be commenced with an act of self-purification. Let all the people of India, therefore, suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer. The Musalmans may not fast for more than one day; so the duration of the fast should be twenty-four hours. It is very difficult to say whether all the provinces would respond to this appeal of ours or not, but I feel fairly sure of Bombay, Madras, Bihar and Sindh. I think we should have every reason to feel satisfied even if all these places observe the ‘hartal’ fittingly.”

His colleagues were immediately taken up with his suggestion, and he drafted a brief appeal. The date of the ‘hartal’ was originally fixed for 30th March, but then subsequently moved to 6th April. This was still short notice, but as careful preparations had to begin at once, it was hardly possible to give a longer period of notice:

But who knows how it all came about? The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages, observed a complete ‘hartal’ that day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.

After a short tour in South India, ‘Gandhiji’ reached Bombay, where the ‘hartal’ was a complete success. It was decided that civil obedience might be ‘offered’ only in respect of those laws which easily lent themselves to being destroyed by the masses. The ‘Salt Tax’ was extremely unpopular and a powerful movement had been going on for some time to secure its repeal. Gandhi suggested that people might make salt from sea-water in their own houses in disregard of the salt laws. He carried on his campaign against the tax as it was the only product with which the poor could afford to make their rice gruel or bread palatable. Later, in 1930, when he started his Civil Disobedience campaign for Independence, he chose the salt laws for a violation on a nation-wide scale.

On the night of 7 April, he began his journey to Delhi and Amritsar. However, he was prevented from reaching his destinations. Before the train had reached Palwal station, he was served with a written order to the effect that he was prohibited from entering the boundary of the Punjab, as his presence there was likely to result in a disturbance of the peace. Asked by the police to get down from the train, he refused to do so, saying that he wanted to go to the Punjab “in response to a pressing invitation, not to foment arrest, but to allay it.” He was taken off the train and put under police custody before being returned to Mathura, where he was put into police barracks. At four o’clock the next morning he was woken up and put on a goods train that was going towards Bombay. There he was met by a vast, cheering crowd of people who had heard of his arrest. It was confronted by a body of mounted police, whose objective was to stop the procession from proceeding further in the direction of the Fort. The crowd was densely packed, and had almost broken through the police cordon:

There was hardly any chance of my voice being heard in that vast concourse. Just then the officer in charge of the mounted police gave the order to disperse the crowd, and at once (they) charged upon the crowd brandishing their lances as they went. For a moment I felt that I would be hurt. … the lances just grazed the car as the lancers swiftly passed by. The ranks of the people were soon broken, and they were thrown into utter confusion, which was soon converted into a rout. Some got trampled under foot, others were badly mauled and crushed. In that seething mass of humanity there was hardly any room for the horses to pass, nor was there any exit by which the people could disperse. So the lancers blindly cut their way through the crowd. I hardly imagine they could see what they were doing. The whole thing presented a most dreadful spectacle. The horsemen and the people were mixed together in mad confusion.

The crowd was therefore dispersed and its progress was prevented. When the car was allowed to proceed, Gandhi had it stopped outside the Commissioner’s office, where he went in to complain about the conduct of the police. He went on to address a meeting on the Chowpati sands, a popular beach in Bombay. He spoke at length about the duty of non-violence and on the limitations of ‘Satyagraha’:

Satyagraha is essentially a weapon of the truthful. A Satyagrahi is pledged to non-violence and, unless people observe it in thought, word and deed, I cannot offer mass Satyagraha.

12-13 April – Ahmedabad & Amritsar:

Having heard of disturbances in Ahmedabad, in which a sergeant had been ‘done to death’, Gandhi went there and learnt that a Government officer had been murdered in Viramgam and that Ahmedabad was under martial law. He wrote that ‘the people were terror-stricken: They had indulged in acts of violence and were being made to pay for them with interest.’ A police officer met him at the station and escorted him to meet the commissioner, who was ‘in a state of rage’. Gandhi told him that he thought that martial law was unnecessary, declaring his readiness to co-operate in all efforts to restore peace, including holding a public meeting. This was held on 13 April, and martial law was withdrawn on the same day or the day after. Addressing the meeting, Gandhi sought to bring home to the people the sense of their wrong by declaring a three-day penitential fast for himself, encouraging them to join him for a day during which those who were guilty of acts of violence would confess.

Meanwhile, in Amritsar, a city of 150,000 in the Punjab, the two ‘hartals’ were successful, stopping the business of the city without collision with the police and with no resort to violence. Five days after they began, Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Dyer of the British Army arrived in the city. He immediately issued a proclamation, on 12 April, prohibiting processions and meetings. The following day about twenty thousand people gathered for an already planned public meeting in a small garden square surrounded by houses in the middle of the city. General Dyer entered the square with his troops and ordered the people to disperse.

The Hunter Committee Inquiry Report:

The Hunter Committee, an official board of inquiry into what happened later stated,

From an examination of the map showing the different places where the proclamation was read, it is evident that in many parts of the city the proclamation was not read.

The Hunter Report then tells the story of what followed on 13 April:

About one o’clock, General Dyer heard that the people intended to hold a big meeting about four-thirty p.m. On being asked why he did not take measures to prevent its being held, he replied: ‘I went there as soon as I could. I had to think the matter out.’

The meeting took place at Jallianwala Bagh (a ‘bagh’ is a garden):

It is a rectangular piece of unused ground … almost entirely surrounded by walls of buildings. The entrances and exits to it are few and imperfect … At the end at which General Dyer entered there is a raised ground on each side of the entrance. A large crowd had gathered at the opposite end … and were being addressed by a man on a raised platform about one hundred and fifty yards from where General Dyer stationed his troops.

His troops consisted of twenty-five Gurkhas from Nepal; twenty-five Baluchis from Baluchistan armed with rifles; forty Gurkhas armed only with knives. In addition, he had two armoured cars. The Report contradicts the statement made above, claiming that:

Without giving the crowd any warning to disperse … he ordered his troops to fire and the firing continued for about ten minutes. … As soon the firing commenced the crowd began to disperse. … The firing was individual and not volley firing.

The earlier eye-witness report says that within two or three minutes of ordering the crowd to disperse, Dyer ordered his men to fire. As a result, about four hundred died and one or two thousand were wounded, it claims. The official report estimated that there were three times as many wounded as dead. This added up to 379 dead, plus 1,137 wounded, or 1,516 casualties with the 1,650 rounds fired. The crowd, penned in the low-lying garden, was quite literally a sitting (or kneeling) target. In his dispatch to his superior officer, quoted in the Hunter Report, General Dyer stated (with his emphasis):

It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.

Testifying himself before the Hunter Committee, Gandhi was asked to elaborate his principle and practice of Passive Resistance, or ‘Satyagraha’. He had already explained that the method was the clearest and safest because if the cause was not true, it was the resisters, and they alone, who suffer:

Q. (Sir Chimanlal Setalvad): Who … is to determine the truth? A. (Gandhi): The individual himself would determine that. Q. Different individuals would have different views as to Truth. Would that not lead to confusion? A. I do not think so. Q. Honest striving after Truth is different in every case. A. That is why the non-violence … was … necessary. … Without that there would be confusion and worse.

 

Reflections on the Massacre:

Reflecting on the Amritsar events in a later edition of  ‘Young India’ (shown above) in December 1924, Gandhi wrote:

All terrorism is bad whether put up in a good cause or bad. Every cause is good in the estimation of its champion. General Dyer (and he had thousands of Englishmen and women who honestly thought with him) enacted Jallianwala Bagh for a cause which he undoubtedly believed to be good. He thought that by that one act he had saved English lives and the Empire. That it was all a figment of his imagination cannot affect the valuation of the intensity of his conviction. … In other words, pure motives can never justify impure or violent action.

The repressive side of British policy had reasserted itself in the Rowlatt Acts, which severely attenuated judicial procedures in suspected conspiracy cases; in the Amritsar massacre; and even more, perhaps, in the reaction to that massacre in Britain, where its perpetrator was mildly censured by the army, then virulently defended by his superiors, by the House of Lords, by much of the press, by most Conservative MPs, and by a large number of ordinary people who subscribed twenty-six thousand pounds in a month to a fund set up on his behalf by the ‘Morning Post’. For the more senior members of the British population, memories of the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ were still powerful. Terrorism and rioting were apparent in other parts of India, even if the Punjab had been relatively calm. For many of those back home, if not the British in India, Dyer had ‘nipped in the bud’ these dangers, and they regarded the government’s treatment of him as ‘shabby’. In addition to the intense feeling that the massacre itself had created, the effect of all this on Indian nationalist opinion was disastrous. Gandhi made it the occasion for his first non-cooperation campaign. In India, as in Ireland, British repression only undid the gains made by the policy of concession and ‘dyarchy’.

LSF QPS I object to violence Gandhi LR

Dyer’s unnecessary massacre was the child of the British mentality then dominating India. Jallianwala Bagh quickened India’s political life and drew Gandhi more overtly into it. He became involved in Congress proceedings at Amritsar which convinced him that there were ‘one or two things for which perhaps I had some aptitude and which could be useful to the Congress.’ One of these was the memorial for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. The Congress had passed a resolution for it amid great enthusiasm. A fund of about five ‘lakhs’ had to be collected for it. Gandhi was appointed as one of the trustees.

Sources:

Louis Fischer (1962), The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology – His Life, Work and Ideas. New York: Vintage Books.

Bharatan Kumarappa (ed.)(1952), Gandhiji’s Autobiography (Abridged). Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

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