Punjab 1919, India 2019

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 27 January 2019

The ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ discussion at the 12th Jaipur Literature Festival saw journalist Kishwar Desai, diplomat and author Navtej Sarna, and author and lecturer Dr Kim A Wagner sharing some interesting details from their books which revolve around this incident and what changes it brought to India back then

In April 2019, it will be a century since the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which killed around 1,000 people (the INC has put this figure, whereas the British government put the figure of the dead at 379). In hindsight, this was a watershed moment in India’s freedom struggle. And, with every historical and human milestone it becomes necessary to reassess them and bring out nuances and aspects which haven’t been discussed before.

This became the base of discussion of ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ at the 12th Jaipur Literature Festival on Thursday (January 24) evening. It was chaired by Kishwar Desai, journalist, who authored Jallianwala Bagh, 1919 — The Real Story. Navtej Sarna, former Ambassador of India to the United States, and Dr Kim A Wagner, who teaches history of colonial India and British Empire at Queen Mary, University of London, joined in the discussion.

Currently, Sarna is writing a novel around Jallianwala Bagh, while Wagner has written Eyewitness at Amritsar — A Visual History of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh, and (this is the second novel) Amritsar 1919 — An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre.

We bring to you some of the highlights from the discussion: 
Writing on Jallianwala Bagh

Desai: I have written the book from an Indian perspective. It was a well-planned and well-executed massacre. I am the chair of The Arts and Heritage Trust that has set up Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar. While researching on this project, we sifted through a few photographs that were donated to us. They were dated 1919 and depicted a few buildings, one of them was Town Hall. We learnt that Town Hall was burnt during the April 1919 riots and it was rebuilt. We dug deeper and then came across many details that were not widely known. My granny lived a few lanes away from Bagh and she heard the sounds of gunfire and the anguish of people. This book is for her and for those who lived in that period. 

Sarna: I consider Bagh massacre as a symbol of colonial atrocity. And, I think 100 years later, it is a good reason to learn more about what happened in Punjab then — What was the Rowlatt Acts? Why people were protesting? Why the Britishers were afraid of Hindu-Muslim unity under Gandhi’s leadership... I am not an academician and hence chose to write a larger novel revolving around the episode. 

In Punjab, 1919 
Sarna: In those days, three-four major events took place. One, the freedom movement had gathered strength. There was Gadar revolution, whose impact could be felt mainly in Punjab. That was also the time when soldiers, who took part in the First World War, had returned home. They were not treated well during the war. So they returned home with a lot of misgivings. Also, society was in the throes of economic and social transformation. The canals were irrigated resulting in economic division, there was unfair tax regime. Besides, the Singh Sabha Movement had gathered strength. People were unhappy on many counts. 

Role of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer
Desai: Jallianwala Bagh is not only about Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, had led a brutal regime till that point (Bagh massacre). There was curfew imposed in Amritsar two days before Baisakhi. When local leaders Dr Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested, the people went to lodge a ‘firyad’ with District Collector. They were met with bullets. Probably 20 or more people were killed. But we don’t know their names. Five Europeans, including one nun and one female doctor (she hid), were attacked by Indians (in attacks and counter-attacks on April 10). These cases have been registered, but there is no mention of who were the 20 or more Indians. Two days before the massacre, Amritsar was crawling with CID officers.

Sarna: Dyer was patrolling the streets himself. He had planned to use machine guns, but since they couldn’t be moved through the narrow range, they were not used on the crowds gathered. He gave no warning, not giving people a chance to clear away. He was of the belief that Indians were not ready for any form of self-governance.

Desai: People were denied medical help after the massacre. The curfew was declared at 8 pm for that evening. And, the civilians had two hours to move them to hospitals. But there they were called ‘dogs’, ‘Go to Gandhi. He will help you’, ‘Go to Kitchlew, your leader’. 

Wagner: In my work, I have tried to examine the co-relation between 1857 Mutiny and what happened at Bagh. Dyer thought there was a rebellion in offing. Dyer responded to what he thought was mutiny. He believed he had a chance to fight the rebellion. It was a clash of different experiences and mutual misunderstanding. It was his paranoia. 

Sarna: By linking it with 1857, we are minimising Dyer’s role. It was a well-planned massacre. It was a paranoia of his mindset which reflected racism. 

Wagner: I have tried to explain, not to minimise the impact of his actions. 

Sarna and Desai: It wasn’t a mutiny because there was no army involvement in it, unlike in 1857. Ordinary people, traders, vendors, lawyers etc had gathered to protest the Rowlatt Acts and the arrest of their leaders. They were attending a satyagraha meeting and they were not armed.  

What did it change for India? 
Sarna: It changed Gandhi, his attitude towards the British. 

Desai: It galvanised freedom movement. Not much was known until Martial Law in Punjab was lifted. Once it did, resentment spread. Gandhi and Tagore wrote to British government, Tagore returned his knighthood. People protested. 

Wagner: When we look back at the incident from 1947, yes, it was a watershed moment. But then, in 1919, there was no mention of independence. However, the massacre acted as a catalyst for Bhagat Singh and his compatriots.

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