Contemporary documents of the brutal massacre and people’s heroic resistance remain hidden in National Archives, opines Prof. Shamsul Islam
Today India has turned into a grazing field for all kinds of religious bigots led by the Hindutva gang. Even PM of the country who took oath to uphold democratic-secular polity is identifying himself as a Hindu nationalist as if he is in office to serve the cause of Hindutva. The RSS/BJP rulers are openly declaring their commitment to turn India into a Hindu state where Brahmanical Codes of Manu which reduce women and Dalits to sub-human status would be the law of the land. For them India is Fatherland and Holyland for Hindus only. It is to be noted that as per the Hindutva definition only those can be considered as Hindus who have Aryan blood, believe in Casteism, are of fair colour and treat Sanskrit as a holy language. These are not Muslims and Christians only who are out of Hindu nation, even faiths as Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism can survive only as sects of Hinduism.
However, it was not the scenario 100 years back when the British rulers perpetrated one of the worst massacres in the modern history; the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. People of India shackled by the most powerful imperialist power of the world, Britain, presented a heroic united resistance. It is not hearsay but proved by the contemporary official, mostly the British documents. These amazing documents were part of the British archives which became National Archives of India after Independence. As a pleasant surprise these documents were made public to mark the 75th commemoration of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as part of an exhibition titled, ‘Archives and Jallianwala Bagh: A Saga of Independence’.
The most documents, concerning the most volatile period of the Indian freedom struggle, not only showed the Britishers brazenly flouting democratic norms, indulging in barbarism while suppressing the mass discontent but also brought to light hitherto hidden aspects of Indian people’s united heroic fight-back. The documents exhibited were both saddening and amazing. It was immensely saddening to watch the ‘civilized’ British indulging in acts of unprecedented violence against Indians and amazing way the people of India, collectively and individually, belonging to different faiths and Castes, rose in revolt.
The saddest part has been that this treasure of visual and written narratives was put back in dark rooms of the National Archives, never exhibited again. It was not taken out even at the centenary commemoration under way currently. It seems the rulers and managers do not want that coming generations should know about the barbarism of the colonial masters as well as united great heroic resistance of the people of India.
The barbarism of the British rulers
Photographs in the show recorded heart-wrenching scenes of the barbarity of the British rulers in coping with the unrest in Punjab during 1914-1919. Punjabis, specially, Sikhs, tied on the wooden/metal frames being flogged or forced to crawl on their bellies on public roads, their naked body in full view of the public, filling all with shame and anger. Punjab had become a military camp. The rulers aiming at crushing the self-esteem of patriotic Indians forced Indians to salute every Englishman/woman, not to ride cycles and forcibly pulling moustaches and beards. There is no doubt that such repression produced revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and his comrades.
The records narrated the story of newly married Rattan Devi had spent the night of April 13-14, 1919 by the side of her husband. Only, he was dead, lying amid the hundreds strewn all over the Bagh. The place was overflowing with blood, as she narrates in the chilling statement on display, and after removing the body of her husband to a comparatively dry place,
“I sat by his side… I found a bamboo stick which I kept in my hand to keep off dogs. I saw three men writhing in great pain and an injured boy, about 12 years old, entreated me not to leave the place, I told him that I would not go anywhere leaving the dead body of my husband. I asked him if he was feeling cold, if he wanted a wrapper I could spread it over him. He asked for water, but that could not be produced at that place…”
In this exhibition a stunning story from a Hindi daily, ‘Abhiuday’ (October 4, 1919) was included which narrated the story and photographs of two friends, 18 year old Abdul Karim and 17 year old Ramchander who came together from Lahore to attend meeting at the Bagh against Rowlatt Act. Both were martyred here. After the martyrdom of Abdul Karim when results of Punjab University [Lahore] came out it was found that he had passed the matriculate examination in the first class.
But what really startles viewers is the hitherto unknown fact that the British government had, during the disturbances in 1919, used Royal Air force planes to bombard the interiors of Punjab. A top secret document-again, made public for the first time–was a Task 14.4.1919. It reads thus:
“Aero plane No. 4491 Type BO E-2.E. Squadron No. 31. Pilot captain Carbery. Hour at which flight started from Lahore: 14.20. Hour at which flight concluded: 16.45. [The details] 15.20: village two miles north west of Gujranwala (now in Pakistan)-dropped three bombs on party of natives 150 strong…50 rounds machine gun fired into village. 15.30 Village one mile south of above-party of 50 natives outside village. Two bombs dropped…25 rounds machine gun fired into village. About 200 natives in fields near a building. One bomb dropped, 30 rounds MG fired into party who took over in house. 15.40: Gujranwala-Bombs dropped on large crowd of natives in south of town. 100 rounds MG fired into parties of natives in the streets. At 15.50 when machine left for Lahore no natives could be seen on the streets…”
Another highlight of the exhibition was the hand-written original of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s letter to the viceroy renouncing his Knighthood to protest the repression in Punjab. He wrote:
“The time has come when badges of honors make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for me part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.”
Another heartening document was the original facsimile of the resignation letter dated March 28, 1919 of MA Jinnah from the Imperial Legislative Assembly in protest against Jallianwala Bagh massacre and repression in Punjab. His letter openly blamed the British rulers for atrocities and passing Rowlatt Act. He wrote:
“A government that passes or sanctions such a law [Rowlatt Act] in times of peace forfeits its claim to be called a civilized government.”
It is sad that Jinnah later joined the bandwagon of two-nation protagonists.
How much anger Rowlatt Act generated in every part of India could be gauged by the violent resistance the Gujarat area generally considered to be compliant. The displayed documents showed that in Gujarat within 2 days (11-12 April, 1919) protesting mobs burnt only in Ahmedabad and its vicinity offices of Collector, city judge, flag staff, Jail, main telegraph centre and 26 police stations.
Resistance literature banned
On display were the copies of voluminous literature, poetry, prose and plays which were written and circulated against the British barbarism but banned. This treasure again depicted the united and all pervasive character of the resistance. It is not possible to discuss even a fraction of it while also noting that the exhibition must have displayed a fraction of the banned literature available in the Archives. Some of the important banned books were; Bagh-e-Jallian, a lyrical play in Hindi authored by Ram Saroop Gupta, Jallianwala Bagh, a long poem in Gurmukhi penned by Firoziddin Sharf, Punjab kaa Hatyakand, a full-fledged play in Urdu and Jallianwala Bagh, a long Gujarati play. The last two were by unknown authors in order to avoid identification by the repressive regime.
Some of the representative lyrics read:
जुल्म डायर ने किया था रंग जमाने के लिए
हिंद वालों को मुसीबत में फंसाने के लिए।[zulm Dyer ne kiya thaa rang jamane ke liye/Hind walon ko museebat maen phansane ke liye.]
खून से पंजाब के डायर की लिखी डायरी
रुबरु रख दी मेरी तबियत जलाने के लिए।[khoon se Punjab ke Dyer kee likhee diary/roo-baroo rakh dee mere tabiyat jalane ke liye.]
बाग़े जलियां में शहीदों की बने गर यादगार
जायेंगे अशिके-वतन आंसू बहाने के लिए।[Bagh-e-Jallian maen shahidon kee baney gar yaadgaar/jayenge aashiq-e-watan aansoo bahane ke liye.]
हम उजड़ते हैं तो उजड़ें, वतन आबाद रहे,
मर मिटे हैं हम के अब वतन आजाद रहे।
वतन की खातिर जो अपनी जान दिया करते हैं,
मरते नहीं हैं वो हमेशा के लिए जिया करते हैं।[hum ujadte haen tau ujdaen, watan aabaad rahe/murr mitey haen hum ke aab watan azad rahe.
Watan kee khatir jo apnee jaan diya karte haen/marte naheen haen who hamesha ke liye jiya karte haen.]
British rulers overlooked martyrs, Independent India too remained/remains indifferent
These documents make shocking revelations about the reprehensible attitude of the foreign rules towards victims of its perpetrated massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. In June 1919 the home department came out with the statement which described the British causalities but kept mum on the count of Indian deaths raising an idiotic argument that whatever number would be made public by the British government would not be acceptable to Indians!
However, when government repression in Punjab drew world-wide condemnation, the British government appointed a commission of enquiry for investigating violence in Punjab on October 14, 1919, headed by a jurist from Scotland, Hunter. This commission came to be known as Hunter Commission. It came to the conclusion that at Jallianwala Bagh 381 Indians, including males, females and even a 6 month old baby were killed by the General Dyer’s force. This count was highly disputable as the unidentified bodies (of the people who were not Punjabis but were in Amritsar as it was a famous business/religious centre where also people from other states constantly came in search of livelihood) were disposed off.
Shockingly, even after Independence of the country nothing changed for the surviving members of the martyrs and grievously injured. They remained discarded. In India where persons who were behind bars during Emergency (1975-77) for less than a month, receives INR 10000 and less than 2 months as INR 20000 as family pension, the demand of the families of the martyrs that at least they should be entitled for pension and railway concession have not been accepted. Disgusted, ‘the Jallianwala Bagh Shaheed Parivar Samiti’ wrote a letter to the British PM that England should compensate their loss! It only shows the helplessness and hopelessness of the families of the martyrs but surely shamelessness and spinelessness of the Indian rulers.
Unsung martyr: Udham Singh who avenged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre
This exhibition displayed a telegram that went out on April 16 1940. That was the date of Udham Singh’s trial in London. It read:
“We understand that during the trial the accused intends to pose as a martyr and indulge in heroics. We would be glad if steps are taken to secure that press in England do not report substantially and that Reuters only carry as brief and unsensational a summary as possible.”
This telegram from the Governor General in New Delhi to the Secretary of State for India clearly showed that the Britishers, glorified as great believers in the fair-play and rule of law, germane to democracy, were masters in manipulating the fourth estate.
For more than 47 years this telegram remained a secret document in the British intelligence files and kept hidden by the free India’s governments also till 1994. There were other amazing documents displayed in 1994 which pieced together, the complete story of Udham Singh which was so far known only in tidbits.
“I did it because… he deserved it. He… wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country.”
“I do not care about sentence of death…I am dying for a purpose.. We are suffering from the British Empire…I am proud to die to free my native land and I hope that when I am gone…in my place will come thousands of my countrymen to drive you dirty dogs out; to free my country…you will be cleansed out of India. And your British imperialism will be smashed…I have nothing against the English people at all…I have great sympathy with the workers of England. I am against the imperialist government. DOWN WITH BRITISH IMPERIALISM!”
These words of Mohammad Singh Azad rang out through a London courtroom on March 13, 1940 where he was produced immediately after killing Michael O’Dyer, the Lt. Governor of Punjab, the architect of the Jallianwala massacre who order the crackdown. Mohammad Singh Azad was none other than Udham Singh. Born in a Dalit Sikh family and brought up in an orphanage, Udham Singh was present in the public meeting at Amritsar on the fateful bloody Baisakhi day of 1919.
Having fallen under a heap of dead bodies, Udham Singh had miraculously survived the carnage. But so deep was the hatred evoked by the 20-year old vowed not to rest until he had avenged the killing of the innocent hundreds. He achieved his target 21 years later. And ‘Mohammad Singh Azad’-the name he adopted-underscored the fact that the overthrow of the British rule was impossible without the unity was impossible without the unity of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh populace of the land.
It was 79 years ago (July 31, 1940) Udham Singh died on the gallows in the Pentonville prison of London. Through the documents so far prohibited we also got to know that before reaching London he had been to Mesopotamia, Kenya, Uganda, USA and USSR, all in quest of Indian revolutionaries and ammunitions. It was on reaching the English shores that he took the alias of Mohammad Singh Azad. He even attempted to organize fellow English laborers. Udham Singh’s choice of the name as Mohammad Singh Azad was not a fluke. He chose it to underline the cardinal fact that India could be liberated only by collective and united efforts of all Indians. There is a reasonable apprehension that if Udham Singh returns to India with this name today he may be lynched.
The list of martyrs only underlines the multi-religious and multi-Caste character of the anti-British freedom struggle
The Hunter Commission list of martyrs makes it clear that the protest meeting at Jallianwala Bagh held in protest against Rowlatt Act and arrests of renowned Congress leaders, Dr Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew (whose son Toufique Kitchlew, an author died in penury) was attended by men, youth, women of all religions and Castes. According to the list there were 381 died due to the firing of the British army under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyre. His invading force mainly consisted of Nepali Gurkhas, Baluch Regiment (manned by Punjabi Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs), the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sind Rifles soldiers making it clear that the British ruled India with the help of Indian stooges.
Out of 381 martyrs, 222 were Hindus, 96 Sikhs and 63 Muslims. Another significant aspect of this gathering, which reflected in the list of martyrs too, was that if on the one hand businessmen, lawyers, journalists, literary persons, government employees, intellectuals were present, on the other hand large number of audience belonged to the professions like ironsmith, weavers, barbers, helpers, daily-wage earner, carpet knitters, masons, cobblers and safai karamcharis. Many women were also present. A notable presence was of Udham Singh. This reality once again underlined the fact that before the appearance of protagonists of Hindu and Muslim separatism, Indian freedom struggle was a united movement over-riding religious and Caste divisions. It was a true anti-colonial movement for an inclusive India.
It is sad that such narratives of joint struggle and joint martyrdom of Indian people lie hidden in the dark rooms of the National Archives. If only these are made accessible to the younger generation, they might quell many of the communal, Casteist and sectarian agendas running in the country.
For some of S. Islam’s writings in English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati and video interviews/debates see the following link: