By Saurav Dutt | OPINION |
In April 2019, India and the world will remember the dastardly moment that a cowardly senior British military officer opened fire on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar and killed a number that ranges anywhere from 390 to 5,000 depending on those who died of their wounds after the fact or who were simply left to rot and disappeared into history. The British did not do body counts.
That apart, the significance of Jallianwala Bagh largely escaped popular imagination. To most people today, it was another bloody atrocity during a colonial era, the kind one reads about in history lessons.
But the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was much more. It was actually the decisive turning point in India’s national movement after the revolt of 1857 — the first nail driven into a coffin that was being furnished for the British Raj.
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre shattered the faith that the people had in the British sense of justice and fairness. To most native Indians, the massacre of the unarmed was a betrayal of the trust that they had placed on the British to rule them wisely, justly and with fairness. In the eyes of the average Indian citizen, the just, fair and liberal Englishman suddenly turned into a ruthless, bloodthirsty tyrant who could no longer be trusted. Jallianwala Bagh revealed the evil that resided in the ‘enlightened’ empire.
After that blood-soaked afternoon, it was a slow but sure downward slide for British rule in India. It was on this sense of betrayal that Gandhi built his mass movement, which put a premium on breaking the laws made by the rulers. As the people began to wilfully break the laws made by the state, the state itself became superfluous as an overarching concept.
Yes, when the bloodthirsty Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer shot dead those Indian citizens, the British empire was simultaneously shooting itself in its foot and giving itself a bloody nose from which it could not recover. Those shots led to its ultimate collapse.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was morally reprehensible; of that there can be no doubt. Of those who fired into the crowd, the shots were fired off by Sikhs, Gurkhas, Baluchi, and Rajputs on the orders of one British Colonel; that is a fact.
That man was disciplined by being removed from his appointment, was passed over for promotion, and was prohibited from further employment in India. More should have happened, but at the time he had many supporters of considerable influence. The soldiers? Well, they were “just following orders”.
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre ended the career of the man who ordered it: General Dyer. Winston Churchill, minister of war at the time said it was “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.”
On 14 October 1997, Queen Elizabeth II visited Jallianwala Bagh and paid her respects with a personal period of silence. During that visit, she wore a saffron dress, which would be of religious significance to the Sikhs. She removed her shoes (a first time for her in public) while visiting the monument and laid a wreath at the monument.
Yet no official apology has ever come about-will it in April 2019? The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was an attack on (at least) a thousand unarmed people, openly supported by most British people of the time. In retrospect, almost all right-minded individuals with an ounce of morality and ethical framework denounce the act today.
England has been quick to take credit for the good things it may have given to India. What England needs to show now is not only its considerate attitude but also the fact that it can accept the wrongdoings during the rule. It shows its commitment to good relations, humanitarian values and maturity as a responsible state.
Yet at the same time throughout history there have been countless cases of violence and atrocities carried out in the name of religion, oppression, colonialism and the idea of a superior race. So, an apology in this case is not going to impact anyone unless there is a determined effort and actions to educate people on history and bring in a collective sense of humanity so that the same mistakes will not be made again. In this case, a demanded apology is not going to do anything unless there is a realization.
Hopefully from April 2019 we realise that the mists of time cannot let our memories forget what happened that blood-soaked afternoon in the Punjab.
Saurav Dutt, a lawyer, author and political columnist, is author of a commemorative book marking the centenary entitled “Garden of Bullets: Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh”, set to be released in Spring 2019. He can be found on social media at @sd_saurav.
Parliament looking more like people it serves, says UK first female Sikh MP (Asia Samachar, 15 Sept 2017)