The Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred on April 13, 1919, and it remains a watershed moment in India’s journey to political freedom from the British Raj. Historian Nonica Datta, who teaches in JNU, explains her father VN Datta’s pioneering work on the massacre, republished this year, in an email interview with Avijit Ghosh:
Why is it important to revisit the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?
It’s important for the younger generation to learn about Jallianwala Bagh and to bring many hidden and uncomfortable truths to light. Silences besiege the history of the tragedy. The legacy of Jallianwala Bagh is yet to be fully acknowledged. Many facts have been suppressed in mainstream history writing. Also, in the face of present military and racial violence the world over, and the fact that Britain and other former colonial powers have not formally apologised for their imperial crimes, it becomes necessary to re-present this pioneering work. Written by a professional historian born a few years after the massacre in the city of Amritsar, VN Datta’s Jallianwala Bagh navigates a rare combination of an insider’s experience of lived history combined with an academic exploration.
The book’s preface begins with the line, “Jallianwala Bagh was the consequence of a clash between British policies and Indian opinion.” Please elaborate.
Datta elaborates that to understand why this clash occurred, it’s vital to study the events leading up to the massacre and see it not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a confrontation between the British government and the Indian people. By providing a background to the ‘disturbances’ that occurred in March and April 1919 in Amritsar, Datta examined the part played by each of the principal actors within their respective frames of reference. He explored the Ghadar movement, the coercive recruitments during World War I, the reform scheme for self-government, the harsh economic crisis, and the brutal impact of the Rowlatt Act in Punjab – factors that triggered multiple contradictory responses decisively shaping the future course of events.
Before the book was first published in 1969 what were the prevailing historical theories on General Dyer, leading to the massacre?
Datta demolished the prevailing theory that Dyer was suffering from arteriosclerosis. In the chapter ‘Why Did Dyer Shoot?’ he maintained that Dyer was sure of what he was doing and aware of the impending unmitigated brutality. Datta dismissed another viewpoint that Dyer had acted in self-defence, fearing that the crowd was going to rush at him.
Through his discovery of the Vols VI and VII of the Hunter Committee evidence, he examined Dyer’s calculating mind and his use of the principle of maximum force because he fired while the crowd was dispersing. This was intended to produce a moral effect on the people in Punjab. Datta also contested the nationalist and imperial calculations of the numbers killed. Moreover, unpeeling the layers of the massacre, his critical research established, via archival sources and eyewitness accounts, that Jallianwala Bagh was a ‘conspiracy’, where the British and a local Congress member Hansraj, as an agent provocateur, played a major part.
How did Jallianwala Bagh impact Mahatma Gandhi, Congress and the national movement?
Jallianwala Bagh changed the idiom of Indian nationalism, writes Datta. Gandhi, despite his absence from Punjab, assumed centre stage after that. Jawaharlal Nehru became Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant, and thus began the longest political partnership of modern India. Gandhi saw the tremendous potential of the non-violent Amritsar crowd for his subsequent movements. His astute leadership brought the event into the grand saga of Indian nationalism and shaped the contours of the anti-colonial struggle. Congress entered a different political phase of mass nationalism. Another major impact, hitherto ignored, is that Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh were products of the massacre. Their revolutionary movement grew in the light of the Amritsar atrocity.
You visited Amritsar and Jallianwala Bagh in April 2019, 100 years after the carnage. You also met families who had lost their dear ones. How do they view and remember the event?
Amritsar hasn’t recovered. People feel excluded from the mainstream history of Jallianwala Bagh and distance themselves from national commemorations. The violence at Khoo Korian, where Dyer promulgated his ‘crawling order’ on April 19, remains the most powerful living memory and is conflated with the black Baisakhi of April 13. The Gandhi-inspired Congress narrative is missing in their intergenerational stories of trauma that they shared with me. They regret that Punjab’s leaders were sidelined, and Saifuddin Kitchlew, their local hero, was let down by the country.
What is the relevance of Jallianwala Bagh in India’s politics today?
Jallianwala Bagh is memorialised as a blackspot in independent India’s established history. Political parties represent the carnage as a national event of supreme martyrdom. There’s little recognition that April 13, 1919, was the most painful chapter in pre-Partition Punjab. The voices of the real victims, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, are silenced. Vote bank politics and peoples’ resistance movements continue to appropriate ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ as a potent symbol in present-day Indian politics.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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