By: Bill The Butcher
Back in the old days when the British Raj ruled, there was a man named Reginald Edward Harry Dyer.
Dyer happened to be a Brigadier (at the time the rank was still called “Brigadier General”) in the British Army. He also happened to be the man chosen to be military dictator of the Punjab province of His Majesty’s Indian colony.
This was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened, because if there was ever a case of the wrong man being in the wrong job at the wrong time, it was Brigadier Dyer.
He was a sick man, was Brigadier Dyer. Suffering from the after-effects of old injuries and illnesses, his naturally violent temper was exacerbated by constant pain and the contempt in which he held the Indians. He was not the sort of person who could be trusted to manage a tense situation without allowing things to explode out of control.
British India had participated in the First World War, sending many thousands of troops to fight in Flanders and Mesopotamia, on the understanding that this gesture to aid the British Empire would be rewarded by at least partial freedom. With hindsight, we might be surprised at Indian gullibility – not for nothing has Britain oft been called Perfidious Albion – but believe they did, and when the promised freedom wasn’t forthcoming, shocked and angered they were. But instead of digesting this kick in the ass, as was their wont, in at least one province, they rose in non-violent rebellion.
Back in 1919, then, the province of Punjab was seething with anti-British sentiment. There were large scale demonstrations, more or less peaceful, and large public meetings demanding what we would now call basic freedoms. The most alarming thing about these rallies, so far as the British were concerned, was that they saw a most unwelcome development: the Hindus and Muslims – historically antagonistic in Punjab, something the British had used to divide and rule over them – united in their determination to oust the colonial masters.
Meanwhile, the British garrison in Punjab felt isolated and vulnerable, and the propaganda of the so-called Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in their minds, anticipated massacres of British women and children. There were incidents of firing on crowds which were doing no more than (at the most) throw stones, killing many, and there was counter-violence from the crowds, which led to a few British deaths. Alarmed at the British deaths, the Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, declared martial law and called in Brigadier Reginald Dyer to enforce it.
Dyer arrived and promptly made a bad situation infinitely worse.
One of Dyer’s memorable orders of the day referred to a lane in the city of Amritsar where a British woman had been beaten during the demonstrations (she had been rescued and sheltered by local residents, but that didn’t matter to Dyer). Every Indian who went along that lane would have to crawl through on all fours, nose to the ground, as a mass punishment. Floggings and arbitrary arrests were de rigeur for Dyer’s administration.
Meanwhile, this didn’t cool tempers or bring about order – of course.
It came to Dyer’s notice that there was a big public meeting planned on 13th April, 1919 in an alleged “garden” (really a large, barren space enclosed by high walls) called Jallianwala Bagh, not far from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It was a meeting and a religious occasion together, for the day marked Baisakhi, the formal advent of spring in the Indian calendar. He sent around public heralds banning the meeting, but the organisers reasoned that non-violent resistance to alien rule involved ignoring unjust orders, so they went ahead with the meeting anyway. It was attended by thousands, the majority of whom were (as they still are today in India) non-partisan, just rubberneckers. Many children came along with their parents, and there must have been the usual sellers of snacks and trinkets and the like as well – as there still are today in public meetings in India.
Infuriated (remember I talked about his temper) by this evidence of insubordination on the part of the contemptible natives, Dyer decided to teach them a lesson. Accompanied by two armoured cars with mounted machine guns, he set out at the head of an infantry column. This column had British officers but the majority of the troops were Indians, while the remainder were Gorkhas from Nepal. (Today, popular Indian mythology loves to pretend that the soldiers were bloodthirsty white British. Not so. Dyer had just 90 soldiers with him: 25 Gorkhas of 1st/9th Gurkha (sic) Rifles, who were armed only with khukri knives, and the rest Pashtuns and Balochis of 54th Sikhs and 59th Sindh Rifles.)
Arriving at one of the gates of the Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer found that the entrance was too narrow to take in his precious armoured cars, so he couldn’t use their machine guns. Nothing daunted, he took in his men and, without any word of warning, deployed them in two lines and ordered them to open fire on the meeting with their .303 Lee Enfield rifles.
[Picture from the film Gandhi]
Nobody knows how many were killed at that massacre, for massacre it was. The official British claim is 379 dead, but even a British civil surgeon of the time estimated some 1526 casualties, without differentiating between dead and wounded. Indian estimates are far higher.
That mass of men, women and children was packed in an enclosed space, with the soldiers between them and the nearest exit, firing into them with the renowned aim of the British Army rifleman of the period. Many died from being shot, many others died from getting trampled by the crowd in the rush to escape, and some died when they jumped into a well to avoid the fusillade. Calmly, Dyer ordered his men to aim where the crowd was thickest, and there is no evidence any of his men, British officers or Indian or Nepali soldiers, attempted to protest his orders.
His force’s ammunition expended, Dyer then withdrew, but ordered that the wounded could not be given any aid or medical help.
You may imagine that this episode raised a storm. While the British in India toasted the Saviour of the Punjab and the Sikh priests of the Golden Temple, toadies to a man, declared him an honorary Sikh, the pressure grew so huge that there was finally an enquiry. At that enquiry Dyer declared he had done nothing wrong and that he would have opened fire with the machine guns as well if he’d had a chance. The enquiry condemned him as well as Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who had backed him to the hilt.
Enriched by a fund raised in his honour in Britain, but sick and exhausted, Dyer then went home to England. He never really recovered and by 1927 he was dead of natural causes.
Among the survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a young man named Udham Singh. He vowed revenge for that massacre – and, twenty one years later, in London, he kept his word.
While the Second World War hung fire and Hitler planned his Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there was a meeting at the Caxton Hall of the Royal Central Asian Society. Udham Singh was at that meet. He took out a gun and shot dead an old man. That man was Sir Michael O’Dwyer.
The strange thing about this episode was that Udham Singh (who was hanged two months later) had, strictly speaking, shot the wrong man. Confused by the similarity of names, he thought he was shooting the (by then 13 years in his grave) Brigadier Dyer. Fortunately for the cause of justice, O’Dwyer was (at least) as guilty of the massacre as Dyer himself, so Udham Singh’s act wasn’t a waste. But to this day Indians still love to claim that Singh had “shot the British General dead.” In the late eighties I even heard this as an official claim on Indian national TV. Some people do not want to know the truth, I suppose.
I mention this whole affair just to introduce the reader to the fact that the Indian “freedom struggle” (if anything so disjointed, chaotic and stuttering can be dignified with such a name) was far from the non-violent affair it’s usually claimed to be. There were many violent revolutionaries against the British, whose activities were mostly marked with a mind-numbing incompetence so incredible that Udham Singh’s case seems to be a shining example of a strike going at least partially right.
Forget about the wrong man getting killed – most of the time the strike didn’t even go through, the “revolutionaries” betrayed by those they were fighting to liberate, and ending in hiding somewhere or more usually in prison exile in the Andaman Islands or hanging from the gallows.
There were a few men of principles and courage, foremost among them an Indian Marxist called Bhagat Singh, who chose to get arrested (and hanged) in order to gain publicity and support for the cause.
But the violent revolution by and large spluttered ineffectually on the sidelines, ignored by the populace at large and betrayed at every turn. Most of the actions were simply on the level of random terror acts, without any larger plan, like the shooting of a British policeman here or throwing a bomb at an official there. Small scale to the point of ineffectualness, even if they’d all gone through as expected.
Right from the time the British, in the shape of the East India Company, began taking over Indian provinces, there were significant violent rebellions against them among the conquered peoples. By far the most serious of these occurred in 1857-58, when Indian troops of the so-called Bengal Army (one of three British-controlled native armies in India) rebelled, killed their officers and sundry British civilians, marched on Delhi and restored the titular Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, to the Throne of Hindustan.
As the British authority seemed to be about to crumble, some of the smaller kingdoms which had apprehended, with good reason, annexation by the Brits, joined in the rebellion. The vast majority of the Indian populace, however, stayed aloof, and many kings and princelings (as well as newly subjected peoples like the Sikhs) joined in on the British side. A rebellion that might have ended the Raj for good petered out in about a year, and Bahadur Shah died in a British prison in what was then called Rangoon.
Probably the most significant of these armed rebellions, though, happened much later. In the Second World War, some of the Indians serving in the British Army and taken prisoner by the Japanese decided to join a “liberation movement” called the Indian National Army under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose, who had escaped from British house arrest and reached Japan by way of Afghanistan, Russia and Germany. (Bose, incidentally, had been squeezed out of the Indian National Congress by the machinations of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, always more of a scheming politician than generally acknowledged today.)
The Indian National Army never really had a chance. It did have many energetic and determined officers who despised the British, but most of the PoWs stayed away from it, and of those who joined, so many deserted at the first opportunity that the Japanese ended up using them as porters and line of communication troops. (Field Marshal William Slim, in his account of the fighting for what was once called Burma, Defeat into Victory, refers to the INA men contemptuously as “Jiffs”.)
Bose was almost certainly killed when a Japanese Army bomber in which he was travelling crashed in Taiwan on 18 August 1945, though there are a few doubts about this. In any case, his death was a boon for the Congress Party. Dead, Bose could be exploited. Alive, he would have been a colossal headache.
After the INA collapse, the British were to classify the captured troops in one of three categories: “black” (those irredeemably anti—British); “grey” (those whose motives were suspect) and “white” (those who had joined the INA only to try and get back to the British). Even to the Brits it was obvious that the INA was far from a monolithic organisation, and they knew that not every member necessarily wanted the British out.
But, during the same years when Indian PoWs were joining the INA, the (British) Indian Army continued to garner literally millions of recruits from India, not one of whom was a conscript; so much for the idea that the Indians were loath to serve the British. They always did, right from the advent of the East India Company in the eighteenth century.
If the Indian National Army had any lasting effect, it was only in bringing it home to the British that they couldn’t take the loyalty of the Indian soldier for granted any more. This was one of the many factors (as was a naval mutiny in 1946) that led to the decision to quit India. (It’s another thing that the post-Independence Indian Army never took these soldiers back, although they are still referred to as heroes and Bose as a national icon).
Rather significantly, India today seems rather desperate to forget the violent freedom movement. The government can’t wish away 1857, or the INA, so they have been uplifted to rather mythological status (even though the government in 2007 claimed that it “had no information about [Bose’s] role in the freedom movement). Bhagat Singh too can’t be ignored completely, though there are a lot of people who would love to ignore him, or at least his Communist proclivities. But as far as the other violent revolutionaries go – names like Jatin Das, Khudiram Bose, and the like – they remain strictly local heroes when they are remembered at all.
There’s more to it than just promoting and protecting the myth of the non-violent Indian freedom movement. That myth has of course to be protected and promoted, because the ruling dispensation in India, the Congress Party, draws its legitimacy from the claim that it spearheaded the non-violent revolution that allegedly gave India its freedom.
India is today a colonial state, too, and beset by rebellions all over its periphery. A non-violent rebellion would be so swiftly squelched that there wouldn’t even be a trace left, so violence is the only way left for any part of the country which wishes to secede. An India which admits that so-called “terrorism” had a part in its freedom struggle is an India which legitimises violent rebellion against its own tyrannical rule.
Hence, the standing myth of the non-violent struggle has to be maintained; and if that means forgetting a few miserable men who put their blood and hearts where their mouths were, how does that matter?
After all, they were all politically inconvenient anyway.
Now, anyone who reads me regularly will know my views on India’s current policies, and the fact that I think our so-called leaders are handing away our nation on a platter to the Americans and evil multinationals. The reason isn’t that far to seek.
I may be wrong, but I doubt it, when I say that if there was an Iraq-style invasion and occupation of this country you’d see no resistance movement whatever except by small, scattered Maoist groups. As far as the “mainstream” is concerned, once the major fighting is over, they’ll all compete for the occupier’s favour, and the neocon fantasy for Iraq would have come true here.
You see, unlike many countries, we were handed our independence on a platter. Despite the official propaganda of the Indian “non-violent freedom movement”, all said “movement” did was get everyone locked up at regular intervals. The Quit India Movement of 1942 was a classic example of this. All it did was lay the way open for the disintegration of the country on religious lines.
It’s an abiding belief with me that if you have to literally fight for your freedoms, you’re more likely to value those freedoms.
Unlike countries like Algeria, Vietnam, the US, China, or even Eritrea, which won independence in brutal anti-colonial wars (or as a result of failed but significant anti-colonial struggles, like Indonesia, Malaysia or Kenya) we didn’t have to fight for our freedom.
It could have happened. If the revolutionaries had organised themselves, sought help from friendly nations abroad (countries like post-Revolution Russia certainly would have pitched in with arms and training), made long term plans instead of random small-scale strikes, they would certainly have grabbed the attention of a fairly substantial portion of the nation’s youth. Of course, any such movement would have had to be religion and caste-neutral; and then it’s kind of difficult to see a free India divided against itself on religious or caste grounds. We’d have had a far better India today.
And if we’d had to win freedom through the barrel of a gun and pay for it with blood, we’d likely not be nearly so eager to give it away now.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre [Note that this article has some inaccuracies, particularly in relation to Dyer’s forces. For a more detailed account, see Alfred Draper, The Massacre that Ended the Raj, London, 1981.]