The brutal repression of April 13, 1919 has made Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, a permanent marker for State zulum. The carnage is regularly invoked to deplore what is seen as government-perpetrated horror. Especially when innocent persons fall to police firing.
But the invoking invariably works against the analogy. “Where is Jallianwala Bagh,” observers react at once, “and where is this…”
Nothing, really, can be compared to General Dyer’s decimation of people, as yet unconvincingly counted, in that death trap of an enclosure.
But I want to refresh readers’ memories of something that followed Jallianwala Bagh. This is the reaction and action of two individuals to the massacre. And that action has a name — relinquishment.
This step in relinquishment, to use a word of lesser moral voltage than ‘renunciation’, was taken by two Indians —Rabindranath Tagore when he returned his knighthood, and Mohandas Gandhi when he returned the Kaiser-i-Hind medal (and two other medals) in protest against Jallianwala Bagh.
“The time has come,” Tagore wrote to the Viceroy, in May 1919, “when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation.” He went on to say “I for my 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… And… ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood…”
Writing to the viceroy shortly thereafter, Gandhi deplored “the punitive measures taken by Gen Dyer, Col Frank Johnson, Col O’Brien, Mr Bosworth Smith, Rai Shri Ram Sud, Mr Malik Khan, and other officers” as being “a wanton cruelty and inhumanity, almost unparalleled in modern times.” And in protest said: “I venture to return these medals…Valuable as these honours have been to me, I cannot wear them with an easy conscience…”
For both Tagore and Gandhi “the time had come” for that act of relinquishing. And the alarum had been rung by their consciences.
Some 65 years later, by which time India had become independent of the Raj, another event occurred in Amritsar, spurring the writer Khushwant Singh to return a decoration awarded to him by the Republic of India.
Fear and its antidote, courage, are not the monopolies of colonialism. They have an indigenous version.
Khushwant Singh records: “I regarded Bhindranwale as an evil man who deserved his fate. But ‘Operation Blue Star’ went well beyond the slaying of Bhindranwale: it was a well-calculated and deliberate slap in the face of an entire community. I felt strongly that I must register my protest… I took (to President Giani Zail Singh) the framed citation awarding me the Padma Bhushan… ‘I know how you feel,’ he said to me, ‘but don’t be hasty’… I held my ground …. From Rashtrapati Bhavan I drove straight to the PTI office on Parliament Street and handed over the short text of my letter of protest and about returning the award..”
Jallianwala Bagh (1919) and Operation Blue Star (1984) have two things in common: First, the deployment of ballistic force by the State, and second, Amritsar. The killing in four separate incidents of the ‘rationalists’ Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi have nothing in common with those two tragedies. But they have been linked to 1919 and 1984 by bullets and by the unusual consequence of a reward of awards by people deeply affected by them.
Nayantara Sahgal’s returning of a Sahitya Akademi award, followed by others doing the same, has in it something of the moral vitality of the Tagore-Gandhi and Khushwant Singh steps. Her sense of the time having come to denounce the silence of the Akademi on the killing of three thinkers and her decision to renounce an award from that ‘guardian of writers’ comes amidst a growing sense of fear among dissenters. Fear of being gagged, being harassed, being killed.
The resignation from the Akademi’s echelons by the award-winning writer Shashi Deshpande strengthened the example of Nayantara Sahgal and has served to focus nationwide and, in fact, global attention to what is being seen as the growth, under patronage, of intolerance. Dissenters, NGOs and those who do not toe the ‘official-nationalist’ line are the first targets of the intolerance.
The silence of the Akademi about the killing of three thinkers is joined in acoustic sync by the silence of the prime minister. The gruesome killing of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri, the preventing of a recital of music in Mumbai by the visiting Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali, the blackening of Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face in the same city for his part in the launch event of the Pakistani politician-author Kasuri, Ghar Wapsi and the beef bogey are all of a piece with the rationalists’ murder.
They are not to be compared to the State-driven actions of 1919 and 1984 and yet, with Ayodhya in 1992 and Gujarat, 2002, they constitute a national trauma. They constitute the communal equivalent of battle cries.
An Asokan-style expression of concern, regret or remorse may or may not come from our prime minister. But short of that, there is a whole gradient of empathy with the wronged, sympathy for the aggrieved, solace for the bereaved, that he could negotiate.
Far more important, though, than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s breaking his ‘maun vrat’ is the ending of the atmosphere of political and cultural intimidation. When we have a government which means only one man, namely, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, only he can end it. And end it he can. Provided he wants to.
It is because of a doubt, an agonising and gnawing doubt about whether the government wants dissenters to feel secure or not, that the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards becomes hugely important. As an act of relinquishment it belongs to an ancient Indian tradition of giving up something to move authority and influence public opinion. An act that was re-introduced in modern times by Tagore.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed by the author are personal.