Chronicling the conspiracy behind Jallianwala Bagh, 1919
During my childhood, in a village named Shakargarh, a person named Dev Datt was a frequent visitor to our home in the evenings. He was an avid traveller and a good raconteur. The ghastly massacre in Jallianwala Bagh was his favourite story. He claimed that he was present in the Bagh and had survived by hiding behind or under a heap of dead or wounded persons. For decades after the event, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was the subject of common talk in the villages and towns of Punjab. Visitors to Amritsar considered it a sacrilege to return without touching the Bagh’s sacred earth.
Jallianwala Bagh loomed large in my imagination when I was sent to Amritsar in 1940 to join Hindu College to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree. Luckily for me, within weeks of joining college, I met Vishwa Nath Datta, a fellow student, and an enduring friendship grew between us. The bond grew closer when he told me that his family’s ancestral home was in a village not far from mine, and that his family had lost everything in the Partition, as my family had. But Datta’s father had a substantial business establishment in Amritsar and he did his schooling there. He knew Amritsar well, and soon, one day after college, he dragged me to the Bagh and treated me to an impassioned guided tour of every nook and cranny of the Bagh.
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In the next four years, we visited the Bagh many times. We read a lot of Indian writing on the massacre, and when we parted in 1944 to study for Master of Arts (MA) degrees in different universities, Vishwa Nath, at least, was certain that one day, he would write a clear and objective account of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
After his MA degree, Datta studied history for four years in Cambridge. On return to India, he joined the history department of a nascent Kurukshetra University and stayed there till his retirement in 1986. He could have got a high position in any one of the older universities, but he found the allure of working in a new university at the historic site of India’s greatest war, Mahabharat, irresistible.
Datta wrote several important books of which Jallianwala Bagh is of special significance. It is a pioneering work for its meticulous research and the honesty and objectivity of its narrative. Datta’s history writing is free from ideological or political bias. He corrects the exaggerations in Indian writing by authoritatively putting the number of deaths in the massacre at 700, and stating that there were no women and children in the Bagh. To damn the British, he dug out evidence of a conspiracy, which London and imperial New Delhi had buried in their archives.
The book, published locally in 1969, did not attract much notice; it has now been re-published by Penguin with a luminous introduction by Datta’s daughter, Nonica Datta, a distinguished historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Datta’s book draws attention to a conspiracy for an organised slaughter of Indians.
Consider this. One, from April 11, the city was quiescent; on General Reginald Dyer’s arrival at Amritsar at 9pm, deputy commissioner Miles Irving handed formal charge of the city to him, and Dyer rapidly established military control over the city, without the proclamation of martial law. On the morning of April 12, Dyer issued a proclamation prohibiting all meetings. Later, accompanied by a detachment of troops, he inspected some areas of the city.
Two, at 9am on April 13, Dyer issued another proclamation prohibiting all public meetings. Meanwhile, a secret agent of the government, Hans Raj, accompanied by some intelligence officers was having the Bagh cleaned by sweepers and preparing a stage for the speakers. On the afternoon of April 12, Hans Raj had taken steps to ensure that a meeting would take place in the Bagh at 4pm on April 13.
Three, the meeting was on when Dyer approached the Bagh at 5pm with his armed Gurkha and Baloch troops. As the gathering panicked on seeing the military, Hans Raj mounted the stage to say that the military will not fire, and that the meeting should proceed with its work. He then signalled Dyer by dropping his handkerchief, walked towards the General and vanished forever.
Dyer had come to Amritsar in a fury to avenge the assault on a European woman and the killing of four European men by rioters on April 10. The Bagh had been prepared well for the monstrous act of an organised slaughter of innocent people. Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, General Dyer, Miles Irving and Hans Raj were the main conspirators.
The carnage proved an asset to the national cause. At the annual session of the Congress at Amritsar in December 1919, Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom movement was affirmed. But strangely, following the session, Punjab was ignored and its leaders sidelined.
Punjab’s hero, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, whose house and other properties had been destroyed in the Partition riots died in penury in independent India. And sadly, an illustrious Indian historian also passed away last year unsung and unrewarded by the governments of both Punjab and India.
Maharajakrishna Rasgotra is a former foreign secretary
The views expressed are personal