14, Apr 2018 | Teesta Setalvad
In today’s India, where even 70 plus years after Independence, unjust laws or unjust implementation of the law have darkened democracy, the happenings at Jallianwala Bagh 99 years ago, merit revisiting. The Congress Report on the Punjab Disorders, is close to 500 pages and is a report on the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. It is a must read for students of history, law, journalism and contemporary politics.
Before the fateful day of April 13, 1919 when Dywer, in a brute show of the Empire’s muscle power, he fired to kill peaceful protesters, Punjab was churning with resentment against the Raj’s forceful conscriptions to the British army during the war effort. The final straw came with the Rowlatt Act brought in to curb protest and dissent.
In 1914, several hundred Punjabis sailed for Canada as emigrants. They were, however, not allowed to land by the Canadian Government. They returned by s.s. Komagata Maru to India where they landed as prisoners and were kept in camp at Budge Budge, near Calcutta, under armed guard pending removal to their homes and districts. This too had caused a burgeoning resentment within the Punjab.
This report, Congress Report on the Punjab Disorders, traces the build up to the massacre in the behavior of Michael Dwyer and his scornful disregard for the basic principles of public life. Not only did he abuse emergency legislation and their extraordinary powers, but he also abused his own power by summoning men in public life and belittling them.
In a public speech made on April 7, the day after the universal hartal in India and three days before the firing on unarmed people at Amritsar and Lahore and the murders and arson in Amritsar, Sir M. O’Dwyer’s words were dismissive and contemptuous especially coming from the representative of a government keen to implement self-rule and government reform.
He then elaborated on the inoffensive nature of the Rowlatt Act2 –and falsified both, its intent and application: stating that that it conferred on the police no powers of arbitrary arrest, search or interference. Any novice even who has read the Rowlatt Act knows that it does contain such powers, and that it is because it contains such powers that it was so strongly objected to by the people. Dywer, unconcerned with the truthful narrative was more concerned of running down the powerful demonstration of April 6. For thousands of Indians this had assumed a semi-religious character because of the fast. Here is how he dismissed it:
The recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Act (Passed in the third week of March 1919 as a temporary measure intended to deal with the situation arising out of the expiry of the Defence of India Act and investing local governments with arbitrary powers to arrest and detain persons believed to be connected with certain offences threatening public safety) in both Lahore and Amritsar would be ludicrous if they did not indicate how easily the ignorant and the credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled. Those who want only to mislead them incur a serious responsibility. I would remind them of President Lincoln’s famous saying :”You can, if you are very clever and very unscrupulous, mislead all people for some time and some people for all time, but you cannot mislead all people for all time.” Those who appeal to ignorance rather than to reason have a day of reckoning in store for them.
Brute force used by the British, for which it appeared that Dwyer was especially commissioned especially with relation to the Empire’s war efforts had unleashed coercision and repression in all of Punjab. Here the infamous Defence of India Act and the Rowlatt Act were put in force. Gujranwala, Manian-wala, Chuharkhana, Hafizabad and other places had seen this all through 1918.
Gandhi presented ‘Satyagraha’ to the country as another means of opposition even as revolutionaries had shown violent resistance as the way. This report traces the salutary effect and impact of the Satyagraha call while acknowledging that it is and was a doctrine not so easy to follow. Nevertheless, the fact that governments in other provinces outside the Punjab responded calmly to the sobering call of the Satygaraha call –unlike the dispensation under Dwyer – gives us its own lessons in political skill and governance.
Gandhi on the Rowlatt Bills,
When the Rowlatt Bills were published, I felt that they were so restrictive of human liberty that they must be resisted to the utmost. I observed, too, that the opposition to them was universal among Indians. I submit that no state, however despotic, has the right to enact laws which are repugnant to the whole body of the people, much less a government guided by constitutional usage and precedent, such as the Indian Government. I felt, too, that the oncoming agitation needed a definite direction, if it was neither to collapse nor to run into violent channels. I ventured therefore to present satyagraha to the country, emphasizing its civil resistance aspect. And as it is purely an inward and purifying movement, I suggested the observance of fast, prayer and suspension of all work for one day—the 6th of April. There was a magnificent response throughout the length and breadth of India, even in little villages, although there was no organization and no great previous preparation. The idea was given to the public as soon as it was conceived. On the 6th April, there was no violence used by the people, and no collision with the police worth naming. The hartal was purely voluntary and spontaneous. I took no steps to further the idea beyond publishing the following message on the 24th March last at Madras:1
(THE COLLECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI ) (The message was dated March 23; vide “Letter to the Press on Satyagraha Movement”, 23-3-1919. )
Says this report of the Congress Inquiry Committee,
And it is our firm belief, based on our examination of hundreds of men, that, had not the spirit of satyagraha permeated the people who took part in the agitation, the results would have been infinitely more disastrous than they were. The exemplary self-control exercised by the people in the other parts of India shows, not that they are vitally different in temperament from the Punjabis, but that the restrain-ing influence of satyagraha was powerful enough to control the anger of the people against the action of the Government in forcing the Rowlatt Act upon India. If the people had been able to vent their resentment without disregarding restraint and discipline in offering disobedience to the laws of the State, it is highly likely that the Government would have long ere this yielded to the people’s will.
But the restraining influence of satyagraha proved unequal to the strain put upon it by the Punjab Government. Had Sir M. O’Dwyer recognized the sobering effect of satyagraha and coope-rated with the people, as did the Governments of the other provinces in a more or less perfect manner, the terrible sufferings of the Punjab would have been avoided, and the history of the past few months would have been differently written.
After examining in detail the real impact of the call for civil disobedience the Report goes on to say that such a path needs to be embarked upon with caution and clarity:
We recognize the necessity for the utmost caution in advocating civil resistance. It is easy enough to undermine respect for law, but it is not equally easy to inculcate suffering involved in civil, i.e., non-violent disobedience of the laws of a state. Civil resistance can therefore only be preached where the ground has been previously prepared for self-suffering. We had to note that Mr. Gandhi frankly, and we think rightly, admitted his error in pre-maturely embarking on mass civil disobedience, and immediately suspended his movement.1 “
It is the remarks to this section of a must read and voluminous report that bare emphasis. It was not the hartal or satyagraha that could ever be cited as the reason for mob excesses ordered by Dwyer. The objective conditions were similar in many parts of the country where such violence was not resorted to. Here Dwyer had decided as the cross examination by the Hunter Commission reveals in great detail that he wold use force, he would use violent force because he could not allow the notion of a people’s voice and protest to quietly gain moral ground.
In the Punjab, however, the civil resistance part of satyagraha was neither appreciated nor understood, much less practised. The hartal, as such, has nothing to do with civil resistance. It may be a part of satyagraha, if it is voluntary, free from all violence and resorted to not to express ill will against, but disapprobation of the acts of a wrongdoer. Moreover, hartal is an age old institution in India, resorted to by people under the very conditions in which it was applied in the Punjab during April. Neither satyagraha nor hartal, therefore, had anything to do with the mob excesses.“
The days preceding the brute massacre at Jallianwala Bagh had also been marked with unprecedented shows of Indian intra-denominational unity. Be it the Baisakhi processions or the Ram Navmi processions, all religious communities participated, fired by the injustices heaped by a Raj that was increasingly losing its moral right to rule. Today in an age of elected governments, where democracy is worshiped, men and women who come to power through this powerful people’s mandate have also shown themselves immune to people’s pain and people’s voices. Be it Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh or peaceful protesters in Kashmir, Najeeb’s mother’s Fatima, or Rohith’s mother Radhika, indignities continue to be heaped by men in uniform on the Indian people.
The final straw in April 1919 came when on April 10, 1919 the Dwyer dispensation decided to deport Drs Kitchlew and Satypal using draconian provisions of the law. This set of a chain of burning anger among protesters who instead of being allowed to protest, were fired upon, mercilessly.
Today, Indians protesting against their own ‘elected’ governments face the same or worse fates. Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan remains incarcerated unjustly ten months after the sparkling show or protest at Jan Path New Delhi. The Bhim Army an organization of Dalits is portrayed as an enemy of the people.