Death, they say, is a great equaliser, a democratic truth that does not distinguish between and among men, women and children on grounds of caste, class, social status, language, culture and so on. But is death really a democratic truth where people die of natural causes or old age or both? Or, it may arise out of natural calamities such as famine or floods or earthquakes. It may and is the consequence of illness and disease. But what can one say about the deaths of hundreds of men women and children made prey to power and ego and arrogance on their own soil at the hands of a foreign power in their own native country?
How death that could be termed mass murder be relevant today? It is relevant because the historic tragedy that marks the beginning of such mass murders completes 100 years on April 13, 2019 in Amritsar’s Jallianwalla Bagh.
What is Jallianwalla Bagh? It is a garden of six to seven hectares walled on all sides with five entrances. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre has changed the course of genocidal history for all time to come. It happened on April 13, 1919 when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed gathering in Jallianwala Bagh. For about ten minutes, the entire troops targeted the peaceful crowd of Sikhs, their wives and children gathered there. Around 1650 round were fired as the count of empty cartridge cases showed. While official British sources reported 379 as dead and 1100 wounded, this figure leaves much room for doubt because before the attack, all the five entry-and-exit points were closed.
The Indian National Congress estimates give the count of around 1500 injured and 1000 dead because the crowds were in thousands and many jumped into a well to save themselves and were crushed to death with more crowds falling on them.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, analysing Rabindranath Tagore’s rejection and return of the Knighthood conferred on him By His Majesty, the King of England, as his shocked reaction to the Jallianwalla Bagh killings, expands on this historical tragedy by citing Golgotha two millennia ago, the site where Jesus Christ was crucified (which is still disputed), the Auschwitz seventy years ago, Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960 and Tiananmen Square, China in 1989 as man-made killings along lines similar to Jallianwalla Bagh in his recent article. (scroll.in March 30, 2019).
It would perhaps be pertinent to place Jallianwalla Bagh against the broader international context of the tragedies stated by Gandhi in the article to get a better perspective on the massacre on its centenary. Golgotha, (Aramaic: “Skull) also called Calvary, (from Latin calva: “bald head,” or “skull”), skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion. It is referred to in all four Gospels. The hill of execution was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, apparently near a road and not far from the sepulchre where Jesus was buried according to Brittanica.com.
The Auschwitz concentration camp remains one of the networks of German Nazi extermination camps operated by the Third Reich (Adolf Hitler) in occupied Poland in World War II from 1940-1945.
The operational use of the gas chambers in Auschwitz was preceded by experiments intended to find the most effective chemical agent and to work out the proper method for its use. About 600 Soviet POWs and 250 sick Poles were killed in such experimentation from September 3-5, 1941. Afterwards, the morgue at crematorium I in the main camp was adapted for use as a gas chamber. Several hundred people at a time could be killed in this room. Later, four gas chambers were built by the Gestapo.
In principle, all Jews classified because of their age or physical condition as unfit for labour were subject to immediate extermination directly after their arrival in the camp, without being registered or assigned a number.
In addition to the Jews, a certain number of Soviet POWs, estimated by witnesses as several thousand men, were killed with gas. A certain number of Poles were also killed in the gas chamber. The first group of prisoners selected and killed in a gas chamber outside the camp, at the Sonnenstein euthanasia centre, consisted mostly of Poles.
Cases are also known of the killing in the gas chambers of groups of Poles selected in the so-called camp hospital, numbering up to several hundred at a time, or as a punishment for the revolt of the penal company, or sentenced to death by the summary court. Several thousand Gypsies also died in the gas chambers. Prisoners of other nationalities also died during the period, from mid-1941 to the spring of 1943, when selection took place in the camp, usually in the blocks for the sick.
At least 10,000 people were killed in the Chinese army’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, according to a 2017 released British diplomatic cable that recounts the bloodshed in gruesome detail. The document, made public more than 28 years after the event, describes injured girls being bayoneted, bodies being ground up by armoured vehicles and human remains being flushed into the sewers. “Minimum estimate of civilian dead 10,000,” the then British ambassador Alan Donald said in the secret telegram to London seen by AFP at Britain’s National Archives. The estimate, given on June 5, 1989, the day after the crackdown, is almost 10 times higher than that commonly accepted at the time of several hundred to more than a thousand dead.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, commonly known in mainland China as the June Fourth Incident were student-led demonstrations in Beijing, for establishing of basic human rights and also against the Communist-led Chinese Government in mid-1989. Broadly stated it refers to the popular national movement inspired by the Beijing protests during the period, sometimes called the 1989 Democracy Movement. The killing happened when the protests were forcibly suppressed when Chinese Premier Li Peng declared martial law.
The civilians at Jalliawalla Bagh had assembled for the Baisakhi Festival to welcome the Sikh New Year and also to celebrate the formation of the Khalsa Panth of warriors under Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. It was also the beginning of the spring festival for the Sikhs. The reason that led to the peaceful congregation of thousands of people was a protest to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew Raja Ram. The British rulers had announced a curfew after eight in the evening but the crowed formed in deliberate defiance and was fired upon.
The Creative Impact of Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy
Rakshanda Jalil, a noted writer, editor, translator and activist, in celebration of those who had laid down their lives at the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre, has put together a volume highlighting India’s cultural and creative response to this unpardonable, inhuman and brutal act against humanity.
Though Brigadier General Reginald Dyer was shot and killed by a patriot Udham Singh in London some years later, this does not reverse the man-made killing enacted through calculated intention. What impact did it have on creative thinkers, artists, poets and litterateurs of India?
“It is very important to revisit times of great pain and suffering and to go back to old memories that have caused immense anguish. Would we do what was done at great human cost yet again? Did the pain, suffering and sacrifice go to waste? Surely it ought not to. The intersection of history and literature allows us to revisit occasions of great historical import. I have looked at the literature that came out of the First War of Independence of 1857, the Indian participation in the First World War (1914 – 1918) and the literary responses to it, and the Partition of 1947. Each time, my attempt has been to evaluate how contemporary and later writers looked at these real life incidents through the prism of literature. The volume is a continuation of that attempt,” says Rakshanda at an interview.
There is one story by Sadat Hasan Manto called Thaila Kanjar retold in the story by a narrator. Kanjar, he claims, was the very first victim of the Jallianwalla Massacre who became a much-venerated martyr when his body was brought from the field. Before that, he was dismissed as a wastrel and humiliated for being the son of a courtesan.
The story drives home the point that for people like Kanjar and his two sisters who make their living out of servicing men, reaches far beyond nationalism and a patriotic fervour that turned their brother into a martyr. It lends itself to a deeply feminist reading. The name of the story is An Incident from 1919.
Amritsar, Before Independence is an excerpt from Krishan Chander’s Amritsar, Azadi Se Pehle, Azadi Ke Baad that is translated by Raza Naeem. He calls women “the very embodiment of virtue” because they are “domesticated women, veiled women” almost screaming out the writer’s and the story’s underlined patriarchy.
Those Who Crawled by Ghulam Abbas has been translated from the original Urdu by Jalil. The story revolves around the decree through the Martial Law established by the British Government following the massacre that ordered whoever wanted to cross the lane in which Sherwood had been assaulted to crawl on their bellies.
The story unfolds how two young men in their teens began to cross the lane on their bellies. But when they are about to start their third round of crossing speeding up their crawl, the White sergeant thought they were defying their orders and threatens to shoot them down. The young men tell him that they were only trying to race each other!
Josh Malihabadi’s ‘An Address to the Sons of the East India Company’, recounts the entire history of atrocities by the British till Jallianwala happened.
Another excerpt is from Chaman Lal’s The Crown and the Loincloth in which General Dyer is an important character. As he discusses his plan to fire directly at the crowd gathered at Jallianwalla Bagh with Kenneth Ashby, Assistant Commissioner of Amritsar that one of the grounds of firing was that the Sikh men had beaten up and humiliated British women!
But to sum up, one must point out that Jallianwalla Bagh was neither the first nor the last of a human massacre by the powerful, the arrogant, the affluent and the dominant. Only, sometimes, we call these acts of terrorism which recognizes neither language nor religion nor caste or class.
The list is endless. Let us take a close look – hundreds of Sikhs butchered following the assassination of Indira Gandhi; the 2002 Gujarat pogrom; the gang rape and mass murder of innocent Muslims wholly unrelated to Godhra, the violent and brutal killings of Mohammad Akhlaque, Junaid, Pehlu Khan and Afrazool and not to forget – the killings of Narendra Dhabolkar, Kalburgi, Goviind Pansare and Gouri Lankesh.
So, contrary to what Theodore Adorno in his 1949 essay, Cultural Critcism and Society” said that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz” there can be poetry, and plays and novels and stories where, “for ‘new age’ poets, language is a means, not an end to a creative exercise.”
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.