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April 23, 2019

Remembering Jallianwala


April 23, 2019

In an irregular quadrangle, hundreds of people from Amritsar and surrounding villages gathered to celebrate Baisakhi. The celebrations were cut short when General Dyer, a British officer, arrived there. In a tone bereft of emotions and laced with spite, he ordered his 50-plus soldiers to shoot at the crowd.

The quadrangle which was echoing with sounds of laughter and joy instantly drowned under shrill shrieks and stifled cries. Many tried to escape, but the ill-fated venue had no alternative exits. Some tried to climb up the crooked walls. Like a hawk, General Dyer spotted them and ordered his troops to shoot at their direction.

The horrific ordeal went on for about 10 minutes and ended only when all the guns were emptied. The deafening silence that followed the massacre was broken by the painful cries of a toddler who sat beside her mother’s lifeless body.

This is how Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ gave life to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre that took place on April 13, 1919. Some 1,650 bullets were fired and, while the British colonial government put the death toll at 379, an India National Congress inquiry raised the number to 1,000. When General Dyer was asked about his motive, he had no qualms about admitting that he wanted to teach the Indians a lesson. The firing was not meant to disperse the crowd; it was carried out to send a message to people who were then talking about freedom.

It is also important to make sense of Dyer’s actions and to identify what urged him to carry out this heinous attack. By the time the massacre happened, demands for an independent Subcontinent had already amplified. The War of Independence of 1857 was one of the first fiery signs of the uprising of the oppressed Indians. The British Empire sensed anger and a burning desire for independence among people. It knew that this fire was unquenchable and would help people gain autonomy from the British. A few days before the gathering at Jallianwala, the British government had placed a ban on any gathering of more than two people. That law, however, was not widely disseminated. Had the law been publicised, the Jallianwala gathering/meeting would ideally have been exempted from the restriction as it wasn’t political in nature. This also shows how the powerful and people in authority draft laws to oppress dissenters.

Dyer’s actions showed that the empire was fearful; an authoritarian regime was being challenged and people were asking for their rights. Dyer thought that his message would send shivers and no one would dare to talk about autonomy and freedom. The British government was content in exploiting the Indians and profiting off of their sweat, blood, property and agriculture produce. But his plan backfired. The Independence movement gained momentum. Twenty-eight years after the massacre, the British finally left the Subcontinent.

Today, India – and some people from within the UK – has been demanding a formal British apology for the Jallianwala massacre. Pakistan’s now-former information minister Fawad Chaudhry too endorsed the demand a couple of days before the incident’s 100th anniversary. These demands were not unprecedented: In 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologised for the Komagata Maru incident where the then Canadian government denied hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers entry to Canada. Only a few weeks ago, Belgium formally apologised for kidnapping children from African colonies.

On the centenary year of the Jallianwala massacre, a formal apology would have been widely welcomed. As many believed, and are still of the opinion, a formal apology would give some closure to the people of the Subcontinent, if not exonerate the British of their original sin.

It will be shameful on our part if we ignore the intangible elements of the massacre. By defining who the culprit and the victim, we have inadvertently placed the incident in isolation. In reality, the Jallianwala massacre shows how an authoritarian reacts when challenged by dissenters. And our fight should be against those that favour the rule of the tyrant. And, before patting our backs, we need to do some soul-searching.

In the north of Pakistan, we witnessed similar brutality in the late 1940s when some 600 unarmed protesters were killed through the use of brutal force. Even today, people who raise voice against growing injustices are ruthlessly killed on campus. Some even die of surprisingly unusual natural causes (of unheard of sudden cervical fracture). Some are forced to end their life to escape the humiliation that people high on power subject them to. Some are killed at their doorstep. Some are made to leave the country. Those who take to the streets to protest against unpaid dues are cruelly beaten. Some bear the brunt of systematic discrimination.

Like the British Empire, the Indian government uses force against the Kashmiri people. The military presence in the valley is unprecedented. Cocooned in its offices, the Indian ruling elite has turned the plight of Kashmiris into a political game. The only Muslim-majority area under India’s rule has not seen a single day without conflict. The BJP’s ascent to power has also turned the life of Indian minority communities into hell. Since India knows how painful it is to be under the rule of a tyrant, it should try to not be proud of trampling democratic principles.

Whether or not the British government renders an apology, the wounds of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre will always remain fresh. Nothing can justify this brutality. But those who want to learn a lesson from history and who do not want to be ranked in the same category as the empire of fear should call out instances that are undemocratic. The death of even a single person whose only crime is to exercise his/her democratic right is the death of democracy.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Email: [email protected]

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