A Hundred Years of Amnesia

What we chose not to remember on the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh

The Indian mainstream ignores certain historical debates on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre as they indicate partial involvement of Indian natives in the incident. vibhu bahl / alamy
01 June, 2019

About a hundred years ago, over the month of April 1919, the city of Amritsar was a site of massive unrest. During the First World War, Punjab was a hub of anti-colonial activity. The passage of the Rowlatt Act—a colonial law meant to curb sedition—was seen as an attack on Indian civil liberties and Mohandas Gandhi’s call to protest the law led to a vigorous response in Amritsar. On 10 April, there were violent clashes between the British Indian military and protestors.

On the evening of 12 April, Hans Raj, a 23-year-old aide of the freedom-movement leader Saifuddin Kitchlew, attended a meeting of nationalists at the Hindu College in Amritsar. Hans Raj informed the attendees about another meeting that had been planned for the next day at the Jallianwala Bagh, to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi and to peacefully protest the arrest and deportation of two nationalist leaders, Satya Pal and Kitchlew.

Hans Raj had been crucial in the organisation of the meeting, and had helped build a platform in the middle of the bagh, from where the crowd could be addressed. By mid afternoon on 13 April, thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had gathered in the bagh, most of whom were peasants, domestic workers, craftsmen and artisans from nearby villages.

At around 5 pm, troops of the British Indian Army, led by the brigadier general Reginald Dyer, arrived at the bagh in two military vehicles. Upon seeing the troops, the crowd began to panic, but Hans Raj assured the crowd that the soldiers would not open fire. This was a lie.

According to the Hunter commission, set up by the colonial government to investigate the incident, 1,650 rounds were fired and 379 people were killed (the count was higher in most other estimates). Witnesses have testified that Hans Raj escaped and went missing for days after what came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Almost a week later, Hans Raj emerged as a British approver in the Amritsar Conspiracy trials, and helped the British authorities convict Kitchlew and Pal, among other leaders. According to the historian VN Datta, the British authorities helped Hans Raj move to West Asia, while a crowd burnt down his house in Amritsar.

Hans Raj’s role, however, is contested history. Some Indian historians have argued that Jallianwala Bagh was a planned massacre, alleging that Hans Raj was a British spy who collaborated with Dyer, who wanted to punish Indians for the violence that had preceded the massacre, including the molestation of the British missionary Marcella Sherwood. Most British historians, however, either make little mention of Hans Raj or play down his role in the incident. While there is consensus that his role was suspicious, the degree of his culpability remains disputed.

This debate, however, remains relegated to the realm of history books and scholars. Most popular retellings of the incident—school textbooks put out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training, or NCERT, or films and documentaries—simply omit Hans Raj. Not just Hans Raj, most native collaborators who aided the colonial establishment do not find space in our collective memory.

The Indian mainstream ignores these debates for a reason—the partial involvement of Indian natives in the incident is a disquieting aspect for many. However, I would argue that these uncomfortable facts—the story of Hans Raj, and that of the troops who fired at the crowd—hold valuable lessons for India today.

V N Datta has been the leading proponent of the theory that Jallianwala Bagh was a planned massacre. In his book, The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, published in 1978, Datta notes that “Hans Raj’s conduct before the shooting and the peculiar behaviour of the police and Dyer indicate that a trap had been laid out in the Bagh.” In the days leading up to the incident, Datta writes, Dyer passed an order banning the right to public assembly in all of Amritsar’s significant spots, except one—Jallianwala Bagh. Datta goes as far as to suggest Hans Raj even waved a “white handkerchief” to signal Dyer and his men to start shooting. The nationalist leader Madan Mohan Malviya, along with writers such as Pandit Preary Mohan and Raja Ram, also raised questions about Hans Raj’s background and conduct during and after the shootings.

British scholars, on the other hand, have paid less attention to Hans Raj. Nigel Collette’s biography of Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar, published in 2006, barely mentions him. Alfred Draper’s Amritsar: The Massacre that Ended the Raj suggests Hans Raj was in contact with Dyer before the massacre, but stops short of saying that the attack was planned. The historian Kim A Wagner’s recent book, Amritsar 1919—An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre, delves deep into Hans Raj’s background and his role as a British approver, but Wagner does not believe that he was part of a planned conspiracy. “Hans Raj was not a traitor to the nationalist cause as much as a simple opportunist,” he writes.

In her mammoth work, The Historiography of the Jallianwala Bagh, Savita Narain sums up the British historians’ attitude on Hans Raj. “Most British writers do not take into account the involvement of Hans Raj with the police or the possibility of any kind of plan,” she writes. “This is further evidence of the singularity of the shooting in British eyes. If no-one except Dyer was involved in the planning and motivation behind the incident, it can be considered as a one-off event carried by one man and therefore marginalised.”

Of course, any attempts by the British to absolve themselves of responsibility must be viewed with suspicion. The massacre was one of the darkest episodes of the colonial era, and Dyer’s actions showed a racial hatred, combined with a complete disregard for human life. But what do we make of Hans Raj? In the context of his story, whether Jallianwala Bagh was a planned conspiracy is not the only question worth asking. What also deserves our attention is examining to what extent did Indian natives contribute to the organisation and execution of the carnage at Jallianwala Bagh?

The debate over the racial identity of Dyer’s shooting squad pertains to this question. Most historians subscribe to the notion that the roughly fifty sepoys who accompanied Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh comprised Gurkhas, Baluchs, Sikh and Rajput soldiers and the regiments they were picked from included the 9th Gurkhas, the 59th Scinde Rifles and the 54th Sikhs.

VN Datta insists that the unit only had Gurkhas and Baluchis. “All in all he had 90 soldiers, but took only 50 inside the Bagh,” Datta writes. “JP Thompson’s Private Diary shows that Dyer’s force in the garden consisted of only the Gurkhas and Baluchis.” Wagner, on the other hand, speculates: “It is very likely that there were at least some Sikhs among the sepoys of the 54th.”

Whichever combination among Gurkhas, Balochs, Sikhs and Rajputs we pick, it would still mean that the carnage was executed by members of communities that continue to be a part of India. Dyer’s choice of troops shows how the British Raj used Indian communities against each other. The empire’s army recruited Indians based on their caste and ethnicity, and segregated them into separate regiments—Rajputs, Sikhs, Pathans and so on. It declared these communities to be martial races, and encouraged pride in one’s caste and community over a larger national sentiment.

The glorification of martial races was done through art and literature. For instance, a year before the massacre, in 1918, Rudyard Kipling wrote The Eyes of Asia, a collection including four fictional letters written by Indian sepoys from the frontlines of the First World War—a Sikh, a Rajput, a Muslim Pathan and a Punjabi Muslim. A poem in the booklet reads: “The Rajput who avoids the battle/Are only fit for crows’ meat.” Constructing the soldiers’ identity thus allowed the British state to use one community to violently suppress dissent in another community. To this day, the Indian army continues to recruit based on caste and community and has not dismantled community-based regiments.

India’s reaction to Jallianwala Bagh also was not one of absolute condemnation as it is today. While popular culture is rife with the stories of Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh—two revolutionaries born out of the violence of Jallianwala Bagh—many reacted to the incident rather softly and, in some cases, even supported the action. The Golden Temple offered Dyer and his lieutenant on the day, Major Briggs, the privilege of becoming honorary Sikhs. Arur Singh, who made the decision to honour Dyer and Briggs, was a British appointee. The incident shows how a powerful state can whitewash its crimes through infiltrating all areas of a country’s culture, including its religious institutions.

In April this year, around the hundred-year anniversary of the massacre, there was a flood of articles contemplating the scale of the suffering; how the massacre reignited the Indian freedom movement; the colonial oppression and Britain’s subsequent reluctance to apologise for it. Hans Raj, Arur Singh and the troops found little mention. These stories illustrate the often exploitative relationship between a state and its subjects; and how the state can grossly manipulate people into becoming soldiers in wars they do not intend to wage.

In 1919, Dyer placed his bets on the unlikelihood of fringe identities rebelling against his decision to murder at least hundreds of Indian civilians. Today, even with an Indian government in power, India’s dominant communities are being used to attack the marginalised, who are being constructed as the enemy. Of the many lessons that Jallianwala Bagh teaches us, perhaps the most important one has simply been overlooked. Hans Raj’s disappearance from India and its history and the somewhat defensive identifications of Dyer’s firing squad are evidence that the blame is inevitably apportioned on the basis of national borders, sometimes in the service of history and sometimes to undermine its lessons.