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EDITORIAL ANALYSIS– Jallianwala Bagh massacre

The Editorial covers GS paper 1: Modern Indian History

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Introduction

  • British Prime Minister Theresa May finally came out with: “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.”
  • Britain’s refusal to squarely apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is expected but disappointing. 

Why the statement seems disappointing?

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  • An aspect of the statement that stands out is its passiveness — “what happened”, “the suffering caused”. 
  • There is no hint of agency here; this could well be the statement of any observer and not of inheritors of the empire that committed the atrocity.
  • The blandness too is disturbing: one would have expected some sympathy for the victims or their descendants and some reference to the brutality of the massacre.

What is the incidence all about?

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  • On April 13, 1919, Baisakhi day, following unrest in Amritsar after protests against the Rowlatt Act, Brigadier General (temporary rank) Reginald Dyer took a strike force of 50 rifles and 40 khukri-wielding Gurkhas into an enclosed ground, Jallianwala Bagh, where a peaceful public meeting of 15,000-20,000 was being held.
  • The firing of 1,650 rounds was deliberate and targeted, using powerful rifles at virtually pointblank range.
  • Eyewitness accounts and information collected by Sewa Samiti, a charity organisation point to much higher numbers. 
  • Non-Indian writers place the number killed at anything between 500 to 600, with three times that number wounded.
  • More was to follow after the proclamation, two days after the massacre, of Martial Law in Punjab: the infamous crawling order, the salaam order, public floggings, arbitrary arrests, torture and bombing of civilians by airplanes — all under a veil of strictly enforced censorship.

What are the investigations concluded in this regard?

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  • After calls for an investigation, including by liberals in Britain, a Disorders Inquiry Committee, soon to be known by the name of its Chairman, Lord Hunter, was set up.
  • In his testimony, Dyer asserted that his intention had been to punish the crowd, to make a “wide impression” and to strike terror not only in Amritsar but throughout Punjab.
  • The committee split along racial lines and submitted a majority and minority report.
  • The majority report of the Hunter Committee, using tactically selective criticism, established Dyer’s culpability but let off the Lieutenant Governor, Michael O’Dwyer.
  • The minority report written by the three Indian members was more scathing in its criticism.
  • By then Dyer had become a liability and he was asked to resign his command, after which he left for England.
  • The conservative Lords however took a different tack and rebuked the government for being unjust to the officer.
  • Similar sentiments in Dyer’s favour came from the right-wing press — the Morning Post started a fund for him which collected £26,000 — as well as from conservative sections of the public who believed he had saved India for the empire.

What are the similar incidents which happened?

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  • Dyer was certainly rogue, but he was not alone.
  • He was one of a line of several such John Nicholson, Frederick Cooper, J.L. Cowan — who resorted to severe disproportionate violence in 1857 and after the 1872 Kuka rebellion; he was also part of the despotic administration led by O’Dwyer (later assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940) which emboldened and then exonerated him.

What were the reactions on this massacre?

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  • The speech that carried the day in the House of Commons in 1920 was that of Winston Churchill, no fan of Gandhi and his satyagraha.
  • He called Dyer’s deed “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in sinister isolation”; privately he wrote that the “offence amounted to murder, or alternatively manslaughter”.
  • In 2013, then Prime Minister David Cameron quoted the same Churchill epithet of “monstrous”, adding that this was a “deeply shameful event in British history” and “we must never forget what happened here.”
  • The Queen had earlier termed it as a “distressing example” of past history. 
  • Again, general homilies with hands nicely off and no admission of a larger culpability of racialised colonial violence that underpinned imperialism.

Conclusion

  • Deep regret is all we may get instead of the unequivocal apology that is mandated.
  • The expectation could be that time will add more distance to the massacre, making these calls for apology increasingly an academic exercise.
  • We will no doubt also be advised to forgive and move on.
  • The fact remains that there are many ways to heal a festering wound between nations, as Canada’s apology for the Komagata Maru shows; clever drafting is not one of them.

Source: The Hindu.