Author: Kim A. Wagner
"Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre" | FROM THE OTHER SIDE
The Amritsar massacre of April 1919 lives as a perplexing instance crucial to understanding the dichotomy between the white man’s power and his vulnerability, discusses Kavya Dubey
Before general Dyre barked his order to open fire at the thickest crowd of defenceless and unsuspecting Indians, a vividly recreated glimpse of the fateful day in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar on April 13, 1919, preceding the massacre points out to a keen aspect of the greatest feature of India’s freedom struggle – why the Mahatma insisted on non-violence.
“England is so powerful – its army and its navy, all its modern weapons – but when a great power like that strikes defenceless people, it shows its brutality, its own weakness. That is why the Mahatma begs us to take the course of non-violence.” This address in the buzzing square of Amritsar was brought to a cacophonous halt from the gunshots of fifty troops and the confusion- and fear-led frenzied multitude of Indians (including mothers with their infants) being felled mercilessly for going against the warning issued previously: ‘No meetings’.
Though it is part of our educational culture to know of the exceeding brutal incidence of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Kim A Wagner’s meticulously detailed and very vivid account of the darkest and the bloodiest episode of British rule in India takes the reader back to that day in the April of 1919. The unapologetic general admitted to the Hunter Committee in Lahore to the official record of ‘One thousand five hundred sixteen casualties with one thousand six hundred and fifty bullets’ with the intention of inflicting a lesson that will have an impact throughout India. As much as this was a calamity on Indian people, the English court was not spared from the disbelief of the dispassionate, stone-cold General’s justification. It closes with the historic question from Justice Rankins on the panel of Commissioners when Dyre said that he was ready to help anyone who applied, ‘How does a child shot with a .303 Lee-Enfield apply for help?’
The brutality of the massacre represented on screen poignantly through iconic motifs like relentless firing and empty cartridges piling up at the soldiers feet, fleeting women trapped and crushed against an iron gate, and a crying child next to a dead parent are, in fact, picked up from the famous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence of Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’ from 1925. Several mainstream Bollywood films have drawn freely from this – presumably without realising so and demonising the perpetrator.
Besides being a grim portrait of the oppressive British rule in India, the Amritsar massacre might also appear to stand glaring in the face of Gandhi’s insistence on non-violence as the very people gathered to hear of this peaceful method of resistance were silenced by a volley of British bullets. The massacre dubbed an aberration by the British Indian government, it continues to shame them to this day – ahead of Jalliawalan Bagh massacre’s centenary, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced “deep regret” for the incident and the suffering it caused, reiterating the Queen’s remark that it is a distressing example of Britain’s past history with India. In calling for a formal apology during a debate, they acknowledge that Jalliawala Bagh massacre lives as a symbol of colonial violence.
Wagner’s discourse is not a politically edifying narrative and is not quintessentially consistent with the popular native understanding of it which is varying kinds and degrees of outright condemnation. He explains his stance very aptly with the example of George Orwell’s colonial classic short story, Shooting an Elephant, which depicts the dilemma of the white man before a throng of natives; the white man cannot look flustered or weak or frightened because the white man is a symbol of power and dominance. There is no reconciling the violent spectacle of the Amritsar massacre with claims of British fears and anxieties but Dyre’s standalone example is crucial to understanding how violence functioned. It remains a historian’s challenge to navigate the dichotomy between the white man’s power and his vulnerability. Wagner’s research does not condemn or condone the violence but, looking back a century, tries to make sense of it.