"Martyrdom To Freedom" | Journalism in the time of Jallianwala
In 1919, when the Anglo-Indian press was applauding General Dyer for his ruthless mass firing, only The Tribune bravely and boldly questioned the British administration, writes Subhash Chopra
The Rowlatt Act, denounced as ‘Black Act’, was verily the trigger that led to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919. Scare stories surrounding the Ghadar movement had convinced the imperial hierarchy that some new measures were necessary, especially as the existing Defence of India Act was set to expire. The Punjab government, led by Lt-Governor O’Dwyer, lobbied the government in Delhi for urgent new measures which witnessed setting up of the Disorders Enquiry Committee, better known as Hunter Committee after its chairman Lord Hunter. The resulting Act allowed the arrest and imprisonment of suspects without trial, besides further gagging of the Press.
The passage of this Act was promptly denounced by an editorial in Lahore’s daily The Tribune as a ‘Colossal Blunder ‘, vainly asking the government to show some ‘chivalry’ for its reversal. Further editorials called the measure as ‘apotheosis of foolishness’ and a ‘Blazing Indiscretion’ for which the paper’s editor Kalinath Ray was convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment. On appeal, he was released after four and a half months. The paper was also fined Rs 2,000.
The rulers and the ruled seemed to be on a collision course. Gandhi called for a nationwide hartal on April 6 as events began moving fast. Gradually becoming Mahatma, Gandhi planned to visit Amritsar. He was picked up near Palwal, on the outskirts of Delhi, and promptly sent back to Bombay. This infuriated the people of Amritsar, where prominent local leaders like Dr Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew were already under police watch for opposing the Rowlatt Act. The Hindu festival of Ram Navami was being held on April 9 where Muslims joined in amid chants of ‘Hindu Musalman ki Jai’ – spurred by the Khilafat movement following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This unnerved the authorities.
Next day, on April 10, Governor O’Dwyer, over-cautious as ever, took the pre-emptive action of quietly arresting Dr Satyapal and Dr Kitchlew and dispatching them to Dharamsala to head off any trouble. Angry citizens launched a petition demanding the release of their leaders. The authorities set up armed pickets at various points in the city when clashes broke out, killing and injuring many.
The fuse was lit. General Dyer (not Governor O’Dwyer) ordered soldiers from Jullundur to Amritsar. Sporadic violence occurred all over the city. Soon, General Dyer arrived and set up headquarters in Ram Bagh. Next day, on April 12, the General took out a march with his troops proclaiming a ban on public meetings and imposing Section 144.
April 13 was Vaisakhi in Punjab. Ignoring proclamations, which many were unaware of, people poured into Jallianwala Bagh, the city’s main, barren open ground hemmed in by houses and walls with only small narrow exits. General Dyer, finding citizens still gathering in defiance of his orders, ordered a repeat of his proclamation.
Come the fateful evening, just after 5 pm, the General marched his armed men – 50 in number – into the Bagh which he had never visited before or conducted reconnaissance of. Viewing the ‘insolent’ citizenry still gathering and chattering, he had, as he later said, 30 seconds to make up his mind. So, he ordered “fire”.
The firing lasted less than 10 minutes, he later told the Hunter Committee set up for an enquiry into the incident. “I looked upon the crowd as rebels and considered it my duty to fire and fire well.” Asked by Lord Hunter for another cause, he replied: “No, sir. I looked upon it as a duty – a very horrible duty.”
The Congress Commissioners’ verdict on Hunter report as ‘an absolutely whitewashing document’ and a ‘laborious attempt to whitewash almost everything that was dark in this darkest of all chapters in the history of England’s relations with India...’ as carried by The Tribune on May 8, 1920, stands stark even today. The review held that a majority report of the committee saw General Dyer guilty of ‘a grave error’ yet it let off Governor O’ Dwyer ‘scot-free’.
Lastly, Winston Churchill’s description of the Amritsar massacre in the House of Commons debate as ‘a monstrous event’ and as an event ‘without a parallel in the modern history of the British Empire’, though high sounding, skirts the core issue. As Secretary of State for War, he concurred with the opinion that General Dyer’s action was a mere ‘error of judgement’ deserving only the lowest of the three punishments – i.e., loss of employment and compulsory retirement with half pay.
An astonishing let-off for a massacre of the innocents!
The Tribune’s volume, Martyrdom to Freedom: 100 Years of Jallianwala Bagh, is a valuable collection of writings on an important epoch of modern Indian history. It carries an informative foreword by N N Vohra, President of the Tribune Trust, whose maternal grandfather, Chintram Thapar, had spent ‘nearly two decades’ in British jails, and whose maternal uncle was legendary Sukhdev, among those executed with comrades Bhagat Singh and Rajguru. Contributors to the volume include historian Ramchandra Guha and writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna.
Only, the absence of pictures of the dramatis persona – General Dyer, Governor O’Dwyer, Dr Satyapal, Dr Kitchlew, Shaheed Udham Singh and the paper’s 1919 doughty editor Kalinath Ray – is sorely missed.