Kim A. Wagner
100 years on, it is still difficult to reconcile with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the violence unleashed by British colonialism...
Even a century after the dreadful afternoon that silenced hundreds of unaccounted innocents it is hard to reconcile any justification for the barbaric massacre that remains a red blot in British history. Monstrous no less, the 10 minutes of terror unleashed on a hapless crowd gathered in Jallianwala Bagh on the afternoon of April 13, 1919, only proved that violence was a key aspect of British colonialism.
General Dyer had seemingly followed the principle of exemplary violence that had justified mass slaughter of sepoys by Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar Frederick Henry Cooper during the 1857 mutiny, and summary execution of namdharis by Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana L. Cowan in 1872.
In each of these instances, fear of an imaginary rebellion had provoked violent action. In justifying his own action, Dyer had disingenuously acknowledged that 'we cannot be brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear'.
In his painstaking reconstruction of the circumstances that led to the dastardly act, historian Kim Wagner wonders if that seminal moment in the history of India and the British Empire has been rightfully understood. In making sense of the form and function of colonial violence, he concludes that spectacular display of brute force was the most effective means of preserving control over the natives, as was evident in violent reprisals by the British in Kenya, Egypt, and Ireland during its colonial rule.
Although events of colonial violence were conveniently attributed to some rogue individuals, as Winston Churchill's disavowal of Dyer's action indicated, it only helped ignore the very structure of imperialism that harboured violence in its design. Else, physical and symbolic humiliation, including crawling orders and public flogging, would not have continued following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. That it did, indicate that the massacre was pre-emptive and retribution well considered.
Jallianwala Bagh is a powerful reassessment of the causes and course of the massacre, pieced together by mining facts from a variety of written sources. Like his previous works on British imperial history which include books on Thuggee and The Skull of Alum Bheg, Wagner provides an unbiased account of colonial panic and subsequent brutality. It was the growing unrest throughout the British Empire in 1919 that had made decolonisation a real possibility across the colonised entities in Asia and Africa. Despite its barbaric nature, the dreadful incident at Jallianwala Bagh could well be described as the last gasp of an imperialist ideology mired in racial discrimination.
No public apology?
Did the British ever felt remorseful for the tragedy that befell thousands of unarmed civilians? Despite termination of his military services, for the British public Brigadier-General Dyer was a 'hero' who, most believed, was the man 'who saved India'.
Through an appeal in The Morning Post newspaper, as much as £26,000 were raised which meant that Dyer could retire in comfort and without any financial concerns. What's more, Dyer received a full military funeral upon his death in 1927. In his tribute, Rudyard Kipling had remarked 'He did his duty as he saw it.' Aren't public sentiments reasons for the British to avoid tendering an apology for the heinous crime?
Wagner doesn't shy away from addressing this lingering concern. Far from being apologetic, asserts Wagner, Churchill's description of it as the 'unprecedented monstrous episode' was an act of deflection that only asserted the moral legitimacy of the British Empire.
During his visit to Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron had persisted in denouncing the massacre but not without reclaiming the moral narrative 'that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world'. What will the British apology seek to serve now that both those who suffered, and those who perpetuated the crime are no more?
Will an apology heal the wounds, and should we even attempt to heal the wounds? Even if the British apologise, it would only be for one man's actions, as isolated and unprecedented, and not for the colonial rule, that in Gandhi's words, produced Dyer.
While an apology in the centenary year will assuage pent-up emotions, it is important that the seminal event in India's colonial history helps in reiterating the need for individual right to freedom of expression. Jallianwala Bagh is an important book on the colonial era, and holds as much relevance for our post-colonial world.
Courtesy: THE HINDU