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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 32 New Delhi July 27, 2019

Centenary Homage to the Victims of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy, 1919

Sunday 28 July 2019, by A K Biswas

Jallianwala Bagh massacre was committed on April 13, 1919 when people had gathered to celebrate the Baisakhi at Amritsar, Punjab. This article pays homage to the innocent and peaceful men, women and children who unsuspectedly fell victims to senseless firings of the colonial authorities. They were martyrs of the Indian freedom struggle.

That the colonial rulers had awarded as compensation a sum of Rs 22,66,732 for the savagery inflicted upon an assembly of men, women and children—Sikh, Hindu and Muslim—, who, a century ago, had congregated to celebrate the auspicious Baisakhi, a Sikh festival on April 13, 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar in Punjab has not yet percolated down to the masses as a piece of general knowledge. About six decades ago, a book written by an Indian and published in England (1960) disclosed and insisted that “The relations of the victims of the tragedy were amply compensated.”1 The words “amply compensated” merit close attention.

The massacre at Amritsar had so agitated and traumatised poet Rabindranath Tagore at Calcutta, that “giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror” he renounced, on May 30, the Knighthood, which in 1915 the King George V had conferred on him. Ventilating his strong abomination, he wrote that “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.” The people of Punjab, note the words, comprising Sikh, Hindu and Muslim were “my countrymen” whose inhuman sufferings emotionally mortified the first Asian Noble Laureate so as to renounce the high Imperial honour. This act on his part, many of his well-wishers had genuinely apprehended, had exposed the poet to the charge of disloyalty and sedition and thereby liable for prosecution in accordance with extant law for punishment. Competitive exhibition of unflinching loyalty and attachment among privileged Indians for the Empire was very common. The British authorities did not, however, stifle his freedom of expression for most dignified condemnation of the barbarism in Jallianwala Bagh which kindled his deepest sensibility and justifiable anger. The Manchester Guardian, having regard for the intense reaction the massacre of innocent people created, had commented that “if we do not act now, then we are a disgraced people”.2

According to Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, statistician, who founded the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, the poet had sent Charles Freer Andrews to Gandhiji with a proposal that he would accompany Gandhiji and enter Punjab. And if both were arrested by the authorities for their attempt, that would amount to their protest against the tragedy involving the Baisakhi festival. Mahalanobis was a close associate of the poet. Gandhiji, however, turned down Gurudev’s idea.3 He instead urged some of the big guns of the Congress in Bengal to organise a meeting to register protest against the savagery upon the innocent, unarmed people who attended a festival. The poet—true to his song, “ekla chalo re”—stood alone, shorn of the badge of royal honour, shoulder to shoulder by the victims, “my countrymen” of Punjab!

An Inquiry Committee was appointed and it included three prominent Indians, with Sir Hunter as chairman, to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The Indians included in the Hunter Committee were Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad, the Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University and advocate of the Bombay High Court; Pandit Jagat Narayan, a lawyer and Member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces; and Sardar Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Khan, a lawyer from the Gwalior State besides British officials. The Hunter Committee indicted Reginald Dyer Brigadier General.

The Government had sanctioned as compensation a sum of Rs 22,66,732 for the victims and survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Is this a fact? If so, why did/do intellectual class shy away from documenting this fact in the history of our freedom struggle? Or is this a claim without any leg to stand? A probe into this issue, in a small compass, is attempted in the following narrative.

Rabindranath renounced the Knighthood 40 days after the barbarous action by Brigade General Reginald Dyer on the people of Punjab. Martial Law was already clamped on most of Punjab, gagging the press along with other restrictions on civil liberties. ‘Gagged silence’, to use words of the poet’s letter in question, had severely crippled communication, dissemination and publication of information. The Rowlatt Act, an extension of the Defence of India Act 1915, was known to the Indians as a Black Act. This unpopular legislation armed the alien authorities with stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless in camera trials for proscribed political acts. The accused were denied the right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial. The Rowlatt Act in essence was draconian in character.

India in general and Punjab in particular was seething with anger and protested against this law. A military picket in Punjab shot at a crowd, killing several protesters and setting off a series of violent events. The popular feelings were inflamed by these measures. Riotous crowds carried out arson, attacks on British banks, killed several British people and assaulted two British females.4 Railways and telecommunications became very delicious targets of public anger.

The case involving Miss Marcella Sherwood appalled and inflamed the sentiments of the authorities no end. On April 11, an English missionary, Marcella, fearing for the safety of her pupils risked to cycle down to shut her schools and send some 600 Indian children home. While cycling through a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan, she was ambushed by a mob, pulled to the ground by her hair, stripped naked, beaten, kicked, and left for dead. She was, however, rescued by some local Indians, including the father of one of her pupils, who hid her from the mob and then smuggled her to the safety of Gobindgarh Fort.5 Despite the darkness of prejudice and grim situation, the noble call of duties kindled the spirit of humanism on both sides.

Tagore devoted almost the whole night (May 29-30, 1919) restlessly without a wink of sleep in drafting this historic 413-word letter to Lord Chelmsford (August 12, 1868-April 1, 1933), the Viceroy of India. In compliance to orders of General Reginald Dyer, a party of ninety soldiers drawn from the Sikh, Gurkha, Baluchi and Rajput of the 2nd / 9th Gurkha Rifles/ 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sind Rifles carried out the massacre. They were armed with .303 Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. Two armoured cars equipped with machine guns were, additionally, positioned outside the gate of the venue, whose narrow entrance to the Bagh (2.8 hectare in area), walled on all sides, had five entrances, defied and frustrated his attempts to drive them inside in advance.

By mid-afternoon of April 13, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had gathered in large numbers at the accursed Bagh. Facts bear mention that pilgrims apart, Amritsar was teeming with farmers, traders and merchants attending the annual Baisakhi horse and cattle fair over the preceding days. On the fateful day, Dyer arranged an aeroplane to overfly Jallianwala Bagh for an estimate of the crowd, which reportedly was about 6000, while the Hunter Committee estimated the crowd at 10,000 to 20,000 persons when Dyer arrived on the scene at 16:30 with his force in tow. Without warning the crowd to disperse, Dyer blocked the main exits. He stated later that this objective “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience,” wrote former Lieutenant Colonel Nigel Collett.6 Firing of approximately 1650 rounds on the crowd claimed 389 lives besides injuries to 1000 persons.

Part II

Compensation for the Victims or their Dependents!

The knowledge about official information involving payment of compensation to the descendants of victims, and suffers of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, surprisingly, is not yet known to the masses at large. The Punjab Government had set up a Compensation Committee to determine the quantum of compensation. But was the compensation “ample”, if paid, at all?

Punjab State Archives file # 139 Home/Military of the Punjab Government Civil Secretariat dealt with the proposal for compensation payable to the dependents of those killed and/or wounded in the firing on April 13, 1919 at Amritsar.7 Compensation was sanctioned for distribution to the survivors or the dependents of the victims under broad three heads, for example, (1) killed; (2) wounded; and (3) property looted or damaged. In the event of the victim being killed his dependent(s) was paid the compensation. The Compensation Committee seems to have made reasonable efforts to reach out to and hear the claimants in determining the quantum of compensation.

Records of the then British Punjab Government, recently digitized by a Non-Governmental Organisation—Punjab Digital Library, led by mathematician-turned-historian Davinder Pal Singh, revealed that a sum of Rs 17,33,453, as compensation, for persons killed, was sanctioned; besides Rs 4,64,066 for persons wounded and Rs 74,202 earmarked for properties damaged, lost or looted. A confidential letter no. 29249 of December 20, 1920 from the District Officer to the Commissioner, Lahore Division concerns a statement showing the number of persons killed and wounded in the incident. Table-1 below shows the places of firing along with total deaths; number of persons wounded and the amount of compensation proposed for payment.

Table-1

Showing a statement of place firing, persons killed, and compensation proposed for payment

Place Number of persons Compensation proposed
1. Jallianwala Bagh Killed 218 Rs 15,96,158
Wounded 348 Rs 3,60,763
2. Railway Bridge, Amritsar Killed 2 Rs 27,411
Wounded 4 Rs 12,340
3. Lahore City Killed 3 Rs 21,334
Wounded 11 Rs 20,415
4. Kasur Killed 4 Rs 10,961
Wounded 1 Rs 9,060
5. Gujranwala Killed 11 Rs 78,076
Wounded 31 Rs 61,800
6. Other places Killed 2 Rs 7,764
Wounded 9 Rs 4,200

The money for payment of compensation was drawn from three treasuries in Punjab. The details of fund drawn by treasury are shown at table-2.

Table-2

Showing a statement of fund drawn from treasuries

Name of Treasury Amount Drawn Amount distributed 
Amritsar 12,50,000 11,44,504
Gujranwala 1,58,770 1,58,713
Lahore  1,26,268  1,12,776
Total 15,26,678 14,35,387

As per table-2, a total sum of Rs. 15,26,678—Rs. 12,50,000 was drawn from Amritsar treasury; Rs. 1,58,770 from Gujranwala and Rs. 1,26,268 from Lahore. This suggests that these three districts furnished the theatres of action leading to tragedy.

A total sum of Rs 14,35,387 was distributed among the victim and/or their dependents. A sum of Rs 1,08,291 could not be distributed for various reasons. But later the same amount was proposed for distribution without surrendering to the treasury.

Families of Dependents Compensated:

 Some Illustrations

A widow Jainti, wife of Gulab, Katra Ram, a weaver of Garhian, Amritsar merits attention. Her name grabbed serial one of those compen-sated for damage and/or destruction or loot of property. She claimed a sum of Rs 100 to compensate her losses. Record shows the reason Gulab’s wife had advanced: “Two calves” were “killed at Jallianwala Bagh while grazing”. The Compensation Committee recommended payment of “Rs 50”.10 The weaver’s widow occupied serial no. 1 at page 2 in the file of the cases considered for compensation. This is the precise reason to catch any sensible person’s attention. A lowly man or a woman is an unfortunate person also in this country. In a situation as this, their claims are either overlooked, dismissed or ignored. In the list of priorities such claimant figures usually in the at the bottom. Independent India’s poor and vulnerable victims of recent natural tragedies are numberless to prove the veracity of such assertion.

Crass discrimination marked the relief and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of under-privileged victims of earthquakes in Gujarat in 2002, of Tsunami in Tamilnadu in 2005 and of floods of Kosi in North Bihar in 2002. International media had focussed this aspect.

One Pritam Singh, who had lost his bicycle during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, was recommended compensation of Rs 100. A Ramgarhia by caste at (sl. 9), according to the case record, he was shown to be “in care of High Highness of Maharaja of Nabha, Amritsar”. The victims included Arora, Brahman, Jat, Khatri, etc. and were compensated.

Muhammad Din, 22 years old, a weaver and silk cleaner, whose left arm was permanently disabled, was awarded Rs 4126 as compensation. A 19-year-old butcher was awarded just Rs 170 as he had a petty bullet wound. However, Milkhi Ram, 33 years old, a goldsmith whose arm was permanently disabled, was awarded a hefty sum of Rs 22,823 as compensation to make up for the loss of livelihood and his expertise.11

The scale of compensation for payment to victims, it becomes clear from the above, was determined having regard for their economic status and/or skill and earning capacity. Lakshim Chand, a businessman, illustrates the point. “He was awarded Rs 60,000 after his leg was amputated.” The Government Compen-sation Committee’s logic may be noted: “He was a very rich man with an income of Rs 11,500 a year, thereby able to enjoy life to the full and prevented by his injury still more from enjoying life fully in future than he was from earning as full an income as he had done in the past.”12 Annual income of Rs 11½k of a “very rich” man in 1919 implied a monthly sum of Rs. 958.33. We, therefore, can conclude that compen-sation Rs 50 for two calves to the weaver’s widow was undoubtedly “ample”.

Pehlo Ram, Brahman, son of Rama, of Tehsil Una in the District Hoshiarpur, lost his son Munshi Ram. The Deputy Commissioner observed thus: “Being a resident of a village, was unable to report the matter to the authorities in time and was unaware of the proceedings of the Compensation Committee. Reported the death in Una Thana.”

Compensation Declined

Three individuals declined to accept compen-sation to the tune of Rs 3883, though sanctioned. One of them refused to receive Rs 70; the second, Rs 100 and the third Rs 3683. A sum of Rs 56,227 anna 13 and paise 6 could not be paid as the claimants absented to receive compensation.

Two absentees could not be distributed compensation—one went to Burma. He was sanctioned Rs 4181; and the other, who was to receive Rs 360, went to a Reformatory School.

There were several persons, who did not appear before the Compensation Committee to substantiate their claims during inquiry. Hukam Devi lost her son Jawar Singh at Jallianwala Bagh. Illiteracy stood against her. She did not appear before the Compensation Committee. The District Officer noted the reason as: “Hukam Devi, wife Bhai Pratap Singh, Lahori Gate, Kuchha Darbara Singh, Amritsar. Received a Post Card from the Compensation Committee and the husband being away on a water mill service since more than a year, she got it read by a boy who informed that it was something about the death of her son. She then put the card in the box. Again, she was asked to attend on October 15, 1921, but she remained quite unaware about what should be done and did not attend. She is and was destitute and has lost both her sons, one in Jallianwala and the other, a month later by disease.”

Jan Muhammad, Nijran, Amritsar Bagh, a pensioner lost his son Yar Muhammad, in the Jallianawala Bagh tragedy. But his death was concealed for hardship of the Martial law then in force. The victim Yar Muhammad was the only supporter of the family of twelve persons.13

Isn’t it time to take these facts on record and document in India’s history of colonial rule?

References

1. Britain in India by R.P. Masani, OUP, 1960, p. 119. This writer is grateful to Prof. Bhaskar Sur, an independent researcher and human rights activist who recently brought this fact to my knowledge.

2. Subrata Mukherjee, “Knighthood renounced” in The Statesman, New Delhi, June 10, 2019.

3. Mahasweta Das, Tagore’s renunciation of knighthood, The poet’s protest against Jallianwala Bagh massacre, May 8, 2019, Media India Group,  https://mediaindia.eu/art-culture/tagores-renunciation-of-knighthood/

4. Stanley Wolpert, “The Postwar Years”, India, Encyclopedia Britannica. Gobindgarh Fort, incidentally, is a historic fort, now converted into a museum, located in the centre of Amritsar city.

5. Collett, Nigel (2006), The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer. Hambledon Continuum: New Edition, p. 234.

6. Collett, Nigel (2006). The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer. Hambledon Continuum: New Edition. pp. 254-255.

7. CNN-News July 18, 2017, 11.33am IST under caption “Records show how British Government compensated Jallianwala Bagh victims based on income” referred to Punjab State Archives file # 139 Home/Military of the Punjab Government Civil Secretariat examined the proposal for payment of compensation. https://www.news18.com/news/india/98-years-on-records-reveal-how-british-compensated-jallianwala-bagh-victims-1455823.html

8. Punjab State Archives file # 139 Home/Military of the Punjab Government Civil Secretariat examined the proposal for payment of compensation reported by CNN-News, July 18, 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Punjab State Archives file # 139 Home/Military of the Punjab Government Civil Secretariat examined the proposal for payment of compensation reported in CNN-News 18 July 2017.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

The author, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, can be reached at anwesan4[at]gmail.com

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