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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 39, New Delhi, September 12, 2020

100 years Later Remembering Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy Through a Novel | Chaman Lal

Friday 11 September 2020, by Chaman Lal

Dhawan Rajneesh, Amritsar 1919 (Hindi Novel), 2019, Delhi, Rajpal & Sons, 192 pages

As per the flap introduction, the writer of this novel Rajneesh Dhawan is teaching English at the University of Simon Fraser Valley in Canada. He is originally from Amritsar and few of his plays have been staged in Canada. He also wrote scripts and dialogues of few door darshan serials.

The novel is narrated in first person as the novelist creates a character Kuru for this purpose. In the very beginning the character Kuru introduces himself and the city of Amritsar by telling that though Amritsar city is about 450 years old, Kuru lives on this earth since times immemorial and had seen the numerous historical and even mythical events!

Kuru moves on to the story of 1919 by telling the readers that there is no hero or heroine of this story and city of Amritsar itself is the hero and heroine both. He chronologizes his narration from the date of 29th March 1919, when city Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving was having his evening teat at his Mall Road residence. And ends with 13th April firing. He had just returned from his daily jog from Alexandra grounds. His wife Emily was sitting with him. Miles looked young at his age of fifty. He looked at the newspaper and noticed headline that Gandhi has changed the date of his nation-wide strike from 30th March to 6th April. Hans Raj, the Congress worker reporting to British officials brings the news that Amritsar was going to observe strike on 30th as well, angering the DC.

Narrator explains that Amritsar has been big centre of business since centuries. Harmandir Sahib is in centre of the city, whose nectar like water made it named as Amritsar. In a trader family Om is being engaged to and the relatives have a heyday in home. 30th March 1919 morning was disturbing for Miles. There was complete strike in the city. Miles reported the tense situation to Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer. Huge march went towards Jallianwala Bagh. This Bagh belonged to Himmat Singh Jallewale, from which it got its name. There was Congress protest meeting on 30th March 1919 strike day at the Bagh. Kitchlew addressed the gathering, on dais were Badrul Islam, Hans Raj and other leaders. Satyapal another leader was detained in home this day. Amritsar returned to normal on 31st March. O’Dwyer has reached Amritsar to take stock of the situation. Hans Raj was snubbed, who put blame on Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. O’Dwyer told Miles about the possibility of imposing Martial law, as he smelled mutiny. From 1st April Hindu festival Navratras started. In orphanage, where Udham Singh was taken as orphan, two Ghadarites came. Bhag Singh and Gurdit Singh Kamagatamaru, Udham Singh listened to them Reference to Ghadar party formation in US in 1913, is given.

In another family, Rati Devi has come to Amritsar from Delhi to spend few days with her sister Vidya Devi. Vidya husband Chhajuram is congress worker and he took Gopal, husband of Ratti along with him. Congress leadership is planning to celebrate Ramnaumi jointly with Muslims.

Bhajan Lal home is now full of wedding festivities due to his son Omi’s engagement. There are posters of Congress even in wedding home about proposed strike. Congress leaders meet all three religious preachers and made them agree to celebrate Ram Naumi jointly with common water being served and joint procession taken out. This disturbs British officials. Omi’s younger brother Raju is getting attracted towards Neeru, one of bridegroom side relative and Congress activist. He has started working as Congress activist to impress Neeru.

6th April strike in Amritsar was total despite house arrest of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew and DC Miles was shouting on Hans Raj, the Congreves worker mole working for British. Miles with John was looking at the huge procession of Amritsar people going towards Jallianwala Bagh for meeting. There was massive meeting in Jallianwala Bagh, addressed by Badrul Islam, meeting continued till late evening. There was big presence of women in the procession and meeting due to efforts of Neeru. Nimmo the bride is annoyed over her best friend Neeru’s prolonged absence form wedding preparations.

Scene shifts of orphanage, where Udham Singh and others had served people during 6th Strike. Baba Gurdit Singh Kamagatamaru and Gujjar Singh-two Ghadarites visit orphanage, when Police raids it. Udham Singh gets Gurdit Singh out, but Gujjar Singh is arrested by police. Giani Bhag Singh, the orphanage in charge is also arrested by Hashmat Khan. 6th evening itself a long row of military vehicles were moving towards city kotwali, creating an atmosphere of fear.

On 8th April, Durga Ashtami, Statesman reporter Mansoor arrived at Amritsar by Frontier mail, same day Bhajan Lal son Om’s wedding procession reached Mahesh Khanna house at 8 m to wed his daughter Nimmo. Om younger brother was searching Neeru, the friend of Nimmo and daughter of Deen Dayal. Both father-daughter were Congress activists.

On 9th April, the Ram Naumi day, thousands of people started walking towards big temple before dawn. The procession of Ram Naumi was to start from big temple. By noon, the procession has taken its shape. Doctor Hafiz Bashir and Duni Chand led the procession riding horses, one hundred cyclists followed, which was further followed by school children in disciplined three rows. Behind the children, there was Rath with Ram, Sita, Laxman and Hanuman seated in it. There was singing of hymns, along with slogans of Mahtama Gandhi ki Jai, Dr. Satyapa-Kitchlew Zindabad, Rowlett Act Murdabad..There were pitchers of water all along the way of procession. Hindu-Muslim-Sikhs were drinking water from the same pitcher. Statesman Reporter Mansoor never saw such scene ever before. He had always seen Hindu Pani, Muslim Pani in separate pitchers and there were riots over touching others pitcher.

The next day 10th April newspaper headlines screamed-Amritsar hails Hindu-Muslim unity, A unique protest against Rowlett Act, can whole country unite like Amritsar?

Michael O’Dwyer was burning with rage in Lahore, he told DC Miles on phone that he is assuming charge of Amritsar directly and asked him to invite Satyapal and Kitchlew for tea in order to exile them out of Amritsar. Hans Raj was sent to invite Satyapal and Kitchlew. They put the condition that till Bhai Bhag Singh is in police custody, they will not go and they went to police station. Bhag Singh was badly tortured, they took him out and left with Dr. Bashir before moving to DC residence. There they were arrested and sent to Dharmshala, two hundred miles away.

Due to Om-Nimmo wedding on 8th, the celebrities continued till 9th early morning none could join Ram Naumi procession, though Neeru and Deen Dayal joined. Bhajan Lal opened his hop on 11th and Om joined the shop same day. There was procession and sloganeering in the bazar, which was being shut down. Hundreds of people gathered at hall gate, which moved to Railway carriage bridge(Bhandari pul), where they were confronted by a military attachment. Army men started shooting the unarmed protestors and in minutes many people were dead. Bhajan Lal newly wedded son Om was among them. Angry procession moved towards townhall and burnt National Bank, killing bank Manager Stewart and his assistant Scot. From there the crowd moved to Alliance Bank and killed Manager Thomson, who tried to fire from his revolver. Then they moved to Town hall, killing one British Sargent Rowland on the way. Fifth one was guard Robinson, who was killed. There were four British officials in townhall at that time and the crowd had encircled them. By then Congress leaders Badrul Islam and Deen Dayal reached there and saved them from the anger of the crowd. Crowd burnt Town hall and post office also.

In the afternoon at 3 pm, twenty biers were taken out, some taken to Qabaristan and some to Shamshan.

O’Dwyer called Dyer in Jalandhar, where he was posted to immediately reach Amritsar with his force. He told that he has placed Amritsar under Martial law.

After cremation and burial of bodies, people were returning to their homes that in Lohgarh area, a woman cried for help. She was Miss Sherwood, Raju was about to kill her, when Neeru threw her over Sherwood. Later Badrul Islam and Deen Dayal reached and Sherwood was saved. She was admitted to Miss Khatikan hospital by Badrul-Deen Dayal and Neeru before leaving for homes. Neeru went to Nimmo, her newlywed and widowed friend, who has turned into stone.

Dyer reached Amritsar on 11th evening, he went first to Gobindgarh fort and inspected army unit there. He met DC Irving Miles and told that he had been given charge of the city by Governor, Miles told him about 20 people killed on Bhandari bridge and five Britishers killed by mob. City was placed under curfew after 8 pm, the water and electricity supplies were disconnected. Processions were banned. Shoot to kill orders were issued by Dyer, who after visiting Miss Sherwood in hospital and reached Dugglanwali street, where she was attacked. There Dyer issued the order for crawling anyone entering or coming out of street.

Congress workers were still preparing to protest and they announced protest meeting in Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April Baisakhi day. Neeru with his father went to prostitute Saleema House, who offered her home for meetings. The mole Hans Raj reached even in these meetings.

On 13th Dyer reached Gobindgarh fort in morning at 10 am, he took armoured cars and sat in his open car to move inside city with advertisement that Amritsar has been placed under Martial law and meetings are banned. Hans Raj reached to Dyer as well to inform that meeting will be held in evening at Jallianwala Bagh.

Bhajan Lal and Raju were forced to cross the Dugglanwala street by crawling with the remains of his son Om, who was shot dead on 10th. Bhajan Lal later told Neeru to take Raju along for meeting, now that his fear of British has gone.

By 3 pm, crowd of people had gathered in Jallianwala and continued to increase. At 3.45 pm, Hans Raj signalled a Britisher with Indian dress to go out.

Dyer told Mile about the telegram he received from Governor to make Amritsar an example, as tension was simmering in Lahore as well. At Jallianwala Bagh, Hans Raj was making speech. At 4 pm, Miles, Dyer reached Gobindgarh fort. Miles sat with Dyer in his car, followed by two armoured cars, there were fifty army men walking, 25 Gorkhas and 25 Balochis, behind forty Gorkhas with Khukhris.

At 4.30 in Jallianwala Durga Das was making speech, Hans Raj came out of garden, at 4.40 pm, he entered Town hall, Dyer saw him and brightened up, Miles tried one last time to stop Dyer.

At 5 pm Miles phoned O’Dwyer, he responded in favour of Dyer action.

5.05 pm-Dyer was at north gate of Bagh, he entered in narrow path with his men and ordered to fire. Pratap, the 80 year old man was the first to fall, 15-year-old Sunder too, who made a beautiful painting of Bagh also fell. In ten minutes, 1650 rounds of bullets were fired. After Dyer had left, people were terrorised even to enter the Bagh. In seven-acre Bagh, Dyer created a new example of barbarism that day.

When Rati, Vidya and Nimmo entered Bagh, they noticed Raju body first, Neeru was lying unconscious, Chhaju Ram body was lying, Rati was crying.

Firing stopped at 5.20 pm.

Novel ends in Jallianwala Bagh with the memory of Guru Nanak Bani-Eiti Mar payi Kurlane tain ki dard na aaya…Khurasan Khasmana Kiya, Hindustan Daraya.

The novel was published last year to mark hundred years of Jallianwala Bagh. Author has woven personal stories of ordinary people with the historic tragedy, which brought havoc to common people as well. Since the writer has his background in the city, the sensitivity about the tragedy is there, and the documentation of the events is done accurately with some flaws here like 22 bodies felling in narration and twenty biers taken out, so some discrepancy. The narration of 12th April is not very clear. But taking the events from 29th March to 13th April of two weeks, woven with family story is done quite well. The narration keeps the story element alive even while underlining the chronological events happening around.

The novelist’s invocation of Guru Nanak Bani to conclude, does not go with the spirit of the novel, the invocation is against Moghuls, but invoking against British and O’Dwyer and Dyer is somewhat incongruous with the spirit of the novel against British repression.

*Chaman Lal, at present Dean, Faculty of Languages at Panjab University Chandigarh has retired as Professor from JNU and is Honorary advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre New Delhi.

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