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Posted at: Apr 14, 2019, 12:43 AM; last updated: Apr 14, 2019, 12:43 AM (IST)THE TRIBUNE COMMEMORATES JALLIANWALA BAGH CENTENARY

A conspiracy that stirred a nation’s consciousness

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was the result of a well-planned conspiracy aimed at bringing together a crowd which could be killed by Dyer, says eminent historian VN Datta in conversation with Nonica Datta


Nonica Datta: You were born in Amritsar. What did you understand about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as a child?

VN Datta: It was horrible… Our house was a 10-minute walk from Jallianwala Bagh at Katra Sher Singh in the walled city of Amritsar. My elder sister told me that she heard the bullets and that my mother began to beat her chest thinking that my father was dead. When I was about six years’ old, I used to walk in the Bagh and observe the bullet marks on the walls. Because of my family memory, I, too, became an indirect witness to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Later, I wrote extensively on the subject. My book, Jallianwala Bagh, appeared in 1969. 

ND:Why do you think Brigadier General Reginald Dyer did what he did? 

VND: You have to think of the circumstances which led to Dyer’s action. After the victory in World War I, British confidence was at its peak. In addition, Punjab was ruled by the iron hand of Lieutenant Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. He terrorised the troops and peasants. And then came the infamous Rowlatt Bills. There was political unrest in the province. 

Dyer did not look upon Jallianwala Bagh massacre as an isolated event, but as an integral part of the Amritsar disturbances. Three days before, on the 10th, the city had been the scene of widespread violence following the arrest of local leaders from Punjab—Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, Dr Satya Pal, Bugga and Ratto; five Europeans had been murdered; and a lady missionary, Miss Sherwood, had been assaulted. I would say that the assault on Miss Sherwood provided the context for Jallianwala Bagh incident to happen. 

As a result, Dyer became furious and determined. He rushed from Jalandhar on 11 April. On 12 April, he moved around the city of Amritsar. On 13 April, from the Hathi Gate, he reached the narrow Jallianwala Bagh. He could not take the machine guns inside. With 50 troops on the platform—25 Gurkhas, 25 Baluchis—he shot about 1,650 bullets, and I calculated around 700 people died. He later told the Disorders Inquiry Committee that he realised his force was small and to hesitate might induce attack. 

I believe Dyer’s decision in Jallianwala Bagh was partly influenced by his seeing Amritsar as a possible storm-centre of rebellion and partly by the circumstances of 10 April. 

The Punjab Government feared that on the Baisakhi Day a large number of villagers would come to the city and their presence would make the situation sinister. On 12 and 13 April, Dyer issued two orders banning public meetings and processions in Amritsar city. When the massacre took place, martial law had not been introduced and the Brigadier General was not empowered to take charge of the city. But Dyer assumed full control of the situation and ignored the civilian officers. My argument is had he acted in concert with civilian officers, it is possible that the catastrophic episode might have been averted. 

As soon as Dyer arrived in the Bagh, he stood on the raised platform and opened fire without warning. Not only this but, he fired continuously even when he could see that people were running for their lives. The Hunter Committee accused him of infringing the principle of minimum force, but failed to explain satisfactorily why he did so, maintaining that Dyer merely exceeded the bounds of his duty.

All these insights were possible because of my discovery of the volumes VI and VII of the Disorders Inquiry Committee (also known as the Hunter Committee) to which Dyer gave an account of his actions. I noticed that the previous volumes, I–V, did not contain the material that these two volumes possessed. These latter volumes included consolidated reports secretly maintained by the British government. I was the first to bring these volumes to the notice of scholars and able to discover hitherto unknown facts. 

ND: It is evident that your pioneering work provides an altogether different historical perspective on 1919. Tell us how you would interpret the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? 

VND: I feel that the massacre was the result of a well-planned conspiracy aimed at bringing together a crowd which could be killed by Dyer. There was no martial law (in Amritsar and Lahore) till 15 April. There were no police present at Jallianwala Bagh. The Deputy Commissioner was absent from the scene. Dyer took no steps to prevent the meeting.

ND: Why do you call the massacre a conspiracy? 

VND: In order to understand the massacre, it is necessary to follow the movements of Hans Raj, the chief organiser of the Jallianwala Bagh meeting. At the time of the meeting, when some people began to move away, he urged the crowd to be seated and declared ‘the Government will never fire’. After a while, he waved his handkerchief and Dyer and his Indian troops appeared. When the shooting began, Hans Raj had already left. He was an agent provocateur. He was later spirited away to Mesopotamia and his house in Amritsar was burnt. 

ND: Who was in the crowd? Who were the prominent leaders present in the Bagh? 

VND: Before the massacre, Jallianwala Bagh was a dumping ground of no political significance. In his testimony to the Disorders Inquiry Committee, Dyer said that the crowd was not innocent but hostile. He claimed it was a planned affair, with an organised mob assembled with the intent of defying authority. 

But the crowd was an amorphous lot. Many had come to the city as part of a cattle fair on the Baisakhi festival and had wandered into the Bagh. There was no leader of importance present there. I talked to people who had survived the massacre. I interviewed Rattan Devi, Uttar Kaur and Uttam Devi, who rushed to the Bagh immediately after the firing. Their testimonies formed an essential part of my book, Jallianwala Bagh. I also had long conversations with Dr Kitchlew. Despite his failing health, he gave me valuable information. Hans Raj Mittal, a leading lawyer of Amritsar, told me that the Jallianwala Bagh episode was a conspiracy hatched by Hans Raj.

ND:  What is the legacy of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? 

VND: After the massacre—as SK Datta, principal of Forman Christian College, Lahore, said—there was a parting of ways between the British and Indians. The massacre paved the way for the ultimate downfall of the British Empire and a new leadership by Gandhi appeared on the national scene.

In my works, I have tried to move away from a nationalist hagiography of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. However, there is no doubt that it proved a great asset to the nationalist cause. 1919 changed the political complexion of Punjab, which could never recover from that military violence. 

— This interview is one of a series of interviews with VN Datta conducted by Nonica Datta between July 2018 and April 2019 in New Delhi.

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