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Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy, 1919

A. K. Biswas

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

That the colonial rulers had awarded as compensation a sum of Rs. 22,66,732 for the savagery inflicted upon a peaceful 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 Panjab is not yet a general knowledge.  About six decades ago, a book written by an Indian and published in [1960] England disclosed that “The relations of the victims of the tragedy were amply compensated.” [1]  The words “amply compensated” are noteworthy.

The massacre at Amritsar had so shocked and traumatized poet Rabindra Nath 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. He was also the only Indian to do so for “my countrymen.” 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 Panjab, 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 loyalty 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 and founder of Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, the poet had sent Charles Freer Andrews to Gandhiji with a proposal, that he would accompany him and enter Punjab. And if both were arrested by the authorities, it would amount to their protest. Mahalanobis was very close to the poet. Gandhiji, however, did not support his gurudev’s idea. [3]

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

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

The savagery at Amritsar had so shocked and traumatized poet Rabindra Nath 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, 1919 the Knighthood, which the King George V had conferred on him. Tagore was also the only Indian to rise up to the occasion for “my countrymen” regardless of consequences of his action.  While  exhibiting his strong feeling of abomination, he also 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 Panjab, note the words, comprising Sikh, Hindu and Muslim were “my countrymen” whose sufferings emotionally mortified the first Asian Noble laureate so as to renounce the high imperial honour of the Empire. This act on his part, many apprehended, had exposed the poet to the charge of sedition and thereby prosecution in accordance with extant law in place for punishment. But 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 rebuke.

Rabindra Nath renounced the badge of honour 40 days after the massacre Brigade General Reginald Dyer inflicted on the people of Panjab. Martial Law was clamped on most of Panjab with gagging of the press accompanied by other restrictions on civil liberties. ‘Gagged silence,’ to use words of the letter in question, 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 colonial 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. Rowlatt Act truly was draconian in character.

India in general and Panjab in particular was seething with anger and protested against this law. A military picket in Panjab 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 also were targets of public anger.  

The case of Miss Marcella Sherwood appalled and aggravated the sentiments of the colonial 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 grim situation, the spirit of humanism was in evidence 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 the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford (12 August 1868 –1 April 1933). In compliance to orders of General Reginald Dyer, a party of ninety soldiers comprising the Sikh, Gurkha, Baluchi and Rajput from the 2nd/9th Gurkha Rifles, the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sind Rifles executed the massacre. They were armed with .303 Lee–Enfield bolt-action rifles. Besides, two armoured cars equipped with machine guns were positioned outside the gate of the venue, whose  but narrow entrance to the Bagh (2.8 hectare in area), walled on all sides, though had five entrances, defied and frustrated his attempts to drive them in advance.

By mid-afternoon of April 13, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had gathered there. 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 were about 6,000, while the Hunter Committee estimated the crowd to be 10,000 to 20,000 persons when  Dyer  arrived on the scene at 16:30 with his force. 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 Nigel Collett, himself a former Lieutenant Colonel. [6] Firing of approximately 1,650 rounds on the unarmed crowd resulted in 389 deaths and injuries to 1000 persons.

Part II

Compensation for the victims or their dependents!
The knowledge about recorded fact involving payment of compensation, noted already, to the descendants of victims and suffers of Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, surprisingly, is yet to percolate down to the masses.  The Punjab Government had set up a Compensation Committee to determine the quantum of compensation. But was the compensation “ample” at all, if paid, as claimed by R P Masani?

Punjab State Archives file # 139 Home/Military of the Punjab Government Civil Secretariat examined 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 three broad heads, e. g., (1) killed; (2) wounded; and (3) property looted or damaged. In the event of victim being killed his dependent was paid the compensation. The Compensation Committee seems to have made reasonable efforts to hear the claimants in determining the quantum of compensation.

Records of the then British Punjab Government recently digitized by a Non-Governmental Organization – 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 was sanctioned for persons wounded and Rs. 74,202 was earmarked for properties damaged or looted. A confidential letter no. 29249 of December 20, 1920 from the District Officer to the Commissioner, Lahore Division concerns a statement regarding the number of persons killed and wounded in the firing. Table-1 below shows the places of firing along with total deaths; wounded and the amount of compensation proposed for payment.

Table-1[8]
Showing a statement of place firing, persons killed, and compensation proposed for payment


Place

Number of persons

Compensation proposed

1. Jallianwala Bagh

2. Railway Bridge, Amritsar

3. Lahore City

4. Kasur

 

5. Gujranwala

6. Other places

Killed                        218
Wounded              348
Killed                       2
Wounded                 4
Killed                      3
Wounded               11
Killed                      4
Wounded                1

Killed                    11
Wounded              31
Killed                     2
Wounded               9

Rs.     15,96,158
Rs.      3,60,763
Rs.          27,411
Rs.          12,340
Rs.         21,334
Rs.         20,415
Rs.         10,961
Rs.          9,060

Rs.       78,076
Rs.       61,800
Rs.         7,764
Rs.         4,200

 

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

Table-2 [9]
Showing a statement of fund drawn from treasuries

Name of Treasury

Amritsar
Gujranwala
Lahore

Amount Drawn

12,50,000
1,58,770
1,26,268

Amount distributed

11,44,504
1,58,713
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 places were involved in the 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 illustration
A widow Jainti, wife of Gulab, Katra Ram, a weaver of Garhian, Amritsar merits attention. Her name occupies at serial one of those compensated for damage and/or destruction of property. She claimed a sum of Rs. 100 to compensate her losses. The record shows the reason: “Two calves” of this widow 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 anybody’s attention. A lowly man or a woman is unfortunate person also in this country. In a situation as this, claims of them is either overlooked, dismissed or ignored. In the list of priorities such claimant come usually in the tail end per se. Independent India’s poor and unfortunate victims of recent natural tragedies are numberless to prove the veracity of such assertion.

Naked discrimination in relief and rehabilitation of victims of earthquakes in Gujarat in 2002, of Tsunami of Tamilnadu in 2005 and of floods of Kosi in North Bihar in 2002 is undisputed fact.

One Pritam Singh who had lost his bicycle and 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 4,126 as compensation. A 19 years 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 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 the economic status and/or skill and earning capacity of the victim. Lakshim Chand, a businessman, illustrates the point. “He was awarded Rs 60,000 after his leg was amputated.” The Government  Compensation Committee justified their recommendation with this logic:  “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] If a man was “very rich” with an annual income of Rs. 11½k annually, a sum of Rs. 50 as compensation for two calves to the weaver’s widow might be unhesitatingly considered “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 compensation to the tune of Rs. 3,883, though sanctioned. One of them refused to receive Rs. 70; the second, Rs. 100 and the third Rs. 3,683.

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. 4,181; and the other, who was to receive Rs. 360, went to Reformatory School.

There were several persons, who did not appear before the Compensation Committee to orally substantiate their claims during inquiry. Hukam Devi lost her son Jawar Singh, in firing at Jallianwala Bagh.  Illiteracy was the reason why 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 15th October 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, one in Jallianwala and the other, a month later by disease.”

Jan Muhammad, Nijran, Amritsar Bagh, a pensioner lost his son Yar Muhammad in Jallianawala Bagh firing. 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 documented in history?

References 
[1]  Britain in India by R P. Masani, OUP, 1960, p. 119. This writer is grateful to Prof. Bhaskar Sur, an independent researcher & 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 to 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. p. 254-255.
[7]  CNN-News 18 July 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 18 July 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 writer Dr A K Biswas, a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B R Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, can be reached at [email protected]

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Jul 23, 2019


Atulkrishna Biswas [email protected]

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