It happened a century ago; yet it still reverberates in the collective consciousness of all Indian patriots. The date was April 13, 1919. The venue was Jallianwala bagh in Punjab. The occasion was a peaceful gathering of Indians to protest against the British.
In just a couple of hours, anywhere between 379 to 1600 people were dead (The final casualty figure was never ascertained.) The dead included little children, women and the old. These people were dead because General Dyer wanted to teach them a lesson for holding a meeting that was not permitted.
On his orders, soldiers belonging to different regiments, namely, Rajput, Baluchi and Gorkha, fired around 1650 rounds into the densest parts of the crowds, non-stop for ten minutes. Even by current generation’s standards of violent video games, this would be massive. In 1919, the world really had no words to describe the horror.
In a free democracy, this outrage would have been dealt with the summary dismissal of Dyer, probably followed by a military court martial. Instead, what followed was a travesty.
The British House of Commons simply reprimanded Dyer. He was relieved from his military duties and died in 1927 due to natural causes. At the time of his death, Rudyard Kipling, the famous British poet, whose poem “If”, everybody loves to quote, calmly remarked that General Dyer simply did his duty. This sums up the British arrogance at that time.
The fact is most of the soldiers who fired the bullets were Indians themselves. In one way, this wasn’t all that surprising. By that time, Indians were well and truly enslaved. A quarter billion of Indians were effectively being controlled by a mere 165,000 Britishers. In my view, this fact is more shameful than even the killings. We allowed ourselves to be divided and ruled, and thus ended up in this sorry state of affairs.
While the massacre made Rabindranath Tagore return his knighthood, and Gandhi start the non-cooperation movement, things returned to “normalcy” pretty soon. India went back to being the submissive colony it has always been. The Jewel in the British crown, if you would.
Clearly, the incident wasn’t outrageous enough to prompt Indians to break free of the British shackles right away. We took our own sweet time, 28 years in fact, to achieve complete independence from the British.
Cut to the present, some of my Indian compatriots are hell bent on getting an official apology from Britain. That would bring closure to this, they argue. Closure to whom, I would question. The immediate kith and kin of those killed in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre are long dead. If instead, they mean closure to our nation, that would be incorrect too.
There are certain things from its past a nation should not forget. Jallianwala Bagh massacre is one such incident. Instead of beseeching the British for an apology, we would do well to remember it every year and learn from our collective mistakes.
The only thing we can do now is to make sure such an ‘ignoble’ incident never occurs again. Never!!
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