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Delirium of Destruction: Memories of a Massacre

DU Beat remembers the wave of desolation and indignity on the crest of which our struggle for independence intensified. In recovering the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre from the tomes of history, we highlight the helpless people, their screams petrified within the bounds of time.

The colonial cruelties that crushed the soul of our country, clipped its wings of wealth, and bled dry its cornucopia with whiplashes of indignity, are no secret. We remember – and we carry these wounds of history with our heads held high. But there is perhaps a dilution in modern thought conscious of the extent to which we were preyed upon.

Thus, we attempt to renew the memories of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, a turning point of the Nationalist Struggle. Let us no longer draw away from the blood that was shed before the shedding of our shackles. Let us revisit the susurrus tidings of blood that beckoned the Baisakhi of 1919, and appraise the persistence of the massacre in popular memory.

The greatest ordeal that befell our countrymen was perhaps that of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

In a cold, premeditated hand, General Dyers, completely aware about the numbers, walked into the Bagh with an intent to kill and dealt a grievous offence against India and humanity the world over.

He ordered fifty soldiers to open fire on a peaceful gathering of men, women, children and infants cooped up in the bagh, unrelenting till the ammo had run out. As shot after shot was fired, the people – who were not even given a chance to disperse – fell. But in their felling, they lifted India and its cry against imperialism. For this incident made the fire in the hearts of Indians to rage – rage into a roaring fire that would eventually burn the British Raj in India. 

The Massacre – the news of the murder of a six-week old baby and countless others – was what made Indians stir. It was what made Indians understand that Britishers had to be shown the door. What made moderates realize that it was not okay for the British to rule us. What made Gandhiji – who was settling for partial autonomy – raise a call for Purna Swaraj. And when Gandhiji called, the masses took to it.

It is not wrong to say that Dyers had cost the British their golden egg-laying goose. For even though there was a simmering discontent against the British regime, there was no call for complete independence then. But the Massacre was the spark – the spark which set the fire of Purna Swaraj in the hearts and minds of Indians. Just like the Enfield rifle was to the First War of Independence, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was to the Freedom Struggle. It was the point of no return.

Recovering a massacre from the tomes of history, we turn to books, movies and art to glean off their meaning – their interpretation and their version – of the Massacre. And by consulting these ingredients of popular culture, we can get to see how the Massacre occupied the minds of its contemporaries and their successors. A short example of this can be seen in a scene of the acclaimed series Downton Abbey: At Lady Rose’s wedding (Season 5, Episode 8), when Lady Grantham asks about British India, Lord Flitshire replies that India is a “wonderful country” and “Bombay is a marvellous city” and Shrimpie adds that “Amritsar was a very unfortunate incident, ordered by a foolish man.”

But Lord Sinderby doesn’t agree with him and says that Dyers was doing his duty, saying that we can agree to disagree. But Lord Grantham cuts in “I hesitate to remind you that Shrimpie knows India and you don’t.” This conversation shows how deeply divided and opposed were people’s notion of the Massacre – how people viewed the incident and its implications.

Jallianwala Bagh massacre: How 1,650 bullets changed the course of India's  freedom struggle - Times of India
This single event pivoted the entire course of Indian Freedom Struggle, for the better.

The conversation we saw above was the impact of the Massacre on erstwhile European society, particularly in Britain – some supported Dyers while others didn’t. It must be noted that the House of Commons in English Parliament denounced Dyers and the other House of Lords heroized Dyers for his action. Though the commission of enquiry – Hunter Commission – criticised him, he was not put to a judicial trial and when he died – unrepentant – he was given both a military and civic funeral.

But on the other side of this coin are movies like Phillauri, Rang De Basanti, Legend of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Jallianwala Bagh who show a heart-rending account of the Massacre and its implication – how it became the turning point in the Freedom Struggle. Particularly Phillauri, which views the massacre under the lens of romance, adds a tinge of humaneness to the Massacre – that the murdered were not just numbers, but persons who had families, friends and partners waiting for them, persons to whom they never went back. Persons who wanted to avenge their deaths, as in the book written by Anita Anand – The Patient Assassin. In this book, which follows the journey of Udham Singh from Punjab to Germany, Russia, Mexico, California, and ultimately London – all with the single purpose of killing the man responsible for the Massacre, sheds out details on the Massacre in ways that have never been seen before – through the eyes of the kin of the victims, the survivors, the avengers.

But this is not the only one about the Massacre – there are many, each with a unique perspective. Jallianwala Bagh Mein Vasant, Midnight’s Children, City of Ghosts, Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The Real Story, Khooni Vaisakhi are some of the books which have captured something or the other of the Massacre, immortalizing it in the annals of history and literature.

The Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre continues to influence our present!

But it is not that the Massacre had an impact only on its contemporaries – no, it is continuing its influence till date, impacting us even now. Evident from the Jallianwala Bagh: Repression and Retribution , a painting of the Massacre by the Singh twins, which in miniature Mogul style, uses extensive semiotics to convey the omnipotent impact of the incident – the feature image of this piece. And the lead sculpture of the Massacre by a trio of youngsters from Coimbatore only adds strength to the fact that the Jallianwala Bagh is not over – it is a continuing issue that impacts and guides the contemporary society.

It must be something to rejoice as the need for guidance is felt now more than ever – in the times when there are unconscionable assaults on democracy, times when oppression of minorities is on the rise, times when lawlessness reigns. Let the Jallianwala Bagh massacre guide us; let the hundreds of people who laid down their lives seeking a way out of the British Raj guide us. Guide us to reach an innate understanding that Liberty, Justice and Fraternity are pure principles which can’t afford to be scathed. Guide us to take it upon ourselves that the protection of these ideals lies on our shoulders – the society and not the government. 

When India finally attained independence in 1947, many declared that the desolation of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre had been dignified. And I say no. No, it has not been dignified. It can never be dignified – as the dignity to the lives lost is not the result but the journey. The martyrs were not dignified by Independence, rather they were dignified by the non-violent show of national consolidation that won us the independence. It is still an ongoing process and the only way we can dignify the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre is by remaining true to the ideals, to safeguard which they lost their lives. 

Read Also:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre
  2. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/jallianwala-bagh-massacre-how-1650-bullets-changed-the-course-of-indias-freedom-struggle/articleshow/68752809.cms

Feature Image Credits: Telegraph India

Harish Neela Lingam

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