“Jallianwala Bagh’s legacy is not yet fully recognized… People feel excluded from mainstream history”
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place on April 13, 1919, and it remains a defining moment in India’s journey to political freedom for the British Raj. Historian Nonica Datta, who teaches at JNU, explains his father VN Datta’s pioneering work on the massacre, reposted this year, in an email interview with Avijit ghosh:
Why is it important to revisit the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?
It is important for the younger generation to learn more about Jallianwala Bagh and to bring to light many hidden and uncomfortable truths. Silences besiege the history of tragedy. Jallianwala Bagh’s legacy is not yet fully recognized. Many facts have been suppressed in traditional historical writings. In addition, in the face of ongoing military and racial violence around the world, and the fact that Britain and other former colonial powers have not formally apologized for their Imperial crimes, it becomes necessary to re-present this pioneering work. Written by a professional historian born a few years after the Amritsar City Massacre, VN Datta’s Jallianwala Bagh navigates a rare combination of insider experience of lived history combined with academic exploration.
The preface to the book begins with the following line: “Jallianwala Bagh was the result of a clash between British politics and Indian opinion.” Please specify.
Datta clarifies that in order to understand why this clash happened, it is essential to study the events leading up to the massacre and see it not as an isolated phenomenon, but as a confrontation between the British government and the Indian people. In providing an overview of the “unrest” that occurred in March and April 1919 in Amritsar, Datta examined the role played by each of the major actors in their respective frames of reference. He explored the Ghadar movement, coercive recruitments during WWI, the self-government reform program, the harsh economic crisis and the brutal impact of Rowlatt’s law in the Punjab – factors that triggered multiple conflicting responses. that decisively shape future events.
Prior to the book’s first publication in 1969, what were the dominant historical theories about General Dyer leading to the massacre?
Datta demolished the dominant theory that Dyer suffered from arteriosclerosis. In the chapter “Why did Dyer shoot?” he maintained that Dyer was sure what he was doing and aware of the impending absolute brutality. Datta rejected another view that Dyer had acted in self-defense, fearing the mob would rush on him.
Through his discovery of Vol VI and VII of the Hunter Committee evidence, he examined Dyer’s calculating mind and his use of the principle of maximum force because he fired as the crowd dispersed. This was intended to produce a moral effect on the people of Punjab. Datta also took issue with nationalist and imperial calculations of the number of killed. Further, stripping away the layers of the massacre, his critical research established, via archival sources and eyewitness accounts, that Jallianwala Bagh was a “ conspiracy ”, where the British and a local Congressman Hansraj, as as an agent provocateur, played a major role.
What was the impact of Jallianwala Bagh on Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress and the national movement?
Jallianwala Bagh changed the language of Indian nationalism, writes Datta. Gandhi, despite his absence from the Punjab, took center stage after this. Jawaharlal Nehru became Gandhi’s trusted lieutenant and thus began modern India’s longest political partnership. Gandhi saw the enormous potential of Amritsar’s nonviolent mob for his subsequent moves. His wise leadership introduced the event into the great saga of Indian nationalism and shaped the contours of the anti-colonial struggle. Congress has entered a political phase different from mass nationalism. Another major impact, so far ignored, is that Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh were the products of the massacre. Their revolutionary movement developed in light of Amritsar’s atrocity.
You visited Amritsar and Jallianwala Bagh in April 2019, 100 years after the carnage. You also met families who had lost their loved ones. How do they see and remember the event?
Amritsar has not recovered. People feel excluded from the traditional history of Jallianwala Bagh and distance themselves from national commemorations. The violence in Khoo Korian, where Dyer issued his “ crawl order ” on April 19, remains the most powerful living memory and is mistaken for the black Baisakhi of April 13. Gandhi’s inspired Congress narrative is missing from their intergenerational stories of trauma which they shared with me. They regret that the leaders of the Punjab have been sidelined and that Saifuddin Kitchlew, their local hero, has been abandoned by the country.
How relevant is Jallianwala Bagh in Indian politics today?
Jallianwala Bagh is commemorated as a black spot in the established history of independent India. Political parties represent the carnage as a national event of supreme martyrdom. It is hardly recognized that April 13, 1919 was the most painful chapter of the pre-Partition Punjab period. The voices of the real victims, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, are silenced. The politics of electoral banks and popular resistance movements continue to appropriate “Jallianwala Bagh” as a powerful symbol of current Indian politics.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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