Nehru’s Word: The horror of Jallianwala Bagh

We turn to Jawaharlal Nehru’s first-hand account in his autobiography of the events leading up to and following the tragedy, to get a sense of its significance in our history

Part of Jallianwala Bagh memorial before renovation (Left) and after renovation (RIght)
Part of Jallianwala Bagh memorial before renovation (Left) and after renovation (RIght)

Mridula Mukherjee

Jallianwala Bagh has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A glitzy makeover of the memorial to a brutal massacre which changed the course of the freedom struggle and sealed the fortunes of the British in India has aroused widespread shock, disbelief and condemnation. Some have called it desecration, and an insult to the martyrs. The total transformation of the famous narrow passage which was the only point of entry and exit from the ground has invited strong reactions, including from the families of those martyred in the incident, who are complaining that valuable photographs and documents previously on display at the site have disappeared.

We turn to Jawaharlal Nehru’s first-hand account in his autobiography of the events leading up to and following the tragedy, to get a sense of its significance in our history:

The end of the World War found India in a state of suppressed excitement...Among the middle classes there was everywhere an expectation of great constitutional changes which would bring a large measure of self-rule and thus better their lot by opening out many fresh avenues of growth to them. Some of this unrest was visible also among the masses, especially the peasantry. In the rural areas of the Punjab the forcible methods of recruitment were still bitterly remembered, and the fierce suppression of the ‘Komagata Maru’ people and others by conspiracy trials added to the widespread resentment....The dominant note all over India was one of waiting and expectation, full of hope and yet tinged with fear and anxiety. Then came the Rowlatt Bills with their drastic provisions for arrest and trial without any of the checks and formalities which the law is supposed to provide...Indeed there was universal opposition on the part of Indians of all shades of opinion. Still the Bills were pushed through by the officials and became law, the principal concession made being to limit them for three years….

“Gandhiji took the leadership in his first all-India agitation. He started the Satyagraha Sabha, the members of which were pledged to disobey the Rowlatt Act, if it was applied to them, as well as other objectionable laws...

“Satyagraha Day— all-India hartals and complete suspension of business, firing by the police and military at Delhi and Amritsar, and the killing of many people, mob violence in Amritsar and Ahmedabad, the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, the long horror and terrible indignity of martial law in the Punjab. Punjab was isolated, cut off from the rest of India; a thick veil seemed to cover it and hide it from outside eyes. There was hardly any news, and people could not go there or come out from there. Odd individuals, who managed to escape from that inferno, were so terror-struck that they could give no clear account.

“Helplessly and impotently, we, who were outside, waited for scraps of news and bitterness filled our hearts. Some of us wanted to go openly to the affected parts of the Punjab and defy the martial law regulations. But we were kept back, and meanwhile a big organisation for relief and enquiry was set up on behalf of the Congress.

“As soon as martial law was withdrawn from the principal areas and outsiders were allowed to come in, prominent Congressmen and others poured into the Punjab offering their services for relief or enquiry work. The relief work was largely directed by Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya and Swami Shraddhananda; the enquiry part was mainly under the direction of my father and Mr. C.R. Das, with Gandhiji taking a great deal of interest in it and often being consulted by the others.

“Deshbandhu Das especially took the Amritsar area under his charge and I was deputed to accompany him there and assist him in any way he desired. That was the first occasion I had of working with him and under him and I valued that experience very much and my admiration for him grew. Most of the evidence relating to Jallianwala Bagh and that terrible lane where human beings were made to crawl on their bellies, that subsequently appeared in the Congress Inquiry Report, was taken down in our presence. We paid numerous visits to the so-called Bagh itself and examined every bit of it carefully.

“A suggestion has been made, I think by Mr. Edward Thompson, that General Dyer was under the impression that there were other exits from the Bagh and it was because of this that he continued his firing for so long. Even if that was Dyer’s impression, and there were in fact some exits, that would hardly lessen his responsibility. But it seems very strange that he should have such an impression. Any person, standing on the raised ground where he stood, could have a good view of the entire space and could see how shut in it was on all sides by houses several storeys high.

“Only on one side, for a hundred feet or so, there was no house, but a low wall about five feet high. With a murderous fire mowing them down and unable to find a way out, thousands of people rushed to this wall and tried to climb over it. The fire was then directed, it appears (both from our evidence and the innumerable bullet-marks on the wall itself) towards this wall to prevent people from escaping over it. And when all was over, some of the biggest heaps of dead and wounded lay on either side of this wall.

“Towards the end of that year (1919) I travelled from Amritsar to Delhi by the night train. The compartment I entered was almost full and all the berths, except one upper one, were occupied by sleeping passengers. I took the vacant upper berth. In the morning I discovered that all my fellow-passengers were military officers. They conversed with each other in loud voices which I could not help overhearing.

“One of them was holding forth in an aggressive and triumphant tone and soon I discovered that he was Dyer, the hero of Jallianwala Bagh, and he was describing his Amritsar experiences. He pointed out how he had the whole town at his mercy and he had felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained. He was evidently coming back from Lahore after giving his evidence before the Hunter Committee of Inquiry. I was greatly shocked to hear his conversation and to observe his callous manner. He descended at Delhi station in pyjamas with bright pink stripes, and a dressing-gown.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former professor of history at JNU & former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

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