Nehru's Word: When Pant, Nehru bore the brunt of police's lathis
Jawaharlal Nehru’s account of brutal lathi charges on the protests against Simon Commission in 1928, in which Lala Lajpat Rai died, GB Pant got seriously injured & Nehru himself suffered severe blows
While celebrating the 75th year of independence, are we perpetuating colonial legacies? The recent face-off between the Kisan movement and Haryana government following a video showing an official directing policemen to use their lathis to “break heads” of farmers revived painful memories of colonial rule. One of the farmers did succumb to his injuries, infuriating farmers.
In this context, we bring to you Jawaharlal Nehru’s account of the brutal lathi charges on the protests against the Simon Commission in 1928 leading to the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, serious injury to Govind Ballabh Pant and severe blows suffered by Nehru himself and others.
“…the Simon Commission had been moving about, pursued by black flags and hostile crowds shouting, “Go back.” Occasionally there were minor conflicts between the police and the crowds. Lahore brought matters to a head and suddenly sent a thrill of indignation throughout the country. The anti- Simon Commission demonstration there was headed by Lala Lajpat Rai, and as he stood by the road-side in front of the thousands of demonstrators he was assaulted and beaten on his chest with a baton by a young English police officer….
To find that even the greatest of our leaders, the foremost and most popular man in the Punjab, could be so treated seemed little short of monstrous, and a dull anger spread all over the country, especially in north India. How helpless we were, how despicable when we could not even protect the honour of our chosen leaders…What effect this physical injury had on his death a few weeks later, it is hardly possible to say definitely, though his doctors were of opinion that it hastened the end….
It was this sense of national humiliation that weighed on the mind of India, and when Lalaji’s death came soon after, inevitably it was connected with the assault, and sorrow itself gave pride of place to anger and indignation.
The assault on Lala Lajpat Rai, and his subsequent death, increased the vigour of the demonstrations against the Simon Commission in places which it subsequently visited. It was due in Lucknow, and the local Congress Committee made extensive preparations for its ‘reception’.
Huge processions, meetings, and demonstrations were organised many days in advance, both as propaganda and as rehearsals for the actual show. I went to Lucknow, and was present at some of these…It was in this connection that I had a new experience, and my body felt the baton and lathi blows of the police.
(On the day the Simon Commission was to arrive) vast numbers of people made their way to the station. Innumerable little processions came from various parts of the city, and from the Congress office started the main procession, consisting of several thousands, marching in fours. We were in this main procession. We were stopped by the police as we approached the station…. the place was full of foot and mounted police, as well as the military….
Suddenly we saw in the far distance a moving mass. They were two or three long lines of cavalry or mounted police, covering the entire area, galloping towards us, and striking and riding down the numerous stragglers that dotted the maidan. That charge of galloping horsemen was a fine sight, but for the tragedies that were being enacted on the way, as harmless and very much surprised sightseers went under the horses’ hoofs.
Behind the charging lines these people lay on the ground, some still unable to move, others writhing in pain, and the whole appearance of that maidan was that of a battlefield. But we did not have much time for gazing on that scene or for reflections; the horsemen were soon upon us, and their front line clashed almost at a gallop with the massed ranks of our processionists.
We held our ground, and, as we appeared to be unyielding, the horses had to pull up at the last moment and reared up on their hind legs with their front hoofs quivering in the air over our heads. And then began a beating of us, and battering with lathis and long batons both by the mounted and the foot police. It was a tremendous hammering, and the clearness of vision that I had had the evening before left me. All I knew was that I had to stay where I was, and must not yield or go back.
I felt half blinded with the blows, and sometimes a dull anger seized me and a desire to hit out. I thought how easy it would be to pull down the police officer in front of me from his horse and to mount up myself, but long training and discipline held and I did not raise a hand, except to protect my face from a blow.
Besides, I knew well enough that any aggression on our part would result in a ghastly tragedy, the firing and shooting down of large numbers of our men. More blows came, and then I was suddenly lifted off my feet from behind and carried off, to my great annoyance. Some of my young colleagues, thinking that a dead-set was being made at me, had decided to protect me in this summary fashion….
The cause of all this trouble, the Simon Commission, secretly crept away from the station in the far distance, more than half a mile away. But, even so, they did not escape the black flags or demonstrators. Soon after, we came back in full procession to the Congress office, and there dispersed….
Now that the excitement of the moment had passed, I felt pain all over my body and great fatigue. Almost every part of me seemed to ache, and I was covered with contused wounds and marks of blows.
But fortunately, I was not injured in any vital spot. Many of our companions were less fortunate, and were badly injured. Govind Ballabh Pant, who stood by me, offered a much bigger target, being six foot odd in height, and the injuries he received then have resulted in a painful and persistent malady which prevented him for a long time from straightening his back or leading an active life.”
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)