When Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, decided to launch a Gaurav Yatra (journey of pride for Hindus), it reminded me of another incident which I could not put my finger on. When before, I wondered, had somebody declared that his community’s pride lay in defending mass murder? When before had somebody claimed it was all the other community’s fault for starting the violence, that pride and honour now lay in proving that your community was tough enough to extract vengeance a thousandfold greater? That this should be a warning to the other community not to raise its head again? That the chief avenger should be seen as a hero restoring community pride, not as a mass killer?
It finally came back to me the other day. The incident was in Punjab in 1919. The chief avenger was Brigadier General Rex Dyer. The way the tale is generally told in India, General Dyer mercilessly gunned down two thousand Indians gathered peacefully at Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The truth is more complex.
Punjab had been a hotbed of insurgency since 1915. The British Raj enacted the Rowlatt Act in 1918 as a stringent anti-terrorist measure, aborting civil rights. Mahatma Gandhi called for passive resistance. But, not for the first time, non-violence at the start of the agitation soon gave way to widespread violence. To quote historian Lawrence James, “each hartal was marked by disorderly processions, looting, arson and attacks on police and Europeans. The trouble worsened after April 10 when Gandhi was arrested and taken to Bombay.”
From April 10 to 12, there were riots all over Punjab—in Lahore, Kasur, Jalandhar, Multan and Amritsar. Governor Michael O’Dwyer told the Viceroy this could be the start of a second Indian Mutiny, that it must be crushed. Amrisar had exploded with violence after the arrest of its two leading nationalists, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal. A demonstration against their arrest soon turned into a general attack on Europeans. The police were unable to control the situation, and General Dyer was despatched with troops to pacify the city.
He arrived on April 11 to find Amritsar taken over by rampaging mobs. Over 100 terrified European women and children were holed up in Gobindgarh fort fearing for their safety. In the past 36 hours, the mob had stormed two banks, murdered three European staff members, burned their bodies and looted cash. The bank buildings and two mission schools had been set on fire. Miss Marcia Sherwood, a mission doctor, had been beaten up by Indian youths. This assault, above all, enraged Dyer. He saw it as a symbolic denigration of British pride. He was determined to reassert British gaur.
The next day he led a flag march through the city and banned all meetings and processions. Dyer was convinced that deterrent punishment must be meted out to the wretched Indians to convince them that the British were not weak, and would strike back as hard as necessary to demonstrate their dominance. Like Narendra Modi 83 years later, he wanted to teach the other community a lesson it would not forget.
So he took out his troops on a short gaurav yatra to Jalianwala Bagh. There they opened fire, leaving 379 dead and 1,500 wounded. On the street where Miss Sherwood had been attacked, he forced all Indian to crawl on their bellies.
Dyer believed that Indians had been taught a salutary lesson. He said repeatedly that his aim had been to “strike terror” into the hearts of Indians and show them their place.
The parallels with Gujarat are obvious. In Gujarat too, violence from one side was met with savage sectarian vengeance, killing innocents to teach the other community a lesson. This was tom-tomed as restoration of the pride and prestige of the ruling community.
Narendra Modi today has a large fan club of admirers. So too did General Dyer.He was obliged to resign. But many Englishmen in India, as well as the British press, defended Dyer as the man who had saved British pride and honour. The Morning Post opened a fund for Dyer, and contributions poured in. An American woman donated 100 pounds, adding “I fear for the British women there now that Dyer has been dismissed.” The fund raised 26,000 pounds, a colossal sum in those days.
And yet the bottom line is that, notwithstanding his many fans, the British Raj sacked and disgraced Dyer. It recognized that, no matter what the provocation from Indian killers and arsonists, the answer simply could not be vengeance killing to teach the community a lesson. There was no pride in such vengeance, only shame.
Let us mete out the same fate to Narendra Modi. Notwithstanding his many fans, let the people of Gujarat deem him unfit for office. Let them acknowledge that there is no pride in communal vengeance, only shame.