Don’t Lie for our Country

Demonising your foes achieves little except to cloud your own judgement. Gandhiji recognised this, many in the Indian media do not.

When Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the martyr’s memorial at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, they were escorted by trustees of the memorial. The couple saw a signboard at the Bagh saying 2,000 people had been killed at the spot by General Dyer in 1919. The Duke remarked to a trustee that this seemed an excessive figure, and that he had heard much lower casualty toll from General Dyer’s son, who had been with him in the Royal Navy.

Some journals have lambasted the Duke for having the gall to quote General Dyer’s son as a more reliable source than the signboard at the memorial. This, say the journals, is imperial arrogance at its worst.

Really? A trustee of the memorial is reported as saying that while official British records put the death toll at 379, the trust’s further research (like interviewing residents) has placed the figure nearer 400. And since some families had migrated to Pakistan and could not be interviewed by researchers, the toll might have been a bit higher still.

Whether the toll was 379 or 400 or 425, clearly it was nowhere near 2,000. So, the Duke was actually right in questioning the figure. Yet the media have jumped on him. left, But, the Duke was certainly guilty of gross insensitivity in quoting General Dyer’s son. Yet, if you think about it, no son should be damned for the sins of his father. I have no idea whether the son is an angel or devil. But to damn him as a liar because of his father’s misdeeds is wrong. And the fact is that the son is closer to the truth than the signboard.

What troubles me most is that nobody is asking the more germane question, why are we misleading our own citizens by exaggerating the death toll? We can learn from history only by seeking the real facts. We gain nothing and create ill-will by fudging figures to make the other side look blacker. And nothing is sillier than to wax indignant at the person who catches you fudging.

This is no laughing matter. Exaggerating facts to demonise the enemy is exactly what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad did at Ayodhya. Hitler exaggerated facts and figures to prove that an international Jewish conspiracy was bringing the Christian world to its knees. Pakistan is fudging facts in Kashmir by claiming 600,000 Indian troops are there when the actual figure is less than half that. We resent the fact that some people take Pakistani exaggerations seriously. But if we too exaggerate figures when it suits us, why should anybody take us seriously?

The problem lies in the widespread notion that it is patriotic to support your own side’s figures, however exaggerated, and condemn only your enemy’s exaggerations. One cynic said it is given to some to die for their country and for others to lie for their country. In fact such lies do not serve even narrow national aims. Politicians think exaggeration is a useful way of playing to the local gallery, but in the process they erode India’s international credibility. The unwitting result is that India will not believed even when it tells the truth. When that happens, do not blame the perfidy of foreigners but your own disregard for the truth.

I cannot understand why Indians expect the Queen to apologise for what happened at Jallianwala Bagh. I can understand an apology for any firing that the British government ordered, but why on earth should it apologise’ for a firing it did not order? Firing on peaceful meetings was against British policy, and General Dyer broke this rule. For this he was sacked. Many hard-core British admirers of Dyer lauded his killings as necessary to save the British Raj, yet the Raj itself sacked and disgraced him.

Indian soldiers are guilty of many atrocities in Kashmir and the north-east. They are not infrequently accused of rape, loot arid murder. Do we ask the President to apologise? No, we express regret that our soldiers have misbehaved, but emphasise that such transgressors do not represent Indian policy at all. Why, in that case, should we expect the Queen to behave any differently ?

If indeed we want to wax indignant, we should focus our indignation on those who supported General Dyer, not those who sacked him. This includes the Sikh religious leadership. It remains a matter of eternal shame that the priests of the Golden Temple hailed General Dyer as a saviour and presented him with a saropa (robe of honour). Indeed, they actually invited him to join the Sikh community. The incident is described by KPS Gill in his recent book ‘Knights of Falsehood.’

‘Sahib’said the priests (to Dyer),’ you must become a Sikh.’ The General thanked them for the honour, but objected that he could not, as a British officer, let his hair grow long. Arur Singh (the Sarbrah or manager of the Golden Temple) laughed, ‘We will let you off on the long hair.’ General Dyer offered another objection. ‘But I cannot give up smoking.’

‘We will let you give it up gradually. ‘That I promise you,’ said the General/at the rate of one cigarette a year.’

This was an utterly shameful episode. Yet critics in the media today demand an apology not from those who supported Dyer but from those who sacked him.

Enough of the apology.’ I am more worried about the glib, exaggeration of facts that has become commonplace to suit the political agenda of various groups. l The inflation of figures about the toll at Jallianwala Bagh is only a small part of a larger malaise. Many groups in Assam in the 1980s exaggerated the extent of illegal migration from Bangladesh to whip up sectional outrage, and this today threatens national security. Bhindranwale and his militants invented a number of imaginary grievances to push their cause in Punjab (one of their claims, later proved false by the 1981 census, was that Sikhs were gradually being converted into a minority in Punjab). Some RSS stalwarts have tried to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment by. claiming, through gross exaggeration of census data, that the rise in the Muslim proportion of India’s population will one day create a Muslim- majority corridor linking Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In every case, loyalty to the local cause is considered reason enough to fudge figures. Crusaders for every cause are expected to lie for it. The casualties are truth, justice and the integrity of the nation.

If we wish to stop this rot, we must be on guard constantly against the fudging of figures. We must train ourselves to search constantly for exaggerations masked as facts, and prick the bubble of indignation of those who resort to such stratagems. If instead we succumb to the temptations of propagandist exaggeration ourselves, the country will be at the beginning of a long slide that will injure it far more than the firing at Jallianwala Bagh.

What do you think?