A conversation in a post-modern party on sunday that drifted into the civil rights movement made me realise that it was the very day of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre . ( 13/04) Though history would count it as one of the most heinous atrocities a single man would ever be capable of, it also brought forth one of the greatest gifts of India and Indians to mankind - how a non-violent, concerted effort for a just cause can defeat the most tyrannical of the oppression, something which wasnt built upon later at Sharpeville or Bloody Sunday.
A quick technorati search revealed no blogs either on the 89th anniversary or in memorium of the unique event, so thought I'll just post here an old jotting from my travelogue of the first impressions of Amritsar.
Punjab generally is vast and green owing to many river beds that cut through the land. In fact the name Punjab means land of five rivers. Travelling all across Punjab to get to Wagah on the Pakistan border left us little time in Amritsar; so we weren’t able to cover it as much as we would have liked to. Also, when we got to Amritsar, the night was growing and the city too busy for our drained souls.
The cities in Punjab were largely unremarkable-clumsy and congested lacking any coherence in planning; But I suppose the most salient feature of Punjab are the people. They were well built, strong and notably loud even in the most inane of the conversations. And when they laughed, it was a hearty guffaw invariably accompanied with the shrugging of shoulders. A sight really. It wouldn’t take long to notice that these people lived by their heart than the mind.
We reached Amritsar quite late; the traffic was haphazardly scary- everyone drove with no concern for others, and I mean everyone. From a bicycle to a large truck. The pedestrians walked the roads as if they were reserved for leisurely promenades. It was only normal that I managed to see a few notorious collisions or would be collisions leading on to skirmishes. In terms of the city proper-the urban structures were mostly charmless, but I would have to say they made up for it in history.
Amritsar housed the renowned Golden Temple, the sacred worship place of the Sikhs- the dominant population of Punjab. The Golden Temple, glowing under the moon, looked all glorious. It was situated in the middle of a sacred tank flanked by a wide pavement of marble stone on which the visitors went around before entering the temple. The temple in itself was simple and soulful. There were no elaborate rituals seen in Hindu temples or no darkly boring protocols of the Church. The pilgrims queued for their turn to spend a few minutes in the sanctum sanctorum and left with a lightened heart. I am always amazed to see the power of belief and religion in a place of worship; The whole ambience was elevating, and the whole experience memorable.
Belief, is the Élan vital of human consciousness.
Just a few yards away from the temple there was the noted public park, The Jallianawalla Bagh. As it is well known, it is one of the sadly significant premises in the Indian independence movement. It was here that General Reginald Dyer intent on crushing the growing momentum of the Indian Independence movement open fired on a peaceful gathering, which included children and women. With the ground enclosed by tall walls and the exit gates blocked it turned into a carnage with more than a thousand dead and many a thousand injured. It was a great shame to the British governance, as every single of its planks was broken and principle violated. General Dyer was eventually dismissed from the service.
Unlucky for me, it was too late when we visited and the public ground was closed. I had to be content with a peek through the gate and a snap. As I observed earlier the public place is symbolic in many ways- it exposed the imperfections of the British but more importantly it united splinters and shards of areas into one single nation. In my eyes it deserved to be nothing short of a national monument that had to be preserved and charged for a visit*.
And here it was, uncared, unprotected surrounded by carts, vendors and other medium scale businesses. The surrounding walls looked like bombed ghettos out of world war movie, and as usual there was a liberal quantity of litter all around. It was all appalling. Though disappointed in many ways I promised myself to visit again when it was open. I wanted to see and feel it in daylight.
Amritsar is also noted, perhaps not that widely, for another significant event. It was here that the 34th session of the Indian National Congress was held in 1919. Following JallianaWala Bagh, the Congress chose Amritsar as the venue.
It was in this historic session that one of the most important speeches was made by MK Gandhi, that led to the decimation of the surviving factions which encouraged violence against the British and thus prepared the ground for one of the most remarkable struggles in human history- Non Violent Disobedience. The Story goes something like this--
The Amritsar Congress chaired by Motilal Nehru had drafted the resolution in two parts- one condemning the Jallianawala Bagh massacre and the other condemning the violence that was resorted to by the Indian crowd. But with an indignant nation that it was at the time, fresh with the memories of the massacre and the British repression that followed, many didnt take a liking for the latter half. As a result, the second part of the resolution was defeated by a large margin. Gandhi however, in the interest of the struggle was insistent to reconsider the motion. This led onto severe protests and cracks within the party and imaginably in the nation that was being put together.
It is reported that the next day, a stubborn Gandhi, ill and running a high temperature had to be helped on to the dais, where he spoke sitting. The speech was delivered with such deep fervour that at the end of the speech, the resolution was reconsidered, voted and accepted without any major opposition. It was a complete Volteface. If you look back the speech sounds simple but under the circumstances it was admirable. It was unique, like nothing seen or heard before. No doubt it was appealing, for it was the voice of the true Indian conscience; India was spoken as one nation, one entity higher than its rulers.
I often think that , if he had not spoken that day, the struggle would have been factionalised with no single goal or plan thus incorrigibly weakening it from within. It was this speech that laid the foundation for the great struggle, and in turn led onto one of the most remarkable campaigns in human history culminating in its first absolute victory eleven years later in the famous Dandi salt march in 1930. An empire was brought to knees without a single shot being fired. It had never happened before and as any sane man would agree, very unlikely to happen ever after.
In Amritsar, with that speech , Gandhi had chosen to deal with his opposition by reason and dialogue thus calmly imposing his will over a very restless crowd and succesfully changing their minds. It was here also, that General Dyer had fired a three-o-three at peaceful men, women and children to display his power. So it wouldnt be unfair to say that it was here that Indians had won their first battle against their rulers. In essence, it was in Amritsar that India had become independent in mind.
I asked around if anyone knew about the venue of the famous Congress session. And I wasnt all that surprised to hear a bold no for an answer.
PS- KM Munshi's Pilgrimage to Freedom, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, gives a good account of the Amritsar Congress session 1919 and Gandhi's speech.
* I say this because the event was not only unique in its response but per se it had the most casualities in human history in a single venue outside a war zone. Though the British sources at that time acknowledged about 400 deaths and 1000 wounded , it is generally accepted that 1500 odd people lost their lives and 2000 were wounded. All because one man lost his head.
It is interesting to note that the casualities of this man-made tragedy are more than that of much popularized natural disaster of sinking of the Titanic . There are more than a dozen movies and innumerable references on Titanic but not a single film , either by India or from outside on the Amritsar Massacre. That perhaps is food for thought for a certain Aamir Khan before Bollywood tries to capitalize on the fervour of the centenary of the event in the next decade.