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Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Tear in Time

The Tribune archive sheds light on a dark spot in India’s political history.

Updated: January 26, 2020 7:50:20 am
Jallianwala Bagh massacre, hundred years of Jallianwala Bagh, 100 Years of Jallianwala Bagh: Martyrdom to Freedom, Kalinath Ray, Rajesh Ramachandran, indian express news Book cover of 100 Years of Jallianwala Bagh: Martyrdom to Freedom

Title: A100 Years of Jallianwala Bagh: Martyrdom to Freedom
Author: Edited by Rajesh Ramachandran
Publication: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 256
Price: Rs 595

(Written by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr)

The dispatches published in the then Lahore-based nationalist newspaper, The Tribune, in the traumatic days of 1919-20 show the extreme self-restraint on the Indian side after the April 13, 1919, Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the stance of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who commandeered troops to open fire at a political meeting on the day. The British continued to govern India for 28 years after the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. Editor Kalinath Ray was tried by the military tribunal for his allegedly seditious articles, sentenced to two years in prison and released after two months. The Tribune’s editorials were passionate and logical, couched in inornate early 20th century prose. On 21 March, 1919, the editorial pronounced in unequivocal and authoritative tones against the passing of the Rowlatt Bills, which formed the background of the Jallianwalla Bagh meeting on April 13: “…the right of open and regular trial by ordinary courts… comes automatically to an end” and “The reign of law… is now superseded by the region of discretion.” It said: “With the passing of this bill the already attenuated liberties of the people cease to have any meaning and any reality in the English sense, and the paramountcy of the executive becomes complete.”

The editorial of 6 April 1919, about the protest against the Rowlatt Act, talks of “the scheme of protest” devised by Gandhi – of fasting and hartal. And adopting a voice of impeccable derision, it says, “The Westerner does not understand how we are going to have the Rowlatt Act repealed by observing a fast or by suspending for a day our usual business and thus inflicting a loss on ourselves. To his positive, practical mind, therefore, all this is the apotheosis of foolishness…They are exactly the forms of activity in which the commonest man can take part in and through them the whole nation can act as one man.” In the editorial on 10 April, Ray reprimanded outgoing lieutenant governor of Punjab Sir Micheal O’Dwyer for “indiscreet utterances in a speech as extraordinarily unwise and unstatesmanlike as any speech could well be.” Ray objected to O’Dwyer, saying, “The recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Act in both these cities [Lahore and Amritsar] would, therefore, be ludicrous if they did not indicate how easily ignorant and credulous people – not one in a thousand of whom knows anything about the measure – can be misled. Those who wantonly mislead them incur a serious responsibility.” And he is admonished: “His Honour knows, as well all do, that the public mind is highly surcharged; that the public mind is in a state of unusual excitement. At such a time a wise ruler would do all he could to allay the public feeling, to utter the soft word that turneth away wrath. The exact reverse of this policy Sir Michael O’Dwyer follows. If there is bitterness, he increases it immensely.” This sent Ray to prison.

The publication of The Tribune was suspended and it resumed only on 26 July, 1919. On 16 March 1920, the newspaper supported “Mr Gandhi’s decision not to advise hartal on this occasion [the first anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre] as not only the test but the most statesmanlike in the circumstances” and it adds to the Gandhian programme to mark the occasion that “suitable extracts from the Royal Proclamation should be read out at the meetings to be held either on the 6th or the 13th, and resolutions passed both thanking His Majesty for his gracious message and calling upon the bureaucracy to faithfully and literally carry out His Majesty’s instructions, especially as regards the release of political prisoners and the suspension of the working of repressive laws.”

The newspaper’s editorials and dispatches of this tumultuous and traumatic year reveal the efforts of the editor to maintain a sane stance in provocative circumstances, to confront the authorities and to warn people of the consequences of their words and actions. Having won its editorial spurs in the heat of the independence struggle, The Tribune again played a distinguished role in the 1980s when terror and violence from the Sikh militancy and the government’s responses traumatised Punjab again.

Rajesh Ramachandran, editor of The Tribune, has done a tremendous job in the newspaper’s archives, and brought in the writings of other writers like Ramachandra Guha, V N Datta, Kishwar Desai and Navtej Sarna, to assemble a memorial volume for the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, with the uncanny caveat: “This is not a good time to talk about nationalism.” But it is always good to talk about difficult questions, if not to resolve inherent contradictions, but to give them a healthy airing.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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