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How a new edition of a 1969 book attempts to wrest Jallianwala Bagh massacre from the annals of history

The new edition of VN Datta's 1969 book on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, republished by his daughter Nonica Datta, seeks to bridge the gap between people’s narratives and academic histories

Written by PAVAN K. VARMA |
Updated: July 4, 2021 8:57:14 pm
Book Cover_jallianwala bagh_1200Jallianwala Bagh's latest edition is here

JALLIANWALA BAGH
By VN Datta and nonica Datta
Penguin
256 pages; Rs 399

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Jallianwala Bagh was a pivotal incident in India’s freedom struggle. It marked the rupture with British rule in India, catapulted the freedom struggle to the centre of our national conscience, led to the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as the uncompromising voice for freedom, and unleashed other forces, such as the radical politics of Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh.

But like all key historical events, how much do we know about it? Has Jallianwala Bagh — when General Dyer shot over 700 unarmed Indians who had gathered to peacefully celebrate the Baisakhi mela — become a faded sepia memory in our collective consciousness? Does it need to be excavated afresh? VN Datta’s scholarly, lucid and well-researched book on this terrible travesty is a must read to throw light on this.

Datta liberally — but clinically — dips into archival and oral evidence to explore one fundamental question: what is the truth behind Jallianwala Bagh? Was it, as the nationalist narrative would have us believe, the unbelievably bloody quelling of protesters railing against the inequitable Rowlatt Act (1919)? Or, was it the expression of the cold-blooded anger of General Dyer himself, who was taking revenge for the anti-British riots in the days before the massacre, and, in particular, his rage at the attack on Miss Marcella Sherwood, a British missionary?

Were those who became innocent victims of Dyer’s merciless barrage of bullets, protesters inspired by the freedom movement, or simply ordinary folk who had come to participate in Baisakhi festivities? Who were the real heroes of this unspeakable tragedy? Was it Udham Singh, who took to violent politics to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and later killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the governor of Punjab and supporter of General Dyer? Was it Mahatma Gandhi, who effectively harnessed the popular revulsion after Jallianwala Bagh, to catalyse the freedom movement? Was it Saifuddin Kitchlew, the iconic Congress leader in Punjab, who ensured that Jallianwala Bagh remained alive in the consciousness of the nation? Or, was it the ordinary men and women, who spent the entire night in the Bagh, tending to the injured and identifying the dead?

In his brief preface, Datta sets out the scope of the book: to provide an account not only of the massacre, but also the events that led up to it, and the consequences that followed. In this task, he has made extensive use of the report of the Disorders Inquiry Committee, especially Volume VI, which was “withdrawn and suppressed” from public scrutiny by the British, until the author accessed it in 1966. He has also combed through the extensive papers of MR Jayakar, the eminent lawyer who was a member of the Congress Inquiry Committee. Alongside, he has buttressed his research with interviews with those who witnessed the massacre, and key people, like Kitchlew, who were involved in its aftermath. The fact that Datta was born and brought up in Amritsar adds a notable sense of credibility to his findings.

Some chapters in the book make for especially compelling reading. One such is that of the actual massacre. Another fascinating chapter is titled: “Why did Dyer shoot?”. Datta explores the psyche of the man, his complexes and fears, and the many untenable cover-ups he seeks to provide for his action. It is a testimony to his meticulousness that Datta even investigates the mental health of Dyer by taking the opinion of neurologists.

Datta’s daughter, Nonica, has done yeoman service by having this book republished. Nonica, a chip of the old block, is a historian of repute, teaching at Jawaharlal Nehru University, with a doctoral degree from Cambridge University, UK. In her learned introduction, she delves into popular memory and history of the massacre. She also brings out how people’s memory has shifted away from Jallianwala Bagh per se, to the abjectly humiliating experience of Khoo Korian, where, on the orders of Dyer, Indians had to crawl. As she writes: “Isn’t it time to listen to the unheard voices of the people of Amritsar?” This book helps map the dissonance between the people’s narratives and nationalistic and academic histories.

India may have a hoary history, but Indians, generally, have an attenuated attention span for the past. Datta’s book on Jallianwala Bagh helps address this, especially since it brilliantly recreates and analyses an event that shaped the course of our freedom movement.

(Pavan K Varma is an author and former diplomat)

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