“Under the tyrant’s orders, they opened fire
Straight into innocent hearts, my friends.
And fire and fire and fire they did
Some thousands of bullets were shot, my friends.
Like searing hail they felled our youth
A tempest not seen before, my friends”.
As a 22 -year-old, Nanak Singh was at Jallianwala Bagh that fateful afternoon on April 13, 1919, when troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired indiscriminately into a crowd of Indians gathered for a peaceful protest to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew.
And as a survivor of the massacre, he wrote a long, powerful poem titled “Khooni Vaisakhi” that was published in May 1920 and was promptly banned by the British.
A hundred years later, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called the tragedy a shameful scar on British Indian history and Singh’s grandson, Navdeep Suri, who is India’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, has translated his 900-line poem into English.
Suri, a career diplomat who was India’s envoy in Egypt, Australia and now, UAE, was born in Amritsar, a stone’s throw away from Jallianwala Bagh and lived his first eight years there.
“My grandfather – our Bauji – was present in Jallianwala Bagh that fateful day. He had gone there for the rally against the Rowlatt Act with a couple of friends, we were told. Bauji had collapsed in the stampede triggered by the firing and had been left for dead under a pile of corpses. Both friends died…he walked out some hours later after regaining consciousness. But this was a subject that he did not want to talk about,” said Suri.
Nanak Singh, who went on to become a doyen in Punjabi literature and won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1962, wrote the poem in which he systematically recounts the entire history of the times: all that took place before that fateful day, which led to the order by Dyer to open fire on the public.
Suri, who was researching the massacre while working on the translation of the book, got in touch with BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt whose great grandfather Sir Sidney Rowlatt authored the infamous Act that Singh and others were protesting against it that day. The Rowlatt Act was dubbed as “no Dalil, no Vakil, no Appeal.”
In a deeply moving account, Rowlatt, who was BBC’s South Asia correspondent in Delhi between 2015 and 2018, writes in the book, “I wasn’t expecting to react as strongly as I did when I visited Jallianwala Bagh…I certainly wasn’t expecting to cry…I have more reason than most to feel ashamed and humbled by what happened at the Bagh. That’s because the demonstrators who were killed by British troops had gathered there to protest against a repressive law inspired by and named after my great grandfather.”
Calling it a “draconian piece of legislation”, Rowlatt writes that the Rowlatt Act and its repercussions were very much in his mind when he started his work in the Delhi bureau of the BBC. “I did not feel responsible or see how anyone could hold me responsible for something, however heinous, done by an ancestor three generations earlier. However, my fear was that many Indians would disagree…I was proved spectacularly wrong.”
“I was occasionally teased for my unfortunate family history, but I never experienced anger, nor even disapproval. Indeed, if anything Indians seem to warm to me because of my connection to their country,” he wrote. And, then Tushar Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, gave him a powerful explanation through a backhanded compliment – “I appreciate your great grandfather’s role to provide the final nail in the coffin of the Empire”.
In his concluding paragraph in the chapter he contributed, Rowlatt says, “I still believe the measures my great-grandfather’s committee recommended were unjust and misguided. I still find the omission of any discussion of the justice of the independence cause shocking. I still am sick to my stomach at the way the British forces behaved in Jallianwala Bagh. And, I am also appalled that my great-grandfather was honoured for his Sedition Committee with a Knighthood.”
Nanak Singh, whose poem was banned and all copies were confiscated and destroyed by the British, did not talk about the poem while he was alive. After he passed away in 1971, the poem was found in early 1980 and is now, the translation is being published by Harper Collins. Singh, who was famous as a novelist, wrote, “Do keep us in your thoughts forever, Your friends you may forget, but your heroes not. Don’t ever despair, if things are bleak, be ready to die, don’t care a jot.”