After the rifles of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and his 50 men fell silent at Jallianwala Bagh, the press was gagged from reporting on the indiscriminate firing at hundreds of people peacefully protesting against the British rule.
Benjamin Guy Horniman, a British journalist working with the Bombay Chronicle, defied the order and reported fearlessly on the protests being held across India against the infamous Rowlatt Act and the nationalist sentiment that was on the rise in the country in general. “His was a very unbiased account because he was British and had nothing to gain from reporting what he saw as the truth,” says author Kishwar Desai who has referred extensively to Horniman’s report on the incident in her book ‘Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The real story’.
Horniman was also known to have smuggled into Britain the photographs of the massacre, which were published in the Daily Herald. His defiance, however, resulted in deportation.
Horniman was born at Sussex county in England in 1873. He began a career in journalism in his early 20s at the Portsmouth Evening Mail. He worked in several British dailies including the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Chronicle.
Horniman moved to Calcutta in 1906 to join the Statesman as its News Editor and Assistant Editor. During his stint in India, Horniman was one of the very few British reporters to write about the impact of colonial rule and the authorities failure in maintaining law and order.
In 1913 Horniman moved to Bombay to take up the job of editor of The Bombay Chronicle, a nationalist newspaper founded by the political leader, Pherozeshah Mehta. The newspaper became a mouthpiece of the freedom movement in India and the scathing attack on the British regime soon earned Horniman the criticism of his own countrymen. He also played a huge role in assisting Motilal Nehru begin the Allahabad-based newspaper ‘The Independent’, which was known for its radical stance and unabashed criticism of the British rule.
In the days preceding the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, the atmosphere in the country was thick with resentment against the British enactment of the Rowlatt Act. Press censorship was among the several other draconian measures undertaken by the British to control the rising nationalist sentiment in the country. Horniman’s efforts at reporting the truth, defying the gag orders deserve special mention. He wrote extensively on how the spirit of nationalism had spread like wildfire among even those who had never been politically active.
“He is one of the first British reporters to have pointed out to the Hindu-Muslim unity that existed during that time,” says Desai. “Subsequent events in Punjab served to strengthen this feeling of unity between the two great sections of the Indian people so greatly that never again will the ruling powers be able to look at the principle of Divide et Impera for their good,” wrote Horniman in his book ‘Amritsar and our duty’, as cited by Desai.
His coverage of the Jallianwala tragedy, however, irked the colonial authorities and he was deported to Britain. “There was huge censorship going on in Punjab at that time, but since he was British they did not censor him initially. When the authorities started feeling uncomfortable they just deported him,” explains Desai. He passed away in 1948, just a year after India gained independence. His fearless journalism had influenced and inspired several in India and he continues to be commemorated in Mumbai’s ‘Horniman Circle Gardens’. “Gandhi too had expressed his sadness and sorrow because someone like Horniman had been forced to leave by the British,” says Desai.