“When I am reading about 1919 and sitting down 100 years later reading the news, I am reading the same things.
The whole basis of everything that happened at that point of time was that we were not a united front.
India had been a place which was divided communally.
I can say this statement in 2019 and you can fit it at any point of our history. And the reason is that we have read history as what’s and how’s and never as whys.”
On this day, 100 years ago, Colonel Reginald Dyer ordered open fire on a crowd assembled for peaceful protests at the Jallainwala Bagh in Amritsar. It was a demonstration against the implementation of the Rowlatt Act and the arrest of two leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew.
The massacre on 13 April, 1919 that lasted for six to ten minutes pushed Amritsar into chaos. The violence that killed and injured hundreds on that Baisakhi day triggered the demand for complete independence from the colonial regime. A hundred years on, it continues to remain an open wound for many people of Amritsar.
Beneath the Ink, a blog on literature and history is set to feature as part of its segment, Lost Stories, personal accounts of the impact of the massacre as told by the people of Amritsar. Ashmita Dutta, who helms this project along with Sanat Pandit, points out, “the people of Amritsar are the ones who are telling the story, we are just compiling it.”
Set to be nearly a month-long crowd funded series, the project is also an attempt to shed light on histories that were pushed into the background along with a detailed analysis of the events before and after Jallianwala Bagh and the lessons to be learnt from the incident.
“The story doesn’t finish on the 13th [13 April, 1919],” says Dutta. “It starts there.”
The centenary of the massacre creates a substantial window for going back in time to scrutinise the journey of Indian independence, from its nascent stages of the freedom struggle to where it stands today, seventy years after winning this freedom.
The co-founder of Beneath the Ink points out that Jallianwala Bagh is perceived as an incident that occurred on a random day when one man called Dyer decided to shoot a group of people, but that is not the fact.
She iterates that if the events were continued to be assessed in isolation – the assault on the missionary Marcella Sherwood, the Crawling Order, protests against the Rowlatt Act, the massacre – it would be impossible to form a clear perspective of what went down.
Dutta opines that exploring the reasons behind all these consecutive actions and their impact on the people of Amritsar would also provide a lens to understand history because if we don’t, we will keep repeating what we have been doing.
Stories from Amritsar
“Nivi gali was one of the exits of Jallianwala Bagh from which people had escaped and we went over there and started knocking on doors. Along the way about 15 people must’ve told us ‘kuch nahi milne wala’ (you won’t find anything). You are a 100 years too late …”
To verify the information she had gathered, Dutta decided to go back several decades. She says, “We thought the closer we are to 1919, the better information we are going to find.”
Her reading material included a wealth of literature such as Pandit Pearay Mohan’s 1920 work, An Imaginary Rebellion and How It Was Suppressed, Arthur Swinson’s Six Minutes to Sunset along with reports filed by British and Indian judges in 1919, the report of the Indian National Congress (it indicated more than a thousand people dead while the official death toll reported 379 killed) and a journalist’s accounts banned by the British.
In Amritsar, Dutta, along with Deepanshu Nihalani, who conceptualised the project, began ‘literally knocking on doors’ to track down descendants of the families who had lived in the city in 1919.
They caught a break when Jaspal Singh, a resident of the Nivi gali called out to them and after inquiring what their project was about and invited them inside to talk to his father. A conversation with Singh’s father and grandfather led them to more people and more conversations and Dutta was able to discern that they were in fact quite eager to tell their stories.
“The people were looking for opportunities where they could actually tell the story the way they wanted to and somebody to hear that without judgement.”
There was one incident that bothered her personally, she says.
She spoke to a gentleman whose grandfather — a lawyer, from an educated, rich background, one of the elites — had been killed in the massacre. His younger son had accompanied him to Jallainwala Bagh on 13 April and the only reason the boy survived was because he lay trapped underneath a pile of bodies.
The older brother, barely 15-16 at the time, somehow dragged himself through life but the younger never recovered, he was too distressed. After that fateful day, the family disintegrated, the younger son of a distinguished lawyer became a kabuliwalla, his sons and daughters lived in extreme penury and the gentleman could not say for certain whether his uncle’s family was alive, but it hardly seemed plausible.
Nihalani spoke of a woman who knew her husband had gone to the Bagh but found out later that night in a frenzied state of affairs that there had been a shooting. The city was under curfew so she realised that her husband had not come home when he was supposed to either. Something had gone terribly wrong.
She went out to look for him and ended up sitting amongst a pile of bodies lying helpless. She would not leave her husband’s body alone as he gradually succumbed to his wounds. In 1919, a woman was seldom a breadwinner and she sat through the night beside the dead and the dying, slowly realising that her life was over.
Watch the first episode of the series here:
Ashmita Dutta and Sanat Pandit are the co-founders of BiNK, a literary online platform. Along with Deepanshu Nihalani, they have created a section called Lost Stories, that is bringing the forgotten stories of the Indian Freedom Struggle, out in the open.
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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2019 10:27:39 IST