Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship
Asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, Benjamin Disraeli, a future prime minister of Britain, said, looking at the then PM, “If, for instance, Mr Gladstine were to fall into the river, that would be a misfortune. But if anyone were to pull him out, that would be a calamity.” Obviously there are still some heavyweights in Britain who think that while to regret the Jallianwala Bagh massacre would be a misfortune, to apologise for it would be a calamity.
How much one wishes that Britain had stood up to the demand inherent in this tragic centenary, that it had transcended a primitive malady from which majority of the individuals and nations suffer—which is as common a phenomenon as superiority complex and which in its turn is only a reflex bid to escape inferiority complex—and in this particular case of Britain vis-a-vis the barbaric massacre, as simple a thing as guilt conscience. Alas, how much one wishes that Britain availed of this opportunity justifying at least by a hundredth part the hyperbolic tribute paid to it by the American comedian Jackie Mason, “If an Englishman gets run down by a truck, he apologises to the truck.”
Feeling guilty over the misdeeds of our ancestors is a sign of our progress. India had much to feel guilty about its many selfish rulers falling prey to the cunning of the East India Company thereby betraying their own subjects. The colonialists had not sailed into this ancient civilisation in order to explore salvation, but to exploit the fabulous “wealth of Ind” and to satisfy their so many hungers. Barring those English savants who devoted their genius to Indology, the bulk of the British stuff in India consisted of their exportable riffraff. They suddenly rediscovered themselves as a royal race. This Martial Law notice is a sample of their expectation:
“We have come to know that the inhabitants do not usually show respect to the European Civil and Military officers…Whenever an Indian is on horseback or driving in any kind of conveyance, he must get down. One who has opened or got an umbrella in his hand should close or lower it down and all these persons must salute with their right hand respectfully.” Even women were punished if their gesture failed to achieve perfection! This rule prevailed from the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833)
who was taken to task because while riding a palanquin he failed to notice a petty English officer and jump out to salute him.
However silly the circular quoted may appear to us today, it must have been approved by the higher-ups. The ego of the ordinary officials fed on such pompous notions of their superiority exploded through Dyer when the circumstance offered him, as if on a golden platter, a chance to massacre and maim a few thousand men, women and children at Amritsar, this day a hundred years ago. The unsuspecting mass had collected on a ground enclosed but for only one entrance-cum-exit, to pass a resolution of sympathy with two arrested leaders, Dr Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew.
Did Dyer, after realising the extent of the ghastly horror committed by him develop any remorse? No. Life was made worse for the citizens of Amritsar. At night General Dyer rode through the sepulchral silence pervading the city, denied light and water and all ordered to remain indoors, none allowed to collect the dead and the dying. In the morning it was announced mercifully, “The inhabitants may burn or bury their dead as they please. No demonstration of any kind.” By noon the respectable citizens were summoned and treated to this harangue by Commissioner Kitchin: “Do you people want peace or war? We are prepared in every way. The all-powerful British Sarkar which has conquered Germany is capable of doing everything.”
Dyer was—if I am to use the occult language—totally possessed by the dark Satanic spirit bereft of human feeling. His conduct on that fateful evening was a rehearsal of what was to be staged by the same spirit through Hitler’s massacre of millions.In history, every tragedy had contributed to the global human progress. “The last years of British India were ushered in to the sound of General Dyer’s guns”, observed the historian Michael Edwardes.
The post-Jallianwala Bagh decades saw hitherto undreamt of changes over the globe—collapse of colonies, monarchy and the feudal system, as well as the triumph of ideals of equality, all pointing at a gradual realisation of human dignity. None could undo history; but Britain’s apology would have been symbolic of its tribute to this evolutionary trend. Arthur Swinson’s study of Dyer’s last days, entitled Six Minutes to Sunset establishes that the man had no repentance for his hideous action till his death on 24 July 1927, at six minutes to sunset. He had (or pretended to have) the Devil’s stamina. Should Britain apologise even six minutes before the sunset today, its dignified humility would indicate a new chapter in civilisation.