Monday, July 11, 2011

Extract from Work in Progress : 2

A Planter’s Murder

There is at least one recorded mention of the murder of Mr Bloomfield, manager of an indio planter’s kothi at Telahara, by a crowd of irate farmers in 1906. On April 29, 1917, the Bettiah SDO, in a long confidential report to the Champaran DM about Gandhi’s continuing mission, wrote:

I further quoted [to Mr Gandhi] the example of Mr Bloomfield’s murder as showing the length to which raiyats will go, once excitement and passion take possession of them.; though murder may not have been their original intention, Mr Bloomfield was beaten down and every bone in his body broken. I further quoted the recent case in which Mr Kemp was attacked and assaulted, and expressed the opinion that, had not Mr Kemp retained his seat in the saddle, he would have lost his life.13 RP/CMG/13

In a Hindi novel Neel ke Dhabbe by Vindhyachal Prasad Gupta, a local poet and writer from Bettiah, there is a fictionalized recreation of Bloomfield’s tyranny and his consequent murder which provides a live commentary.

Scene 1 : Bloom field is sitting in his ‘kachahari’ (rent-collection office), smoking a cigar. His ryots stand in attendance around him with folded hands. One young man from the crowd, Dukhna, who failed to attend to his farming duty because his wife was in labour, is being thrashed mercilessly with shoes. Meanwhile Bloomfield’s roving eyes notice two young women in the crowd. He orders them to be brought into his bungalow, bathed, perfumed and ready for his night-long revelry…Sipping his glass of whiskey, Bloomfield notices a young newly married young couple passing by his window. The bride (Gulabi) is forcibly brought to his bed to make a threesome for Bloomfield’s orgies. Outside, the loyal Patwari (rent-collector) goes on handling the crowd of ryots with abuses, punches and shoes.

Scene 2 : The Bada Saheb (W.W.Hudson, Chief of the Bihar Light Horse, Military Contigent)) is about to ride his horse to his office when a guard comes running, with blood streaming down his forehead. In a terror-stricken voice he mumbles : “Huzoor! They have killed Bloomfield sahib”. Hudson in his rage kicks him with his boot, then quickly scribbles a note to his subordinate, James McLeod, to rush with his force to the scene of occurrence. Soon the military force reaches there and surrounds the Telahara village. All the males have already fled the village. Only women and children are left behind to bear the brunt of brutal repression at the hands of the tormentors. Scores of ryots are put into prison. One Purandar Teli, with two others, are sentenced to be hanged, though the sentences are later commuted to only six-years’ rigorous imprisonment.14 Neel 4-16.

Gandhi was now hearing all these tales of atrocities, over and over again, - of forced evictions, ravaging of whole villages, trampling of crops by elephants and horses, looting and burning of homes and rapes of women and virgin brides - from the farmers pouring in at Gorakh Babu’s house. When the influx increased in numbers, Gandhi and his dedicated band of lawyer colleagues moved to more spacious premises. The statements of the aggrieved farmers were recorded by his team members with full details, and under thorough cross-examination, duly signed or thumbed by the complainants.

Rajendra Prasad devotes two long chapters in his Autobiography on the Champaran satyagraha, besides writing Champaran me Mahatma Gandhi, a whole book full of details and relevant documents, including the Champaran Agrarian Enquiry Committee’s Report and the full text of the Champaran Agrarian Bill ( which became an Act in 1918).The last of the Appendices in that book gives a date-wise list of the farmers’ names whose statements were duly recorded, along with the names of the persons who recorded those statements. From that list we learn that Rajendra Prasad personally recorded the statements of over 300 farmers spread out between April 19 and May 12. He also discusses how he first became associated with Gandhi’s work in Champaran, and how the whole movement was successfully brought to its completion with the passing of the Agrarian Act, in the first seven chapters of his book At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi.

Rajendra Prasad, in his Autobiography, also says that after the Government dropped the case against Gandhi and assured him of all administrative cooperation in holding his independent enquiry –

Now began in right earnest the investigation of the Champaran atrocities. We were divided in batches and recorded the statements of the kisans who came in a regular procession. We would sometimes move to Bettiah. Eventually one batch stayed at Bettiah: another at Motihari. We worked without respite. To anything startling in the statements we would at once draw Gandhiji’s attention, otherwise we just passed on the recorded statements to him for his perusal. The work continued for many days, and about 22,000 to 25,000 statements were recorded…. Sometimes Gandhiji would visit a village or send one of us to inquire into a complaint. We had strict instructions not to address the people. There were, therefore, no meetings and no lectures either by us, or by Gandhiji in Champaran in those days.15 A/89

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Extract from Work in Progress

‘The Butcher of Amritsar’

Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar is now a National Memorial where a notice board proclaims that the ground was ‘hallowed with the mingled blood of about 2,000 innocent Hindus, Sikhs and Mussalmans who were shot by British bullets’. Patrick French, the British writer in his book Liberty or Death (pub. 1997), describes the place he visited while researching for his book:

I reached the site of the massacre by walking down a narrow lane, about six feet wide, which was and is the only entrance or exit to the garden. It was very calm and quiet, full of birds and flowers, with a few people walking slowly around the wall. The bulletholes were still there, ringed with metal plates, as was the large open well into which terrified people had jumped to escape the firing. Sikh boys, their hair scraped into cloth-wrapped balls, were playing on the lawn.PF/33-34

It was here, on this ‘hallowed’ ground – an open rectangular field, a kind of uncared public park, enclosed on all sides with the back side of houses, having only one main exit lane, that the most inhuman act in British Indian history – the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – had taken place. The government-appointed Hunter Committee in its report (pub. May, 1920) described the site in these words:

It is a rectangular piece of unused ground, covered to some extent by building material and debris. It is almost entirely surrounded by walls of buildings. The entrances and exits to it are few and imperfect. It seems to be frequently used to accommodate large gatherings of people. At the end at which General Dyer entered there is a raised ground on each side of the entrance. A large crowd had gathered at the opposite end of the Bagh and was being addressed by a man on a raised platform about 150 yards from where General Dyer stationed his troops.LF/231

The whole tragic scene was recreated with stunning realism in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi. Alex Von Tunzelmann, a young modern Oxford historian, in her recently published book Indian Summer (2007), depicts the scene in sharper focus:

Just before 5.15 p.m., Dyer arrived with 100 Gurkha, Sikh, Pathan and Baluchi riflemen, and 40 more Gurkhas armed with knives. He stopped outside one of the two open exits, and sent a man in to estimate the size of the crowd – 5,000, the report came back. Later estimates suggested it must have been between three and ten times that figure. The troops marched in and set up their rifles. Dyer’s instructions were specific: aim straight and low, fire at the fullest part of the crowd, and pick off any stragglers who try to escape. No warning was given before the troops opened fire.

The gathering, though technically illegal, had been peaceful until Dyer showed up. At his order, 1650 bullets were fired into the throng of men, women and children. Soldiers deliberately blocked the exits, trapping people in the killing ground. In desperation, they clawed their way up the walls, scrambled over their injured friends, and leapt down the open well, which filled with 120 bodies drowning and suffocating in water thick with blood. The slaughter went on until the ammunition was spent. 47-48

This single horrendous act, writes Tunzelmann, was ‘the most significant incident, which would change the whole course of British imperial history’. Indeed, nothing could be more dastardly and outrageous than a war-returned veteran military General leading armoured cars and war-hardened soldiers to surround and mow down by continuous gunfire a thick crowd of totally unarmed, innocent men, women and children, who had primarily assembled there in a festive mood. It was Sunday, and the day of the Baisakhi festival. The crowd consisted largely of passive and peaceful listeners, presumably unaware of General Dyer’s proclamation against public meetings, which had been read out only in a few selected places in the town.

It was indeed a ‘black day in the annals of British India’, LF/229 a day which smeared the blackest spot on the face of British imperialism. The genesis of this monstrous sequence of events in the first fortnight of April, 1919, in Punjab, lay in the recklessly repressive attitude of the local administration, headed by an equally power-mad Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Fischer quotes a statement of a military General in Delhi which reflects this whole power-obsessed approach: ‘Force is the only thing that an Asiatic has any respect for’.LF/233 Ironically enough, the veracity of this statement was amply proved later by the murder of O’Dwyer by a Sikh youth, Udham Singh, in London.

For those who are familiar with E.M.Forster’s famous novel A Passage to India, it would be of interest to know that much of the fictional structure of that novel closely adumbrates the events that took place in that tumultuous fortnight at Amritsar Note/GKD/. In fact, the whole plot of the novel closely analyses the antagonistic relationship between the contemporary British bureaucracy and the Hindu-Muslim social fabric in India. Forster, a staunch anti-imperialist like George Orwell, was consistently sympathetic to the Indian freedom struggle. His basic stand was that ‘the Indian Empire could have been made a “democratic” and enduring institution had it been founded on the basis of social equality between the British and the Indians, but having been raised upon a “pedestal of race” it was bound to collapse’GKD/21&FN3/124

Nigel Collet calls General Dyer ‘The Butcher of Amritsar’ in his book devoted to this pathological megalomaniac, who cast a permanent blot on British military ethics. By his singularly heinous act, Dyer practically wrote in Indian blood the last chapter of British imperial rule in India. His brutal mentality was highlighted in his arrogant replies to the Enquiry Committee and his later casual remark about the massacre : ‘I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good’.LF/232-34 Undoubtedly it was Dyer who rammed the last nail in the coffin of the British Empire in India.

When these acts of barbarism were being perpetrated in Amritsar, the rest of the country was practically unaware of these tragic developments due to total censorship and cutting off of telegraph and phone lines. Martial law had been declared and General Dyer’s brutalities had continued in the form of public floggings and the infamous ‘crawling order’ LF/234.

The news about the distressing developments in Punjab had slowly trickled down throughout the country (because of the stringent censorship) and there was widespread resentment against the barbaric acts of repression. The province, however, was completely sealed off from the rest of the country under martial law and no one could enter or come out of it. Meanwhile, deeply depressed by the rising trend of violence and the counter-violence, Gandhi had gone on a 72 hour fast at Sabarmati, and subsequently announced a temporary suspension of the satyagraha on April 18.

In spite of the mounting discontent, however, things began cooling down as the martial law was withdrawn and the government appointed a commission of enquiry under Lord Hunter, a British judge. Congress, however, decided to boycott the Hunter Commission and set up its own independent enquiry committee with Motilal Nehru, C.R.Das, Abbas Tyabji, M.R.Jayaker and Gandhi. Nehru, in his Autobiography, recounts his own experiences as he assisted C.R. Das who had ‘especially [taken] the Amritsar area under his charge’. At this point, Nehru recalls an interesting, though bizarre, coincidence of travelling in the same compartment with Dyer, the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’!

Towards the end of that year (1919) I travelled from Amritsar to Delhi by the night train. The compartment I entered was almost full, and all the berths, except one upper one, were occupied by sleeping passengers. I took the vacant upper berth. In the morning I discovered that all my fellow-passengers were military officers. They conversed with each other in loud voices which I could not help overhearing. One of them was holding forth in an aggressive and triumphant tone and soon I discovered that he was Dyer, the hero of Jaliianwala Bagh, and he was describing his Amritsar experiences. He pointed out how he had the whole town at his mercy and he had felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained. He was evidently coming back from Lahore after giving his evidence before the Hunter Committee of Inquiry. I was greatly shocked to hear his conversation and to observe his callous manner. He descended at Delhi station in pyjamas with bright pink stripes, and a dressing gown. A/48

That must have been, indeed, the strangest of coincidences that ever happened in Nehru’s life!

[Extract from ‘Rajendra Prasad: A Political Biography’ an illustrated biography in English by Dr Mangal Murty, shortly to be published by Rajendra Bhawan Trust, Delhi, India.]

© Dr Mangal Murty