Legacy of Jallianwala Bagh tragedy

The year 1919 changed the direction of Indian politics. The Jallianwala Bagh incident in Amritsar, a most horrific massacre, was not only an act of utmost imperial brutality but triggered a new type of confrontation between the British government and the Indian people. What is often forgotten is that the massacre invoked different perspectives that shaped the contested idea of modern India. Never before had any incident, except for 1857, invoked such a visceral response to the British atrocity as did Jallianwala Bagh. We should call it mass murder, as indeed it was. The massacre shaped a new consciousness of anti-colonial resistance, which henceforth legitimised a violent stance in nationalist protest. Paradoxically, at the same time, Gandhi launched his influential non-violent movement after Jallianwala Bagh. However anachronistic this may sound, the tide towards a more vigorous nationalist upsurge would not have happened without The Tribune. The history of 1919, as many would not know, was fashioned by The Tribune, which shaped the ground for a robust mass mobilisation in Punjab. Significantly, never before had print journalism presented such a critical narrative, which so fundamentally influenced both the strands of the national movement, the militant and the non-violent. Doubtless, The Tribune exemplified an extraordinary spirit of independent journalism following this tumultuous year of unprecedented tragedy, when General Dyer’s 1,650 gunshots killed 700 innocents (estimate by historian VN Datta) in Jallianwala Bagh on April 13.

It was The Tribune, particularly the writings of Editor Kalinath Ray, that turned
VN Datta (1926-2020) into a historian of Jallianwala Bagh. Photo by the author

Many strands lie buried in the sands of history of 1919. One such forgotten narrative is that of Kalinath Ray, the indomitable Editor of The Tribune. Ray was born in 1878 at Jessore and educated at Scottish Church College in Kolkata. He began his career working for a Bengali magazine edited by Surendranath Banerjee. In 1911, he joined The Punjabee, a Lahore newspaper known for its radical political views, founded by Lala Lajpat Rai. Surendranath Banerjee persuaded Kali babu to join The Tribune, which he did, in 1917, as Editor. Soon Ray assumed centre stage with his anti-colonial perspective on the rule of tyranny in Punjab. This he achieved through his bold editorials that crafted a powerful critique of imperial rule. Ray’s critical intervention, in response to the Rowlatt Bills as ‘Black Acts’, underscored press freedom, critiqued detention without trial and arrest without warrant. In one of his trenchant pieces, ‘A Colossal Blunder’, he exposed the enormity of colonial bureaucratic atrocity resulting in the usurping of fundamental rights of people. Ray had to pay a heavy price. His powerful writing had an enduring impact on Punjab. After Jallianwala Bagh, Ray’s defiant pen didn’t stop.

Ray’s ‘seditious’ editorials in The Tribune constituted a new language of liberty that offered a rigorous line of dissent from imperial rule. The confrontation between imperial power and the Punjabis became the benchmark for resistance. This was a far cry from Punjab being the bulwark of the British Empire. The Tribune thus assumed the role of a leading commentator and supporter of every aspect of the freedom struggle. There was no turning back. This courageous newspaper struck at the roots of empire.

In 1919, there were 1,500 newspapers in India reaching perhaps two million readers. The Tribune, owing to Ray, became representative of Indian public opinion, and one of the only three anti-colonial newspapers. As the clash between The Tribune and the tyrant O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, became virulent, Ray became the hero of the youth of Punjab. Eminent litterateur Mulk Raj Anand, who studied at Khalsa College, Amritsar, said about his meeting with the ‘redoubtable’ Ray in 1923, “I came to you because I have been reading your editorial everyday… I want to be like you… I hope I learn enough English to join The Tribune one day…”

Ray’s inflammatory editorials were anathema to the British, much more than Gandhi’s satyagraha. His fearless writings targeted O’Dwyer, whose administration, he described, in his most powerful editorial as ‘Blazing Indiscretion’. The British felt seriously threatened by his writings. So, Ray was convicted by the Martial Law Commission and imprisoned.

In his monumental history of the newspaper, The Tribune: 130 Years, A Witness to History (2011), Amritsar-born historian VN Datta, who was emboldened by Ray’s writings in his young days, writes: “As the main guide and inspirer, Kalinath Ray gave to The Tribune dignity of independence. He proved radical in shedding the former moderate tone of The Tribune in the discussion of national issues.” Indeed, the efforts of The Tribune paid off. Gandhi built upon the persecution of The Tribune and made it an issue of national importance. The result was momentous for all-India politics. The Amritsar Congress session held in December 1919 was in the words of his protégé, Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, the first ‘Gandhi Congress’.

Indeed, it was The Tribune that turned Vishwa Nath Datta into a historian of Jallianwala Bagh. He started writing for the revolutionary newspaper as early as 1946, as a student at Government College, Lahore. Datta crafted his major essay covering Jallianwala Bagh, in 1969, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre. This appeared in The Tribune and led to his pioneering book on the subject in the same year.

Datta picked up from where Ray left. Among other themes, he highlighted the parting of ways between ruler and ruled. He laid bare the contradictions and ambiguities of 1919. For him, the legacy of Jallianwala Bagh acted as a muse to national politics. As an inheritor of Ray’s prose of resistance, Datta juxtaposed the revolutionary and non-violent strands of nationalism. He demonstrated that 1919 eventually became a blueprint for a new way of relating to India’s freedom struggle. In Datta’s perspicuous words, “Jallianwala Bagh changed the idiom of Indian nationalism.”

If Ray became a symbol of free journalism in India, free from the diktat of the colonial government, VN Datta’s landmark history of Jallianwala Bagh continues to serve as a beacon light for future generations, encapsulating the complex strands of compromise, collaboration, resistance and dissent in India’s freedom struggle. Datta’s lifelong engagement with Jallianwala Bagh brings out many ironies. The legacy of Jallianwala, argues Datta, was even more decisive than the event of the massacre itself.

Jallianwala Bagh marked a ‘turning point’ in the history of Punjab. There would have been no Bhagat Singh and no Udham Singh had there been no Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Their radical voice of resistance left the empire destabilised. Punjab was thereafter witness to different forms of violence and political resistance. Indeed, Punjab became the empire’s nemesis. Revolutionary ‘terrorism’ became a weapon of the Punjabis. The wounds of Jallianwala Bagh still fester in the 21st century. People’s fury and anguish know no bounds. The turbulence and crisis that continue to disturb post-Partition Punjab are the legacies of Jallianwala Bagh and imperial violence. And the resistance, true to the spirit of Punjab, continues. Indeed, the present farmers’ heroic protest is rooted in the long tradition of resistance, rage and revolution nurtured by Jallianwala Bagh. Long live resurgent Punjab. Long live independent journalism.

The spirit of Kalinath Ray, an activist journalist, lives on. So does the passion of historian VN Datta.

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