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What will be history's verdict on the Ramlila maidan eviction?

June 08, 2011 17:37 IST

The main issue is the high risk the government took in a midnight swoop where things could have gone horribly wrong. Apart from the illegality of use of force against sleeping citizens, the utter insanity of the decision-making and panic syndrome is an issue of concern, says Colonel Anil Athale (retd)

Right at the outset the author wishes to make it clear that he has many differences of opinion with the 'crusaders' against corruption including Baba Ramdev. This is not about the right/wrong of his movement or methods. The issue is simply about the midnight crackdown on June 4 that could have gone horribly wrong and plunged the country into chaos.

All that was needed was for a few people in that vast gathering to lose their cool and become violent or even panic or begin to run to the exit. If any of these very likely possibilities had taken place, the toll in that tragedy could have easily gone much higher.

The biggest concern of all thinking citizens is and ought to be, the panicky decision-making, extraordinary callousness towards the lives of law-abiding citizens contrasting with the kid glove treatment of murderers, terrorist sympathisers etc. In terms of insensitivity and stupidity, though luckily not in terms of fatalities, the Delhi action comes closest to the British action almost a century ago -- the infamous Jallianwala Bagh!

India was lucky on June 4. The police action against a crowd of 50,000 sleeping protesters at midnight had all the possibilities of triggering a stampede, fire and deaths. Have we forgotten the stampede on January 14 this year at Sabarimala or the various crowd control failures at Mandhardevi temple (January 2005) or in Nashik Kumbh Mela? In each of these incidents hundreds of people died.

The extraordinary risk in swooping down on a sleeping crowd of over 50,000, a decision that has all the hallmarks of rank stupidity, extreme callousness to the lives of citizens and desperation. What was the plan B should the crowd have turned violent or if the fire that had started on the stage spread? Was the aim of the police action at Ramlila maidan merely to evict the ex-post facto 'illegal' assembly or to overawe protesters all over the country?

In terms of imbecility of actions and its likely repercussions, the closest parallel is the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the British. 

In 1919, Brigadier Reginal Dyer claimed that his actions averted an armed revolt. With the kind of risks taken in Delhi, it seems there was an equally grave threat (action on black money in Swiss banks?). The Jallianwala Bagh killings were an inflexion point in the history of the British Empire in India. Will the Delhi action turn out to be similar? A comparison of the two incidents offers a fascinating insight into two versions of Fascist mindsets.  

Regimental diaries kept by the battalion adjutants in the British Indian Army, are an extremely rich and authentic source of our military history. Typically, the record-conscious British wrote about the day's events as a personal narrative and a record of the actions by the battalion. Since the record was created very close to the event, it is expected to be based on facts, as there was neither the motive nor the time to 'doctor' the accounts.

It gave me great delight when I discovered the accounts of the 'operation' carried out by the troops of a Gorkha Battalion in Amritsar on that fateful 'Baisakhi' day, April 13, 1919 -- the massacre of over a thousand people out of several thousands attending a public meeting in an enclosed park in that city became the infamous Jallianwala Bagh.

The plan to attack the gathering in Amritsar was claimed to have been triggered by the news of a mob attack on a British school teacher Sherwood on April 9. She was rescued by other Indians in the locality and sent safely to the fort nearby. But like the myth of the 'Black Hole of Calcutta', rumours spread fast and thick with accounts of even rape and murder!

Brigadier Reginald Dyer, who commanded a brigade in nearby Jalandhar, was incensed and decided to take decisive action.

Later documents however show that the incident of assault on Sherwood was merely an excuse. Both Brigadier Dyer and the Lt Governor of Punjab Michael O'Dwyer were convinced that they faced an imminent threat of mutiny in Punjab on the scale of 1857.

Right till the end Brigadier Dyer was convinced that he had actually 'saved' the British Empire from a great threat. O'Dwyer paid the price for the similarity of his name with Brig Dyer and was assassinated by Shaheed Udham Singh in London on March 13, 1940.

Brigadier Dyer faced an inquiry -- the Hunter Commission -- that went into the circumstances of the massacre and condemned him for his inhuman acts. He was relieved of his command and asked to resign. The conservative elements in Britain thought him to be a hero and he was presented with a purse of 25,000 pounds (a very large sum indeed in those days). 

On a visit to the British Army Museum in London this author saw that a testimonial to Dyer by the British Monarch was the first exhibit along the wall of the staircase as one ascends to the first floor devoted to the Indian Army.

The Hunter Commission found that Brigadier Dyer used excessive force. The commission also concluded that

  • The lack of notice to disperse from the Bagh at the beginning was an error
  • The length of firing showed a grave error
  • Dyer's motive of producing a sufficient moral effect was to be condemned
  • Lack of attention to the wounded was not acceptable

The arch-conservative and supporter of Empire Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war at the time of the debate in the British Parliament on July 8, 1920, called it "an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of British Empire... an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation... the crowd was neither armed nor attacking."

Churchill had a sense of history and understood that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre dented the British claim of being just rulers who believed in the rule of law. Along with the Salt Satyagraha and the Dandi March by Mahatma Gandhi, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is seen as the turning point that hastened the end of British Empire in India.

As a soldier with enough experience of crowd and riot control during one's service, one is appalled at the extraordinary risk that was taken on midnight of June 4. The sudden midnight crackdown on a huge crowd of over 50,000 that consisted of women, children and old people was a recipe for starting a stampede. The video footage also showed fire in the enclosed pandal and the firing of teargas shells.

It is indeed a miracle that neither a stampede nor a fire broke out. The credit for this goes to the organisers and Baba Ramdev who urged the crowd to remain calm. There is enough evidence of their efforts. But what about the people who ordered this and implemented it?

Was the assembled crowd given a warning to disperse? How does a peaceful assembly become an unlawful assembly at midnight just because the government withdraws permission? Not unlike Brigadier Dyer, a dire threat was conjured up and action was taken to affect the 'morale' of the agitators. Even the greatest spin doctors have not been able to show any 'threat'. In any case, can a sleeping crowd be a threat?

In Germany during the Second World War, many Nazi functionaries at the Nuremburg trials claimed that they were only following orders. The international tribunal rejected this claim. Is it the job of the police to implement orders or to implement the law?

History judged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as the beginning of the end game of British Empire, contrary to the view of Dyer who believed that he had 'saved' the British Empire from an 1857-like revolt.

What will be the verdict of history on the Ramlila action of June 4?

The main issue about the Delhi crackdown is the high risk that the government took in a midnight swoop where things could have gone horribly wrong! Apart from the illegality of use of force against sleeping citizens and painting them as a 'threat', the utter insanity of the decision-making and panic syndrome is an issue of concern that borders on paranoia for all thinking Indians -- how would this decision-making apparatus react in case of a dirty nuclear bomb attack by terrorists -- a threat that has been articulated by neutral credible organisations like the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 

Words of advice for the decision-makers -- plead 'insanity' as a mitigating factor before the Supreme Court!

Colonel Anil Athale is former head and joint director, War Studies Division, Ministry of Defence

Colonel Anil Athale (retd)