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April 13, 1998


Rajeev Srinivasan

Remember Jallianwallah Bagh!

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One Baisakhi day, 80 years ago it was: April 13, 1919 -- a day that will live in infamy. At that walled garden with only a single exit, in Amritsar, in the Punjab, ten thousand people gathered, mostly to celebrate the arrival of Spring; women, children and old people included. At the end of the day, 1,579 lay dead or wounded, fired at, without warning, on orders from a British general, one General Dyer. 1,600 bullets, 1,579 casualties.

This was the pivotal moment in the Freedom Struggle; this barbaric act, as well as the lack of contrition that followed. Clearly, Indian lives meant nothing to the British. When Dyer was felicitated -- not censured -- in the British House of Lords, even Mahatma Gandhi, that apostle of tolerance, was moved to suggest that "co-operation in any shape or form with this satanic government is sinful".

In 1997, the reigning British monarch and her husband visited the memorial at Jallianwallah Bagh, and did not have the simple grace and decency to admit their country had made an appalling and inhuman error. The husband -- clearly one of P G Wodehouse's and Monty Python's caricatures of the dim British upper-crust come to life -- made an ass of himself by claiming that the number of dead was exaggerated: this based on the word of Dyer's son!

I am all for forgiveness, but let us not forget, shall we? After all, even our friends the Americans, famously immune to the charms of history, have rallied behind the simple slogans: Remember the Alamo and Remember the Maine. They also do remember Pearl Harbor; vividly and bitterly -- as one of my friends, an urbane and sophisticated woman, once told me: she has a visceral hatred for the Japanese, even though she was born years later.

Exactly one hundred years ago, the Spanish-American War was triggered by the sinking of the USS Maine; some say newspaperman William Randolph Hearst engineered this situation so his papers could get some good copy. In any case, the result was that the US got embroiled in this little war, gaining the Philippines as its colony as a fringe benefit.

But I wasn't going to speak of Americans, rather of Sikhs. For it was the Sikhs of India's Punjab who bore the brunt of the struggle for freedom, fighting and dying in their hundreds and thousands to defend the motherland against aliens, as they had done for centuries. From the famous like Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh, to the unknown like Kartar Singh Sarabha, it is Sikhs whom the nation owes the greatest debt of gratitude.

Udham Singh, who was at Jallianwallah Bagh that afternoon, a teenager who helped save some of the many wounded. He stalked O'Dwyer, the British governor of the Punjab at the time, and slew him thirteen years later. Executed by the British.

Kartar Singh Sarabha, student at the University of California, Berkeley, member of San Francisco's revolutionary Gadar Party. Tried for sedition in the Lahore Conspiracy case, convicted and executed at the age of 19.

Bhagat Singh: the most famous, the most dashing, the most heart-breaking of our revolutionaries -- rakta-sakshi, blood-witness. Hanged for bomb-throwing, at the age of 23, along with co-conspirators Rajguru and Sukhdev. Epitome of the Latin phrase, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, it is sweet and proper to die for one's country.

It is therefore bitter irony that the Sikhs had to suffer the invasion of the Golden Temple and the Delhi riots. It is true that Operation Bluestar had become inevitable because of the activities of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and assorted violent secessionists. But the root cause of the troubles in the Punjab was of course Machiavellian manipulation by Indira Gandhi -- divide and rule. How well we learned from the British how to destroy India!

It would be easy to blame the Nehru dynasty for the betrayal of the Sikhs -- and in truth, they do deserve the largest part of the blame. Yet, the rest of us are not innocent either, for we stood by and allowed this disgrace to happen. Where, I wonder, were the activists, SAHMAT and Shabana Azmi, and Ravi Nair of Amnesty International, when this abomination was going on in the Punjab?

I recently read a remarkable book in Malayalam by O V Vijayan: The Path of the Prophet; it is about the narrator's experiences with the spiritual and the temporal. Prophets figure prominently: and none more so than the Gurus of the Sikh faith. Guru Arjun Singh, martyred. Guru Tegh Bahadur, beheaded by Aurangzeb.

In a poignant passage, the narrator and his Delhi taxi-driver friend Sajan Singh converse. Sajan Singh had fought in Mesopotamia in the Second World War, and had been part of the Chindit forces in Burma; and then he had joined the Indian National Army under Netaji Subhas Bose.

"The war in Bangladesh is imminent, Sujan Singh."
"Bangladesh? But that war is over."

"All wars are meant for the king, for the leader, 
to congratulate himself. Bangladesh is just a name."

Sujan Singh was uncomfortable. He asked, 
"Would you say that about my wars too?"

"I cannot say there is no meaning to 
resisting fascism. The same thing for
the Indian National Army. But-"

He paused.

"If we win an internal Bangladesh war, 
don't you think it will help keep
those in power there for a little longer, 
Sujan Singh?"

"The Golden Temple, you mean?"

"Let us assume that."

Sujan Singh did not exhibit his usual anger. 
Instead, the confusion of the refugee; 
the flight of the mind without beginning or 
end or movement. The dark secret of the clan.

"If the army were to go into the Golden Temple, 
what would you do, Sujan Singh?"

Sujan Singh's voice was tremulous. "This country would 
no longer be mine, sahib."

"Where would you go?"

"To the desolation of my prophet."

Of course, the Golden Temple does get invaded. In the book, Sujan Singh's family is attacked and killed by rioters. How many Sujan Singhs do we owe an apology to? And it is not the soldiers who entered the Temple who were at fault -- they had a serious law and order situation that could not be handled any other way. They did what soldiers always do -- obey orders: "theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die."

It is the politicians who should be tried for crimes against the nation and crimes against humanity -- for this was their Kristallnacht. Just as murderous Nazi thugs violated the human rights of Jews back then, so did our oh-so-sanctimonious politicians and their minions destroy Sikh lives and property. It is one of the darkest chapters in India's recent history.

Elsewhere, Sujan Singh and the narrator reminisce about the voyage of the Komagata Maru:

Sikhs, masons and farmers, who 
had gone to Canada from Hardasa and Ropar
and Jalandhar. They made small fortunes through 
backbreaking work. They bought a ship named 
Komagata Maru, and weapons; 
and set off across the seven season a historic 
return voyage. A shipful of primitive guns, 
flying a yellow flag bearing the sign of 
Guru Gobind Singh's sword, and on the 
upper decks the hymns of the Guru. 
They were returning to make India free. 
An India that to them meant Gurdaspur 
and Amritsar and Pathankot; an India that 
meant family and friends. 

A white army awaited the arrival of 
this innocent horde, which made 
no effort to conceal its intent. On landfall, the 
ship and its passengers and its hoard of 
weapons were all decimated. When he 
put on the uniform of a soldier Sujan
Singh remembered the self-sacrifice of the 
Komagata Maru. A treasure greater
than all the strategies of war still shone from the 
masthead of the Komagatu Maru: 
the promise and martyrdom of an entire clan!

Sikh sailors, who set out from Japan, 
seeking refuge in harbor after harbor, and rejected. 
The money-mindedness of the merchant and 
the primal righteousness of 
the revolutionary were mixed up in 
their minds; they who had come to the
fertile lands of America seeking their 
fortunes took this risk just like the
illiterate Hindus and Sikhs who had come 
there before them. They did not care about 
revolution or race warfare or a war of liberation: 
they were only interested in that great symbol -- 
sustenance. The white man resisted the immigrant. 
The migrant toiled in the backyards of the white 
man uninvited, humbly, to sate his hunger. 
The white man cast out the brown 
man who wanted to share his riches: "You
are trying to root yourself in my soil; you 
are trying to cause miscegenation
in my woman." 

Hearing this, America's extinct sons of 
the soil, the ancient tribes who 
wore feathers in their hair, laughed 
with bitter irony. Humiliated, the 
immigrant in the backyard wept in 
his exhaustion and hunger. 
The Komagata Maru 
belched fire and smoke through 
its funnels, and without lights 
or telegraph sliced through the seas. And 
then, unable to find safe harbor 
anywhere in North America, enraged, it began 
its return journey. 

As far as the eye can see, 
gallows, hundreds and 
thousands of them; and on
them, smiling, hanged martyrs, 
Sikhs! Merchants, hedonists, 
yet they paid the price for freedom. 
They loved India deeply.

The Komagata Maru incident happened within living memory, in the early part of this very century. So, of course, did Jallianwallah Bagh. Yet there are those today who would, with ulterior motive, have us forget all this -- the humiliation, the prejudice, the exploitation. I say to them, never again! Never again shall we be enslaved.

But to my shame, I have felt uncomfortable when I have seen a Sikh in America wearing the distinctive orange or blue turban of the khalsa warrior. I would have liked to go up to him and to say, "I thank you and your tribe for what you have done for our country. I thank you for the Gadar Party, and for the Komagata Maru and for 1948 and 1962 and 1971, for every war in which your young men spilled their blood for our country."

But I was afraid he would laugh scornfully and tell me of what our country has done to his father, his brother, his wife, his mother, his son. So on this Baisakhi, I shall take the easy way out: for all the times that I did not go up to a Sikh, let me raise a toast to them all. Wahe Guru, my brothers! Sat Sri Akal!

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