The day we learnt defiance

Jallianwala Bagh lives on in the nation’s conscience

TODAY is April 13. One hundred years ago on this day, our British rulers decided to teach us a long-lasting lesson in servitude by shooting down about one thousand unarmed protesters, pilgrims and picnickers (only 379, according to the murderers’ own count) at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh. Instead, that day we learned a lesson in defiance, sacrifice, idealism and nationhood. Mahatma Gandhi turned this memory into a metaphor for martyrdom, building the first memorial for the fallen heroes of the Indian nation. And there we parted ways with our racist rulers, as The Tribune wrote presciently in 1919. The massacre soon became a hallowed memory, a marker and a milestone in our journey towards nationhood. But Gandhi’s memory had no malice. Unlike most other nation-builders elsewhere in the world, even when he was mourning the loss of lives or commemorating the sacrifice of the martyrs, Gandhi did it without rancour or hatred, without letting his followers lust for the blood of the perpetrators, with utmost compassion even towards his colonial oppressor, like a true disciple of Jesus Christ, or rather a reincarnation. Gandhi’s Sanatana Dharma was truth and love. There was no ‘other’ in his politics. He never ridiculed the stooges of the British and always left space for all shades of opinion to coexist on his broad nationalist platform. It was sheer Gandhian magic that removed the self-destructive sting of hatred and revenge from the memory of martyrdom, creating a national consciousness over Jallianwala Bagh as a symbol of self-consuming idealism in all its purity.

This national consciousness, it has to be underscored now, was shaped in no small measure by relentless investigation by The Tribune. In fact, this is also a moment to celebrate the founding fathers of Indian journalism like The Tribune’s legendary Editor Kalinath Ray. For them journalism was nationalist activism. These were the intellectual giants and literary stylists who helped their readers imagine a new nation. Nothing, not even British jails or sentences of rigorous imprisonment, stopped them from pursuing their nationalist dreams while upholding the ideals of the freedom of the press. They made penury and Indian press synonymous and fashionable, rejecting the perks and pomp of the Anglo-Indian press and the British patronage. It remains a tough act to follow. But such were the times and the people.

These deeds of the pacifists do not detract, in any way, from the valiant efforts of the revolutionaries — particularly Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, the greatest youth icons of the national movement who were inspired by the fallen men, women and children of Jallianwala Bagh; or from the sacrifice of Udham Singh, who eventually avenged the murder of those thousand people 21 years later in London in 1940. Jallianwala Bagh is also a grand testimony to the contribution of the undivided province of Punjab, its idealistic youth, its undying love for the motherland and its death-defying example for the rest of the nation. The province that provided the greatest number of recruits for the armies of the Empire also provided the greatest revolutionaries who helped bring the Empire down.

But the lasting logic and legacy of Jallianwala Bagh is the victory of non-violent sacrifice against naked, racist violence. The violence of the mighty can easily put down the violence of the weak, but it is impossible to defeat truthful, non-violent defiance. As a momentous event, memory and metaphor, Jallianwala Bagh lives forever in the nation’s conscience, like the Old Man in Hemingway's novel, who would be destroyed but never defeated. The nation that was built with the bloodstained soil of Jallianwala Bagh now stands tall, big and strong — but are we one? What happened to our inheritance of truth and reconciliation? ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’ and ‘Hindu-Mussalman ki jai’ were the two slogans that rattled the British the most. The negation of these slogans is the biggest betrayal of our martyrs. Let our common hyphenated identity and our diversity make us grow bigger and stronger as a nation, as a Gandhian Republic.

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