The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which shook the British rule in India, was actually one of the most underplayed news stories of its time.
‘An astonishing story from India’, screamed a headline in Manchester Guardian. The subhead elaborated it: ‘Punjab meeting dispersed by fire in April troubles. Over 400 natives killed: Three times as many wounded’.
The twist is in the date of this report. It was published on 13 December 1919, exactly eight months after the massacre took place on 13 April 1919.
This is how the article began: “The newspapers received yesterday and the article printed below give the first detailed account of the extraordinary events which took place in April last at Amritsar during the very serious outbreak of trouble in the Punjab. Our correspondent describes it as ‘an amazing story even for India’ and apparently even India had little idea of what had taken place until the evidence given before the Hunter Committee of Inquiry revealed the facts (sic).” (Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1919, P11, ‘An Astonishing Story From India’)
The international media woke up to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre only after the evidence presented before the Hunter Committee was made public. The committee was formed by the British government to inquire into the events in Punjab.
The editorial in the next edition of Manchester Guardian further underlined the shocking revelation. It said, “It was known, of course, that serious disturbances had occurred and that measures of considerable severity had been taken in their suppression, but no accounts which had hitherto been allowed to see the light can have prepared people in this country, or in India, for the truth as made known before the commission… It may be said at once that few more dreadful incidents can be found in the history of British rule in India than the story of their suppression”. (Manchester Guardian, 15 December 1919, P6)
The Observer, the other London paper, also expressed similar surprise. “Some grave features of the disorders in the Punjab last April are brought out for the first time by reports of Lord Hunter’s inquiry committee, which arrive by the Indian mail. Among other things, it is shown that at Amritsar a crowd of 5,000 people, closely packed in a square, was fired on by troops, and between 400 and 500 were killed and about 1,500 wounded (sic).” (The Observer, 14 December 1919, P14, ‘2,000 Indians Shot Down’)
How India media reported it
A section of the Indian media also took little note of the incident, and buried it in the inside pages of the newspapers.
The Times of India reported the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but it wasn’t a front-page story. It was just a single column, four-line note from the Associated Press. “News has been received from the Punjab that the Amritsar mob has again broken out in a violent attack against the authorities. The rebels were repulsed by the military and they suffered 200 casualties (sic).” (The Times of India, 14 April 1919, P10). The paper instead ran stories criticising the ‘Satyagrah riots’.
The next reference to the massacre appeared nearly 10 days later in The Times of India. The story did not mention either Jallianwala Bagh or General Dyer, but praised the role of ‘Indian sepoys’.
“It is reported that the Amritsar mob collected on the 13th in spite of the prohibition as they had been assured by the leaders that the Indian troops would not fire on them. As a matter of fact, the Indian Army has behaved splendidly and although some individual sepoys may have been disturbed by persistent attempts to corrupt them their conduct has been wonderful in very difficult circumstance.” (The Times of India, 23 April 1919, P7, ‘Tribute to Indian Sepoys’)
In the weeks after the massacre, the paper also carried reports denying the rumour that the Golden Temple was bombed. (The Times of India, 22 April 1919, P7, ‘Situation in Punjab’; The Times of India, 28 April 1919, P9, ‘Reward for Loyal Indians’)
Nationalist newspaper The Bombay Chronicle, however, criticised the ‘torture and terrorisation’ by the Punjab government. But, The Times of India took strong offence to this and rebuked the paper, even demanding the cancellation of its license.
“What our contemporary thus denounces as ‘atrocities’ are the use of bombs from aeroplanes, the use of machine guns, arrests and deportations and whipping in the public streets… When a paper begins to talk of torture and terrorisation exercised by the Government, the time has come for protest against the lenience of the regime which permits the circulation of such statements at such a time as well as against the license of the journal which has thrown all thoughts of responsibility to the wind… The nearer we get to the truth the better will appear the reason for those acts which have been committed under Martial Law (sic).” (The Times of India, 24 April 1919, P6, ‘Torture and Terrorisation’)
On April 26 1919, B.G. Horniman, the editor of The Bombay Chronicle and a fearless champion of the nationalist cause, was deported by the Bombay government. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 15: vii, Preface)
No mention of General Dyer
In the light of such media coverage, it is no surprise that General Dyer was not mentioned as the chief perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the news reports for months.
The famous letter of protest by Rabindranath Tagore, dated 31 May 1919, requesting the Viceroy ‘to relieve me of my title of Knighthood’ mentions ‘the disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out’. While the letter talks about atrocities in Punjab, it doesn’t specifically mention Jallianwala Bagh or General Dyer.
Even ‘Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ record the first mention of General Dyer in Navjivan’s issue of 14 December 1919. Jallianwala Bagh is first mentioned in the Navjivan issue of 28 December 1919, only after the findings of the Hunter Committee report were made public.
The author is a senior columnist and writer in Ahmedabad.