Brigadier General Dyer, the chief perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, was an object of hate among Indians, but Mahatma Gandhi forgave General Dyer again and again, even as he warned people against ‘Dyerism’.
At that time, Mahatma Gandhi was trying to show the country a different path – a path of non-violence and forgiveness.
Gandhi said that “it would be sin for me to serve General Dyer and co-operate with him to shoot innocent men. But it will be an exercise of forgiveness or love for me to nurse him back to life, if he was suffering from a physical malady (sic)”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) Vol 18, P195, ‘Religious Authority for Non-Cooperation’, Young India, 25 August 1920)
Gandhi even wrote that Dyer “merely destroyed a few bodies but the others tried to kill the soul of a nation”. He said that “the fury that has been spent upon General Dyer is, I am sure, largely misdirected”. (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 18, P46, Young India, 14 July 1920)
When Dyer suffered from paralysis in the last phase of his life, a friend wrote to Gandhi blaming the Jallianwala Bagh massacre for his ill-health.
Gandhi, a staunch believer of Bhagavad Gita, had a rational response to this. “I do not think that his paralysis has any necessary connection with his action in Jallianwala Bagh. Have you considered the implications of such beliefs?… My dysentery, appendicitis and this time a mild attack of paralysis must have been known to you. I should be very sorry if some good Englishmen were to think that these diseases were due to my fierce opposition, as it must appear in their estimation, to the English Government.” (CWMG Volume 34, P229 ‘A Letter’, 24 July 1927)
Then he forgave Dyer again, nearly two decades after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
“Who could be more cruel or blood-thirsty than the late Gen. Dyer?” asked Gandhi, “Yet the Jallianwala Bagh Congress Inquiry Committee, on my advice, had refused to ask for his prosecution. I had no trace of ill will against him in my heart. I would have also liked to meet him personally and reach his heart, but that was to remain a mere aspiration.” (CWMG Volume 68, P83, ‘Talk to Khudai Khidmatgars’, 1 November 1938)
Forgive but don’t forget
While Gandhi forgave Dyer, he clarified that “absence of hatred does not and must not mean the screening of the guilty”. (CWMG Volume 30, P442, ‘To S.L.R. Young India’, 13 May 1926)
“Though we do speak of forgetting and forgiving the misdeeds of others, it would be a sin to forget certain things.” Talking about Dyer and O’Dwyer (the Lt Governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre), Gandhi said, “We may forgive Dyer and O’Dwyer for the Jallianwala massacre, but we cannot afford to forget it….” (CWMG Volume 45, P132 ‘Speech to Congress Leaders, Allahabad’, 31 January 1921)
Dyer did not repent his act at Jallianwala Bagh either. But once, he did consider donating the proceeds from some of his lectures “among the relatives of the Indians who fell during Amritsar affair in 1919”. (The Manchester Guardian, 3 February 1921, ‘General Dyer’s Lecture Fund’)
Gandhi’s journal Navjivan even took note of this and said General Dyer had dared to spare the income for the victim families of Jallianwala Bagh. (Navjivan, February 1921, P188)
But the idea didn’t materialise. As per Manchester Guardian’s report, “He (Dyer) has varied that intention and is devoting the proceeds to a fund for supplying medical aid to the wives of British officers serving in India”.
Gandhi & Dyerism
Ironically, it was Gandhi who coined the term ‘Dyerism’ to describe brute force and violent suppression, thus making General Dyer the most referred name in that context.
He described untouchability as ‘Dyerism of Hindu religion’. He also drew a parallel between General Dyer’s act of cruelty with murder in the name of cow protection.
In response to a letter, Gandhi wrote: “General Dyer himself surely believed that English men and women were in danger of losing their lives if he did not take the measures he did. We, who know better, call it an act of cruelty and vengeance. But from General Dyer’s own standpoint, he is justified. Many Hindus sincerely believe that it is a proper thing to kill a man who wants to kill a cow and he will quote scripture for his defence and many other Hindus will be found to justify his action. But strangers who do not accept the sacredness of the cow will hold it to be preposterous to kill a human being for the sake of slaying an animal (sic).” (CWMG Volume 33, P358, ‘Letter to Deveshvar Siddhantalankar’, 22 May 1927)
During the Dandi March, Gandhi came to know that some villagers were not supplying grocery or water to the police or other government officers. Gandhi said that if Dyer and O’Dwyer “whose deeds, which were the very incarnations of cruelty, I had termed as “Dyerism”, shoot me and if I am still conscious and come to know that one of them has been bitten by a snake, I would go running to them to suck out the poison. I have done such things in the past”. (CWMG Volume 43, P116, 21 March 1930)
He told American journalist-historian Katherine Mayo that “I want this country to be spared Dyerism (sic). That is, I do not want my country, when it has the power, to resort to frightfulness in order to impose her custom on others”. (CWMG Volume 30, P120, ‘Interview to Katherine Mayo’, 17 March 1926)
The author is a senior columnist and writer in Ahmedabad.