In April 2019, I met Jeevan Lata, who worked as a midwife all her life. She lives in utter poverty on Khoo Korian, a mohalla close to the historic site of Jallianwala Bagh. The date 13 April is significant for her for two reasons. First, General Dyer shot dead innocent people in her city of Amritsar. Second, Dyer also made the people of her lane crawl on the street before he had their bodies lashed. In her mind, the massacre and the crawling episode fall on the same date.
‘Khoo’ in Punjabi is a well and ‘korian’ means flogging. Thus, Khoo Korian is a reminder that Dyer’s rage did not end on 13 April 1919. He wanted to punish Amritsar more. On 19 April, he promulgated the ‘crawling order’ concerning the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted. The order, which was strictly enforced, disallowed Indians to pass through the lane, and if they did, they had to crawl. They were tied to tiktikis (flogging posts) and flogged with several stripes. In addition, Dyer ordered eleven ‘insolent’ inhabitants to crawl between the two pickets. According to Amritsar’s popular writer Naresh Johar, those who were made to crawl included a blind man, a few handicapped people and a pregnant woman.
Jeevan Lata grew up with the memories of the horror of 1919. Though her father was a survivor of the massacre, she, too, indirectly became a witness to the trauma of the violence. She showed me the tamrapatra (a copper plate given by Mrs Indira Gandhi) and shared memories of the brutality enacted on her street, Khoo Korian, by Dyer. A master storyteller, she identified those sites connected with Dyer’s savagery. For her and the people in her neighbourhood, Dyer is still remembered as a living monster, a khooni Dyer, a paapi Dyer, a katil Dyer and a kasai Dyer. She showed me the ramshackle building where Miss Sherwood had gone to conduct the exams for girls. I was then led to the house of Lalu Halvai, who had rescued the lady missionary, and along with other friends, hidden her in Badri Nath’s old haveli. Jeevan Lata said, ‘O bach gayi si, je mar jandi, te mohalla udh janda’ (She [Sherwood] was saved, if she had been killed, the entire mohalla would have been wiped out).
The fear and terror unleashed by Dyer still stalks the people living in Khoo Korian. Stories of his vengeful punishment are passed on to generations as tales of woe and suffering have been permanently etched upon the collective psyche. I notice a six-year-old girl correcting her grandmother by adding ‘General’ to Dyer’s name and saying that Dyer arrived with a ‘korah’, whip, in his hand. Indeed, the cycle of collective torture associated with the Crawling Street, recalled as rengna, crawling on bellies, becomes a focal point to remember and forget the trauma of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The residents conflate the massacre in the Bagh with Miss Sherwood’s incident and Dyer’s inhuman crawling order.
The violence at Khoo Korian remains the most powerful living memory, whilst that of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre recedes into the background. Many downplayed the significance of the Amritsar massacre: ‘It’s just a jalsa [community gathering] on the Baisakhi day which the sarkar [the ruling dispensation] organizes for swatantrata senanis [freedom fighters],’ avers Kumar Chand, an old shopkeeper, at the Jallianwala Bagh road. But, Khoo Korian, for these people, represents torture, humiliation and violation. The gaps in people’s memory make the obscure histories of the Amritsar violence impenetrable in present times. I tried to find Punjabi folk songs around Amritsar district on the massacre but to no avail. Communities do not record. The irony, according to Madan Lal Vij, is that ‘visitors go to Jallianwala Bagh, but never come to see Khoo Korian, which is just ten minutes away’.
The locals remember the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in varied ways. The shifting memories recall the unleashing of violence on a victimized collectivity. Some of those living in the vicinity of the Bagh remember, ‘Shehr da sabton vadda hadsa si’ (It was the biggest tragedy of the city). Different castes and communities— Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus—were present there on 13 April. The city people feel that ‘saadda’ Amritsar was let down by the British Empire that they had devotedly served during the First World War. Such memories are largely devoid of nationalist ideas and mainstream political meanings. Gandhi’s name is absent from the scene. Hans Raj, the government approver, has disappeared from public memory, almost the same way he vanished just before Dyer started shooting. The silence of Muslim voices is striking in contemporary accounts. That’s because there were no Muslims left after Partition in Amritsar.
Sudarshan Kapoor, a well-known lawyer from the city, recalls that his father and grandfather saw the army entering the Bagh from their terrace. There were no women in the crowd, recalls Kapoor—his memory challenges the dominant narrative still in circulation that women were part of the gathering. Kapoor tells me that an old man, Shankar Singh ‘munadiwala’, public announcer, used to pass through the bazaar when he was growing up. He had publicly announced General Dyer’s infamous proclamation and order in the city, with the beating of the drum before the Jallianwala Bagh meeting. Kapoor’s father often asked him to repeat that pronouncement for the ‘entertainment’ of his sons. Shankar Singh would declare in a loud voice: ‘Khalqat Khuda di, Mulaq Badshah da, Hukam General Dyer da’ (The public belongs to God, the country belongs to the King, the order is from General Dyer), implying that the gathering of more than four persons was prohibited and anyone disobeying the order will be shot at sight.
But the people did not pay heed. Some did not even hear. They went to the Bagh and fell to Dyer’s bullets.
This excerpt from ‘Jallianwala Bagh: A Groundbreaking History Of The 1919 Massacre‘ by V.N. Datta, with an introduction by Nonica Datta, has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.