Garden of Bullets

Excerpt from a new book by Saurav Dutt which marks the 100th anniversary of the 1919 massacre at Jallianwala Bagh

Garden of Bullets
Note: The book Garden of Bullets: Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh will hit bookstores on the 13th of March 2019, a month before the centenary

At the Jallianwala Bagh, Durgas Dass, editor of Waqt magazine had taken to the stage. Those in the Bagh now numbered well into the thousands, and though crowds fluttered in and out of the grounds, the majority of people remained where they were, fanning themselves against the heat, perking up to listen when a particularly rousing speaker took to the stage, as others continued to serve tea and water amidst eating traditional Indian savouries.

One of those listening intently was Mulchand, son of Lala Mohanlal Khatri. He stood near to Hans Raj, admiring the fervour and passion of Durgas Dass as every statement he made was met with a rousing round of thunderous applause.

General Dyer gained notoriety as the 'butcher of Jallianwala Bagh' and was eventually assasinated by anti-colonial revolutionary Udham Singh

“The British Empire is not a force for good in the world, not the great civilising crusade unleashed by gentlemen to spread British values of jurisprudence, morality and democracy,” boomed Dass to the drone of low whistles, jeers and ironic laughter “no, it was forged to facilitate the systematic pillage and exploitation of our natural and human resources on a mass scale.”

“Look over in England, it has been-and still is-the age of private clubs, stately homes, unearned income from investments here and in other colonies, perfect white gentlemen and their ladies, members of a class that is dedicated to gorging themselves on luxury and pleasure, they care about their high social status-not about us.”

“And what of us? Our slums are cesspits of despair, disease, crime and misery. And they celebrate it, they erect monuments and statues in every British town and city in tribute to the military chiefs and generals, colonial administrators, political figures-by fire and sword they suppress and exploit us, what of the statues of the Indians who gave blood to protect them in foreign lands? Where is the wealth of their plunder here in India? The wealth taken is for the British for the magnificent architecture dominating British towns and cities today. But they are dripped in blood, blood of the millions in India whose lives were given away because of the European’s greed and venality.”

Author Saurav Dutt

At that precise moment thousands within the Bagh glanced above them, their attention struck by a low, buzzing sound that seemed to spear through the air and shake the ear drums. It was a spotter plane, buzzing low to slowly survey the crowd, hovering above the grounds like a praying mantis, its silver exterior gleaming fiercely against flashes of sunlight. Most of those in the Bagh had never seen such a sight, and even Dass paused as he squinted up to take in the image before him.

“I think I should leave,” Mulchand swallowed hard “I do not like the look of this.”

“You stay,” Hans Raj shot back, unperturbed by the sight before him as he motioned for Dass to continue “the Europeans are doing their job, it is time for you to do yours. We are talking about your future and that of your family. Let them look.”

At that moment the plane swooped down and rose high into the sky, sucking up a trail of dirty smoke under its wings as it arched into the horizon and promptly disappeared. Scatterings of nervous laughter trickled through the crowd as Dass tossed aside the observation that “perhaps the Viceroy wanted to see what all the fuss was about”.

Hans Raj laughed the loudest, throwing up his arms to motivate the rest of the crowd to continue listening as Dass glanced over his shoulder, pausing to take in the sight of Dr Kitchlew before continuing. Still a few eyes peered up into the sky, watching the silver wobble of the plane dissolve into the sharp line of the horizon.

The time was now 5.15 in the afternoon.

The sheer volume of the crowd and the sound of rapturous applause as Dass delivered one scathing indictment after the other meant that many within the Jallianwala Bagh could not hear the sound of the oncoming vehicles, the rolling march of the soldiers or the rumbling wheels of the armoured tanks.

“Blasted thing,” General Dyer spat as he realised the narrow entranceway to the grounds meant that the armoured trucks would not be able to pass through to the grounds “leave them outside; instruct the men to make their way through the passage way. Instructions will then be given to fire.”

“We have no idea how many people will be in there,” Sgt William Anderson noted as he motioned for the troops and the occupants of the second car to make their way through the entranceway.

“I can hazard a guess that it will not be sufficient numbers for a picnic,” General Dyer snapped “and in any case, if it were to be more than four individuals, then my instructions would still be the same.”

The column of troops marched straight through the entranceway as General Dyer walked ahead of them with Sgt William Anderson by his side. As the mouth of the entranceway gave way to the sight of thousands of human bodies packed together and that of the rising voice of the speaker of the platform, Dyer gave a firm nod as the troops began to spread out on the raised platform of earth either side of the entranceway.

From the vantage point of the platform, several supporters turned to see the sight of troops neatly arranged on separate banks of earth. Some kneeled down, other standing behind them. In the space between the rows of men stood the senior European officers, bolt upright, their attention turned squarely towards the platform, their backs occasionally wilted as they surveyed the length and breadth of the considerable crowd before them.

Agaye, Agaye,” shrieked one particularly loud voice near to the platform “the army is here.”

Hans Raj immediately cut in, waving his hands in protest as he motioned for the speaker to continue “Stay. The government will not fire. There is nothing to be afraid of here.”

General Dyer had no hesitation in his mind. He could feel a distant anger rise within his chest, quelled by the absoluteness of the task at hand. These individuals had deliberately ignored his order, they had mocked him, they had not taken his rank seriously nor that of the Punjab government or the might of the British armed forces. They were holding a political, mutinous meeting in direct contravention of his order and had done so in their thousands.

He surveyed the size of the crowd quickly, glanced at his men and called out in a booming voice, the tone unemotional, detached, devoid of introspection or concern for what was to happen.

“Gurkhas right, 59th left. Fire.”

Sgt William Anderson stood behind General Dyer, with Captain Briggs just ahead of him and Mr Plomer to the left of the General who had now placed his clasped hands behind his back as he trained his eyes upon the speaker on the platform who had now ceased to speak.

“Gurkhas right, 59th left. Fire” came the repeat call from the subaltern. The voice louder this time.

Saurav Dutt is a lawyer, author and syndicated political columnist. He tweets at @sd_saurav