Nonica Datta (ND): Tell us why you wrote Jallianwala Bagh.
VN Datta (VND): I was born in Amritsar. I came from a family of Husaini Brahmins and our house was in Katra Sher Singh, which was ten minutes away from Jallianwala Bagh. As a child, from the age of six, I would go to the Bagh every day and observe the bullet marks on the walls. In fact, the walls and the well, which people jumped into, left a deep impact on my mind. These images continue to haunt me. It was horrible...

In the 1920s and ’30s, stories about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were still reverberating in the city. Amritsar was reeling under the trauma. People were trying to come to terms with the horror of violence. I was troubled by many stories of shared pain and intense suffering that I heard as a child from my elder sister, Shanti. She was ten years old in 1919, and my other sister, Shukla, was about six.

Shanti was the one who told me that my mother started beating her breasts thinking that my father had been shot dead in the garden. No one could escape this atmosphere of fear and violence. My father, Brahm Nath Datta “Qasir”, a well-known Urdu–Persian poet and a leading businessman of the city, composed a poem on the massacre.

The palpable violence of 1919 was always at the back of my mind and I began to reflect on the character of Amritsar violence and its impact on society. Also, the tragedy of Partition deeply influenced my sensibility. The tidal wave of violence swept away the unique culture of the city.

As a Husaini Brahmin, my father used to participate in Muharram and carry the tazias (symbols commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain) at Farid Chowk in pre-Partition Amritsar. Our house was a meeting point for many poets and litterateurs; among them were MD Taseer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. In 1947, my father gave shelter to his Muslim friends amid the frenzy of violence. As a result, our house was gutted by a fanatical mob that year.

Both the Jallianwala Bagh and the Partition violence wrecked the city. The palpable destruction propelled me to trace the history of the 1919 carnage as a kind of starting point to understand the vortex of imperial violence and the subsequent decline of Amritsar. Thus, my impulse to write Jallianwala Bagh, in 1969, primarily arose from having grown up in the city and witnessing the prolonged violence that it had experienced.

Another reason was that a couple of years before that I had written Amritsar: Past and Present (1967). This opened a window for me to approach the subject differently. It was a local history of the city primarily based on municipal records. From that local perspective, I moved to study the event that had hit the city so violently and irreparably wounded its people’s psyche and pride. I wonder if I would have been able to write the book on Jallianwala Bagh had I not written about the history of Amritsar city!

ND: What is unique about your pioneering work?
VND: I was among the first Indians to have studied the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh and to explore the connection between the local and the national. My work is based on archival sources and oral testimonies of survivors, witnesses as well as private papers (for example, the MR Jayakar papers). While tracing the history of the massacre, in my book and other subsequent works, I tried to maintain a fair balance between the objective investigation expected of a professional historian and personal empathy for the city I grew up in.

My discovery of Vols VI and VII of the Disorders Inquiry Committee Evidence (also known as the Hunter Committee, appointed on 14 October 1919), which I later edited, proved to be indispensable for my work. These latter volumes included consolidated reports secretly maintained by the British government, which had been suppressed and withdrawn on grounds of political and military exigencies. These reports were compiled by the government in limited numbers for official use until Sir Sankaran Nair flourished it in the O’Dwyer v Nair case.

I found these volumes at the National Archives in New Delhi and brought them to the notice of scholars. I was able to discover hitherto unknown facts. The evidence gave key insights into the study of the events leading up to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Comparisons between the Hunter Committee Report and the Congress Punjab Inquiry Committee Report yielded fruitful insights.

Even within the Hunter Committee Report, there were contradictory stances: The Majority and Minority reports differed from each other, while there were some points of convergence between the Minority Report and the Congress Report. Interviews with local residents and family friends provided an altogether new dimension to my work.

I tried to understand the massacre, or what I also called a carnage, from various perspectives and steered it away from a sole focus on the provincial and nationalist dimension. This does not mean that I overlooked the larger imperial and regional imperatives, but I decided to ask a different set of questions. Apart from a meticulous use of the archives, I spoke to many survivors of the incident who, as boys, were in the crowd.

For instance, my father’s friend, Rattan Chand Kapur, as a sixteen-year-old, was present in the Bagh on 13 April. When Dyer’s soldiers shot, Rattan Chand thought that they were firing blanks and cried aloud, “Phokian, phokian” (blanks). But then the crowd shouted, “Maare gaye (we are dying)“, Rattan Chand ran fast for a mile. He was hit on the foot. He had a limp for the rest of his life. He showed me the bullet scar.

People lived in constant terror of British surveillance in the aftermath of the massacre. Fearing for his son’s life, Rattan Chand’s father asked him to throw his Congress Seva Samiti (Boy Scout’s Association) badge into the pond, which he did.

Memories of that long dark night following Dyer’s shooting kept coming back to me while I was researching for the book. It was as if I was moving between two worlds – that of the archive and local memory. I interviewed people who gave me graphic details of the incident which was fresh in their minds.

Many recounted in great detail the scene in the Bagh on that ominous night. Corpses lay all around. The air was filled with painful moans of the wounded who were crying for water and help. There were echoes of their sighs, “Haye, haye.”

Only a few dared to walk into the Bagh looking for their dear ones with the faint hope that they were still alive. Two such brave women who fearlessly walked into the garden were Attar Kaur and Rattan Devi. I spoke to them at length and listened to the woeful accounts of their search for their husbands’ bodies in the garden. Attar Kaur was pregnant and had to bring back the dead body with immense difficulty.

ND: Can you tell us why you say that the massacre was not an isolated phenomenon?
VND: It’s a complex question. We need to consider the wider economic and political developments taking place in India and the world. The resources provided by India and especially the Punjab to Britain in the First World War had caused a strain on the economy. The coercive recruitment campaign during the Great War was felt mostly in the Punjab followed by massive demobilisation in its aftermath.

The Ghadrites had become increasingly radical. The regressive Rowlatt Act opened a new space for Gandhi to launch his satyagraha. The country was seething with resentment. The tyrannical administration under Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab, had alienated the Punjabis. The Rowlatt agitation had rapidly gained ground in the Punjab and local leaders like Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal played a key role in it.

ND: How would you interpret Dyer’s action?
VND: It’s not so simple. A historian is like a detective. History is an interim report. By writing a biographical chapter on Dyer and examining his intention in my book, I set out to understand the calculating mind at work behind the sinister action. In the chapter, “Why Did Dyer Shoot?”, I rejected the prevailing argument that Dyer had arteriosclerosis. Instead, I maintained that Dyer was absolutely sure of what he was doing.

The incidents of 10 April are crucial to understanding what was to follow three days later. Amritsar’s leaders Kitchlew, Satyapal, Bugga, Ratto had been arrested. Amritsar was hit by a storm of violence. People reacted sharply to the firing and the killing of twenty locals in the city. The molestation of a lady missionary, Miss Sherwood, the looting of banks and post offices are significant factors to understand Dyer’s subsequent dastardly action in Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April.

Recognising the relevance of wider political developments and the British context does not preclude us from studying Dyer’s intentions. He was incensed by what happened in Amritsar. His action was triggered by feelings of revenge shaped by a visceral racial hostility towards the city’s people. Above all, he also feared a mutiny-like situation, a repeat of 1857.

Dyer was informed by Miles Irving, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, that the civil control of the city was at an end. Dyer feared that the city had been seized by the people of Amritsar and it was his duty to recapture it. Before them [Dyer and Irving] lay the task of controlling a hostile population of 1,60,000.

ND: Was Dyer solely responsible for the massacre?
VND: You can’t easily answer this question. There are always conditioning circumstances in history. However, this is not to exonerate Dyer for what he did. He was in full charge. He had the backing of Michael O’Dwyer and Lord Chelmsford. There was no police. The deputy commissioner, too, was absent from the scene. Remember, there was no Martial Law in Amritsar and Lahore until 15 April 1919. People went to the garden totally unprepared for the calamity that awaited them.

Not only was Dyer conscious of what he was doing, but the whole affair was devised principally by him. During the Hunter Committee Inquiry, he told the eminent jurist, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, that he would have taken machine guns inside if the entrance lane was not so narrow.

Dyer was clever enough to bring in Indian soldiers, Gurkhas and Baluchis, to do the shooting. There were local agents like Hans Raj to assist him in his plan. Hans Raj was an agent provocateur, a government approver, who laid out the ground. When Dyer arrived with his troops, it was Hans Raj who manipulated the crowd by pacifying and assuring them that the government meant no harm.

A leading lawyer of Amritsar, Hans Raj Mittal, among other residents, told me that the Jallianwala Bagh episode was a conspiracy hatched by Hans Raj. My greatest regret is that I could not trace Hans Raj. His role has been largely ignored in the mainstream history of Jallianwala Bagh. Perhaps future historians will explore and unearth evidence of his role and disappearance.

ND: Why did you study the crowd in the Bagh?
VND: I studied the crowd because ultimately it was their tragedy. It comprised peasants from nearby villages, who had come for the cattle fair and Baisakhi festival. There were also domestic workers, craftsmen, artisans and young boys who were playing cards or just hanging around. No prominent leader, national or provincial or even local, was present in the Bagh. It is important to note that before the massacre took place, Jallianwala Bagh was merely a dumping ground of hardly any political significance.

I discovered that it was not really a political gathering that assembled in the Bagh on 13 April. Contrary to Dyer’s claim to the Hunter Committee, this was not the same rebellious mob that had gone violent on 10 April 1919. Let me add that women and children, as is generally believed, and particularly recorded by MR Jayakar, were in reality not present in the Bagh. The figures on the plaque stating that thousands perished are exaggerated. On the basis of local police records, I questioned both official and Congress estimates and ascertained that about 700 people were killed.

ND: You also studied the impact of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. Tell us about its legacy.

VND: Of course, what followed after the Punjab atrocities proved to be most decisive. Punjab came under Martial Law from 15 April. The state entered into a punitive relationship with the Punjabis. On 14 April, in Lahore, popular leaders like Ram Bhaj Dutt, Harkishan Lal, Duni Chand were arrested. They were sentenced to transportation for life and forfeiture of property (and released under the King’s Proclamation of Amnesty towards the end of 1919) by a special Martial Law Tribunal. The Tribune editor Kali Nath Roy was arrested, as was Sir Manohar Lal for seditious writings.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a watershed in the history of Indian nationalism. It prepared the ground for a new nationalist leadership and paved the way for Gandhi’s emergence as a major figure of the country, bringing him to the forefront of the anti-colonial movement. Jallianwala Bagh, thus, changed the idiom of Indian nationalism.

He set out to raise funds for the erection of a memorial at Jallianwala Bagh. He held the Congress session in Amritsar in December 1919. He said: “I must regard my participation in Congress proceedings at Amritsar as my real entrance into Congress politics.” Jawaharlal Nehru hailed the Amritsar Congress as the first “Gandhi Congress”. After 1919, the Congress entered into a different political phase of mass nationalism. Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh were products of the massacre. Their heroism, patriotism and revolutionary stance grew in the light of the Amritsar atrocity.

Nationalist histories tend to present the Jallianwala Bagh event as an integral part of the national movement. Although the mainstream leadership appropriated the Jallianwala Bagh incident into the ambit of Gandhi’s satyagraha and non-cooperation movement, it is important to identify and connect the causes, nature and consequences of the carnage within their own framework.

The larger British imperial context and the national, provincial and local circumstances complicate the picture. There was tension between the Congress leadership and the local leaders of Amritsar and the Punjab who were brushed aside.

See what happened to Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew. I knew him very well. In the 1940s, my father gave him shelter in his house. Kitchlew was immensely popular with the people of Amritsar, but he died in utter poverty, abandoned and forgotten. Except for Jawaharlal Nehru, nobody cared for him.

In my book, I have tried to move away from a nationalist hagiography of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It’s not easy to craft a history of this tangled happening. However, there is no doubt that it changed the course of Indian nationalism and its subsequent trajectory. The year 1919 forever transformed the political complexion of the Punjab. Thus, it was a turning point. The raw wounds caused by the tyranny of military violence continue to bleed!

ND: How was this work received by historians?
VND: The book was widely appreciated by scholars. It became a standard work on the massacre, providing fresh directions for future researchers. Historians seldom relied on eyewitness accounts in those days. I complemented archival sources with oral testimonies. The variety of diverse materials proved indispensable to my book, and the discrepancies between different sets of sources enabled me to grasp the complexity of the massacre. Writing Jallianwala Bagh has been the most fulfilling experience for me, more so as succeeding generations continue to draw on it.

This interview is one of a series of interviews with VN Datta conducted by Nonica Datta between April 2019 and November 2020 in New Delhi.

Excerpted with permission from Jallianwala Bagh: A groundbreaking history of the 1919 massacre, VN Datta, with an introduction by Nonica Datta, Penguin Books.