Armed forces

In Kashmir, India Is Witnessing Its General Dyer Moment

There are chilling similarities between the justifications advanced for the actions of the British Indian army in Punjab in 1919 and those being offered today in defence of the acts of the Indian army in Kashmir.

Farooq Ahmad Dar being used as a human shield. Credit: Video screengrab

Farooq Ahmad Dar being used as a human shield. Credit: Video screengrab

“It was my duty – my horrible, dirty duty,” the general explained. “I had the choice of carrying out a very distasteful and horrible duty or of neglecting to do my duty, of suppressing disorder or of becoming responsible for all future bloodshed. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

Those are the words of Brigadier-General (temporary) Reginald Dyer, known in Indian history as “the butcher of Amritsar”. He was defending his orders in April 1919 when his troops fired 1,650 rounds for about ten minutes on an unarmed crowd of some 20,000 who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh. By official count, 379 people were killed, but local estimates claimed that the figure was over a thousand. Every schoolchild in India knows the momentous effect this incident had on the course of nationalist politics in India.

An unpleasant reflection

There are times when one looks in the mirror and is shocked to see a face one doesn’t recognise – the repulsive face of a nasty stranger. Most Indians will find it hard to believe that as a nation state we have just arrived at our own General Dyer moment. But careful and detached reflection will show chilling similarities between the justifications advanced for the actions of the British Indian army in Punjab in 1919 and those being offered today, nearly a century later, in defence of the acts of the Indian army in Kashmir.

Called upon to defend a polling station against a stone-pelting crowd during the recent by-election in Jammu and Kashmir in which only 7% of voters showed up, Major Leetul Gogoi had Farooq Ahmad Dar, who was passing by on his motorbike, strapped to the bonnet of an army jeep and paraded through the streets for hours, supposedly to deter the crowds from throwing stones at the security forces. When video images of the event began to circulate in the media on April 14 (the same day, incidentally, when in 1919 the world came to know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre), a horrified public began to ask questions. Taken aback, the army ordered a court of inquiry. But even before its report could be published, General Bipin Rawat, the army chief, stepped in to present Major Gogoi with a certificate of commendation for his distinguished services in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir.

Subsequently, in a press interview, Rawat offered an extended justification of Major Gogoi’s tactics, making it clear that this was no one-off incident but part of a new phase in the army’s campaigns. Strongly supported by statements from senior ministers of the Union government, Rawat’s interview pointed to something like a new politico-military strategy to deal with the problem of Kashmir. “It is a dirty war,” the general said. “That is where innovation comes in. You fight a dirty war with innovations.” When Major Gogoi decided to use a civilian as a human shield, he had in fact invented an innovative tactic by which he could protect his men from the stone-throwing crowd without shooting at it. “If my men ask me what do we do, should I say, just wait and die? I will come with a nice coffin with a national flag and I will send your bodies home with honour. Is it what I am supposed to tell them as chief?” The difficulty was, of course, that the army had to deal with a civilian enemy that did not use firearms. “In fact,” he said, “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I…,” he said, leaving the sentence unfinished but making his thought eerily transparent. When dealing with an insurgent populace – an amorphous and unconventional enemy – he had to think of the army’s morale. “That is my job,” he said. “I always tell my people, things will go wrong, but if things have gone wrong and you did not have mala fide intent, I am there.” General Rawat was fully backing what Major Gogoi had done.

Dyer’s ‘innovative ways’

Dyer too thought he was faced with an insurgent populace. His principal duty was to establish order and restore the authority of the government. As in the rest of the country, there had been agitations in Amritsar against the Rowlatt Act, but when Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, the main organisers, were arrested and deported from Punjab, events took an ugly turn. Crowds assembled at various points and threw stones at the troops which then fired back. Twelve people were killed. By the evening, crowds set fire to numerous public buildings, five Europeans were beaten to death and an English woman – a doctor – was left for dead though she later recovered in hospital. Two days later, Dyer arrived in Amritsar, declared all public assemblies illegal and when people gathered for the baisakhi festival at Jallianwala Bagh, decided they must be taught an exemplary lesson.

Dyer too devised innovative ways to establish the authority of British arms in Punjab. Martial law was declared, summary trials were held and over a hundred people were sentenced to death, of whom 18 were hanged in public before the practice was stopped. The most common form of punishment for the violation of curfew rules was public flogging. Dyer’s most notorious innovation was the “crawling lane” – the street where Miss Sherwood, the English doctor, had been beaten. Those wishing to pass through the street, including its residents, were made to crawl on all fours, sliding on their bellies as soldiers kicked them or prodded them with their bayonets. He explained his action with a bizarre flourish of Orientalist knowledge: “The order meant that the street should be regarded as holy ground, and that, to mark this fact, no one was to traverse it except in a manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the East be traversed.” Dyer was clear that his job as an army man was to create a “moral effect” throughout the province. “These were rebels and I must not treat them with gloves on. Yes, throughout the Punjab, I wanted to reduce their moral; the moral of the rebels.” (One assumes that he meant “their morale”.) He was also mindful of the need to make his actions that day have a lasting effect on the people: merely dispersing the crowd was not enough. “I could disperse them for some time, then they would all come back and laugh at me and I considered I would be making myself a fool.” What was at stake was the very authority of the Raj.

General Rawat too was forthright about maintaining the authority of the army over a potentially restive civilian population. “Adversaries must be afraid of you and at the same time your people must be afraid of you. We are a friendly army, but when we are called to restore law and order, people have to be afraid of us.” Hence, innovative methods of dealing with violent crowds had to be devised with the future in mind. “Tomorrow elections have to be held in Anantnag and similar things may happen. If the army does not respond to calls for assistance, then the trust between the people whom we are protecting – police and army – will break. That is something I cannot allow to happen.”

When does a nation’s army start to believe that to preserve its authority, it must be feared by its own people?

We should remember that even though most Indians today believe that the Jallianwala Bagh killings were unprovoked and unwarranted, the British authorities in Punjab, led by the governor Michael O’Dwyer, were convinced that a major conspiracy had been laid by Congress leaders to create massive disorder throughout the country leading to a revolt against British rule on a scale not seen since 1857. O’Dwyer and other senior officials in India fully backed Dyer, calling him “the saviour of the Punjab.” Political reactions in Britain, however, were less charitable. The secretary of war, Winston Churchill, no lover of Indian nationalists, was appalled by such wanton and needless violence: it was “a monstrous event,” he said, “an event which stands in sinister and singular isolation”. Asquith said: “It is one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.” Edwin Montagu, as secretary of state for India, formed a committee of inquiry which, some months later, censured Dyer for “a mistaken conception of his duty” and called his crawling order “an act of humiliation” which “punished innocent as well as guilty” and caused “bitterness and racial ill-feeling”. But Tory imperialists and those with India connections kept up their full-throated support for Dyer when he returned to Britain, feting him and raising for him a fund of some £26,000, not a small sum those days. In fact, Dyer became for some time a popular national hero in Britain.

Mixing politics and the military

In Major Gogoi’s case, even though the army has set up a court of inquiry, it is the political leadership that has most vociferously defended his cause. Arun Jaitley, the defence minister, said that when there was “a war-like situation”, military officers should be allowed to make their own decisions. Venkaiah Naidu “totally agreed” with General Rawat that there was a dirty war going on in Kashmir. And Rajnath Singh hinted that a new strategy was being devised that would ensure a “permanent solution” to the Kashmir problem. Major Gogoi himself was allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to defend his action in the public media even as the inquiry against him was on, something that is unprecedented in the history of the armed forces of independent India. Only a few retired military personnel, representing a disappearing old guard, have expressed their horror at such outrageous behaviour by a professional army. Lieutenant-General H.S. Panag, the most distinguished among them, said that Major Gogoi’s act was “illegal and inhuman” and that the image of Dar tied to the jeep’s bonnet could end up, like the napalm girl of Vietnam, as the defining image of the Indian army in Kashmir. But such voices of sanity are being drowned by the patriotic cacophony of political cheerleaders.

Most Indians will find it hard to believe that as a nation state we have just arrived at our own General Dyer moment. Credit: PTI/Wikimedia Commons

Most Indians will find it hard to believe that as a nation state we have just arrived at our own General Dyer moment. Credit: PTI/Wikimedia Commons

These events seem to point to an impending transformation in the relation of the military with the civilian wing of the government, on the one hand, and society, on the other. For nearly seven decades, the professional armed forces of India, a country in which there is no compulsory military service, have been kept firmly under civilian control and out of politics. There is little by way of public celebration of the exploits of the national army and even a victory such as that in 1971 has few memorials. Until very recently, retired generals have almost never entered politics. This is particularly significant because of all democracies in the world, India has had the longest and most extensive counter-insurgency operations within its own national territory of which Jaitley’s “war-like situation” is only a euphemism. The problem that Indian rulers have faced is how to keep the army constantly deployed in combating domestic unrest without letting military leaders make political decisions. An impartial observer would have to admit that thus far both political and military leaders have done a fairly good job.

That situation seems to be changing. Retired military officers are being invited to join political parties, run for elections and become ministers. The army’s exploits, both within and outside the country’s borders, are loudly and spectacularly projected in the media to bolster the ruling party’s hyper-nationalist ideology. Serving officers are encouraged to appear in public forums and echo the political line. This is being done, we are told, in order to give the armed forces their much deserved place of honour in society. What is not being realised is that there is only a small gap between a privileged place of honour and the paternalist claim to the power to punish, especially for a branch of the state that has an overwhelming superiority in the use of armed violence. When does a nation’s army start to believe that to preserve its authority, it must be feared by its own people?

It would be unfair to suggest that General Rawat’s motives are the same as those of Dyer. Rather, the similarity in their words stems from a structural feature that is now being revealed in the way in which the Indian army is permanently deployed in regions under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – like an occupying force in a conquered colony. The example of Israel that is often cited these days as the model from which India should learn is, in this context, particularly troubling. Israel is, properly speaking, a settler colony that regards Palestinians as a hostile and rebellious other that must be subdued and kept apart. Is that what India’s political leaders believe their relation must be to the people of Kashmir or Manipur or Nagaland? One can only hope that as a nation, we have not reached the edge of a slippery slope. Otherwise, our General Dyer moment could prove to be the precursor to a General Ayub Khan moment. Or is it Yahya Khan or Zia-ul-Haq who will be the preferred role models?

Partha Chatterjee is a social scientist and historian.

  • alok asthana

    Yes, Gen Rawat has screwed up royally. And it must be pointed out that an equally dangerous portent is that of the military agreeing to please the political masters, even when clearly wrong. Very dangerous.
    Also note that not all retired army officers are supporting this. There have been a reasonable number of posts of protests from veterans. Enough to rattle Gen Rawat.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Major Gogoi’s action has been justified and praised by claiming that it prevented violence and thereby saved lives. Ok, I buy that (though from Gen Rawat’s words I suspect the “lives” being referred to here are the Army’s rather than Kashmiris).
    But – by choosing THIS PARTICULAR METHOD of doing so, Maj Gogoi showed his utter contempt for the common Kashmiri, as well as the confidence that he would have the support of his superiors in the army and the government. I consider it equivalent to an upper caste Hindu wishing to distribute food in a poor Dalit village, but then getting the actual distribution done by one of the Dalit villagers instead of doing it himself as he is afraid of getting “polluted”.
    As a symbol of India’s disdain and arrogance towards Kashmiris, Maj Gogoi’s action – whatever be its supposed “good intent” – stands right up there. It proves to Kashmiris that the heavy jackboot of the Indian army shall always hang over their heads and they should expect no sympathy when it comes down on them.

  • Rohini

    delusional dishonest and mischievous balderdash dished out by a mental lightweight charading as an intellectual.
    only those equally delusional will take this unbalanced ‘comparison’ seriously.
    get well soon, author and The Wire.

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    What’s happening in Kashmir – and other parts of India (the north-east, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand among other places) – is indeed a Jalianwalabag-type massacre carried out in installments over time and space. But the present Indian successors of General Dyer and Michael O. Dwyer (the then Governor of Punjab, who presided over the killing ) should remember that evil deeds never go unpunished. Deliverance of justice may take long years. Let me remind them that 21 years after the Jalianwalabag massacre (1919), Michael O’Dwyer was assassinated by a young Indian student Udham Singh on March 13, 1940 in a meeting at Buxton Hall, London.

  • Nobody

    he compared the justification offered not the act itself. please read.

    • Bina Ramani

      so if different justification is provided then writer will appreciate the action?. LOL

  • Nobody

    he is a well regarded and renowned historian. he doesn’t need to justify his credentials all the time.

  • alok asthana

    Bharath – The point is NOT about the forces. It is about the civilian, Mr Dar. India is still a nation with a constitution and laws. Is not a banana republic, though Modi is trying hard for it to become on.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Since you asked, I am responding. Please do have the patience to read through my reply.

    Dont we realize that there are too many unanswered questions about this “situation”, as you called it? See e.g.
    http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/kashmir-human-shield-row-claims-and-counter-claims-by-army-major-man-tied-to-jeep/story-7PeTcmfehN9NwtnoP2kKDN.html or https://thewire.in/125186/human-shield-kashmir-dar/.
    Some of these questions are:
    1. What was the exact nature of the immediate situation that demanded such a response? Was Maj Gogoi’s team really under attack and at risk of death at that moment?
    2. Whatever be the situation at that point of time, why was Mr Dar subsequently paraded around villages for 5 hours while being tied to the jeep?
    3. I find it hard to believe that this 5-hour parading happened without Maj Gogoi’s superiors being aware of the matter. The army works STRICTLY through a chain of command. So did Maj Gogoi get permission for this parading? Where did the chain of command stop? Was the MoD aware of it?
    4. And if Maj Gogoi did not consult with his superiors, he is personally guilty of a war crime for parading Mr Dar for several hours without apparent provocation.
    5. Has Maj Gogoi been honored by the Army precisely so that he can keep quiet about where he got his orders from? Are more honors on the way so that his higher ups are kept safe?
    1f. This is the army, for goodness sakes! They (should) have Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for EVERYTHING. So what is their SOP for dealing with stone pelters? Why did Maj Gogoi not follow those SOPs? And if there are no SOPs for such situations, that’s even worse.
    6. Every profession has good and bad people. What sort of man is Maj Gogoi? What is his past record as a soldier? Did he do what he did purely for selfish reasons, for personal gain?

    Asking these questions is necessary because if we claim that Kashmir is ours, then so are its people and we owe the answers to them as fellow countrymen. The response (or lack thereof) to this incident from our leaders does nothing to assure Kashmiris that they BELONG. Instead, it only reinforces the idea of the Indian Army as an occupying force, happily violating human rights under the protection of AFSPA with the full support of Delhi. So it is up to us – common citizens and whatever is left of free media – to get answers to these questions and stop having the ridiculous notion that the army is the victim. The army in Kashmir has a deplorable record anyway when it comes to human rights – abductions, rapes, false encounters, wrongful incarceration of innocent people for years….over the decades, the list has grown long and the grudges against the army are many.

    And lastly – setting everything else aside, dont you feel the slightest bit of compassion for Farooq Ahmad Dar as a fellow human being, a man with pride and dignity and feelings? What if this happened to your father, or brother, or son? Wouldn’t you want answers?

    I bet you would.

  • Harish Puri

    The similarities are indeed ominous. It is a timely warning. We need to read Dyer’s version of Jallianwala Bagh massacre to learn a lesson from it. The use of term ” dirty war”‘ against your own people tells of a disturbing mindset. Still time to save India from going the Pakistan way of a democratically elected government becoming a willing hostage to ‘military intelligence’.

  • The Wire
  • Rohini

    Yes, YOU must know your tribe of ‘WE’ as you belong to it, by your own admission. No doubt they and you are all that you say and more – uncompassionate, hateful, racist (as your ‘we’ seem to only think in terms of races, ethinicities), unempathetic brainwashed, cruel, arrogant.

    May I humbly say that I do not have membership of your tribe of ‘WE’ and that you cannot presume to co-opt me into it?

    And you have not one point to make about the Gen Dyer comparison? Interesting!

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Thanks. But you havent really answered the questions, merely brushed them off as unnecessary since the army has spoken and you consider its version of events to be the absolute truth (and Mr Dar to be a consummate liar). But the reality is that we DONT know what really happened that day. Only an independent unbiased inquiry can arrive at it, but even that is unlikely now since the commendation to Maj Gogoi has achieved the classic fait accompli.
    To what you asked me at the end of your post – well, to be honest I doubt I could have stayed “innocent” for too long if I were Nilofer Jan’s father, or Rafiq Shah’s mother, or Tariq Ahmad Dar’s wife.
    The list of atrocities of the Indian army (and state police) in Kashmir is long and well documented – and well ignored. But, deep down inside there’s the inescapable reality and truth of Kashmir that will play out in its natural course, no matter how much it is trivialized or swept aside. Whether that playing out shall ultimately end in tragedy, that’s the question. As things stand at this moment, it will.

  • Atanu Kar

    Why don’t you talk about the propriety of ordering mass murder of innocent unarmed people by a butcher called Dyer and comparing that with the propriety of a smart Major ordering the tying up of a stone pelter to a jeep to save people from bloodshed.

  • Dr Zubair Tramboo

    The comparison by the author seems like an exaggeration. But the least Army could have done was to let the matter die out with time. (like all the cases involving officials and influencial people) But by praising the act they have rubbed salt to wounds.

  • KMR

    Sorry Boss! The days when the government to listen to the youth of Kashmir have gone. Enough is enough. Now it is time for them to understand what the rest of country thinks and better mend their ways or else face consequences.

  • KMR

    Please go and read relevant provisions of international law before making such sweeping comments.

  • thistooshallpass

    How can you tie a man to the front of a jeep and use him as a potential shield.

    What the major did was wrong. The army might defend him and the government may defend him because they have no option.

    But no human being will support this action. Further does this mean the government will support the police if they tie up a tribal to a jeep and use him as a shield in maoist territory.

  • Maj Akaash

    You do your job, we will do ours….

  • Rohini

    Sentiments and logic cannot go together. And if your logic is like that of the author’s, I wish you ‘get well soon’ as I did him.

  • Subhash Premi

    Sir, I am sorry to say that you just know nothing about your cousins, nor do you know anything about the exemplary restraint our valiant army jawans have exhibited in Kashmir. Imagine yourself in full military fatigues and having a loaded gun in your hand,being kicked by your so-called “cousins” and your not reacting at all, continuing to walk even when helmet is taken off from your head and thrown on the road. I would love to see your Common-sense then.

  • Rohini

    This article was pure click bait and The Wire should thank Republic TV which helped you on your way, yesterday! Give credit where it’s due, folks-at-TheWire 😉

  • Rohini

    It’s ridiculous to compare the Indian army general to Dyer – that’s the thrust of my stand.

  • Rohini

    Deflection.

  • Rohini

    Here, then, is an example of the hefty intellectualism of left liberals – Ranjit Roy. Oh, what a giant mind….

  • Rohini

    My point is the man has no point and is indulging in malafide click bait.