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.

“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.