National and international outrage at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre led the government of Punjab to institute a ‘Disorders Inquiry Committee’ headed by Lord William Hunter. Negotiations between the Congress and the Hunter Committee broke down over disagreements about the terms upon which witnesses such as Lala Harkishen Lal could be called to give evidence before it.
Here is an eyewitness account of the ‘Congress Inquiry Committee’ which was formed after these negotiations broke down. Its author is Ruchi Ram Sahni, a retired professor of chemistry at the Government College, Lahore. The following excerpt is taken from A Memoir of Pre-partition Punjab (OUP, 2017).
The decision finally reached [to boycott the Hunter Committee] was the decision of brave men who did not like to risk so much if only some narrow escape could be found. Their demand was reduced to the absolute minimum when they said that unless the Government was prepared to allow the leaders to remain in the committee room, it may be in chains, during the course of the enquiry at least into their own individual conduct so that they might hear what was being said against them and instruct the counsel to put the necessary questions to the witnesses.
Until and unless this minimum demand was acceded to, they should risk everything and tell the government that they were not prepared to co-operate with them and that they would hold their own independent enquiry committee and publish a separate report of their own.
The memoirs speak of the difficulties faced by the Congress Enquiry Committee in carrying out their investigations:
The reader of these notes will hardly be able to realize how much the people of Punjab had been struck with terror by the happenings of the memorable week which is now glorified as the national week followed by about two months of Martial Law Regime.
One or two incidents may be mentioned here to drive home the helpless condition to which the people had been reduced. Pandit Malaviya, the idol of the Punjab Hindus, was more than once seen driving about at Amritsar in a common tum tum making enquiries as to what had happened. No one dared to come near him for fear that he should offend the officials.
No respectable person would even think on placing his gadi (vehicle) at his disposal for fear of incurring the dire displeasure of the higher officials. Even tonga walas would fight shy of driving a man like Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya about in the town lest their license should be taken away with one pretext or another by the Municipality.
Mr. C.R. Das and Pandit Moti Lal Nehru used to take their own car to Amritsar not merely for the sake of convenience, although the convenience was the most important consideration but also because they knew that they would be putting someone at very serious risk of displeasing the officials if they used the conveyance of any of the people at Amritsar: even food and drink for them were carried from Amritsar in the car.
Even so they could not induce many people to come forward and make their statements as boldly and frankly as one could have wished them to do. Many of the statements had to be verified again and again by corroborative evidence because we were afraid of official pressure being brought to bear upon the witnesses with the result that even statements recorded before the Congress Enquiry Committee and signed by the witnesses were likely to be withdrawn later under official pressure.
Some of the more startling statements which reached the Enquiry Committee were not recorded at all because they were so startling that unless we could be quite sure that the men making the statements would stick to them even under grave threats from the official influential circles, we ran serious risks of ourselves of recording statements which are not true.
Mahatma Gandhi in particular was very strong about not recording such statements at all because they exposed the witnesses to very serious risks and he would say that we had no right to do so even in the name of patriotism.
It was an interesting sight to see Mr. C.R. Das sitting in the middle of a street at Amritsar smoking his beautiful Pechwan Huqa and recording evidence of men and women living round about. We would go in his Rolls Royce in the morning and come back late in the evening; as did Pandit Moti Lal Nehru and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya.
As I have said; it was very difficult to persuade people to come forward and give evidence although they felt resentment in their hearts. One could see the frightened faces of men and women as they appeared before the judges of the Congress Committee.
The Hunter Committee continued its work:
While the independent enquires of the Congress Committee were going on, Mr. C.R. Das had made arrangements to get day after day a verbatim report of what transpired before the Hunter Enquiry Committee.
The Committee held its sittings in the Town Hall. Mr. C.R. Das had brought two expert stenographers with him to Lahore: both of them were mainly occupied with taking down the evidence tendered before the Hunter Committee. The more important evidence was taken down verbatim. Every evening the typed report of the evidence was read out to Mr. C.R. Das so that very often we could know what evidence had been given before the official committee perhaps several hours before the Governor himself came to know of it.
I remember particularly the day when one of the stenographers read out to Mr. Das the evidence of General Dyer. Mr. Das’s face brightened up and it was within 5 minutes after the evidence was read out to him, he sent the man at once to the telegraph station and asked him to wire the whole of it to his solicitor. I forgot the name of the gentleman although we saw him at Lahore when he came in connection with the Congress Enquiry Committee.
I think it cost Mr. Das something like Rs. 1500 to telegraph the whole of General Dyer’s evidence to England. It may well be imagined what a sensation it must have created in the official circles in the liberal atmosphere of Great Britian. It was a great turning point in favour of the popular view though of course the British officials are so well disciplined that they did not show the least nervousness at the exposure which General Dyer’s evidence must have made of the official position.
They put a brave face on the show and stuck to their guns that a big rebellion had been averted by the timely action of General Dyer’s: so much the worst for them because it gave a rude shock to the people’s faith in India in the good intentions of the British Government. As we know the House of Lords, by a resolution actually commended the action of General Dyer.
Meanwhile, the Congress continued to play a role behind-the-scenes in the Hunter Committee:
I should like to mention here what is perhaps not generally known that the questions asked by the Indian members of the Hunter Committee were strictly inspired by us. We had formed a small committee of 3 and 4 men with Pandit Moti Lal Nehru at its head for drafting the questions which were to be asked by Pandit Jagan Narain , Nawab Sultan Ahmad and Mr. Chiman Lal Setalwad and we knew what witnesses were to be examined by the Hunter Committee and we set about diligently collecting all the information that was suggested to us by our leaders and framing questions to be put to each witness.
Typed copies of these questions were supplied to each of the three Indian members on the previous night at the latest. Generally, I was sent with these copies to two of the gentlemen, Pandit Jagan Narain and Sultan Ahmad. I do not know who went to Mr. Setalwad.
The public was kept in the dark:
The whole thing was kept strictly confidential and the typed copies of the questions had therefore to be sent through some reliable persons who could not only hand over the copies to the Indian members of the Enquiry Committee but who could also discuss and explain the questions and supply such other information as the members might want.
Pandit Jagan Narain won a great reputation for putting a large number of searching questions not because he was better posted than the other two Indian members but simply because he occupied a position at the Enquiry Committee table which gave him the first chance among the Indian members of putting the questions.
Nawab Sultan Ahmad was the last of the three and therefore his questions were fewest because the whole list had been already exhausted by Pandit Jagan Narain and Pandit Setalwad before his turn came. All the same he was able to put some very shrewd questions and made a good reputation for his cross-examination of witnesses.
The Government must have come to know that the three Indian members were being thoroughly coached by those who had openly boycotted the official Enquiry Committee but so far as the general public is concerned, they were, I am absolutely sure in the dark about our activities.
Indeed, so were some Congress-persons:
It is but fair to add that Mahatma Gandhi was kept scrupulously ignorant of this procedure. We knew that he would have looked askance at anything that was not quite open and straightforward: the other members were not of the same mind and indeed in several things the same weapons were used which the Government would have welcomed and which indeed the Government was freely using with the great resources at its command.
I might mention an instance which shows the distance that existed between the Mahatma and the other great leaders of the Congress movement. A certain gentleman not directly connected with our movement brought an official document once which was of very great value to us for our own enquiries. The document had been obtained by means which were not quite fair. It was a confidential paper belonging to some official records of a Government department.
I told the gentleman to take it directly to Pandit Moti Lal Nehru. He knew both Pandit Moti Lal Nehru and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya fairly well. The document was shown to both these leaders and they had a good word for his cleverness and resourcefulness in obtaining a copy of such an important paper.
The man then wanted to show it to Mahatma Gandhi. I warned him against doing so but he was so filled with the idea of his own cleverness that he wanted perhaps to have a word of praise from the mouth of Gandhi ji himself as he had received from the other two great leaders. I think Mr. C.R. Das was not at Lahore at the time because I do not remember that the paper was shown to him. Anyway, our friend took it to Mahatma Gandhi.
Gandhi was not impressed:
I was not present but my friends told me what had happened. Mahatma Gandhi looked at the paper for a minute and at once asked the gentleman how he had come by it and when he told him, Mahatma Gandhi threw it away and he said he refused to look at such a dirty rag. He took the gentleman very severely to task for having put one of the officials in such a wrong position and he said our work is clean and we cannot only encourage such methods but we must positively discourage them.
He added that the information contained in that document shall not be used in the course of their enquiry and that for them that document did not exist at all.
This information was communicated by me both to Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and Pandit Moti Lal Nehru and they both said they knew what Mahatma ji would think of it. It is necessary to mention here that at this time Gandhi ji was not known as a Mahatma although now and again someone would speak of him as such. It was only when the non-co-operation movement spread during 1921 that the name Mahatma was given to Gandhi ji by the people at large.
For more about Ruchi Ram Sahni’s life, see his memoirs, or visit the blog kept by his great-grand-daughter, Neera Burra.