The Dyer Debate: Partha Chatterjee Responds

As I said in my article, the similarities in the language of justification stem not from the acts themselves but from a structural similarity between the two situations of military deployment.

Ambassador Vivek Katju has given us a fair, if predictable, defence of the comments made by General Bipin Rawat in support of Major Leetul Gogoi’s controversial action. I am grateful to Katju for giving me this opportunity to restate my central argument which, unfortunately, has been lost in the noisy and ill-informed debate in the media. Katju makes two points: one, that I am wrong to claim that the prolonged – virtually permanent – deployment of the army in certain regions of the country gives it the character of a colonial occupying force, and two, that I ignore the fact that the army has been engaged for more than three decades in fighting a proxy war in Kashmir against Pakistan.

Much could be said about insurgency and counter-insurgency in the hill states of the North-east. First, the fact that these territories came to be included within the borders of independent India owes a great deal to the accidents of British colonial conquests in the region. Second, the Indian nationalist movement had almost no presence or impact there. Third, even the British administered the region as a zone of exception, putting it within a chief commissioner’s province where many of the legal restraints on executive power did not apply. These structural features were inherited by the Indian administration after independence. Many of the methods used in counter-insurgency operations in the Naga Hills in the 1950s and 1960s would horrify the Indian public today: few people outside the region knew about them at the time. Without going into the history of North-east policy, it is enough to remind us that even today people in the region almost universally refer to outsiders as “Indians” and the army as “the Indian army”. Correspondingly, there are numerous known incidents which suggest that people in other parts of India do not recognise those from the north-eastern hill states as their own people. Despite the undoubtedly well-intentioned statements of policymakers and commentators, those are still the facts of everyday life.

Army personnel stationed in those regions quickly learn those facts. They have to, in order to do their job and survive. They imbibe an attitude of distrust and suspicion of the local people and look upon them as strange and potentially dangerous. They see their task as one of exercising authority over local populations and putting down the threat of rebellion. They have an unenviable task. Trained to defend the country’s borders against foreign enemies, they are asked to fight insurgency at home. No matter what the constitution or the law says, the people they must bring under control can hardly be regarded by the soldiers as their own people. That is the structure of a colonial relationship that has come to prevail between the army and the people in the north-eastern states. Hard as it is for us to accept, we cannot wish it away.

Coming to Kashmir, the fact that Pakistan has been involved in the agitations there in the last 30 years does not invalidate my comparison with Amritsar in 1919. General Dyer and his civilian boss, Michael O’Dwyer, spoke repeatedly of a large conspiracy to create disorder in the country and referred, in particular, to German involvement with various Indian rebel groups during the First World War, especially with the Ghadar movement which had deep roots in Punjab. O’Dwyer in particular was convinced that what the Punjab administration was facing was the threat of an uprising on the scale of 1857 which Dyer had successfully scotched. Dyer too said repeatedly in his statements that his action at Jallianwala Bagh was intended to prevent the massive bloodshed that would have occurred if the disturbances had been allowed to spread. Once again, as I said in my article, the similarities in the language of justification stem not from the acts themselves – it is patently true that Major Gogoi did not shoot at the protesters – but from a structural similarity between the two situations of military deployment.

Whatever one’s position on the present political situation in Kashmir, one finds it impossible to accept that thousands of ordinary people there are risking so much by joining the protests merely to do the bidding of a foreign power across the border. As I have explained above, it is unfair to blame the Indian soldiers, or even their commanders, for the way they go about their task in Kashmir. But it is futile to suggest that their fight is really against a foreign enemy. Rather, the blame lies with the political rulers who, time after time, have shown their lack of faith in the democratic desires of the Kashmiri people. But this is not the place to discuss Kashmir politics.

Finally, let us remember that the British Indian army was not disbanded at the time of independence but incorporated into the structure of the new Indian state, carrying with it the entire baggage of colonial campaigns in its regimental histories. This was done on the understanding that it would be a professional army, now under the command of a democratically elected civilian government, and not an army based on the ‘patriotic duty’ of compulsory military service. Young men and women would choose to join the military as a career and not because of political zeal. It has been the unique achievement of Indian democracy to maintain that relation, despite the fact that the army has been sent out so often to fight domestic insurgency. However, recent events suggest that there is a deliberate attempt under way to change that balance. My article was a sincere plea to keep the armed forces out of public political debate. I strongly believe that India’s democratic society can ill afford a politicised army or an army that believes it is the saviour of the nation. There are too many negative examples in history for us to take that potentially disastrous step.

Partha Chatterjee is a historian and social scientist