Even after the massacre, while sitting on the capstone of the terrible well in the Bagh, Saadat Hasan Manto had felt the horror of the whole affair and chronicled it. The atmosphere of the Bagh was still roaring with the vibration of bullets. It was as if the cries of people running for their lives still rand in his ears.
Manto has written in his short story Deevana Shayir,
“The rustle of dry leaves beneath my footsteps was making a sound like the breaking of dried bones. I felt on every step as if countless corpses are lying on the evergreen bed of grass. I quickened my steps and with beating heart sat on the platform that was constructed around the well.”
While sitting at that well, he had met an insane poet who was greatly aggrieved over that injustice and was reminding him of the blood spilled in the Bagh. Manto said to him,
“I was young at the time of this incident so very foggy traces of it remain in my mind. I have a lot of respect in my heart for these people who had sacrificed their lives for their motherland and passion for freedom. Bullets were raining ‘Trr trr’. People were dying over each other fleeing everywhere in horror. Death is gruesome, but oppression is many times more terrifying and gruesome!”
There were bullet marks on the wall in front of the well and the broken square latticed window. These innumerable marks on the walls appeared as if thousands of bloody eyes were watching. The legs of many men hanging by the walls around the Bagh were turned inwards and the heads and arms were clinging outwards on the corner at the edge of the wall. The Gurkha soldiers had kept them within the hail of bullets from every position. They were those unfortunate ones who had climbed above to scale the wall, viewing it to be of a lower height from that point – and upon coming within range of the bullets and upon viewing from the inside, it appeared as if the dhobi had spread out many different kinds of clothes to dry.
Those who unhesitatingly went out the narrow gate, ripping through the soldiers’ positions in the chaos, were being fired upon from the rear. There was a river of human bodies flowing from the Bagh to the Bazaar.
Those poor ones who avoided the bullets that day had to cross the 25-yard piece of land that went towards the Sabzi Mandi, crawling on the ground on their bellies. They were not even allowed to utilize elbows or knees for the purpose. It had been made a law that the people should cross by moving like a snake on their bellies here. There a row of soldiers taking position were ready to fire bullets all the time. Whoever rose on their elbows would be shot.
Then another tactic was used: bullets were continuously fired a foot or half-foot above the crawling bodies and the people saving their lives stuck their heads in the ground and began to crawl on their toes aided by their nails. Whoever got the opportunity would join this crawling crowd of serpents by falling on his head. Even then some blind bullet would hit a skull and the head sunk in the earth would leave behind a wide line of blood.
A few parts in the aforementioned narrative are derived from Saadat Hasan Manto’s first
This was the only way to move away after getting out of the Bagh safe and sound.
Far in the distance inside the lane from Fareed Chowk, young Saadat was looking outside his window. Evening was setting in for the night. The bazaar was deserted except for the sound of the wind. After momentary pauses, the noise of bullets could be heard. They were punctuated by the painful voices of humans – though these screams were far from Saadat’s hearing.
Suddenly he heard the sound of someone moaning within his visual range from the window. He spotted a boy coming from the chowk – screaming, running, stumbling. He finally stumbled badly at a spot exactly opposite to their house and fell. He was injured. Saadat became really scared at this sight. He ran to his father and said, “Abba abba someone has fallen there in the bazaar. He is also bleeding.”
Upon hearing this Ghulan Hasan Manto went to the window and saw that indeed a young boy was lying outside, face-down. He had a wound on his calf from which a lot of blood was oozing.
But he did not have the courage to go near and help the boy. He knew all too well the horrible conditions outside. And so it occurred to no one to pick up the boy from the road and, at the very least, lay him down on the platform of the shop in front.
He remained there gasping, dying.
“Abba jan, has someone hit that boy?” Manto asked his father.
The father shut the window and went into the room, nodding. The noise of bullets coming from the direction of the Bagh had abated. Saadat stood thinking how much pain that boy would have felt from such a big wound. Once he could not sleep the whole night due to a prick from a pen-knife; and his parents had sat by his bedside. The moment this thought came to him, he felt as if that wound was in his own calf and caused him acute pain.
When his mother came inside, she caressed him upon seeing him crying. She asked, ‘My son, why are you crying?”
“Ammi has someone hit that injured boy?” he was pointing a finger outside the window.
The mother had heard about the injured boy and the conditions outside from her husband. “He must have done something wrong!” the mother said to him, trying to change the topic.
“But in school a mischief or wrong is punished with a cane. It never bleeds”, Saadat said looking at his mother with uncertainty. “Won’t his father be angry at the teacher when he goes to the school?. One day when master sahib pulled my ears so hard that they turned red. Abba jan had gone to the headmaster to complain na?”
“Betay! The master who hit him is a very powerful man.”
“Is he even more powerful than Allah mian?”
“No he is less powerful than Him.”
“Do you know him?”
“No…. leave this nonsense. It’s night-time. Chalo, let’s sleep!” the mother grabbed his arm to take him to the other room to his sister.
“Allah mian! I pray that the master who has hit that boy, You punish him severely. Snatch such a cane from him which causes bleeding. I, too, haven’t memorized my tables. So I’m afraid lest my teacher, too, find such a cane – if You do not listen to me, then I, too, will be displeased with You,” Saadat was praying in his heart as he slept.
A few parts in the aforementioned narrative are derived from Saadat Hasan Manto’s first short-story Tamasha. This was based on what Manto had witnessed in the Martial Law of 1919. There are merely two main characters in Tamasha: father and son (the child’s name in the short story is Khalid – but it is clear from study that it is Manto in the form of Khalid) The conversation in the form of a dialogue between a father and son in the aforementioned pages encompass the personality and psychology of Manto in every way.
In the plot of this short story with Jallianwala Bagh in the background, the citizens of the city were protesting against the rulers of the time and the Empire had resorted to extreme oppression and injustice against them. Due to this a strange silence descended over the city for many days. It was a time of great uncertainty.
The child was asking the father that he wanted to go and see what he thought was a show, when the sounds of bullets firing began to be heard in the city. Hearing these sounds, the father sent the child to the mother inside. Entering the home, the child saw from the window the injured boy falling outside the house.
Saadat Hasan Manto says in the short story that although the boy was seriously injured and lying on the road, but out of fear of the authorities, neither the child’s father nor anyone else dared to help him or at least pick him from the road.
Here Manto indicates the unfortunate fact that official vehicles are used to take unarmed and poor people to jail; but not to shift some poor and injured innocent to the hospital or their home – someone who because of the oppression and injustice of these very rulers is staring death in the face.
General Reginald Dyer of the British Empire established an unforgettable example of favouring wanton violence with this bloody incident. He made no arrangements for the dead and injured; according to him it “was not his job.” So there was no arrangement at the government level for lifting unburied and unshrouded corpses and conveying medical aid to the injured. Only the social welfare organization Sewa Samiti did a bit of work by shifting a few injured to hospital with the permission of General Dyer.
A curfew had been imposed in Amritsar and nobody was permitted to go outside after 8 pm. Even the relatives of those who had died could not pick the bodies of their slain ones. And even the Sewa Samiti was not allowed after that time to shift the dead and injured to their destinations. There was hardly a drop of water for the injured in the Bagh. They were moaning lying on the earth, bodies bruised and lips crusted with dryness. The dead youth, the aged, the women and children were in their own blood. Dogs were barking and wild animals were lying in wait on the walls.
It is said that young Ratan Devi, who had come to celebrate Baisakhi with her husband, guarded her husband’s corpse all night with a bamboo stick so as to protect it from stray animals. There were two men and a boy of 12 lying near her, weary with wounds. They were pleading with her not to leave that place. She also helped a man with Jat-like features in climbing the wall. There were heaps of corpses lying everywhere at her feet. That fearless woman spent the whole night there.
We are told that in the uninterrupted, indiscriminate firing for 15 minutes on unarmed people at the Bagh, 399 people were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded; in which 41 young boys and a child were also included. This firing ceased when the soldiers ran out of ammunition. At least 1,650 rounds were fired in this duration. These were the numbers of the official report and according to the figures collected unofficially the number of the dead was between 500 to 600 and the wounded closer to 3,000. Due to the imposition of Martial Law and censorship of newspapers, accurate news was not reaching the other parts of the country. But when the truth was known, the whole of India became rose in protest.
A great protest camp was set up in Jallianwala Bagh and authorities began a series of swift arrests in succession. Manto has mentioned the protest camps in Jallianwala Bagh and the enthusiasts of freedom giving themselves up for arrest in his short story Swaraj ke Liye and has painted that situation orally through the characters. He himself also participated in that protest.
Even after the horrible incidents of Amritsar, Lord Chelmsford and Governor Michael O’Dwyer did not bother to visit Amritsar. The British Government appointed an investigative commission under the chairmanship of Lord Hunter, a member of the House of Lords, whose ambit was to appraise and inquire into governmental injustices in Punjab during Martial Law. Simultaneously the Congress appointed its own investigative commission under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru.
That the crowd in Jallianwala Bagh was in no way a gathering of rebels, this much was confessed by General Dyer himself, too, in front of the Hunter Commission. The crux of the report compiled by the Hunter Commission was that there was no need for imposition of Martial Law in Punjab and the Commission also said that during the Martial Law the British administration handed down sentences more severe than necessary. But the Commission concurred with Michael O’Dwyer in that a situation of an organized rebellion in Punjab was created and in these circumstances greater punishments than usual were essential in order to crush the rebellion. But Lord Montagu did not agree with this argument; he confessed that General Dyer had no authority to punish peaceful and unarmed people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh so severely.
The editor of the Morning Post newspaper collected a donation of 30,000 pounds sterling from the British public so that General Dyer should be rewarded for services to the British Empire and most of the members of the Conservative Party and several members of the House of Lords established an organization to defend the General Dyer. Arrangements were made to save the General from any possible punishment. The Army Council of Britain which had taken up the responsibility of defending General Dyer’s case, requested that he be punished merely by awarding him half-pension after retirement. The Army Council also said that General Dyer had committed only an error of proportion in Jallianwala Bagh; and the Court of Justice of Britain afterwards even exonerated Dyer of this accusation, who had, with his “accomplishment” decorated the forehead of Manto’s ancestral city Amritsar with a wound like Jallianwala Bagh.
In time, the people of the Subcontinent came to regard it as a wound worthy of pride.
Note: All the translations from the Urdu are by the writer
The writer is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is the recipient of a prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at email@example.com