Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

The Amritsar massacre poem the British didn’t want you to read

Khooni Vaisakhi's chilling composition narrates the brutality of that fatal April day

Brig Gen Reginald Dyer, who was in command in Amritsar on April 13, 1919.
Brig Gen Reginald Dyer, who was in command in Amritsar on April 13, 1919.

Khooni Vaisakhi is a searing indictment of British actions in India on April 13, 1919.

Khooni means bloody and Vaisakhi refers to an important Sikh festival that took place that day.

The poem's 4,500 words narrate the brutality of the incident set against the backdrop of rising tensions over British rule in India. And readers are left in no doubt who author Nanak Singh blames for the atrocity – Brig Gen Reginald Dyer.

“Shame on you, you merciless Dyer," the composition reads.

“What brought you to Punjab, O Dyer?

“You too will pay the price, O Dyer.

“You’ll die and head straight to Hell!

“Ah! Such torment awaits you there, O Dyer …

“You Tyrant! Until the end of time you’ll be called The Murderer that you are, O Dyer.”

The killings were condemned by many at the time, including Winston Churchill, then War Secretary, who described the massacre as “monstrous” in 1920.

Dyer was also censured by the Hunter Commission - a much maligned report established by the British to look into the bloodbath. He was stripped of his temporary rank of brigadier general and demoted to colonel. He died alone following a long illness back in England in 1927, haunted by his actions.

Yet, another central player from that day, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, emerged far better from the killings.

O’Dwyer claimed he could not be held responsible for the shootings because the army had been in control.

He was relieved of his position as governor despite many supporting his decision to call in the troops. He died years later in 1940, fatally shot by Indian revolutionary Udham Singh in retaliation for the massacre.

O’Dwyer was born in Tipperary, Ireland. Just a few months earlier, the first shots of the Irish War of Independence against British rule were fired close to his birthplace.

Strange, then, that while some Irish were fighting the same battle as those protesting in India, others were helping to enforce British rule by working as civil servants during the Raj. The nuance speaks volumes to the shared and contested history of all people who lived under British rule.

Today, there are still bullet holes in the walls of Jallianwala Bagh. And on Wednesday, the current British prime minister, Theresa May, called it a “shameful scar”. The statement, however, fell short of a formal apology.

The original cover of Khooni Vaisakhi by Nanak Singh. Courtesy Navdeep Suri
The original cover of Khooni Vaisakhi by Nanak Singh. Courtesy Navdeep Suri

Updated: April 11, 2019 03:42 PM

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