Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Amritsar Massacre, Memory, misguided religious Nationalism, and recent Homicides in India

Amritsar Massacre, Memory, misguided religious Nationalism, and recent Homicides in India

By Kevin Stoda, just back from a tour of India

This year I finally pilgrimaged to an important place of mourning in India. (Sadly, if one is reading the papers about bombings in Gujarat this week, more mourning is certainly anticipated.)

I had traveled to India in order to stay at a hotel overlooking the grounds where the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, also known as the Amritsar Massacre, had taken place on April 13, 1919.

If anyone has seen Richard Attenborough’s classis film, Gandhi, they know the unforgettable depiction of one scene whereby a British brigidier general, named Reginald Dyer had entered a small enclosed park of sorts, whereby thousands of Punjabis were protesting a recent crackdown on civil rights in India under the British Raj. In the Attenborough movie, the Amritsar massacre is revealed in all its criminality. A multicultural group of Indians of many faiths & with no weapons in hand are gunned down in a relentless barrage. In fact, within minutes there were about 400 deaths and more than a thousand others injured. http://www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/post/india/history/colonial/massacre.html The victims had been ordered to disband.

However, the brigidier general Dyer decided not to wait for a reply. He sent bullets flying.

This point needs to be made very clear--apparently all of those victims in that 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre were unarmed!

In the film, Gandhi is seen crying for these people at a well in the ancient garden called Jallianwala Bagh. Dozens died jumping away from fire into a well in Jallianwala Bagh Massacre This martrys well, where so many died, is still in Jallianwala Bagh where a memorial park and small museum of commemoration are found.


Daily a flame is also lit in the Jallianwala Bagh park. It was at this memorial flame on the first of my three or four visits to Jallianwala Bagh that I experienced the ugly underside of Hindhu nationalism at a fairly personal level.

At the time, two Sikhs were showing me around the Jallianwala Bagh park. Earlier, I had shared with these Sikhs that the main reason for my traveling to Amritsar was to do a pilgrimage to the site of this very memorable event in the history of Indian Independence and the life of my hero, Gandhi.

I told my Sikh friends that I could see the “eternal flame” from my bedroom window. So, for the second time that afternoon, I approached the commemorative flame to point to my bedroom window—beyond a far tree. Suddenly, five turbaned men came up and informed me, “Take off your shoes in this area.”

It isn’t unusual in India at temples and at some other venues to be asked to take off one’s shoes, but almost always there is a sign was posted to that effect. I looked around and observed no sign. I recalled also, “No one had been taking his or her shoes off on the marbled area around that commemorative flame when I had come by earlier.”

The two young Sikhs with me also argued with those 5 turbaned Hindhus who had appointed themselves the local (national) memorial police that particular half-hour.

As my Sikhfriends argued with the Hindhus who were dressed to look particularly pious that afternoon, I walked back to the marbled area around the flame, and shouted to my Sikh friends--as I pointed to my own bedroom window at the hotel—,“That is where I stay!”

Immediately, those very tall Hindhus all turned toward me and pulled me away from that particular part of the memorial and indicated angrily that they didn’t want any foreigners—or anyone of any faith—desecrating the hallowed area near the “eternal flame”.

As my Sikh friends and I no longer felt welcome, we left Jallianwala Bagh. I asked them, “Why did those guys do that? I mean, why are they pretending to set the rules for everyone visiting the site? Do they do this all of the time?”

I was told that this rarely happened, and there certainly were no such rules about taking one’s shoes off in that park. (These Sikhs lived nearby and visited all of the time.)

The Sikhs simply added, “These Hindhu nationalists come here to stir up trouble only sometimes.”


A few days before my visit to Amritsar in June, in the large city of Mumbai there were a series of protests by Sikhs. The first one was an attack on an MTV station due to its showing of a poster of one female Sikh giving a massage. The Sikh community in Mumbai found this degrading.


It should be noted that Mumbai is situated in the state of Maharashtra, which has been governed by Hindhu political parties in recent decades. The second set of protests by Sikhs in Mumbai a few days later were more serious. According to most newspapers in the area, the Sikhs had real reason to be up in arms this time:

“In a show of solidarity, hundreds of Sikh protesters of Andhra Pradesh today took out huge protest rally and burnt the effigies of controversial . . . guru of Dera Saccha Sauda chief Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh whose body guards killed an innocent 42-year-old Sikh, Barkarar Singh Bhatti in Mumbai during a protest against the spiritual guru by a Sikh group in Mulund.” http://www.sikhnet.com/daily-news/dera-row-sikh-protest-cripples-mumbai

The Dera leader referred to fled the scene and state of Maharashtra after the unwarrented shooting of a the Sikh, Barkarar Singh Bhatti, in a public shopping mall. The police in Mumbai made no move to stop the Dera leader’s, Baba Singh’s flight.

By the way, “guru” means teacher, so a Hindu guru, like Singh is equvalent to an imam in Islam. I should also note that one or two of the Mumbaieditorialists did not take the Sikh protest well and complained it was all just another example of sectarianism out of control. http://www.livemint.com/2007/12/05225220/Punish-rioters-not-writers.html

This criticism of all ethnic protests may be because an editorial writer in Gujarat had been arrested earlier this year for making fun of some Hindhu political leadership. (The court freed the man and critized the Gujarati government for its not taking criticism well.) http://churumuri.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/a-disgraceful-assault-on-media-freedom/


Now, in summer 2008, India is facing a new way wave of bombings. Again, the trend seems to be one of religious bullies attacking others of another faith--or of various sorts of nationalists attempting to provoke war or civil war.

This last weekend there were a series of bombings in Ahmadedbad. http://sathyasaibaba.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/indian-bombings-bomb-blasts-in-india-pray-for-peace/ On that day, July 26, there were at least 16 bombs in all and about 50 people were killed and another 150 were injured in apparently sectarian violence in Ahmadedbad City. The same group who has claimed to have undertaken these bombings in Gujarat, this month also claimed that it had undertaken similar bombings in Jaipur in Rajistan several months earlier.

This particular group claims to be Jihadist, i.e. Islamic nationalist, but the Indian police and secruity forces are begin cautious in releasing any findings as it is not unknown for Hindu nationalist groups to stage riots or violence and then blame it on Muslims or other minorities in the country. http://www.newindpress.com/NewsItems.asp?ID=IEH20080726112619&Page=H&Title=Top+Stories&Topic=0 Likewise, occasionally other minorities, hindu organizations, and/or nationalist groups do things to antaganize the rest of society.

For example, there were a series of train strikes in many states of northern India this month caused by a power struggle over property in Jammu state. http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20080055520 (I was caught in one of those strikes and observed other trains delayed by up to 14 hours coming from the north one weekend.)

Ahmadedbad, Gujarat was likely the chosen site of attacks on July 26 because Gujarat has been on an upswing in recent years following both a devastating earthquake and horrible intra-sectarian riots between Muslims and Hindhus there that had left hundreds of more dead and thousands homeless in the 2000 to 2002 period. http://infochangeindia.org/200605065528/Human-Rights/Features/Commerce-papers-over-the-cracks-between-Hindus-and-Muslims.html

Meanwhile, one of the more devastating bombing attacks on India actually occurred in Kabul this month. Many Indians blame this bombing in Afghanistan in early July on either Pakistan secret security forces or someone they work with. http://www.expressindia.com/latest-news/ISI-involved-in-Kabul-bombing-on-Indian-embassy-NSA/334809/


I need to end this piece by stating that in my travels in India this month, I have found little simpathy for anyone who bombs, mames or disturbs other people through strikes (arresting journalists criticizing government).

In short, despite a continued history of violence and tenstion of ethnic, religious and nationalist vain, India is holding together and should for a long time. I’m am certain that, on the one hand, if Mohandes Gandhi were alive today, he would be proud of how far many Indians have come and how committed they are to peace amongst others of other faiths, nationalities and tribes.

On the other hand, Gandhi would cry at the bombings and intolerance perpetuated on Indian peoples today. Especially, the continuing rift between Pakistanis and Indians would very much depress the Mahatma.

We all should.

I advocate that Americans and the US government do more to build ties of people-to-people support with South Asians. Support doesn’t always need to be monetary, it can be through other acts of solidariaty and taking time to get to know one another.

I recall meeting a Sikh out in Los Angeles, just week after the London train bombings in 2005. This particular Sikh shaved his head rather than having long curls. He had done this for decades because of the prejudices he had felt upon moving to the USA in the 1980s.

That same Sikh also shared that he knew personally the poor misguided murder of the 52-year old Sikh in Mesa, Arizona in 2001. That Sikh had been killed by an intolerant American who equated turbans with those who attacked the USA on 9-11. http://www.tribuneindia.com/2001/20010917/main4.htm

Let’s really work on improving our global relationships in 2008-2000, readers!!! We need to link arms with others around the globe fighting intolerance—among whatever faith or nationality. http://www.asianews.it/index.php?art=8856&l=en


“Deadly Blast Strikes Indian City”,http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7527004.stm

“History of Commu nal Violence in Gujarat”, http://www.sabrang.com/tribunal/volI/comvio.html

“Macauly’s Education: part 2”, http://varnam.org/blog/archives/2007/08/macaulays_education_part_2_rel.php

Mishra, Pramod, “People’s Diplomacy for Peace in South Asia: With Special Emphasis on India and Pakistan”, http://www.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/7/9/6/7/pages179671/p179671-1.php

Mohan, Damini, “Continuing our Fight Against Racism and Xenophobia”, http://www.expressnews.ualberta.ca/article.cfm?id=7417

Religious Intolerance of Sikhs, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXdCDDIiyJU

United Nations: Press Release, 20 March 2008, http://www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/ECE8B4EEABBCDC2FC12574120050E1E6?opendocument



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