On April 13 India has observed the 97th anniversary of British India’s darkest episode, the massacre of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. That unspeakable act happened in 1919. A year later British India bared its imperial fangs again in another episode that remains largely unknown in India.
The Connaught Rangers of the British Army was entirely manned by Irish soldiers, recruited from Ireland, imperial Britain’s first colony where all the atrocities committed in Asian and African colonies in later centuries were first put into practice and perfected.
Depleted by heavy losses suffered during the First World War, the Connaught Rangers—which was deployed in a large number of fierce battles—had been reduced to a much slender strength, and at the time the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh occurred, was mainly stationed in North India. The First Battalion was stationed in the cantonment in Jalandhar. This story tells us of what happened there in the torrid summer of 1920.
India was in a sombre mood as the first anni-versary of Jallianwala Bagh approached. There was tremendous anger at the palpable injustice wrought by the government and India had been virtually transformed into a tinder-box.
Thousands of miles away, Ireland was also in the vortex of a desperate freedom struggle, and the soldiers of the Connaught Rangers were much disturbed as they kept learning of the atrocities being committed at home (even though newspapers in India scarcely published stories of atrocities being committed in Ireland) and here in India. As they were frequently deployed to quell Indian resistance, the soldiers could also sympathise with the anti-British mood around them. But there was apparently no visible sign of the seething anger that was building up among the Irish soldiers.
There are two versions available of how the Irish rebellion in Jalandhar took place and how the British dealt with it. The British version, faithfully provided by Wikipedia to the world today, narrates that on June 28, 1920, five men from the C Company of the First Battalion at Wellington Barracks, Jalandhar, protested against the consequences of martial law in Ireland by refusing to do their jobs. They were soon joined by other Rangers, including an Englishman, demanding that they would not return to duty until the British left Ireland. The Rangers stationed at Solon also joined in the rebellion while those at Jutogh hill station remained loyal.
A party of men, led by James Daly, stormed the armoury at Jalandhar but was defeated by the British guard. Two of the rebels were killed in the firefight. Within days, the rebellion was defused and British troops occupied the two garrisons involved. Daly and other survivors surrendered and were taken prisoner. Eighty-eight mutineers were court-martialled; nineteen were sentenced to death of whom the punish-ment for eighteen was later commuted to life imprisonment. Fiftynine others were sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment, and ten were acquitted. Daly, who was 21 at the time, was shot by a firing squad on November 2, 1920.
However, the Irish version differs significantly and deserves to be told and retold in India. We have two raconteurs, one Irish and the other Indian, and it would be profitable to listen to them.
This writer met Nollaigh O’Gadhra, a journalist and biographer, on an April morning in 2000 at a Connaught Place, New Delhi, hotel. With O’Gadhra were three memorabilia associated with James Daly, who led the revolt in Jalandhar: the Connuaght Rangers medal, the cross and a frayed prayer book, the latter containing pages with Daly’s fingerprints smeared in blood indicating that he was clutching the book when he was shot dead.
The Indian raconteur was Thakur Ranvir Singh of Retwali, Kota, whom this writer met at his Golf Links, New Delhi, residence a few days later. Between the two a comprehensive picture of what happened nearly a century ago in Jalandhar emerged.
As the Indian freedom struggle intensified in the post-First World War period, the authorities in India were drafting an increasing number of Army units to assist the civil administration to counter the situation. The Irish Rangers, many of whom had their close relatives being hunted down at home at the time, were thus thrown face to face with the Indian freedom fighters, and this appeared to have accentuated their mental dilemma. The uncanny similarities and odd incidents here and there compounded the restlessness and inner turmoil of the soldiers.
The Indian situation had particularly deterio-rated following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and it was at that point of time when one of the Rangers got to know that his brother at home had been hanged for sheltering some Irish rebels. He was so incensed that he beat up an English officer.
What happened thereafter has been described as nothing short of a hurricane “that swept through the barracks”. Forsaking their duties, the Rangers held meetings where fiery speeches were delivered, patriotic songs were sung giving rise to intense emotional scenes, and a classic explosive situation quickly built up. The English officers were completely at sea to meet the sudden developments.
In just two days the Rangers captured the cantonment armoury, took their English officers hostages and declared the Jalandhar cantonment as the seat of the “Free Irish Government in exile”. It was the first mutiny in the British armed forces since the famous “Mutiny on The Bounty”; the Connaught Rangers was the most glorious part of the British Army for its history of valour; and it was also the mainstay of British imperial power in a colony where a massive population had been demanding freedom. The situation had turned too serious and called for immediate action.
The first casualty was of course information. The Arms Act was in force, and such a clamp of secrecy descended on Jalandhar that no details about what was happening inside the cantonment could ever leak out. For the next fifty years the world would remain oblivious of those stormy events in 1920.
Within the cantonment, however, the rebels felt confident that they were the masters and could dictate terms to the British Government. They offered to negotiate terms, release the armoury, return the territory of the cantonment to the Army and release the hostages provided the British immediately left Ireland to its people.
Hardened imperialists that they were, the British sensed that the rebels had already exposed a chink in their armour and that this opportunity had to be seized. As they were no longer on duty, the Rangers got busy analysing the situation and arguing the best way forward. Some felt that as the English were momentarily clueless about how to proceed, the moment should be seized and more territories gained. The English should be taught a lesson and the world, including India, should know more about the Irish struggle for freedom.
As the hotheads among the rebels seemed to hold sway, those who were level-headed argued back that instead of trying to capture more territory, they should open negotiations to exact justice from the British.
The leader of this group was James Daly, called Jim by his colleagues. He pointed out that if they did not take to arms, their act would not qualify as a mutiny and that if they remained within the confines of law, they would be in a stronger position to negotiate.
At first a sit-down protest was debated, and finally a longish petition to the British King was drafted and ceremoniously handed over to the British officers. No whisper of a response ever came and it was suspected that the petition had never reached its intended receiver.
Meanwhile, the Army authorities and the government reacted fast. Eight crack fully-white regiments were moved from Amritsar, Ambala, Lahore and Shimla to surround the Jalandhar cantonment doubled by a tightly-formed ring of tanks, guns and infantry. The Rangers were thus cut off from the outside world and all escape routes were closed.
As the cantonment lived on food and supplies from Jalandhar town and its surroundings, these were cut off ensuring that once the stores were exhausted, the rebels would starve. Then the water mains were cut off. June 1920 was the height of Punjab summer and the situation in the cordoned cantonment began to grow desperate day by day.
The rebels, however, managed to survive for some more days as there were sufficient provisions to last and at least two wells continued to provide water. A stalemate ensued. Meanwhile, all the Indian soldiers were moved away from Jalandhar, a tight censorship descended on the town and it was officially stated that a major secret war exercise was on in the cantonment.
The British, sure that the rebels were in a hopeless situation, then sent a delegation to demand peaceful surrender. The delegation was duly allowed in, and when they entered the cantonment, they were in a for a huge surprise and indignation. There was an atmosphere of total abandon and gaiety. The Irish tricolour flew all over the cantonment. The barracks were resounding with lustily sung Irish ballads; soldiers were dancing Irish jigs; and the Army delegation was treated with such unconcealed contempt that whenever it tried to open negotiations, it was shouted down.
The English, however, held their peace since the thought was uppermost in their minds that at no cost white soldiers should be compelled to shoot down other whites in the Indian colony irrespective of provocation.
Two weeks had meanwhile passed since the rebellion began, and the excruciating summer began to take its toll. The first death from malaria hit the rebels; as the water and food supplies dwindled fast and malaria struck again and again, disunity broke out and some blew up a part of the armoury hoping that this would force the attention of the outside world to the situation. But Daly and his group again succeeded in quieting them down arguing that with courage they would eventually win. The wily English passed off the loud reports as an unfortunate accident during the war exercise.
As the Daly group tried desperately to keep the angry soldiers from further action, cholera joined malaria to rip off one life after another, and three weeks since the rebellion began, the situation had turned truly desperate. An “honourable” surrender was agreed upon; the ceremony was duly held in all its formality, and the rebels, who had demanded an honourable discharge, were marched off to camps where they were destined for further deceit and torture.
To cut a long and sordid story short, the virtual imprisonment in the camps compounded their plight and ignominy. Rains were late in coming that year, and the sweltering heat made life hellish. Daly continued to seek better treatment for his comrades but the English turned a deaf ear. The rebels were divided into small isolated groups to break their morale further. Soon a court martial followed with harsh sentences passed daily.
But, as we have already seen, the sentences were soon commuted, and few were punished. Were the English officers being benevolent to the rebels? Far from it, they were being wily and political as ever. They considered the situation in Ireland and India dispassionately and concluded that a mass execution would only weaken the British empire, and chose to appear to be benevolent. They were, however, also determined to establish a lesson, and to do this they picked up the man who had tried all along to protest non-violently.
Jim Daly was hanged on November 2 and his remains were buried in the cantonment. When the Indian Army paraded on August 15, 1947, they scarcely realised that they were treading upon the ground under which lay this brave and honest freedom fighter. Later, the remains were interred on a church yard at the Irish Government’s request, and finally sent home to rest in the early 1970s.
Recalling how the Daly memorabilia came into his possession, O’Gadhra said that Jim’s sister presented these to him after he did a radio documentary on the rebel hero. There was a fourth item as well, a half-burnt cigarette smoked just before the execution. It had been preserved in a glass case, and the moment the sister took it out it disintegrated.
The author is a former Senior Fellow, the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.