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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Why Partha Chatterjee comparing the human shield incident to Jallianwala Bagh is sick and uncalled for

“There are times,” says Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology & Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University, “when one looks in the mirror and is shocked to see a face one doesn’t recognise — the repulsive face of a nasty stranger.” In his post on the human shield incident, was Chatterjee, with sinister intent, comparing Gen Bipin Rawat, chief of Army Staff, with “the butcher of Amritsar”, temporary Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer? Or was the repulsive, nasty stranger Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles?


Gogoi, who hails from a working class background, joined the Army at 18 as a jawan. After nine years in the 3rd Battalion of Assam Regiment, he went to the Army Cadet College at Dehra Dun, qualifying to become an officer. Commissioned as a lieutenant in December 2008, he rose to the rank of Major. On April 9, 2017, Major Gogoi had 26-year-old Farooq Ahmad Dar tied to the bonnet of an army jeep to deter stone-pelting mobs from attacking Election Commission workers in Budgam. The Army made its own position clear when Gen Rawat awarded him a commendation card for “sustained efforts in counter-insurgency operations.”

Clearly, such unorthodox measures are necessary in emergencies. Not unprecedented by any means, they should not be considered standard operating procedure either. It is precisely such states of exception, the phrase going back to Weimar Law (German: Ausnahmezustand), which legal theorist Carl Schmitt and later Georgio Agumben, in a book of the same name, critiqued. The state’s ability to flout the rule of law in the name of public good, when directed repeatedly at recalcitrant populations, can result in large-scale violations of human rights.

True, but Chatterjee goes too far in asserting that there are “chilling similarities between the justifications” of the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and “those… of the Indian Army in Kashmir”. He quotes Dyer, “I had the choice of carrying out a very distasteful and horrible duty or… becoming responsible for all future bloodshed.” Chatterjee then cites General Rawat, “It is a dirty war. That is where innovation comes in.” Actually, one finds fewer similarities than dissimilarities in the statements of the two generals.

As Dyer biographer Nigel Collett puts it, “He (Dyer) had broken the law. So he lied and changed his story… before the Hunter Committee.” Can we accuse Gen Rawat of lying? The real problem with Chatterjee’s argument, however, is in comparing justifications for incidents of asymmetrical magnitude or merit. The excuse of “duty” can be used to justify the killing of ants infesting a kitchen counter as in exterminating Jews, Catholics, gypsies, homosexuals, and a host of other undesirables in Nazi Germany. Does that mean that “duty” as justification becomes invalid?


Chatterjee, stretching matters considerably, grandly declares, “Most Indians will find it hard to believe that as a nation state we have just arrived at our own General Dyer moment.” He is right. Few would have connected the Jallianwala massacre of unarmed citizens on Vaisakhi (April 13, 1919) with the five-hour ordeal of Farooq Ahmad Dar. The latter returned home safe, though considerably shaken. Not a single life was lost in that incident. In contrast, as Chatterjee himself recounts, Dyer ordered his Gurkha troops to fire “1,650 rounds for about 10 minutes on an unarmed crowd”. Over a thousand people died, shot dead, drowned in a well, or killed in the stampede. Can a crime so heinous be compared with Dar’s ordeal, however traumatic?

Almost as if to reinforce a dubious coincidence, Chatterjee adds, “Video images of the event began to circulate in the media on April 14 (the same day, incidentally, when in 1919 the world came to know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre).” True: the MMS posted by National Conference leader Omar Abdullah at 10:32 am on April 14, 2017, went viral, starting an acerbic debate among various sections of the media and the public. False: the world did not know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 14, 1919.


Punjab was under Martial Law, with a news blackout. A careful reading of major English and North American newspapers of April 14, 1919, shows no reference to the massacre. Distorted snippets released mostly from Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, only mention riots and unrest in Punjab.  It was only the strong national outcry that forced the British government to appoint the Hunter Commission six months later, on October 14, 1919, to fact-find. It is only by December 1919 that the massacre was beginning to be acknowledged. The Hunter Commission report was released on March 20, 1920. Mahatma Gandhi’s own account of the massacre appeared on March 25, 1920. It appears as if Chatterjee fudges facts for effect.

The ugliness of the situation notwithstanding, I don’t suppose Chatterjee meant himself when he spoke of his shock on seeing the “repulsive face of a nasty stranger” in the mirror. After reading his revolting diatribe against the Indian Army, I suspect many Indians might think just that. As an eminent journalist and former editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper chain tweeted, “My response to his Rawat-Dyer view: it’s a sick, unthinking click-bait, narrows liberal space.” Chatterjee’s latest book was called The Black Hole of Empire; in contrast, this piece may as well be called the clickhole of Left-Liberal delusion. Yes, sir, I beg your pardon, but you ought to have known that comparisons are odious.

(This article first appeared at dailyo.in and is being reproduced with the permission of the author)

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Makarand R Paranjape
Makarand R Paranjape
The author is a poet, and Professor of English, JNU



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