In February 2013, David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The dusty walled garden was the site of a brutal massacre on 13 April 1919 and, for Indians at least, it has come to represent the worst excesses of the Raj. On that day, a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, hearing that an illegal political meeting was due to take place, ordered his men to open fire on around 20,000 innocent and unarmed men, women and children. The youngest victim was a six- month- old baby; the oldest was in his eighties.
The lieutenant governor of Punjab, a man named Sir Michael O’Dwyer, not only approved of the shootings, but spent much of the rest of his life praising the action and fortitude of his brigadier general. Sir Michael’s attitude, coupled with the behaviour of British soldiers in the weeks that followed, created a suppurating wound in the Indian psyche. The scar is still livid in the north of India to this day.
The number of people killed at Jallianwala Bagh has always been in dispute, with British estimates putting the dead at 379 with 1,100 wounded and Indian sources insisting that around 1,000 people were killed and more than 1,500 wounded. By his own admission, no order to disperse was given and Dyer’s soldiers fired 1,650 rounds in Jallianwala Bagh that day. He instructed them to aim into the thickest parts of the crowd, which happened to be by the perimeter, where desperate people were trying to scale walls to escape the bullets.
The configuration of the garden and the position of the troops meant civilians were trapped, much like fish in a barrel. The bloodbath, though appalling, could have been so much worse. Dyer later admitted that he would have used machine guns too if he had been able to drive his armoured cars through the
narrow entrance to the Bagh. He was seeking to teach the restive province a lesson. Punctuated by bullets, his message was clear. The Raj reigned supreme. Dissent would not be tolerated. The empire crushed those who defied it.
Ninety- four years later, laying a wreath of white gerberas at the foot of the towering red stone Martyrs’ Memorial in Amritsar, David Cameron bowed solemnly as India watched. In the visitors’ condolence book he wrote the following message: ‘This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as “monstrous”. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.’
Though sympathetic, Cameron’s words fell short of the apology many Indians had been hoping for. The massacre was indeed monstrous, and I have grown up with its legacy. My grandfather, Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden that day in 1919. By a quirk of fate, he left Jallianwala Bagh on an errand minutes before the firing started. He remembered Brigadier General Dyer’s convoy passing him in the street. When he returned, my grandfather found his friends, young men like him in their late teens, had been killed.
According to his children, Ishwar Das Anand suffered survivor’s guilt for the rest of his relatively short life. In his late forties, he would lose his sight, but tell his sons never to pity him: ‘God spared my life that day. It is only right that he take the light from my eyes.’ He never managed to reconcile why he had lived while so many others had not. He found it excruciatingly painful to talk about that day. He died too young. I never got the chance to know him.
The story of Jallianwala Bagh is tightly wound round my family’s DNA . Ironically, it is also woven into my husband’s family history, a fact we only realised years into our marriage. His forebears were pedlars from Punjab who came to settle in Britain in the 1930s. Bizarrely, one of them found himself living with a man
named Udham Singh. The happy- go- lucky Punjabi would turn out to be the ‘Patient Assassin’ of my new book, deified in India, the land of my ancestors, but largely unknown in Great Britain, the land of my birth.
Speaking to descendants of the pedlar community, which came to Britain in the early 1920s, helped me to understand their experience. They also helped to bring Udham Singh to life. Thanks to my parents, I grew up knowing the names of Reginald Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, but of course Udham Singh loomed
larger still. According to legend, he, like Ishwar Das Anand, was in the garden on the day of the massacre. Unlike my grandfather, he was not crushed by survivor’s guilt, but rather consumed by violent rage. We, like many Punjabis, were told how Udham, grabbing a clod of blood- soaked earth, squeezed it in his fist, vowing to avenge the dead. No matter how long it took him, no matter how far he would have to go, Udham would kill the men responsible for the carnage.
Twenty years later, Udham Singh would fulfil at least part of that bloody promise. He would shoot Sir Michael O’Dwyer through the heart at point- blank range in London, just a stone’s throw away from the Houses of Parliament. The moment he pulled the trigger, he became the most hated man in Britain, a hero to his countrymen in India, and a pawn in international politics. Joseph Goebbels himself would leap upon Udham’s story and use it for Nazi propaganda at the height of the Second World War.
In India today, Udham Singh is for many simply a hero, destined to right a terrible wrong. At the other extreme, there are those who traduce him as a Walter Mitty- type fantasist, blundering his way into the history books. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between; Udham was neither a saint, nor an accidental avenger. His story is far more interesting than that. Like a real- life Tom Ripley, Udham, a low- caste, barely literate orphan, spent the majority of his life becoming the ‘Patient Assassin’. Obsessed with avenging his countrymen and throwing out the British from his homeland, he inveigled his way into the
shadowy worlds of Indian militant nationalism, Russian Bolshevism and even found himself flirting with the Germans in the run- up to the Second World War. Anybody dedicated to the downfall of the British Empire had something to teach him, and he was hungry to learn.
Ambitious, tenacious and brave, Udham was also vain, careless and callous to those who loved him most. His footsteps have led me on a much longer, more convoluted journey than I ever anticipated. The diversity of sources and need to cross- reference hearsay has been challenging, but not the hardest thing about writing the book. I have also had to consciously distance myself from my own family history. For a while, the very names O’Dwyer and Dyer paralysed
me. We had been brought up fearing them. Only when I thought of O’Dwyer as ‘Michael’, the ardent Irish child growing up in Tipperary, or Dyer as ‘Rex’, the sensitive boy who cried over a dead monkey he once shot by accident, could I free myself to think about them as men, and even start to understand why they
did the things they did. It was the only way I could empathise with the situation they faced in 1919 and the years that followed.
The same goes for Udham Singh. He had always been one of the pantheon of freedom fighters who had fought against tyranny. I blocked out the statues and stamps dedicated to his memory in India and refused to watch any representations of his legend in popular culture till my own work was complete. I needed to find the man beneath the myth and marble, and I knew I would not be able to do that if I became dazzled. Thousands of original documents guided
my way, and my search for the real Udham Singh led me to people who either had first- hand knowledge of him, or were repositories of stories from their parents and grandparents.
I found myself left with a surprisingly contemporary story, which resonates with the news I cover today. Udham’s is a story of dispossession and radicalisation, of ‘Russian interference’ and a realigning of world powers. It speaks of failures in the seemingly infallible security services. It is also the story of buried facts and ‘fake news’. I was left with a picture of one man’s very personal obsession wrongfooting some of the world’s most powerful players.
As to whether Udham really was in the garden the day of the massacre, a source of fierce contention in some quarters, only he knew for sure. What I can say with absolute certainty is that the British authorities were desperate to separate Udham’s assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The attendant propaganda surrounding a ‘revenge killing’ was the last thing they needed with so many Indian troops engaged on the side of the Allies in the war.
Whether he was there when the bullets started to fly or not, the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh was transformative for Udham Singh. He was both forged and destroyed by the events of 13 April 1919. The massacre became the catalyst turning him from a hopeless, faceless member of India’s oppressed masses into a man who would strike one of the most dramatic blows against the empire. Udham Singh dedicated his life to becoming a hero to his people, to freeing his country from the British. He would go to the gallows thinking he would lie forever forgotten in an unmarked grave in a foreign land. Though he would never know it, seven years after he was hanged, India would be free and his countrymen would declare him one of their greatest sons. They would fight to have his remains returned to them.
In 2018, a statue of Udham Singh was unveiled outside Jallianwala Bagh. It shows a man with a clod of presumably blood- heavy earth in his outstretched palm. Udham will forever stand watch over the garden. All who come to pay their respects in the garden will be forced to look up to him and remember what he did in their name.
Anita Anand is a political journalist who has presented television and radio programmes on the BBC for twenty years. She currently presents Any Answers on Radio 4. She is the critically acclaimed author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary and, with William Dalrymple, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, Anita’s new book The Patient Assassin was published by Simon & Schuster on 4th April.
On Sunday, the final day of CVHF 2015, award-winning historian Amanda Foreman will be speaking about the history of the world, as made by women. Writing as a woman with a particular interest in women’s history, I am understandably extremely interested to hear Amanda’s talk. More importantly, I am excited by what such a high-profile discourse signifies – the growing public interest in women’s history, as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of books, TV programmes and films dedicated to female narratives, let alone the academic work that is going on behind the scenes.
Women’s history doesn’t get much more powerful than the suffragettes, and it has been fantastic to see their story given a new lease of life in a year in which female politics have been very much in the public eye. Later this year comes the much-anticipated film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, but at the festival on Saturday night the acclaimed journalist and writer Anita Anand will tell the story of a far less well-known suffragette: Sophia Duleep Singh. Dispossessed Indian Princess, godchild of Queen Victoria and society darling turned revolutionary, Singh has been described as one of the ‘unknown giants of women’s suffrage.’ The suffragette story was also the inspiration for Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, a recent TV series presented by previous CVHF speaker Amanda Vickery, a powerful and inspiring advocate for women’s history. As well as this series and other television appearances, Vickery has published numerous books in which the lesser-known stories of women’s lives are told, often through the objects and material culture of their social spheres.
The life of Joan of Arc – a similarly powerful woman from a very different era – will be the subject of a talk by medieval historian and BBC broadcaster Helen Castor at CVHF on Sunday morning. The story of the French peasant girl who heard the voice of God has become somewhat lost in myth and legend, and it is fantastic to hear an old tale re-told with a new clarity. Castor demonstrated the depth and magnetism of this gripping history in her recent BBC Two programme on the same subject, Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior. Alongside festival co-founder Tom Holland, Castor also hosts BBC Radio Four’s Making History programme, and last year made a number of recordings live at CVHF will are still available as podcasts on the BBC website.
There is perhaps less drama in the smaller social and cultural details of women’s history, but the resulting stories can reveal a huge amount about the experiences of our female ancestors, whose lives have been less extensively or formally recorded that those of men. Julie Summers is a writer who often dwells on historical subjects, and this year has most notably written the accompanying book to Fashion on the Ration, the Second World War fashion exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and seen her recent book Jambusters translated into a successful ITV series: Home Fires. The book and consequent TV adaptation tell the story of the Women’s Institute during the Second World War, and it is on this subject that she will be speaking at CVHF on Friday afternoon. For myself, I am hoping that some forties fashion makes it into her talk also!
It is important to note, of course, that female historians are interested not only in women’s history. At the festival this year we will be lucky to witness the work of some of the UK’s biggest names connected to the broad field of historical study. Speaking on Thursday is the internationally bestselling author Kate Mosse, who has shown in her incredibly popular novels the way historical fact can be interwoven with fiction to extraordinary effect. Awarded the OBE in 2013 for services to literature, I am personally very excited to hear from such a successful female writer on how she has shaped historical narratives into a world of her own creation. I am also particularly looking forward to talks from Alice Roberts and Janina Ramirez, both of whom have made regular TV appearances alongside their successful academic careers. Ramirez, most recently spotted as a panellist on BBC museum-based quiz show The Quizeum, will be speaking about the Private Lives of the Saints at the festival on Wednesday.
Alice Roberts, meanwhile, will be speaking on Tuesday about evolution, the human body, and our historical understanding of anatomy – which, based on her compelling on-screen presence, is sure to be a highly engaging and fascinating event.
It is great to see – in both private research and the public eye – how female historians are re-shaping history in the present day. Forging a career in academia or writing is no mean feat and it is wonderful to see how many women are juggling roles in broadcasting, teaching, publishing, science, museums and more to do just that. The increasing respect for female historians bodes well for an ever more diverse and dynamic history of the world, as made by women.
On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.
James Holland, the Festival’s Programme Director and Co-Chair, lists the talks he’s most looking forward to seeing.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Anita Anand is a really well-respected BBC journalist but on the back of terrific reviews I read this book and found it utterly fascinating. Sophia’s story is an extraordinary one that blends human drama and social history in a very compelling way. I’m always looking to get brilliant speakers – people who perform rather than read out a written speech, and Anita is going to be excellent, I know.
The English & Their History by Robert Tombs
I was really fortunate to persuade Robert Tombs to come. He’s a hugely eminent professor and academic and a very busy and much-in-demand man. His book received amazing plaudits when it came out and this is bound to be both fascinating and thought-provoking at a time when we as a nation are asking many questions about our identity – and thus also our past.
Home Fires by Julie Summers
I’m rather hooked by the ITV drama, Home Fires, which was based on Julie Summers’ book about the WI in the Second World War. I’m also really interested in the totality of Britain’s commitment during the war, so I’m really looking forward to hearing Julie speak.
Hobbes, Ideas and the English Revolution by Hannah Dawson
If I had anything to do with it, studying the Civil War would be compulsory at schools before GCSE choices are made. The country we are today really stems from that traumatic period in the middle of the 17th Century and so this is just the kind of meaty, thought-provoking subject we should be doing at the festival. Hannah is an amazing historian and academic – charismatic, passionate and a brilliant speaker. This will be a treat.
Ancient Egypt: New Stories by Joann Fletcher
I think Jo Fletcher is brilliant. Although an academic, she has made herself the BBC’s No.1 Egyptologist and her series are just brilliant. Her enthusiasm is infectious, she’s loads of passion and energy, and ancient Egypt is just so interesting. I’ve been out there, but even if one hasn’t, how can one not be seduced by the sheer scale and grandeur of Karnak, the Pyramids and the Temple of Queen Hapshepsut?
The World’s War by David Olusoga
David is not only one of the nicest people on the planet, he is a brilliant historian and television presenter. I thought this BBC series was the best history I’ve seen on telly for a while, and he’s another who has charisma, charm and a gift for storytelling in bucket loads. This wider view of the First World War is just so interesting and I know David will be giving us an incredible talk. I wouldn’t miss this one for anything.
Sensation and Pleasure in 18th Century France by Andrew Spira
I was once on holiday with Andrew and he had us all eating out of his hand – his knowledge is immense and all of us, young and old, were rapt by both his stories and his intellect. This might seem an unusual choice for a talk, but trust me, it will be utterly and completely fascinating and will get you thinking and talking about it for a long time after. I can’t wait.
Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen
In London, Mark’s talks sell out every time. I’m also keen to inject a bit of more recent cultural history into the programme, and this will be a hilarious, gossipy, anecdotal romp through the seventies and eighties music scene, when Mark was at the very heart of music journalism. Come along, sit back, and enjoy!