Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have peered into this well in Amritsar over the last 100 years—a mandatory patriotic pause on the way to (or back from) the more spiritual experience next door at The Golden Temple—few have been more moved than a journalist who served three years in India.
Justin Rowlatt, a former BBC South Asia correspondent based in Delhi from 2015-18.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting to cry. I’d imagined I’d struggle to connect with the horror, that it would seem abstract; an episode from a distant history. But the garden is resonant with its memory.
“When you see the bullet holes that pock the wall, or peer into the well where so many had died, you can’t help but imagine the terror the protestors must have felt,” writes Justin Rowlatt in Sins of the Great Grandfather.
As his surname suggests, it was the “Rowlatt Act”, the legislation authored by and named after his great grandfather Sidney Rowlatt, that led to the protest at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919, that resulted in the indiscriminate firing that followed under General Reginald Dyer, that led to men, women and children jumping into the well.
On the eve of the centenary of the massacre, Hindustan Times and The Indian Express have stories built around Justin Rowlatt.
When he was posted to India by the BBC in 2015, he says was surprised that the Black Act—“no Dalil, no Vakil, no Appeal”—and the massacre did not matter much to the Indians he interacted with, in spite of his name.
“I did not feel responsible or see how anyone could hold me responsible for something, however heinous, done by an ancestor three generations earlier. However, my fear was that many Indians would disagree…. I was proved spectacularly wrong.
“I was occasionally teased for my unfortunate family history, but I never experienced anger, nor even disapproval. Indeed, if anything Indians seem to warm to me because of my connection to their country,” he wrote. ”
Justin Rowlatt was brought down to earth by Tushar Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who said while shaking hands with him: “I appreciate your great-grandfather’s role to provide the first nail in the coffin of the Empire.”
“I still believe the measures my great-grandfather’s committee recommended were unjust and misguided. I still find the omission of any discussion of the justice of the independence cause shocking.
“I still am sick to my stomach at the way the British forces behaved in Jallianwala Bagh. And, I am also appalled that my great-grandfather was honoured for his Sedition Committee with a Knighthood.”
History repeats itself, first as a tragedy under the colonial masters, then as a continuing tragedy under the modern maharajas.
Only 12 of the 501 martyrs of the massacre will be at the centenary event. But ordinary citizens will not be able to reach the venue to pay homage, because the colonial era Section 144 will be in force.
“This order is like the one issued by General Dyer,” the Left unions say.
Bizarrely, General Dyer is in the blood stream of Indians even to this day.
After independence, the breweries changed hands once again, with the Narendra Nath Mohan family picking them up to form Mohan Meakin Breweries.
Its most famous brand, of course, is Old Monk.
Photographs: courtesy The Indian Express, Hindustan Times
Also read: The British journalist who defied a gag order