The Incident of the 'Crawling Lane':Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919
by Vinay Lal
Originally published as: "The Incident of the Crawling Lane: Women in the Punjab Disturbances of 1919", Genders, no. 16 (Spring 1993):35-60.
In the morning hours of April 10th, 1919, a crowd that had been proceeding towards the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, an important city in the Punjab, a large province in the north-western part of the then undivided India, to demand the release of two popular leaders against whom deportation orders had been issued was fired upon by a military picket. Later in the day, several banks and other buildings, either housing government property or otherwise emblematic of British rule, were set fire to, and here and there other acts of incendiarism were committed. Four European men were, in separate incidents, brutally murdered. The infantry fired upon the crowd on several different occasions in the course of the day, and nearly twenty Indians were killed.
The destruction of property, not much less sacrosanct than life in the British scheme of things, was deplorable, and the murder of several European men even more reprehensible, but nothing could have been more intolerable than the assault upon a defenceless Englishwoman. Miss Marcella Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a resident of Amritsar for over fifteen years, was unable to escape the wrath of the crowd. As she was bicycling down a narrow lane, she was set upon by a crowd that knocked her down from her bicycle, and then delivered blows to her head with sticks while she was still on the ground. Miss Sherwood rose to her feet, and had just started to run when she was again brought down. On the subsequent attempt she reached a house but the door was slammed shut in her face. She was again beaten and left on the street in a critical condition. The crowd then dispersed; Miss Sherwood was soon thereafter rescued, and prompt medical attention saved her life.
For the next two days the city of Amritsar was quiet, but to the British it appeared that cry of revolution was resounding in other parts of the Punjab. Railway lines were cut, telegraphic posts destroyed, and government buildings burnt, but no more than three other European lives were to be lost over the next few days. By April 13th, that is on the third day after the assault on Miss Sherwood, the decision to place most of the Punjab under martial law had been taken. On the afternoon of the same day, Brigadier-General R.E.H. Dyer, C.B., General Officer Commanding, Jullundur Brigade, marched with fifty Indian troops under his command to the Jallianwala Bagh, a large unused piece of sunken land "closed in by the back walls of adjoining houses and by stretches of clumsily built walls", in the heart of Amritsar. There some 15,000 to 20,000 Indians had assembled, in defiance of orders prohibiting all public gatherings, for a political meeting. Stationing his troops by the narrow entrance which led to the bagh, and which effectively served as its only exit as well, Dyer foreclosed any possibility of a quick escape. The ground by the entrance stood at a slightly higher level than the rest of the bagh: from this elevated platform the troops could survey the entire bagh, and it was from here that, at the orders of Dyer, and without any warning to the crowd to disperse, the troops commenced firing. Sixteen hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition were spent; nearly 400 people, in the conservative estimate of the authorities themselves, were killed at the spot.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre has since been characterized as the turning point in the history of British India, the event that lost Britain her 'jewel in the crown' and eventually her empire. Staggering as this blow had been to Indian pride, and instrumental as it was in shattering the belief that Indians as much as the British were the King-Emperor's subjects and citizens, entitled to the protection of the law, many Indian nationalists like Gandhi saw in the events following in the wake of the massacre yet a greater national humiliation. On April 19th, Dyer promulgated the so-called 'crawling order', which remained in effect until its revocation a week later. A flogging booth was placed in the middle of the lane where Miss Sherwood fell, and both ends of the street -- some 200 yards long -- were manned by soldiers, who were entrusted with the task of enforcing the order that any Indian, the streets' residents not excepted, who traversed it did so, to use the language employed by Dyer, 'on all fours'. Any infraction of the order was punished immediately with a number of lashes administered at the flogging post. Fifty people were compelled to undergo the indignity of crawling on their bellies.
"It seemed intolerable to me", Dyer was later to write, "that some suitable punishment could not be meted out. Civil law was at an end and I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case." Testifying later before the official committee that began its deliberations on the Punjab disturbances more than six months after the incidents in question, Dyer stated that he "also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred." His primary motivation was to punish "the wicked", and though he could have chosen any number of ways to implement his resolve, he "also" wanted to render the street "sacred". But why did Dyer wish to keep the street sacred? And to attain the sacred, must one wade through pools of degradation? If the path to the "sacred" can be sullied so, then what of the profane? Dyer claimed that he had fired at the Jallianwala Bagh to save lives, and if the way to save lives is to kill people, then surely it is not inconceivable that the way to the sacred is through the treacherous path of the profane. The British widely held the natives to be illogical, but thought nothing of their own inversions. Still, Dyer's action in keeping the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted "sacred" cannot be reduced to an inversion characteristic of colonial discourse, nor of course simply to a form of punishment, and it is to an exploration of the archaeology and genealogy of the crawling order, its range of signification, that I shall now turn. The hegemonic and preemptive strategies of colonial discourse are thus sought to be unearthed not only at the epistemological and ontological levels to which Edward Said has drawn our attention, but also at the micro-level of colonial practices in their minutiae.
Illuminating the 'Event'
Ever since the Rebellion of 1857-58, the protection of European women and children had been a major concern of the white population in India. Women and children represented that part of the population which was defenceless, most vulnerable to the depredations of the natives, innocent, and even -- as we shall see -- 'sacred'. What were Englishwomen, especially those whose husbands were stationed in remote, isolated spots, to do when the call of duty took their menfolk away for a fortnight or two, or when the ever unpredictable natives took it upon themselves to wage war against His or Her Brittanic Majesty's subjects? White women may have been a burden to their men, but they were surely the ornament of their race, the Englishman's chief claim in the colonies to fame and glory. The Englishman of the day thought of women as not only creatures of another sex, but almost as "another form of creation, as (in T.H. Huxley's phrase) 'angels above them.'" Women, as givers of life and custodians of a society's moral norms and values (when it had any to begin with, Indian society being thus exempted), were to be revered, but white women in India, a society supposedly teeming with nautch girls, were especially valorized. Englishwomen in India (as in Britain's other non-white possessions) as a rule had little or no contact with natives who were not menials or servants, and it must have been easy for them and their male guardians to unquestioningly believe that their inaccessibility to the brown man made them particularly prized and desirable. In theory the outrage of an Englishwoman's modesty and dignity was nowhere to be tolerated, but in the non-white Empire such perceived acts of outrage met with brutal and swift, but hardly (as some have suggested) unthinking, retribution.
Though contemptuous of the Indian's alleged credulity and naivety, and of his stated child-like propensity to believe the most exaggerated rumors, the English people in the days of the 1857 Rebellion blindly believed many of the most baseless stories of the rape and violation of European women. It was said of an English officer's wife at Meerut that she was dragged from the church, stripped, and her breasts cut off, and of forty-eight "delicately nurtured" English women and girls at Delhi that they were dishonored in streets by "the lowest of the people" in full view of the public before being dismembered. One Major Bailie wrote to his father that English women were being auctioned in the bazaars; another man writing home described how in Cawnpore [modern-day Kanpur] children were nailed to the walls with bayonets, "put alive into boxes and set fire on", "spitted on bayonets and twisted round in the air" -- "and to make the tortures more exquisite all this was done in the presence of the mothers who were compelled to look on. . . in a state of nudity". Sir Colin Campbell, one of the principal English officers charged with crushing the revolt, wrote that "tortures the most refined, outrages the most vile, were perpetrated upon men, women and children alike." Campbell 'described' how women were "stripped in the presence of their husbands eyes, flogged naked through the city, violated there in the public streets, and then murdered." The natives delighted not only in dismembering white women, but in the more exquisite torture of scalping them, "the skin being separated round the neck, and then drawn over the head of the poor creatures", who were then, "blinded with blood, driven out into the blazing streets."
So widespread were these rumors that the Viceroy felt it prudent to initiate a major inquiry on the question of whether Englishwomen had been dishonored by Indian rebels. The findings of this inquiry were similar to those reached at by another English contemporary, who concluded that "the most searching and earnest enquiries totally disprove the unfounded assertion that was at first so frequently made, and so currently believed, that personal indignity and dishonour had been offered to our poor suffering country women". However, it is the case that in war and rebellion life has less sanctity than in ordinary times, and women in particular become easy prey. Though most of the rumors may have been without foundation, what is rather more important is that they were believed, and undoubtedly in the passage from mouth to mouth the details became more lurid, the crimes more exaggerated, and this to such an extent as to turn Englishmen into a burning cauldron of rage. One captain, for example, looking forward to the annihilation of "the black-faced curs", swore that his sword was "thirsty for the blood of these cursed women slayers".
The "cursed women slayers" here was no figment of the imagination, but a reference to the slaughter in Cawnpore of English women and children. These women and children were held in what was called the Bibighur [literally, 'the house of women']. When the sepoys sent in by Nana Sahib, the rebel leader, to kill them refused to comply with their orders, four or five professional executioners were entrusted with the task. The prisoners were dissected, their bodies thrown into a well. Although the evidence regarding the other massacres in the Rebellion was "clearly and freely given", Lieutenant-Colonel Williams in his contemporary narrative said that "on approaching the last and most terrible scene, all seem instinctively to shrink from confessing any knowledge of so foul and barbarous a crime as the indiscriminate slaughter of helpless women and innocent children." Clearly, whatever sympathy the rebels may have been able to elicit from the general population in raising the standard of revolt, no one wished to be implicated in "so foul and barbarous a crime" as that enacted in the Bibighur. But to the Englishman it was of no account that Indian society was not prepared to condone such a deed: every Indian stood implicated in the crime, and every Indian was the fit object of severe 'punishment'. Indeed, 'punishment' is too mild, too school-boyish, a word for the terrible revenge exacted by Brigadier-General James Neill, to whose hands fell the task of relieving Cawnpore, when he regained the city.
Looking for a punishment that would, in Neill's words -- words uncannily similar to those employed by Dyer when he instituted the 'crawling order' -- be "suited to the occasion", Neill decided that "every stain of that innocent blood [in the Bibighur] shall be cleared up and wiped out, previous to their execution, by such miscreants as may be hereafter apprehended, who took an active part in the mutiny." "The task will be made", he wrote, "as revolting to . . . each miscreant's feelings as possible", and to suit the action to the words, the scheme devised was to make each "victim, before being hanged", kneel down and lick clean a square foot of the blood-stained floor, which had previously been "moistened with water by natives of the lowest caste." Those "culprits" who were a "little dilatory" at their "work" were "brightened up by several good cuts across the back from a cat which a European soldier was standing alongside with for that purpose." Men of higher caste were also subjected to other forms of degradation: as one officer wrote of the Nana Sahib's revenue collector, "We broke his caste. We stuffed pork, beef and everything which could possibly break his caste down his throat, tied him as tight as we could by the arms and told the guard to be gentle with him . . ." After the culprit had properly cleaned up his portion, he was taken out to be hanged, his grave dug before his eyes. Neill characterized this entire transaction as a "strange law" which "suits the occasion well, and I hope I shall not be interfered with until the room is thoroughly cleansed in this way . . . I will hold my own with the blessing and help of God. I cannot help seeing that His finger is in all this." Pious Christian that he was, Neill surely knew that, whether or not He had directed him to take an eye for an eye, or rather more like a head for an eye, his men were behind him, and would hardly have hesitated from excelling him if given half the chance. Ironically, the Highlanders, whose homes for many decades had been systematically razed to the ground, and who had been driven away from their lands to make room for sheep, kneeled down at the Bibighur and took a "Highland oath that for every one of our poor creatures who were thus slain, 100 of the enemy should bite the dust". The captain of the 90th Light Infantry whose sword lunged for revenge vowed that he would take "not drop for drop, but barrels and barrels of the filth which flows in these niggers' veins for every drop of blood which marked the floors and walls of that fearful house."
"Punishment had gradually ceased to be a spectacle", Foucault has written of France (and Europe) in the first half of the nineteenth century; the "age of sobriety in punishment had begun." In the colonies, however, indulgence not sobriety marked the white man's behavior. Neill was scarcely alone among the great heroes of the Mutiny, the saviours of India, in visiting upon the 'rebels' the choicest horrors that man can imagine. John Nicholson, who repulsed the rebels at Delhi, urged the passage of a bill "for the flaying alive, impalement, or burning of the murderers of the women and children at Delhi". As he was to explain, "the idea of simply hanging the perpetrators of such atrocities is maddening"; more significantly, "torturing the murderers of the women and children" was, in his books, "a Native custom", one that the reform-minded British aiming to civilize the natives were bound to follow. At Peshawar, on 10 June 1857, quite early in the Rebellion, many of the captured rebels were blown away from the barrels of artillery guns. Such examples of retaliatory and 'disciplinary' brutalities could easily be multiplied; however, it is the precise form of the punishment conceived by Neill, and the language employed by him to describe it, which marks out the incident of the Bibighur especially as the referential point for our investigations into General Dyer's 'crawling order', its etiology and signification.
Let us recall that Miss Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a nurse in the zenana [womans] hospital, was set upon by a crowd of Indians as she was bicycling down a narrow street. She was struck on the head repeatedly with shoes and sticks, and finally, in the words of the official committee appointed at the behest of the Secretary of State for India to inquire into the disturbances, "left on the street", known as the Kucha Kaurianwala, "because she was thought to be dead." Miss Sherwood, the committee was at pains to point out, was picked up by some "Hindus" and given medical treatment "in time . . . to save her life." An Indian doctor attended to her at Govindgarh fort, where European women and children were collected together, and eventually Miss Sherwood was put on board a ship sailing for England.
The Government of the Punjab, in its own report, depicts the assault as the most dastardly act imaginable. The crowd that pursued Miss Sherwood is said in the report to have raised cries of "Kill her, she is English." "The witnesses who are particularly good and have been entirely unshaken in cross-examination", states the report, "prove that towards the end of the chase she was seized by Ahmad Din, who seized her dress and threw her down. His brother, Jilla, pulled off her hat." Another man "caught her by her hair" and then struck her on the head with one of his shoes. The suggestion, an altogether false one, that Miss Sherwood was sexually assaulted is unmistakable. She was certainly at the mercy of her assaulters, and if nothing was more inaccessible to the Indian male than a white woman, here was a rare opportunity to make good that deficiency. In the event, the "savage mob which had been shouting 'Victory to Gandhi' [and] 'Victory to Kitchlew' raised the cry 'she is dead" and moved on. Then, several days after the brutal assault on Miss Sherwood, Dyer inspected the spot where she "ultimately fell", and ordered a "triangle", or whipping post, to be set up at that spot. Two British pickets were also posted, one at either end of the street, "with orders to allow no Indians to pass, [and] that if they had to pass they must go through on all fours." In the more graphic language of the Congress Committee, "the process consisted in the persons laying flat on their bellies and crawling exactly like reptiles."
What impelled Dyer to institute such an order? To see what may have been running through his mind, and to surmise at the moral and political framework upon which Dyer was undoubtedly relying, we must turn to his letter of 25th August 1919 to his superiors, his letter of 3rd July 1920 to the War Office, his testimony before the Hunter Committee, and the findings of both the Hunter and Congress committees. "A helpless woman had been mercilessly beaten," wrote Dyer, "in a most cruel manner, by a lot of dastardly cowards." She was beaten with "sticks and shoes" and knocked down several times. "To be beaten with shoes", Dyer wrote in his report of August 25th, "is considered by Indians to be the greatest insult", and he admitted that it seemed "intolerable to [him] that some suitable punishment could not be meted out." Neill, during the Mutiny, had likewise searched for a punishment "suitable to the occasion". Dyer says, "I searched my brain for some military punishment to meet the case", and suddenly he had this 'brain-wave'. What could be more "suitable" than to make them crawl? What could be more 'natural' than that for a human being, or at least a human being born and bred in an Oriental country? Let us hear Dyer in his own words, and allow him that hearing that he, who fired upon a crowd without so much as issuing a warning, constantly complained of not receiving:
The order meant that the street should be regarded as holy ground,
and that, to mark this fact, no one was to traverse it except in a
manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the
East be traversed. My object was not merely to impress the
inhabitants, but to appeal to their moral sense in a way which I
knew they would understand. It is a small point, but in fact
'crawling order' is a misnomer; the order was to go down on all
fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation
to holy places.
To add to Dyer's formal explanation of his order, we must consider also his evidence before the Hunter Committee. "We look upon women as sacred or ought to", he explained, and since the sacred had been rendered profane, the act of desecration would have to be undone. The profane would have to be retransformed into the sacred: "I also wanted to keep the street what I call sacred. Therefore I did not want anybody to pass through it." The Bibighur was transformed by the British Army into something of a museum, and here, in this room of caked blood and other remains of the massacre, the troops and others could pray to the sacred memory of the dead. As the Bibighur had been sullied with the blood of European women, and setting Indians to lick clean the blood-stained floor was construed as an act of "cleansing", so Dyer desired to clean the foul air. Woman, because she is sacred, evokes reverence and requires worship; reverence demands obeisance, the forms of which may vary from culture to culture; and since in the East "a place of special sanctity" is "naturally" traversed by going on all fours, on bended knees, or by crawling like a reptile, why not have the natives enact this transaction on ground recently consecrated as "sacred", ground holy by virtue of its association with a holy person? Miss Sherwood, an unmarried English woman, serving as a missionary and nurse, certainly did not represent motherhood, the citadel of sanctity, and to this extent she was no beacon of light showing women the way to a good, productive, and bountiful life; but she did stand for chastity, that other great ideal cherished by the Britisher as an ornament to womanhood, an ideal which particularly in a hot country of dangerous female sexuality stood to glorify the virtues of the European woman. Here was a woman who, motivated only by the purest intentions, a servant to the ethic of tender caring, had devoted herself to the care and uplift of Indians. And how did these ungrateful wretches reward her, except to shower her with beatings from shoes and sticks? Imagining Miss Sherwood as a Virgin of Mary or a Florence Nightingale, Dyer erected a monument to her chastity, and did so at the spot where she "ultimately fell". Miss Sherwood survived her attack, but Dyer had already imagined her dead -- thus we hear of the spot where she "ultimately fell" not just "fell" -- and indeed her 'martyrdom' would have served him even better.
If one could speak of the architecture of holy spaces, then it is possible to speak of the "sacred street" as a Hindu temple, the whipping post as the sanctum sanctorum. Before the deity the worshipper must grovel, reduce himself to zero, punish himself for his sins and excesses, make himself feel contemptible. This is not the Hindu temple we know, but that is altogether beside the point, for we have only to think of the temple which Dyer had constructed in his "brain", which as he says "at that time had a lot to do." Dyer stated that "in fact 'crawling order' is a misnomer; the order was to go on all fours in an attitude well understood by natives of India in relation to holy places." Here is not one claim, but several: what Dyer is enumerating in respect of the terms of the order is really a fact, as contrasted to opinion, and therefore beyond dispute; secondly, whatever his critics may say, the natives understand him; thirdly, the natives at least would recognize the space he had consecrated as "holy ground; and, finally, the natives were only being asked to assume an "attitude" with which they were familiar, the familiar here being construed moreover as inoffensive.
The contention that both by nature and by custom the natives are used to such an attitude is particularly worth exploring. Dyer argued that the street was not to be traversed "except in a manner in which a place of special sanctity might naturally in the East be traversed." But why "naturally" -- because by nature the Orientals assume an attitude of reverence and obsequiousness in a place of "special sanctity", or because custom and habit have made the assumption of such an attitude natural? It is quite likely that Dyer intended both the readings, but what is equally remarkable about both is Dyer assumption's that he can penetrate the native mind, and even tell the native that he must live up to his nature and customs. Habituated since time immemorial to despotic rule, the native accepts as "natural" a great many patterns of conduct entailing obsequiousness, loss of dignity, humiliation, indeed the effacement of self -- conduct that no Englishman would tolerate. 'Civilized' conduct was thus an affront to the native: it contradicted his modes of thought and behavior, reversed the 'natural' order to which he was accustomed, and held out the threat of creating within him a turmoil from which he could seek no escape.
The 'crawling order' was not the only order passed during Martial Law which was defended on the grounds that it was in keeping with Indian traditions and customs. The salaaming [saluting] order was one which was imposed almost universally in the 'disturbed' districts of the Punjab, and everywhere the argument advanced was that "every Indian knows that he ought to salaam. They all know salaaming is a custom of India. They salaam their Rajas, they salaam their senior officers and under martial law they ought to salaam in the same way." These are Brigadier-General Dyer's words, but they could just as well have been the words of Brigadier-General Campbell, Officer Commanding, District Gujranwala, whose Martial Law Order No. 7 states that it is by "respect to the gazetted commissioners, European Civil and Military officers of His Imperial Majesty", that "the prestige and honour of the Government is maintained", and that Gujranwala inhabitants, who have not been showing "proper respect to these respectable officers", must do so in the manner
usually accorded to Indian gentlemen of high social position in
accordance with the customs of India. Whenever any one is on
horseback or is driving any kind of wheeled conveyance, he
must get down. One who has opened or got an umbrella in his
hand, should close or lower it down, and all these persons
should salute with their right hand respectfully."
In agreeing with this order, Col. O'Brien, to whose hands fell the agreeable task of administering martial law in Gujranwala, found an illuminating analogy, as he thought, to reinforce the idea that the authorities were only acting in accordance with Indian customs. Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, one of the three Indians on the Hunter Committee, first elicited from him the admission that the custom of alighting from vehicles to salute men of importance "is hardly in accordance with the customs of India at the present time". O'Brien insisted on maintaining that nonetheless he had seen Indians being "saluted"; when asked to explain what he had seen, he said: "Well, I do not know; I have noticed several friends of mine who have alighted from their conveyance and shaken hands." Did not Col. O'Brien think that shaking hands was rather different from compelling people, on pain of punishment, to salaam European officers? And did not salaaming "savour" of humiliation? O'Brien replied, "You perhaps put [it] the other way. It is rather this way. I go to the other extreme in insisting on the ordinary salutations being paid." He went on to say, in explanation of the necessities of his case, that "the tendency of the present day is to abolish respectfulness. An Indian father will tell you that sons are not respectful to their parents." It is doubtful that O'Brien was educated enough to know the Upanishads, but he might have found the injunction in the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures to respect one's father and mother helpful. Suddenly, from being a military officer and an official functionary, O'Brien had also converted himself into a custodian of traditional ways and manners, a spokesman for the admirable virtues of Indian society. When the Indian attempts to 'modernize', when he demands representative institutions, a voice in the government, and the freedom of speech and expression, he is characterized as an 'agitator', and becomes fundamentally un-Indian; but when he says nothing, when he accepts the limits placed on his political activity, his very passivity is adduced as a sign of his unwillingness to fight for his freedom and his acceptance of foreign rule. Thus, when an Indian fails to salaam, he is considered to be disrespectful, to have foolishly abandoned his customs, but when he does salaam, his willingness to do so is taken as a mark of his 'natural' subservience. The Indian must in either case be helped to recognize and respect his traditions; he must be educated in accordance with his nature. O'Brien went on to admit that "umbrellas are now used by the million and are not the insignia of royalty", but nonetheless he thought the order to close umbrellas at the sight of European officers not unreasonable, as this exchange shows:
Q. Then it is not the Indian custom to shut an umbrella when
they meet one in a high social position.
A. I think it is going out.
Q. Why was that selected, that umbrellas should be closed?
A. It is a sort of showing respect; it is a relic of the old ideas.
Q. Oh! You are reviving the old customs of India?
That O'Brien could swear by, and insist on the adherence to, a custom that he was himself inclined to describe as a "relic of the old ideas" is not insignificant. As a "relic", it ought to have been relegated to the past, but in India there was only the past, of which the present was a mere variation. India was not only the museum of mankind, but also a repository of living relics.
The 'crawling order', it is demonstrably clear, was not altogether different from many of the other regulations imposed during Martial Law in the Punjab, insofar as all these orders presuppose that the Indian is a knowable subject for the British, that the native mind is never too dense (unless it be dense with seditious thoughts), and that the most humiliating punishments may be inflicted on a population whose customs and traditions have allegedly acclimatized them to these degradations. We can hardly conceive of such punishments, not acutely violent but rather humiliating and morally degrading, being inflicted on a subject people without some such theory as of 'Oriental Despotism' constituting the permanent backdrop. Where, however, the 'crawling order' does, as it were, carve out its space, mark its distinct position in the gamut of regulatory mechanisms used by the colonial power in India in the twentieth century, is in its assumption that native spaces are markedly different from European spaces, and in its presupposition of a special nexus between gender and space. The colonial harem has often been cited as an example of the colonizer's construction of native female sexuality, but equally illustrative of the special nexus between gender and space is the fort, which in times of crisis particularly became the space to which the European woman was restricted, the realm of territory which she dare not leave. So, in Amritsar, during the disturbances of April, 1919, the women and children were taken to Govindgarh fort in the city, its gates barring entry to native men, its precincts a preserve, not of licentious Oriental sexuality, but of the chastity and virginity of European women. Just how much this space was a haven for European women and children from the ravings of the 'mob' becomes clear in an anonymous article on Amritsar "by an Englishwoman" published in 1920. We read of how her house, at arm's [or shall we say ear's] length from the "howl of the mob", became a "rallying-post" for "European women and children" fleeing to safety from the "wild crowd[s]". From there they were almost at once taken to the fort, built as she says "over a hundred years ago by the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to protect the treasure which he kept with the bankers of Amritsar", and now to be used to house a greater "treasure", the white woman, whose protection entitles the white man to conduct himself without restraint. To get to the fort, the European women and children had to "cross the railway line" -- the railway line here being the boundary between the natives' quarters and the 'civil station' of the European population -- which "our handful of troops had held all day against the hordes from the city." The only natives at the fort are loyal servants, who "behaved well under very trying circumstances", very different from the "riff-raff" outside. Here, at the fort, the circumscribed space is enlisted to reproduce the subservience of the native; in the 'crawling lane', by contrast, the sacred space produces such abject servility.
Confined to the fort, and left to themselves, the women "were left to imagine the worst". Many rumors were afloat, and though this anonymous Englishwoman says that "everything was done to stop false reports", it is argued that "the real truth was so often worse than anything rumour could invent that one realised the uses of censorship." Her account of Amritsar's disturbances concludes with the observation that "no European who was in Amritsar or Lahore doubts that for some days there was a very real danger of the entire European population being massacred, and that General Dyer's action alone saved them." It is not surprising that Englishwomen, conditioned to believe that the protection of their honour lay with their menfolk, a belief that in India was enhanced by their small numbers, an induced fear of native men, and occasionally by their dispersal in remote places around the country, should in both Britain and India have been particularly ardent supporters of Dyer. When Dyer was retired from the army on half pay, and the Morning Post set up a "Gen. Dyer Fund", the contributors numbered among them such women as "C.S.R., daughter of one who lost his life in the Indian Mutiny of 1857", and "A Widow Who Remembers reading, when a child, of the horrors of 1857". British women in India contributed handsomely to Dyer's relief fund, and 6,200 of them signed a petition to the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, openly denouncing Secretary of State Montagu and the Government of India for sacrificing Dyer, a military man only doing his duty, at the altar of politics. Similarly the President of the European Association, Calcutta, in a letter to Lloyd George, impressed upon him that the Europeans in India were a small and scattered population living amongst millions of natives, "the vast majority of whom are different from ourselves in training, in education and in standards of civilisation." These men, "and the women especially know, that, in this country, although normally peaceful, any form of racial or religious excitement will at once turn the uneducated masses into a mob, whose first instinct will be towards murder, arson, loot, mutilation and outrage." Dyer himself, when receiving a cheque, with the message that "no sum of money can possibly repay the debt the Empire owes you", for the royal sum of 26,317 Pounds from the editor of the Morning Post on behalf of a grateful nation, told readers of the newspaper that "on my part my conviction was, and still is, that I was bound to do what I did, not only with a view to saving the military situation and the women and children, but with a view to saving life generally."
As we have seen, a large part of the public defence of Dyer was centered on the conviction that he had shown that the British sword would help to make the honor of women inviolable and avenge the indignities heaped upon European women, which consisted primarily of an assault upon Miss Sherwood, and of the display in Lyallpur, another prominent town in the Punjab, of posters that the Hunter Committee described as exhibiting "an inflammatory and criminal character":
The treatment which have been meted out to our girls at Amritsar
are unbearable, and we cannot express them. You should ponder
over this that we should have seen such a time in a dream. It is
very sad that all your brethren are keeping silent at this moment.
What time are you waiting for now? There are many ladies here
to dishonour. Go all round India, clear the country of the ladies
and these sinful creatures, and then will be the only time when
we can all say together: 'Blessed be the Hindus, Muhammadans
It is with reference to the latter quotation that a prominent religious authority wrote a letter to the Times asking the readers whether they had ever heard "of the 80 European women and children gathered together at a rallying point in Lyallpur, waiting for troops to protect them, and concerning whom the mob put up notices saying they were so many English women to be ravished?" Slight as were the indignities which prompted such fanciful excesses, not to mention draconian measures in the Punjab itself, the press in England had little compunction in exaggerating the danger which European women had in reality faced in the Punjab. Thus one English newspaper, while castigating the Secretary of State for expressing his censure of Dyer in terms too harsh, averred that "the soldier may well ask whether Mr. Montagu would rather have had further murders of English men and English women and the Punjab in full work." Despite the Briton's firm belief that the Indian subscribed to a far less rigid standard of truth, such a standard seems to have been readily compromised to meet the exigencies of the case.
Discourse as Exploitation: 'Event' and Non-'Event'
In his testimony before the Hunter Committee, and in various official documents as well as other public pronouncements, General Dyer is on the record as having said that he thought of instituting the 'Crawling Order' because it was intolerable to him that vile men should have so mercilessly attacked a defenceless woman and then not have faced the punishment that they deserved. That few, if any, of the fifty men who were compelled to crawl at the point of the bayonet were implicated in the assault upon Miss Sherwood was of no consequence to Dyer and his fellow officers. In India, according to the colonial sociology of knowledge, the 'individual' did not exist anyhow: one Indian could easily stand in the place of another, for in this society one could only speak of collectivities. Moreover, as the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' was without meaning for a people who scarcely knew of the glories of the 'rule of law', it made little sense to speak of the 'Crawling Order' as an infringement of justice.
The core of the 'Crawling Order' is constituted, then, of two ideas. I characterize one as the principle of the infinite substitutibility of the native. It was this principle which allowed one martial law administrator to have six boys from a 'seditious' college brought before him for condign punishment and then have them replaced by six larger boys on the grounds that their bodies would allow more room for the whip in his hands to dance and sing a tune. The second principle is best enumerated in words we have previously encountered from Dyer's own mouth, "Woman is sacred." How were these principles to interact when the women in question were not European but rather Indian? If rumors and tales of the "outrage" of European women could have incited Dyer and others to select any members of the Indian public as they thought fit to choose for swift punishment, what of the numerous rumors of the violation and insult of Indian women? What maneuvers would colonial discourse have to effect to ensure that the injunction to revere woman as "sacred" would not be taken in so expansive a sense as to place the Indian woman on the same footing as her European sister and thereby make the latter a less hallowed being?
If the testimony before the Hunter Committee and other official proclamations were our only guide, we might well be inclined to believe that Indian women like Englishwomen in the colonies were honored as "sacred". There had been rumors that "both British and Indian women" were "shamelessly assaulted" in trains, station platforms, and other places. When Dyer was asked whether he thought assaults on Indian women, had they taken place, would have been more or less "dastardly" than the assault on Miss Sherwood, he replied, "I could not say unless I had seen the two assaults which of the two was more dastardly." Dyer also stated that no women or children were present in the crowd that was fired upon at Jallianwala Bagh and that women were specifically exempt from the terms of the 'crawling order'. In Lahore a strict curfew was enforced between 8:00 P.M. and 5:00 A.M., but when it was brought to Col. Johnson's notice that the order was preventing women in child-birth from being attended to by doctors or nurses, the necessary exemption was at once granted. If woman is to be honored, how better to honor her than to recognize and idolize her reproductive function and her task to nurture the young? Moreover, a keen effort appears to have been made to counteract such rumors as were likely to create the impression that Indian women were not receiving the same consideration as European ladies, and a report of the alleged violation of "Sikh girls" in particular was sought to be contradicted effectively and expeditiously. "Persistent malicious rumors of the bombing of the Golden Temple and raping of Sikh girls at Amritsar were afloat", Dyer submitted in his report of August 25th, 1919, "and one realized that the great object of the mutineers was to get the Sikhs on their side." "To be certain of having the Sikhs on our side", Dyer further wrote, he was dispatched on a special mission to major centers of Sikh population, where he spoke with the heads of the communities, attempting to get their support "in keeping the Sikhs straight and denying the many malicious rumours which had been", so Dyer believed, "systematically disseminated amongst the villages in the whole district." His visits, he says, had "very good effect", and no doubt the movable column of 100 British, 100 Indian, 2 Cavalry and 2 armored cars that accompanied him played no small part in persuading the Sikhs to act with reason.
The volume of evidence collected by the Congress commissioners, and other associated documents, are however less assuring that the injunction to honor "women as sacred" was applied to Indian women. Ironically the first piece of testimony by a woman in the volume of the Congress committee's evidence contradicting the official view is related to the case of Miss Sherwood, to honor whom the 'crawling order' was issued, and who in the post-Mutiny period became the preeminent symbol in British India of the European woman who had to suffer the depravations of native men. A woman living in the Kucha Kaurianwala or the 'crawling lane' stated that one afternoon when her menfolk were out the soldiers came to her house, dealt the servant who answered the door several blows with their boots and the butt-ends of their rifles, and then asked for her. What happened next is best conveyed in her own words:
I am a purdah-nashin. I never appear in public, not even before
the servants. I was, however, called down from my house. I
went with a purdah (veil). I was peremptorily ordered to take off
my purdah. I was frightened and removed the purdah. I was
then asked who assaulted Miss Sahib [Sherwood]. They threatened
me that unless I named the assailant, I would be given over to the
soldiers. I said, I did not know and could not name any body falsely.
In a joint statement, nearly two dozen women, all residents of Manianwala, District Gujranwala, declared that they were herded together, compelled to remove their veils, and harassed to provide false testimony to the effect that a certain gentleman had lectured them and others against the government. They say of the officer present that he spat at them, used foul language, beat some of them with sticks, and ordered them to stand in rows and hold their ears. "Flies, what can you do if I shoot you?", he is reported to have told them. This same officer, Bosworth-Smith, entrusted with enforcing martial law in parts of Gujranwala, is said by another group of nine women to have "used the foulest and most unmentionable language" and "forcibly uncovered the faces of all the women brushing aside the veils with his own stick". "He repeatedly called us", we further read, "bitches, flies and swine and said, 'You were in the same beds with your husband; why did you not prevent them from going out to do mischief? Now your skirts will be looked into by the police constables.'" These women were kicked and forced to undergo the humiliation of holding their ears "by passing [their] arms round the legs while being bent double." Similar testimony of being compelled to unveil was given by other women.
The unveiling of women in purdah, and especially the use of abusive and vulgar language, might seem comparatively minor forms of humiliation, but if societies are also formed, known, and identified by the types of apparel that men and women wear, then the unveiling of Indian women by British officers must obviously be read as an attempt to defrock and render naked an entire culture. The veil is too often seen as emblematic of tradition, counterpoised to modernity, but even this rather impoverished framework confronts us with the irony that the very officers who defended their conduct on the grounds that they wished to make Indians alive to those traditions which were rapidly disappearing, and who noted with remorse the 'disrespect' that sons even in tradition-bound India showed to their fathers, were only too willing to mock and destroy an 'inviolable' tradition which hid women from the gaze of unknown men. The unveiling of women assumes much greater significance when we recognize the veil, the system of purdah, as the site of a confrontation between the colonized and the colonizer, the site on the one hand of a concerted attempt to penetrate a culture to its roots and impregnate it with the seeds of an alien authority, and on the other hand of a determined effort to forge resistance to keep a culture clothed and impregnable. A pronouncement of the French colonial administration in Algeria suggests what the unveiling of women entailed: "If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the woman; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight." To unveil forcibly a woman is to transform her into a prostitute, into the victim of a rape, and every face that is unveiled is a reminder to the society to which these women belong that the colonizer has numerous ways of enforcing his will.
Another perspective on the unveiling of Indian women, and on the alleged atrocities committed against them during martial law in the Punjab, is provided by the exchange of correspondence between Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, a well-known figure in nationalist politics, and the India Office. At a mass meeting held in London on 3rd June 1920, presided over by the chairman of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, Mrs. Naidu asked Englishmen if they, who prided themselves on their "chivalry" and held the "honour and chastity" of their women as more precious than all their "Imperial treasures", would sit still and "leave unavenged the dishonour, and the insult, and the agony inflicted upon the veiled women of the Punjab"? Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India, she argued, was unwilling "to draw the veil from the ugly face of realties", but his "minions", Col. Johnson and his ilk, "rent the veil from the faces of the women of the Punjab." Describing the "cherished purdah" as the "innermost privacy of the chaste womanhood of India", she spoke of the women "who had never been seen or heard by a stranger; women whose faces had never been touched even by the curious sun or the moon were dragged into the market place, Englishmen and Englishwomen; my sisters were stripped naked; they were flogged; they were outraged; and yet you dare to talk of the action of souls...."
Naidu's seeming defence of purdah, her easy assumption of its centrality in the life of some Indian women, as well as the somewhat quixotic language employed by her to characterize her countrywomen, may appear disturbing, and one may even be inclined to see this as an instance of the inability of the colonized to create a discourse that is substantively antagonistic to the discourse of the colonizer. But such a reading could only derive from the mistaken notion that veiling is universally and inherently oppressive, and can never serve as a mode of resistance. The use of the veil by Algerian women, during the struggle for independence, to hide weapons, arms, and documents, and as a form of resistance to the colonizer's attempt to forcibly impose Western dress upon them, a dress in which some reported to feel nude, is well-known. Veiling was also adopted in Iran by middle-class women, who generally did not veil themselves, as a mark of solidarity with working-class women at the outset of the revolution that overthrew the Shah. In the Indian context, a more recent study of courtesans in Lucknow shows the shortsightedness in generalizing, from the general signification of veiling as a form of oppressive patriarchy, to its repressive character in each and every instance. These courtesans, who flaunted every norm of behavior expected of women, nonetheless resorted to veiling, and did so precisely because they could in this fashion block the gaze of men. As they pointed out, in their profession they do not bestow anything on men without a price, and their face was no more 'free' than anything else. The purdah reverses the unidirectional look which men direct at women; it can give women the power of the gaze, and endow them, in the jargon of the day, with a self-fashioning subjectivity.
What nonetheless appears to be shared in these two discourses of the colonizer and the colonized, of English functionaries of the State and an Indian nationalist, is the assumption that a nation is never more wounded than when its women are humiliated and degraded. Women are, at least when it is the prestige of a nation in question, the embodiment of national life, and the "outrage" of a woman by an other is not only to indelibly burn marks upon her body, it is to wound the soul of the nation. Men can be vilified, attacked, and brutalized much like women, but their bodies are not generally a site for agonism, conflict, and battle, either between themselves or between women. The body of a woman, on the other hand, is "a medium of communication between men", a contestatory space used by men to establish their dominance over one another, a space indeed "to prove a point among men". Thus, in the assault on Miss Sherwood, which the British quickly perceived as something tantamount to a rape, the Indians were seen as enacting two, paradoxically contradictory, acts. On the one hand, the assault on Miss Sherwood was really a cowardly attack on the men who were guardians of her honor and of British rule; on the other hand, Indian men had been too intrepid, not to mention premature, in performing a rite of total conquest, a rite which allows the victor and only the victor to rape the women of the vanquished foes. The British read the assault on Miss Sherwood as a sign that Indian nationalism, after a hiatus of sixty years, had arrived, for if an Englishwoman could be attacked, then nothing was safe. Yet it is the very fact that the Englishwoman could be raped that elevated her, for by contrast the Indian woman, never one to either guard her chastity or her mouth, and just as unlikely to receive the protection of her indifferent menfolk, could not be raped. It was this latter reading that Naidu would attempt to contest.
The meeting at which Naidu spoke went largely unreported, but an abbreviated account that appeared in a London tabloid caught the attention of the India Office, where a vigorous discussion took place on what could be done officially to contradict Mrs. Naidu's allegations of the abuse, flogging, and outraging of Indian women. Would it do any good to publish a formal communique stating the 'facts' unless Mrs. Naidu were also prosecuted? And what had the officer in question, Bosworth-Smith, to say for himself? On June 16th the Secretary of State wired the Viceroy, "I wish to publish contradiction. Please let me have as soon as possible Bosworth Smith's remarks on this evidence." Bosworth-Smith predictably denied all the charges laid against him and described the testimony of several dozen women as a "tissue of falsehood". Thus, on July 7th, the India Office could address Mrs. Naidu to the effect that the Secretary of State had "satisfied himself that the statements that the women were stripped naked, or flogged, or outraged, during the operation of Martial Law in the Punjab, are of course absolutely untrue." But why "of course", if not because the word of an Englishman when weighed against the word of an Indian must invariably command precedence? And why "absolutely", if not because there can never be any uncertainty about the word of an Englishman, especially a servant of the government? "Mr. Montagu finds it difficult to believe", Mrs. Naidu was told, "that anybody could for one moment have thought that such occurrences were possible . . ." It is not that such occurrences are impossible, Montagu might have said, and he had to point only to the often barbarous conduct of soldiers against civilians when they form part of an occupying army, but it is inconceivable that an Englishman, the very epitome of a civilized man, could be implicated in so heinous an 'offence' as the outraging of a woman. The Englishman is routinely portrayed as a man incapable of committing certain offences; he may order his troops to fire without warning at an unarmed crowd until such time as his ammunition runs out, but when it is suggested to him that British soldiers humiliated women, or otherwise committed atrocities against civilians, he becomes indignant. Several dozen witnesses appearing before the Congress Committee spoke of how British soldiers contaminated and polluted the water of several wells in Amritsar, using them as latrines. When Annie Besant, a British woman with nationalist sympathies settled in India, laid before the India Office the charge that soldiers had defecated in the well in the Kucha Kaurianwala (the only one in the lane), and left women and children waterless, the Secretary of State was assured by the Viceroy that the allegations were "entirely false and unfounded." "It is impossible to believe", Chelmsford wrote, employing language with which we are now familiar, "that any British soldier purposely defiled wells."
Sarojini Naidu had spoken of women being "outraged", but it was suggested to her that she had manufactured the charge. Balochan, a resident of Amritsar, had testified that she and her sister were stripped naked by policewomen and sticks pushed into their vaginas. Was it not the case that the officer whose conduct was in question, Bosworth-Smith, had been accused by only of removing the veil from women's faces, of using foul and vulgar language in their presence, and of raining blows on them with sticks and shoes, and that the only evidence suggesting the outrage of women implicated not British, but Indian, policemen or soldiers? Sarojini Naidu replied that even if it were conceded that the charge could be laid at the door of the subordinate Indian police, the relevance of the "fine distinction" drawn by the India Office was not "obvious", "when the police were an integral part of the Martial Law machinery . . ." Had she amplified her objection, we can imagine that she was contesting not only the tendency among the British to exculpate themselves by attributing the excesses to subordinate Indians, who in other circumstances may well have been part of the 'mobs', but the very logic of British rule in India. If the British admitted, as they did, that their function in India was to prepare Indians for self-government, and train them in the finer arts of civilized society, such as policing populations, then clearly their inability to control the ranks of their services was a failure of the first magnitude, an indication of how ill-fitted they were to govern the country.
The India Office had not been quite able to silence Mrs. Naidu, and as the persuasive powers of Montagu and his staff had proven inadequate to the task, the stratagem agreed upon was to discredit the witnesses. The origin of this stratagem is revealed in a note by the Under-Secretary of State: "this incredible story", it says of the testimony by Balochan, "which coming from such women would never be believed -- as I think the Congress Subcommittee undoubtedly realised -- Mrs. Naidu lifts from its setting and applies to the purdah women." The note is written as though there can be a proper setting for rape and "outrage", and had the setting been different, the story may have been more credible. But what was so outrageous in the suggestion that "such women" could have been "outraged"? From the Viceroy came a telegram, informing the Secretary of State that inquiries by the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar had yielded the information that the women in question were "all low class prostitutes belonging to wandering tribes . . . settled in Amritsar city for prostitution. . . ." Who could believe people who were, all at the same time, of the female sex, belonging to the "low classes", given to prostitution, and supposedly addicted to criminal behavior? Was this not in itself enough to discredit the allegation, an allegation made all the more preposterous by its insinuations that the police could stoop so low as to sexually molest women? The Viceroy, an a man experienced in the ways of Indian natives, brought it to Montagu's attention that it was "common knowledge in India that women of low classes embroider complaints in this fashion." We are left to guess whether lower-class men similarly embellish their stories, or whether women are more prone to such liberties.
The Viceroy's telegram was published in the Glasgow Herald on 28th August 1920 and a copy mailed to Naidu. In her reply to Montagu, critical, scathing and passionate at once, Naidu objected first to the procedure -- a procedure to which the Hunter Committee had resorted as well -- whereby the very officers whose conduct was in question were called upon to contradict the allegations made against them, such refutals then being cited as decisive proof of their innocence. Did not the term "special inquiry" implied by Montagu in his letter to her of July 10 imply "something more than a mere reference to the Deputy Commissioner"? What was the worth of a "bare denial" from him "covered and confused by entirely irrelevant allegations, made obviously with a hope to discredit the unfortunate victims of conduct the revolting brutality of which cannot be qualified by the character of those subjected to it"? Describing as a "monstrous misrepresentation" the slander that lower-class prostitutes in particular embroidered their stories, Naidu described herself as being ashamed "to think that a British official should suppose that such an atrocious charge could be lightly disposed of by such a callous and contemptible method as the suggestion that the people concerned are too degraded to have any claim on human credulity."
In modern parlance, the authorities had resorted to the stratagem of 'blaming the victim', and Naidu was fiercely contesting the attempted displacement of the question from the realm of politics to the realm of biology, and the reduction of a woman to her body. To discredit a witness, it ordinarily is necessary to prove that his or her testimony is fabricated or at the very least subject to grave doubt, but here the testimony was being dismissed for no other other reason than the witness belonged to a class of people that was said to be constitutionally corrupt, incapable of speaking the truth, "too degraded", in Naidu's words, "to have any claim on human credulity." The British had a rather marked propensity to divide the Indian population into such categories as the "better classes" or "upper classes", conceived as allies in the quest to retain power, the "fighting classes" or "martial races", from which were taken the recruits who fought the battles for the British, "criminal tribes", groups of people that refused to subscribe to the ethic of the market, and the "lower classes", which were said to give "mobs" in urban centers their peculiarly inflammatory and explosive character. (Gentlemen, in contrast, are restrained.) Another such category was "prostitutes", who combined some of the characteristics of the "lower classes" and "criminal tribes", and like everyone else could be assigned a place in the socio-economic and political order of things, but who differed in that they could be equated solely with their bodies. Miss Sherwood too had been reduced to her body, but there was a body that could be valorized, worshipped, fetishized; here, on the other hand, was the body of a prostitute, merely serviceable and certainly worth nothing more than a squabble.
Just as the India Office had published the Viceroy's letter, detailing the origins -- the etiology always a preoccupation with the English -- of these prostitutes, so Naidu took the liberty of publishing her letter in the English press. This seemed to officials at the India Office to add insult to injury, but it appeared equally imprudent to make further efforts to refute her allegations, and thereby allow her the opportunity to continue to air her views. To one official "the inherent improbability of the charges" made it unprofitable to pursue the matter any further, while the Under-Secretary of State registered his indignation with the observation that "Mrs. Naidu rejects with contumely the inquiry made into the stories of the Perni prostitutes." He held it as "impossible" that Bosworth-Smith should have struck women or torn down their veils. The final observation may be left to another senior official, who in arguing that the matter should be allowed to "die down", noted that it would be fruitless "to attempt to refute this unscrupulous woman's charges". All along the "prostitutes" had been "unscrupulous", but now, by mere rapid transference, Sarojini Naidu herself had been rendered "unscrupulous". And why "unscrupulous", if not because she, like the prostitutes she defended, embroidered her stories, persisted with falsehood, and sought to gain political mileage, perhaps even, as the Under-Secretary of State suspected, a verdict from a tribunal that Bosworth-Smith was guilty of the charges alleged against him? It had not been possible to defeat Mrs. Naidu in political debate, but as a woman she could always be minimized, metamorphosized into a mere body, and characterized as base by equating her, "an unscrupulous woman", with other women known to men only for the indiscriminate use of their bodies. It is not that colonialism does not allow the 'other' to speak, but rather that it reserves the last word for itself, reserving it by the process, as I have suggested, of constituting certain incidents as 'events' which are then inscribed into history.
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