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Manto and the Raj–I

25 min read

by Raza Naeem

“I am the trader of sighs
To versify blood is my mission
Remaining winds of the garden!
Gather your refuges…for
My fiery songs
Are about to cause an upheaval within depressed bosoms”

When the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occured in 1919, Saadat Hasan Manto was nine years old. The hero of Jallianwala Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew was a close relative of Manto and because of him, the Manto family also had to face misfortunes. The calamity of Jallianwala Bagh was preserved in Manto’s subconscious. In fact, he wrote a few short stories in this context. Tamasha1919 ki Aik BaatDivaana Shayir and Swaraj ke Liye are some of them. Here an attempt will be made to directly narrate the feelings of young Saadat Hasan Manto at that time.

‘Despite the slaughter, the British in India saw General Reginald Dyer as the saviour of the Raj

Manto’s ancestral home was in Kucha Vakilan (Chowk Fareed) of Amritsar. Since the majority of the family members were linked with the legal profession, and approximately all the homes in this quarter were of the Manto family, it had become famous as the ‘Lawyers Quarter’ by this association. Its population was numbered among the powerful Muslim families of the city. Many prominent Muslim leaders, too, were born there. Indeed Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew was a relative of the Mantos. In addition, Attaullah Bukhari, Qazi Fazlullah, etc. were also important political leaders. Manto’s eldest uncle Asadullah Manto and Manto’s two elder brothers Khwaja Muhammad Hasan Manto and Khwaja Saeed Hasan Manto were also barristers, who had obtained their education in law from Britain.

Saadat Hassan Manto

Manto’s initial education was at home. When he was a child of 8-9 years, he was admitted to the fourth grade of the primary section of the Muslim School. This portion of the school was located near Chowk Fareed, which was a few minutes from their home. After passing the fourth grade, he was admitted to the fifth grade at Government High School Amtitsar near the statue of Queen Victoria.

An incident occurred on the way to the school near the statue of Queen Victoria from the effects of which a short story writer began to emerge within the mind and imagination of that young boy.

In 1919, much of Punjab was agitating against the Rowlatt Act of the British Government in the Indian subcontinent. The Indian members of the Legislative Council had strongly opposed the Rowlatt Act. Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had resigned from the Council in protest against it. The newspapers also strongly opposed it but contrary to all popular feelings, this law took the shape of an Act by being passed on the 21st of March, 1919. As per the Act, no recourse to appeal, dalil (evidence) or vakil (lawyer) could be had.

In that period, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Maulana Ali Azhar, who were contemporaries of Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, were also excellent speakers. The Muslims of India were already at the forefront in the movement for the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey under the leadership of the Ali Brothers – Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Maulana Shaukat Ali. Gandhi, too, had given the call for countrywide satyagraha on the 25th of February, 1919. The leaders of the Punjab branch of the Indian National Congress, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal set up committees to support this movement in Amritsar and addressed them. On the 30th of March, the meeting which Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal organized was attended by approximately 30,000 people. This popular wave worried the then-provincial government. The Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Irving, warned Dr Kitchlew not to participate in this movement but the leaders did not heed this at all. Many strikes occurred over this issue in the different cities and villages of the province – now the political turmoil and the Rowlatt Act created an atmosphere which was explosive. In these cicumstances, the Governor of Punjab Michael O’Dwyer deemed these gatherings and strikes to be a conspiracy against the British government and a declaration of war against the British crown.

Hindus had taken out a procession for the religious festival Rama Navami – in which Muslims participated in large numbers. The Deputy Comissioner of Delhi felt that the coming together of Muslims and Hindus in this manner had assumed a new political importance

When Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Delhi from Bombay on the 8th of April to review the effects of the movement, he received an official order under which he was barred from entering Punjab; but he proceeded towards Amritsar. He was arrested on the way near Palwal and sent back to Bombay. There was an extreme reaction. Due to the seriousness of the situation, the government supplied the cantonments in Punjab with further military reinforcements and decided to remove Dr. Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal from Amritsar on the 9thh of April. Coincidentally on that day, the Hindus had taken out a procession on the occasion of the religious festival Rama Navami – in which Muslims, too, participated in large numbers. The Deputy Commissioner of Delhi was of the opinion that the coming together of Muslims and Hindus in this manner had assumed a new political importance. The rulers were definitely faced with a nervous situation. The Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Irving, had received orders for the expulsion of Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal, but he was not ready to implement them. He thought that there was no danger of any insurrectionary situation in the city at that moment. But Governor O’Dwyer stood for brutish use of force. He rejected the Deputy Commissioner’s report. He was dominated by the fear that these leaders were looking to overthrow the British Raj at the behest of Gandhi. So Deputy Commissioner Irving had to take measures which he thought would mitigate the trouble. On the 10th of April at 10 a.m. in the morning, Irving called Dr. Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal to his bungalow and read out the order of district expulsion to them. He had the two leaders escorted out of the back door and into a car, which took them to some unknown location. The British officials thought that the situation would improve after the removal of these gentlemen from the scene. But when Congress members who had come along with their leaders to the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow protested, they were arrested. This news could not remain concealed. It spread throughout Amritsar like a forest fire. Bazaars and businesses closed down. The city wore a deserted look. The heart of every person was troubled by the action of the English. People began to congregate in droves near the Hall Gate.

They consisted of all kinds of people, old, young, big and small. Their faces were yellow and lips clenched. Among them, too, was that school student Saadat. Though Saadat was young, he wanted to find out what the incident was about. There was chaos about him, with people arriving all over the place. Another crowd coming from the opposite end of Hall Bazaar also joined in. Upon their joining in, the mute crowd screamed suddenly with full strength that “Everyone should go together to the Deputy Commissioner Bahadur and request for the cancellation of the expulsion orders of our beloved leaders.” But the moment for even the request never came. The rulers deemed this congregation of the people illegal indeed. The bungalow of the Deputy Commissioner was in the Civil Lines – every big official lived in this secluded area of the city. There was a bridge linking the city and the Civil Lines, crossing which a person reached the Thandi Sadak, where the colonial rulers had constructed an earthly heaven of sorts.

When this congregation of people set out from Hall Gate, Saadat, too, was behind them in the throng. Obviously no one had paid attention to him. These were unarmed and peaceful people. The crowd kept proceeding towards the bridge leading to the Civil Lines. The procession was stopped near the gate. When the procession tried to proceed further, the ‘goras’ opened fire on the other side. No one had foreseen this. So there was a stampede . The goras deputed at the checkpost were merely 20-25 in number and the crowd consisted of hundreds. Commotion spread, some were injured by bullets and many were injured in the stampede. There was a drain on the right side – some fell into it.

In fact, young Saadat also fell in. The drain was not deep. He remained hidden there, afraid for as long as the bullets kept flying. He rose up to look when the firing stopped. The whole crowd had scattered. The injured were lying on the road and there were victorious smiles on the faces of the goras standing on the bridge.

We can imagine that the scene after getting out of the drain would only have emerged gradually in young Saadat’s mind. There were voices in the distance. There was anger within the people. He returned near the Hall Gate, crossing the drain from the other side, passing through the takia of Zahira Pir; where a gang of 30-40 youth was gathering and hurling stones and pebbles in anger and enthusiasm at the clock of the Hall Gate. Its glass broke and fell out on the road. A youth cried that, “Chalo…now let’s break the statue of the Queen.” His friend said, “No yaar..,let’s burn the magistrate’s office.” Another interrupted, “And all the banks too…” An agitated youth asked of them, “Wait…what use is this? Chalo let’s kill the armed ones on the bridge!”

Despite being behind at a distance, Saadat recognized him. He was Thaila Kanjar. His name was Tufail but he was famous as Thaila Kanjar. He was the son of a courtesan. A great loafer, famous as a drunkard and gambler. For his young age, that was all that Saadat knew about him. Thaila’s two sisters Shamshad and Almas were the most beautiful courtesans of their time. The richest people from far and wide used to come attend their mujra. It was also known in the city that they had disowned their brother. However, Thaila would extract what resources he needed from them by hook or crook. He was always well-dressed; ate well and conversed in a sophisticated manner. He stayed away from the crudeness of the mirasis and bhands – a beautiful youth, tall, strong, muscular, fine features. Saadat could see that he was passionate. A mini-party of boys had accompanied him. Some hotheads advanced towards the statue of the Queen. Thaila screamed forcefully, “I told you not waste your passion there! Come here with me…chalo let’s kill them who have taken the life of our innocent men and injured them. By God, if we come together, we can wring their necks…aao chalo!”

Some stopped, the rest joined him. When Thaila advanced forward, they also began to walk behind him. “Thaila just wants to tell them that he is not one to be afraid of bullets” he addressed his fellows. “Those who are afraid can return.”

At such moments, how could advancing steps turn back and that too at the time when the leader would lead from the front putting his life on the line?. Thaila quickened his steps, the others also did the same.

Saadat was seeing all of this, standing hidden near the fountain.

The distance of the bridge from the Hall Gate was roughly some 60-70 yards. At the point where the double-faced parallel railing began, at a distance of 15-20 steps, there were standing gora soldiers on horseback.

These people leapt towards them, raising slogans. Thaila was prominent in the front. There was a crowd behind. Saadat could not make out the scene clearly due to his 3-and-a-half feet of height and the distance involved. He tried to look by repeatedly standing on tiptoe and jumping. When Thaila reached the start of the railing by raising a slogan, the noise of gunfire sounded. Everybody ran backwards but Thaila kept advancing. He turned to look. He screamed, “Don’t run away…advance forward!”

Now the view was relatively better for Saadat. Another shot rang out. Thaila turned to look at the goras and stroked his hips. Saadat saw reddish spots on Thaila’s white Boski shirt….but he did not fall. He quickly advanced forward, like a wounded lion. Another shot was fired. He stumbled, but with one or two strong steps he leapt at the horse-riding gora nearer him and in a trice, the gora was floored and Thaila was on top of him. His hands locked around the gora’s neck. The second mounted soldier first panicked, then began to fire repeatedly. Little Saadat could not bear to see more. The boy fainted near the fountain.

When he regained consciousness, he was in his home. Some men of Chowk Fareed had recognized him and brought him home. Consciousness was indeed regained, but the writhing of Thaila’s dreadful end was etched in that young mind. Perhaps this moment gave birth to a story within that child.

It may well have been the moment when a short-story writer, destined to enrich Urdu literature, found refuge within the child.–Courtesy: The Friday Times

The writer is a social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader. He is the recipient of a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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