The Great War 1914-18

The Line-up of the Powers
By 1914 the European powers were already divided into two rival camps. After the outbreak of war both groups sought allies. Germany and Austria-Hungary were joined by Turkey and Bulgaria. Russia, France and Great Britain sought and gained the support of Japan, Italy, Romania and, after a long struggle, Greece. By far the most important adherent to the Allied cause was the United States, which declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. In Europe, the price in terms of life and material destruction changed men’s conception of war; it is estimated that over eight million combatants were killed

The war which began in August 1914 as a European war turned into a world war in 1917, and can be seen as a bridge between the age of European predominance and the age of global politics. The spark that triggered it off was the assassination of the Austrian heir-presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian terrorists at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. In the ensuing crisis, none of the powers was prepared to accept diplomatic defeat; war replaced diplomatic manoeuvre.

Everyone expected a short war, over by Christmas 1914. The Germans knew that their chances in a long war on two fronts were slender. Their war plan drawn up by Schlieffen in 1905, was to trap and annihilate the French army by a great encirclement movement through Belgium, before the Russians had time to mobilise. But the Russians mobilised unexpectedly,  quickly, invaded East Prussia, defeated the German 8th Army at Gumbinnen (20 August), and drew off German reserves from the west. However, the Germans defeated the Russian invasion at Tannenberg (26-29 August), but were not strong enough to exploit their victory.

Map 2: The German attack in the west and the battle of Marne
Germans invaded Belgium successfully taking Liege on 16 August; the French offensive in Alsace was defeated with heavy loss.
A further French offensive towards the Ardennes was defeated, and the British and one French army were forced to retreat from the Mons area to avoid encirclement.
The Germans were too weak to go west of Paris as they planned and they passed north-east of Paris to cross the Marne.
The exposed German army north of Paris was attacked by the French army on 5 September, and in manoeuvring to oppose the French attack left a gap on its own eastern flank.
British and French advanced into the gap.
The German army retired to the Aisne to regroup.


In the west, the Allies outmanoeuvred the Germans in the Battle of the Marne (5-8 September). The Schlieffen Plan was always a gamble; when it failed the Germans had no alternative strategy. On 8-12 September, the Russians won a crushing victory over Austria at Lemberg. A last, mutual attempt by the Germans and Allied armies to outflank each other in Flanders failed in November, and both sides dug in on a line 400 miles long from the Channel to the Swiss frontier. In the east, mobile warfare was still possible because of the far lower density of men and guns—a possibility brilliantly exploited by the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915, and by the Russian general Brusilov in 1916.

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The Naval War: After the battle of Jutland (1916) in which the Germans inflicted heavier losses but the British retained command of the North Sea, both sides used naval means to cut the other’s supply lines in a war of attrition. The British instituted an open blockade of the Central Powers which became effective by the end of 1916. In that year, there were fifty-six food riots in German cities. In reply, the Germans resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917 and one out of every four ships leaving British ports was sunk.  The assault was only checked by the convoy system first used in May 1917.

In the west, from the beginning of 1915 the dominant factors were trenches, barbed wire, artillery, machine-guns and mud. The war of mobility gave way to a war of attrition. One entrenched man with a machine-gun was more than a match for a hundred advancing across open country. Railways could bring up defenders faster than slowly-moving troops could advance into the front-line gaps which they had created at such high human cost.

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Map 3: The Great War in Europe
On the Western Front only the opening and closing stages saw a war of movement. From late 1914 to Spring 1918, the superiority of defence based on trench-systems and machine-guns over slow moving offensives by infantry, preceded by the fire of immense concentrations of artillery, imposed a stalemate. Only when armies had been weakened by years of attrition did sweeping advances again become possible. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with a lower density of manpower and weaker defences, the war was more mobile. The Italian front along the River Isonzo saw another stalemate despite eleven Italian offensives against the Austrians; a stalemate broken in October 1917 by the German-Austrian victory at Caporetto, and the Italian victory in Vittorio Veneto a year later.


Yet the German occupation of Belgium and northern France made it inevitable that the Allies should seek to expel them. This meant repeated French offensives in Artois and Champagne in 1915, assisted by small British offensives at Neuve Chappelle and Loos. For 1916 the Allies planned a joint offensive on the Somme, but the Germans struck first, at Verdun, with the intention of bleeding the French army to death. On 1 July 1916, the British launched their first mass offensive of the war, on the Somme. The fighting lasted until November; each side suffered some 600,000 casualties. It failed to break the stalemate.

By now the conflict was becoming a total war demanding the mobilisation of industry, carried out in Germany by Rathenau and in Britain by Lloyd George. Answers to the trench stalemate were sought in technology; poison gas was first used by the Germans at Ypres in April 1915; the British invented the tank and fielded 32 of them in the closing stages of the Somme battle, but owing to manufacturing difficulties it was only in November 1917, at Cambrai, that the first mass tank attack took place—also proving indecisive.

The struggle spread to the skies, where the handful of reconnaissance aircraft of 1914 gave way to fighters, bombers and artillery-spotters. With the Zeppelin airship and the Gotha long range bomber the Germans introduced strategic bombing of enemy towns. By means of naval blockade the Allies sought to starve the industries and peoples of the Central powers; Germany riposted by U-boat attacks on British shipping.

The War in the Middle East
The war was not confined to Europe.  To protect the Persian oil wells, an Anglo-Indian force occupied Basra (22 November 1914) and marched on Baghdad (October 1915); they were forced to retreat and surrendered to the Turks at Kut (April 1916). Meanwhile, the British had repelled a Turkish attempt to cross the Suez Canal (1915), and a counter-offensive force entered Palestine in 1916. Here they were assisted by the British-sponsored Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, which broke out in June 1916 under Sherif Hussein of Mecca, but they were checked by the Turks at Gaza in 1917. To the north, the Russians occupied Turkish Armenia (July 1916) and held it until the Russian revolution restored initiative to the Ottomans. In Autumn 1917, British forces under General Allenby rallied, and pushed through Gaza to Jerusalem (11 December). In Mesopotamia, Kut was retaken, and Baghdad was finally captured (10 March 1917); Mosul was occupied shortly after the Anglo-Turkish Armistice (29 October 1918), while Damascus had fallen to British and Arab troops at the beginning of the same month.
The war spilled over into Africa and the Far East where Germany quickly lost its colonial possessions. The South Africans conquered German South-West Africa in July 1915; the British and French took the Cameroons and Togoland. In German East Africa, the British had a more difficult task because of the determined German defence under General von Lettow-Vorbeck. In the Pacific, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese troops captured the German colonies within four months of the outbreak of war, and the concessions in China also fell to Japanese and British forces.

Confronted by failure in the west, the Allies sought successes on other fronts:

  • the Dardanelles (April 1915-January 1916)
  • an offensive in Mesopotamia against the Turks
  • a landing at Salonika to help the Serbs.

All ended in failure. Italy, which entered the war on the Allied side on 23 May 1915, likewise failed to break the Austrian front on the Isonzo.

On the Easter Front, too, there was no decision, despite the German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915 and a far reaching Russian advance under General Brusilov in 1916. Serbian resistance was crushed, but the Germans were now embedded in the prolonged two-front war they had dreaded.

By the end of 1916, all the combatants recognised that victory was far off. There were peace feelers, but annexationist German demands ruled out a compromise peace. The war went on—under new and ruthless leaders: the soldiers Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Germany, the civilians Lloyd George in Britain and later Clemenceau in France.

On 1 February 1917 Germany declared unrestricted U-boat warfare, in the hope of bringing Britain to her knees. This was narrowly averted by the introduction of the convoy system in May 1917. But the U-boat offensive brought the United States into the war on 6 April 1917—a potentially decisive help to the Allies.

In March, revolution broke out in Russia, sparked by heavy losses, war-weariness and economic dislocation. On 15 March 1917, the Tsar abdicated. The future of Russia as an ally lay in doubt. By May, France was in deep trouble too. An offensive by the new Commander-in-Chief, Nivelle, failed to achieve his promised object of a breakthrough leading to peace. Widespread mutinies erupted in the French army with parallel civilian unrest on the home front. The British planned an offensive at Ypres as the best means of keeping German pressure off the French and encouraging Russia. The “Passchendaele” offensive, dogged by bad weather, failed to break the German front; each side suffered some 250,000 casualties.

In November 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and in December sued for peace at Brest-Litovsk. At last the Germans could concentrate the bulk of their strength on the Western Front. On 21 March 1918 Hindenburg and Ludendorff launched a series of offensives aimed at victory in the West before the Americans could arrive in strength. They failed, despite impressive initial success. On 18 July, the new Allied generalissimo Foch, launched a French counterstroke. On 8 August Haig followed with a brilliant success on the Somme. From then on the Allies hammered the enemy without respite, breaking the Hindenburg Line on 27-30 September. Meanwhile Germany’s allies, Austria, Turkey and Bulgaria were beginning to collapse under Allied offensives. On 29 September Ludendorff acknowledge defeat and urged his government to ask for an immediate armistice. In October, the German fleet mutinied; revolution and the abdication of the Kaiser followed, and the new German government accepted the Allies’ armistice terms. Fighting stopped on 11 November 1918.

The material and human cost of the war had been immense; the political and social consequences were incalculable. The Europe of 1914 had vanished.

Courtesy of: The Times Atlas of World History Edited by Geoffrey Barraclough, Hammond Incorporated Maplewood, New Jersey

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Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862) at his coronation

Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862)
The elderly Mughal Emperor–eldest but not favourite son of the Emperor Akbar Shah II–was a calligrapher, Sufi, theologian, patron of painters of miniatures, creator of gardens and a very serious mystical poet. By the 1850s he held little real day-to-day power beyond the still potent mystique attached to the Mughal dynasty and was in many ways “a chessboard king.” Though he was initially horrified by the rough and desperate sepoys who barged into his palace on 11 May 1857, Zafar ultimately agreed to give his blessings to the Uprising, seeing it as the only way to save his great dynasty from extinction. It was a decision he later came to regret bitterly.


The Nawab Zinat Mahal Begum (1821-1882)
Zafar’s senior wife, and his only consort to come from an aristocratic background: when they married in 1840, she was nineteen while he was sixty-four. Having toppled her rival Taj Mahal Begum from the position of favourite wife and provided a son in the shape of Mirza Jawan Bakht, she worked single-mindedly to have her son–the fifteenth of Zafar’s sixteen boys–declared heir apparent. Zafar was widely regarded to be completely under her influence, but during 1857, the limits of her power over him became quickly apparent.

Taj Mahal Begum
The beautiful daughter of a humble court musician, Taj presided over the celebrations that accompanied Zafar’s accession to the throne in 1837 as his favourite wife and the head of his harem. Taj’s fall began when Zafar married the nineteen-year old Zinat Mahal in 1840. By 1857 she had been imprisoned for a suspected affair with Zafar’s nephew, Mirza Kamran, and remained bitterly alienated from both Zafar and Zinat Mahal.

Mirza Fakhru–aka Mirza Ghulam Fakhruddin (1818-1856)
When Zafar’s eldest son Mirza Dara Bakht, died from a fever in 1849, the British assumed that Zafar’s next son, Mirza Fakhru, would succeed him as heir apparent. Mirza Fakhru was a talented and popular poet and historian, but under the influence of Zinat Mahal, Zafar tried unsuccessfully to block his appointment as heir apparent in favour of Zinat’s fifteen-year old son, Mirza Jawan Bakht. Mirza Fakhru died in 1856, probably from cholera, but Palace gossip attributed the death to poisoning.

Mirza Mughal (1821-1857)
Zafar’s fifth son by a sayyida (descendant of the Prophet) of aristocratic birth named Sharaf ul-Mahal Sayyidani, who was a senior figure in Zafar’s harem. Mirza Mughal rose to prominence at court as a protege of Zinat Mahal after the disgrace of Mirza Fakhru in 1852 and was appointed qiladar (fort keeper). After the death of Mirza Fakhru in 1856 he was the oldest of Zafar’s surviving legitimate sons, and may at this point have contacted the discontented sepoys in the Company’s army. Certainly, from 12 May onwards he became the principal rebel leader in the royal family, and worked with great industry to keep the Delhi administration running amid the chaos of the Uprising and siege.

Mirza Khizr Sultan (1834-1857)
Zafar’s ninth son, the illegitimate child of a Palace concubine. Aged twenty-three in 1857, he was renowned for his physical beauty and had some capacity as a poet and marksman, but after throwing in his lot with the rebels in 1857, he did little to distinguish himself and ran away in fear from the battle of Badli Ki Serai, so causing a panic among the rebel troops. During the siege, he earned himself a reputation for corruption, and is frequently criticized in the sources for making arrests and collecting taxes from the town’s bankers without authority to do so.

Mirza Abu Bakr (died 1857)
Mirza Abu Bakr was the eldest son of Mirza Fakhru and Zafar’s oldest surviving legitimate grandson; he was also the principal badmash, or ruffian, in the imperial family. Within a few days of the outbreak, Mirza Abu Bakr began appearing in petitions and complaints to the Emperor, accused of whoring and drunkenness, whipping his servants, beating up watchmen, and casually attacking any policeman who tried to rein him in. He took nominal charge of the rebel cavalry, looting Gurgaon and various suburbs of Delhi, before leading the disastrous expedition to Meerut which ended in the rebel defeat at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May.

Mirza Jawan Bakht (1841-1884)
Zafar’s favourite son, and the only child he had by Zinat Mahal. Though he was the fifteenth of his sixteen male offsprings, Zafar was determined to try to make him heir apparent. Spoilt and selfish, Mirza Jawan Bakht had few supporters other than his parents, and took little interest in his studies. During the Uprising, he was kept away from the rebels by his mother, who hoped that after the sepoys’ defeat, her son’s succession would be assured.

Mirza Ilahe Bakhsh
Father-in-law of Mirza Fakhru, grandfather of Mirza Abu Bakr, and one of the leaders of the pro-British faction in the Palace, both before and after 1857. He was in close contact with William Hodson throughout the siege, and was instrumental in persuading Zafar to surrender after the fall of the city. In the weeks that followed, he was responsible for identifying which of his relatives had sympathised with the rebels, and having guaranteed his own life, at the cost of most of his family,. including his own grandson, he became known as the “Traitor of Delhi.”


Hakim Ahsanullah Khan
A highly intelligent, wily and cultured man. The Hakim was Zafar’s most trusted confidant and was appointed the prime minister and personal physician. Before 1857, the Hakim had an uneasy relationship with Zinat Mahal, but they made common cause during 1857, uniting against the rebel army and opening communication with the British. When his letters were discovered by the rebel sepoys, they tried to kill him, but he was protected by Zafar. The Hakim continued to press Zafar not to commit himself to the rebel cause, and to surrender himself to the British. When Zafar ultimately did so, the Hakim betrayed him by providing evidence against him at the trial, in return for his own pardon.

Mahbub Ali Khan (died 1857)
The Chief Eunuch of the Palace and Zinat Mahal’s notoriously ruthless “enforcer” beyond the walls of the zenana. Like his mistress, he was deeply suspicious of the Uprising, and he was a leading member of the pro-British faction in the Palace after the outbreak. His death on 14 June 1857 followed a prolonged illness, but was widely rumoured to be the result of poisoning.

Mirza Asadullah Khan “Ghalib” (1797-1869)
The greatest lyric poet in Urdu and from 1854–following the death of his rival Zauq–Poet Laureate of Mughal Delhi. A mystical Sufi by inclination, self consciously rakish and aristocratic by temperament, Ghalib in his writings provides some of the most sophisticated and melancholy records of the destruction of Mughal Delhi in the siege and fall of the city in 1857.

Zahir Dehlavi (1835-1911)
An attendant to Zafar at the Mughal court who had been working in the Fort since his thirteenth birthday. By 1857, he was twenty-two and had risen to the post of Darogah of the Mahi Maraatib, or Keeper of the Dynastic Fish Standard of the Mughals. A pupil of Zauq, he was a highly polished and cultured courtier and poet. His Dastan-i-Ghadr, which has never been previously translated or used in any English language account of the Uprising, gives the fullest and richly detailed surviving account of the course of the siege and Uprising from the point of view of the Palace.


General Bakht Khan
A subahdar of artillery prior to 1857, Bakht Khan was a much garlanded and battle-hardened veteran of the Afghan wars. A tall, portly and heavily built man with huge handlebar moustaches and sprouting sideburns, Bakht Khan had been elected general by the Bareilly troops and arrived in Delhi with a reputation as both an administrator and an effective military leader. When he arrived in Delhi halfway through the siege, on 2 July 1857, it initially looked as if Bakht Khan and his 3,000 men would bring a swift victory to the rebels, but the General’s tactless treatment of other rebel leaders–and particularly of Mirza Mughal–quickly made him enemies, as did his “Wahhabi” religious views. By the middle of August, his failure to dent the British defences led to his demotion from rebel Commander-in-Chief.

General Sudhari Singh and Brigade Major Hira Singh
The leaders of the Nimach Brigade and the principal rivals of Bakht Khan. They refused to accept the latter’s authority and worked to undermine his position, especially after he left their troops to their fate when ambushed by Nicholson’s column at Najafgarh on 25 August.

Brigade Major Gauri Shankar Sukul
Leader of the Haryana Regiment who became the most important British mole and agent provocateur within the rebel ranks.

Maulvi Sarfraz Ali
Bakht Khan’s spiritual mentor, the “Wahhabi” preacher, Maulvi was soon known as “the imam of the Mujahedin.” Prior to the Uprising, he had spent many years in Delhi and was well-connected to both the court and the city. He had been one of the first clerics to preach jihad against the British in the days leading up to the outbreak, and as the siege progressed and the number of jihadis increased, his influence as a rebel leader grew.


Munshi Jiwan Lal
Prior to the outbreak of the Uprising, Jiwan Lal had long been the hugely fat Mir Munshi (Chief Assistant) of Sir Thomas Metcalfe at the British Residency. Although restricted to the cellar of his house during much of the course of the siege, Jiwan Lal ran a highly effective intelligence operation from his hideaway, every day sending out “two Brahmins and two Jats for the purpose of obtaining news of the doings of the rebels from every quarter,” which he in due course passed on to William Hodson, the British chief of intelligence on the Ridge.

Mufti Sadruddin Khan –“Azurda” (died 1868)
Mufti Sadruddin Azurda was a close friend of both Zafar and Ghalib and played an important role as bridge between the British and Mughal elites in the early days of the British ascendancy in Delhi. For thirty years Azurda balanced his roles as chief Muslim judge (Sadr Amin) in Delhi, leading literary figure at court and prominent madrasa teacher with a mild Anglophilia. But, in 1857, alienated by the Company’s encouragement of missionaries, he threw in his lot with the rebels. A natural mediator, he was responsible for reconciling the jihadis, the court and the sepoys during the crisis over cow killing which took place during the ‘Id of 1 August 1857′, so avoiding a potential civil war within the rebel ranks.

Muinuddin Husain Khan
At the outbreak of the Uprising, Muinuddin Husain Khan was the Thanadar, or Head Police Officer at Paharganj police station, a little to the southwest of the walled city.

Sarvar ul-Mulk
A young Mughal nobleman, probably aged around twelve at the time of the outbreak. During the conflict, his Afghan tutor became a jihadi and his father had to defend the family house against the assaults of plundering sepoys. The family escaped from the city just after 14 September, and made it safely to Hyderabad, where Sarvar ul-Mulk eventually wrote a fine description of the siege in his autobiography, My Life.


The Metcalfes

Sir Charles Metcalfe (1785-1846)
The first of the Metcalfes to come to Delhi, in his first spell–initially as assistant to Sir David Ochterloney from 1806, and as Resident from 1811–Charles Metcalfe had fitted in with the tone set by his principal, building himself a house in the Mughal Shalimar Gardens and fathering three sons by a Sikh bibi who (according to family tradition), he married “by Indian rites.” By the time of his return to Delhi as Resident in 1826, Metcalfe had however jettisoned his bibi and begun to take a very different attitude to India and its Mughal rulers. “I have renounced my former allegiance to the house of Timur,” he announced to Lord Bentinck in a letter of 1832, shortly after he had left Delhi to take up position as Member of the Council in Calcutta.

Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853)
Sir Thomas arrived in Delhi in 1813 as assistant to his elder brother, Sir Charles Metcalfe, and stayed there for his entire career, rising to become Resident in 1835. A very particular and fastidious man, Metcalfe dedicated much of his professional life to negotiating a succession settlement that would allow the Company to expel the royal family from the Red Fort on the death of Zafar. He had some affection, but little real respect for the man he was determined should be the last of the Timurid line. Although to Zafar’s face he was always polite, in private, he was less generous. “Zafar is mild and talented,” he wrote, “but lamentably weak and vacillating, and impressed with a very erroneous notion of his own importance.” Having negotiated a succession agreement with Mirza Fakhru that entailed the Mughals leaving the Red Fort, Metcalfe died in 1853 from a digestive disorder that his doctors believed was caused by poison. His family believed the poison was administered on the orders of Zinat Mahal.

Sir Theophilus Metcalfe –“Theo” (1828-1883)
In 1857 Theo Metcalfe was a junior magistrate in the Company’s service, and a very different figure from his father: Where Sir Thomas was reserved and particular; Theo was sociable and expansive, and also, when he wished to be, extremely charming. If his father liked solitude and disliked the business of entertaining, Theo was noisy and convivial, and enjoyed parties, riding horses and dogs. If his father was resolutely self-disciplined and law abiding, Theo tended to cut corners and get into what his father described as “scrapes.” At the outbreak of the Uprising on 11 May 1857, Theo was one of the only British officials within the walls successfully to make his escape, and after joining the Delhi Field Force he took the lead in the bloodthirsty work of revenge.

Sir Edward Campbell (1822-1882)
Son-in-law of Sir Thomas Metcalfe and Prize Agent during the siege of Delhi. Campbell had been a protege of Sir Charles Napier, the former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India, with whom Sir Thomas Metcalfe had had a serious disagreement. Moreover, despite his title, Campbell was more or less penniless, all of which led Sir Thomas initially to try and block Campbell’s engagement to his daughter Georgina (known in the family as “GG”). Campbell’s regiment, the 60th Rifles, was one of the first to try out the new Enfield rifles; after his regiment mutinied, Campbell joined the Delhi Field Force on the Ridge and at the end of the siege was voted Prize Agent, responsible for administering the legalised looting of the captured city, a job for which his gentle and religious temperament was quite unsuited. 


Reverend Midgeley John Jennings (died 1857)
Padre Jennings had come out to India in 1832, and though initially posted to various quiet hill stations, had long dreamt of opening a mission in Delhi and getting stuck into some serious work as “Missionary to the Heathen.”  He finally got the job of chaplain in the Mughal capital in 1852 and moved straight into the front line, the Red Fort itself, having been invited to share the Lahore Gate lodgings of Captain Douglas, Commander of the Palace Guard. His unctuous yet tactless manner won him few friends, and he was regarded as a “bigot” by much of the British community in Delhi. The people of Delhi disliked him even more, especially after he succeeded in converting two prominent Delhi Hindus–Master Ramchandra and Chiman Lal–in 1852. Jennings was personally responsible for convincing many of the people of Delhi that the Company intended to convert them, by force if necessary.

Robert and Harriet Tytler

Robert and Harriet Tytler (Robert died 1872; Harriet died 1907)
Tytler was a veteran of the 38th Native Infantry and an officer of the old school who was close to his sepoys, concerned for their well-being and completely fluent in Hindustani. Tytler appears t have been a kind and sensitive man, a widower with two little children who had recently remarried, this time to the brisk and resilient Harriet. Harriet was half his age and as fluent in Hindustani as her husband. Together the two Tytlers pursued their amateur artistic enthusiasms, and unexpectedly for an army couple–became pioneering photographers. At the outbreak, the couple escaped from Delhi to Ambala, where they eventually joined the Delhi Field Force. Harriet’s memoirs are among the best sources on life on the Ridge during the siege of Delhi, and on the fate of the city after the fall.

Edward Vibart
In 1857 Edward Vibart of the 54th Bengal Native Infantry was a nineteen-year old company commander in Delhi, from an Indian army family: his father was a cavalry officer in Kanpur. During the Uprising, Vibart’s father was killed at the Kanpur massacre, while the son narrowly escaped from the city at the outbreak and survived to take part in the siege and recapture. His memoirs, and particularly his letters, are one of the best sources for the atrocities committed by the British during the taking of the city and during the extended reprisals that followed.


General Sir Archdale Wilson

General Sir Archdale Wilson (1803-1874)
A small, neat, cautious gentleman of fifty-four; Archdale Wilson was one of the station commanders at Meerut at the outbreak of the Mutiny, and later led a column from the garrison which defeated Mirza Abu Bakr at the Hindan Bridge on 30 and 31 May. He rendezvoused with the Delhi Field Force at Alipore shortly before the battle of Badli ki Serai on 8 June. Following the death of General Barnard and the resignation of General Reed, he took over command of British forces at the siege of Delhi from 17 July. He quickly put in place a defensive strategy, much criticised at the time but which successfully preserved British strength until reinforcements arrived shortly before the assault on 14 September. During the taking of the city, Wilson’s nerve finally failed him, and at one point John Nicholson threatened to shoot him if he should order a retreat.


Brigadier General John Nicholson

Brigadier General John Nicholson (1821-1857)
A taciturn Ulster Protestant, Nicholas was said to have personally decapitated a local robber chieftain, then kept the man’s head on his desk. He had “a commanding presence, some six feet, two inches in height, with a long black beard, dark grey eyes with black pupils which under excitement would dilate like a tiger’s. For reasons that remain unclear, Nicholson inspired a religious sect, the “Nikal Seyn,” who apparently regarded him as an incarnation of Vishnu.
During the Uprising Nicholson became a legend among the British in India. His mixture of piety, gravity and courage, combined with his merciless capacity for extreme brutality were exactly the qualities needed to put heart into the British troops on the Ridge. There were few who remained immune to the hero-worship of this great imperial psychopath. Shortly after his arrival at the siege, Nicholson led a forced march to ambush a column of sepoys at Najafgarh on 25 August. On 14 September he personally led the assault on the city and was mortally wounded the same day.


William Hodson

William Hodson (1821-1858)
Prior to 1857, William Hodson had been regarded by most of his colleagues as a black sheep. Hodson was the bright, university-educated son of a clergyman, and had risen rapidly to be Adjutant of the new Corps of Guides. His fall from grace was equally sudden. In 1854, Hodson was relieved of his command after an investigation declared that he had embezzled regimental funds. During the Uprising, he founded an irregular cavalry regiment known as Hodson’s Horse, and ran the remarkably efficient British intelligence service on the Delhi Ridge.
On his own authority he negotiated the surrender of Zafar and Zinat Mahal, and on 21 September he brought them captive into Delhi. The following day he went back to bring in princes Mirza Mughal, Khizr Sultan and Abu Bakr; then, having separated them from their followers, disarmed them. He told them to strip naked and shot all three dead at point-blank range. He was killed a few months later, in March 1858, at the siege of Lucknow.


Lord Canning (1821-1862)
Canning was a handsome and industrious–if somewhat reserved–Tory politician in his early forties, who had accepted the appointment of Governor General of India ony because of his frustration at his consistent failure to gain a senior Cabinet berth in London. Before his departure he had had no previous interest in India, and having only arrived there in February 1856 hadf yet to leave the heat and damp of Calcutta by the time of the outbreak. However, none of this prevented him from taking a confidently dismissive attitude towards “the farce of Mughal pretensions” and putting in place plans to depose the Mughals within a few weeks of his arrival. After the suppression of the Uprising, he attempted to limit the vindictiveness of the bloody British retribution, with mixed results.

Sir John Lawrence (1811-1879)
Younger brother of Sir Henry Lawrence, who in 1857 was Chief Commissioner in Avadh. Sir John was a former deputy of Sir Thomas Metcalfe in Delhi. John Lawrence had risen rapidly through the ranks of the Company’s civil service thanks to his reputation for hard work and efficiency, and in 1853, he was made Chief Commissioner of the newly conquered Punjab. He forbade his officers from going up to the hills for the hot weather, and made known his disapproval of “a cakery man,” by which he meant someone who, besides presumably liking cakes, “pretended to much elegance and refinement.” In 1857, he proved to be arguably the most capable of all the British officials in North India, disarming mutinous sepoys, raising new irregular regiments and quickly pacifying the Punjab so that the maximum number of troops could be sent to the Delhi Ridge. After the fall of the city, he worked hard to minimise the scale of the retribution, and personally saved Mughal Delhi from a plan to level the entire metropolis.

By courtesy:





Bahadur Shah II


At 4 P.M. on a hazy, humid winter’s afternoon in Rangoon in November 1862, soon after the end of the monsoon, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure. This enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon River, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Around the enclosure lay the newly constructed cantonment area of the port–an anchorage and pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier.

The bier of the State Prisoner–as the deceased was referred to–was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards. Nevertheless, one or two managed to break through the cordon to touch the shroud before it was lowered into the grave.

The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not that only the grave was already dug, but that quantities of lime were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited– no lamentations or panegyrics were allowed–the earth was thrown in over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or so no mark would remain to indicate the place of burial. A week later the British Commissioner, Captain H.N. Davies, wrote to London to report what had passed, adding:

In captivity clockwise: Former Empress Zinat Mahal; Jawan Bakht (son of Zinat Mahal) and son, Mirza Shah Abbas. Zinat Mahal in 1872 in captivity in Rangoon. 

Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners–the very scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct. None of the family appear much affected by the death of the bed-ridden old man. His death was evidently due to pure decrepitude and paralysis in the region of the throat. He expired at 5 o’ clock on the morning of the funeral. The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the population of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Mughals rests.

The State Prisoner Davies referred to was more properly known as Bahadur Shah II, known from his pen-name as Zafar, meaning “Victory”. Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and the descendant of the great world-conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur. His more immediate ancestor Zahir-ud-Din Babur (1483-1530), a young Turkish poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia had first descended the Khyber Pass into India in 1526 with only a small army of hand-picked followers. But with him he brought some of the first cannon seen in Hindustan*, and he used them to carve out a principality that his grandson Akbar (1542-1605) expanded to include most of northern India.

  • Hindustan refers to the region of northern India encompassing the modern Indian states of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where Hindustani is spoken. While the term “India” is relatively rarely used in nineteenth-century Urdu sources, thee is a strong consciousness of the existence of Hindustan as a unit, with Delhi as its political centre. This was the area that was most seriously convulsed in 1857.

The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history. For many, the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilization at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, raised in Agra in memory of his favourite Queen, or the fabulously intricate miniatures of the Padshahnama and the other great Mughal manuscripts.

The Mughals also define Islam at its most tolerant and pluralistic. Their Empire was built in coalition with India’s Hindu majority, particularly the Rajput clans of Rajasthan, who formed a large part of their army. Indeed, the Mughals succeeded almost as much through tact and conciliation as realpolitik was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the Empire’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.

This was particularly so of the Emperor Akbar. He issued an edict of sulh-i-kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.

At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome, Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, entrusted his army to his former enemy, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 By the mid-seventeenth century, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan (1592-1666) ruled an empire that covered most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan. Its army appeared near-invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many shrines quite literally glittered with gold.

But what was built by the tact and conciliation of the first five of the Great Mughals was destroyed by the harsh and repressive rule of the sixth. Shah Jehan’s son Aurangzeb was a ruler as bigoted as the best of his predecessors had been tolerant. The Islamic ‘ulama’ were given a free hand to impose the harshest strictures of sharia law. The playing of music was banned, as was wine-drinking, hashish smoking and prostitution. Hindu temples across the country were destroyed. Aurangzeb re-imposed the jizya tax on Hindus, and executed Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the great teachers of the Sikhs. The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened, literally tore the country in two. On his death in 1707, the Empire fragmented.

By the time Zafar was born in 1775, sixty-eight years after the burial of Aurangzeb, the days of the Mughal Imperium were long gone; but the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India, looking inwards from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime, however, Zafar lived to see his own dynasty finally reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from relatively vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.

Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-sixties, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this, he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi, a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a  profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage,  there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history. Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest lyric poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq–the Mughal Poet Laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart.

While the British progressively took over more and more of the Mughal Emperor’s power, removing his name from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in the obsessive pursuit of the most  cleverly turned ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia, Sufi devotions and visits to pirs, as literary and religious ambition replaced the political variety.

The most closely focused record of the Red Fort at this period is the court diary kept by a news writer for the British Resident, now in the National Archives of India, which contains a detailed day-by-day picture of Zafar’s life. The Last Emperor appears as a benign old man with impeccable manners–even when treated with extreme rudeness by the British. Daily he has olive oil rubbed into his feet to soothe his aches; occasionally he rouses himself to visit a garden, go on a hunting expedition or host a mushaira. Evenings were spent “enjoying the moonlight,” listening to singers or eating fresh mangoes. All the while the aged Emperor tries to contain the infidelities of his young concubines, one of whom becomes pregnant by the most distinguished of the court musicians.

Then, on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys* and cavalry men from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony an subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet Zafar was not a natural insurgent either.

*A sepoy is an Indian infantry private, in this case in the employ o he British East India Company. The word derives from sipahi, the Persian for soldier.

It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an Uprising that  he strongly suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officer less army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military  power, albeit one that had just lost the great majority of the Indian recruits to its Bengal army.

The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. No foreign army was in a position to intervene to support the rebels, and they had limited ammunition, no money and few supplies. The chaos and anarchy that erupted in the countryside proved far more effective at blockading Delhi than the efforts at besieging the city attempted by the British from their perch on the Ridge. The price of food escalated and supplies rapidly dwindled. Soon both the people of Delhi and the sepoys were on the edge of starvation.

The siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom would retreat. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides th combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla* alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1400 citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a nineteen-year old British officer.

It was literally murder . . . I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, we’re most painful . . .Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference . . .

A *muhalla is a distinct quarter or neighborhood of a Mughal city–i.e., a group of residential lanes usually entered through a single gate which would be locked at night.

Captain William Hodson

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then told to strip naked:

“In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,”

Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day.

“I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”

Zafar himself was put on show to visitors. Displayed “like beast in a cage,” according to one British officer. Among his visitors was the Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was told that the prisoner was the mastermind of the most serious armed act of resistance to Western colonialism. He was a “dim, wandering eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote Russell.

Was he, indeed, one who had conceived that vast plan of restoring a great empire, who had fomented the most gigantic mutiny in the history of the world? Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed . . .his eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age . . .Some heard him quoting verses of his own companions, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.

Russell was suitably sceptical of the charges being levelled against Zafar: “He was called ungrateful for rising against his benefactors,” he wrote.

He was no doubt a weak and cruel old man; but to talk of ingratitude on the part of one who saw that all the dominions of his ancestors had been gradually taken from him until he was left with an empty title, and more empty exchequer, and a palace full of penniless princesses, is perfectly preposterous . . .

Nevertheless, the following month Zafar was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved Delhi on a bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken-hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday, 7 November 1862, aged eighty-seven.

With Zafar’s departure, there was complete collapse of the fragile court culture he had faithfully nourished and exemplified. As Ghalib noted: “All things lasted only so long as the king reigned.” By the time of Zafar’s death, much of his palace, the Red Fort, had already been torn down along with great areas of the Mughal Delhi he loved and beautified. Meanwhile the great majority of its leading inhabitants and courtiers–poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars– had been hunted down and hanged, or else dispersed and exiled, many to the Raj’s new, specially constructed gulag in the Andaman Islands. Those who were spared were left in humiliating and conspicuous poverty. As Ghalib, one of the few survivors from the old court, lamented,

“The male descendants of the deposed King–such as survived the sword–draw allowances of five rupees a month. Th female descendants if old are bawds, and if young, are prostitutes.”
The city has become a desert . . . By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment. No Fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses . . . Four things kept Delhi alive– the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower- men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes, there was once a city of that name in the realm of India. . .

We smashed the wine cup and the flask;
What is it now to us
If all the rain that falls from heaven
Should turn to rose- red wine?

By courtesy:



A Life Well Spent On All Counts

The Testament of Mr. Jinnah 1876-1948 

Cigar in hand, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah looking on quizzically as he was being photographed at the Cecil Hotel, Simla, in 1944. | Photo: National Archives Islamabad

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have yet been resolved?

On August 11, 1947, when Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed the first democratically elected Constituent Assembly of his newly independent nation, he told Pakistan’s political leaders that

the first duty of government” was to maintain “law and order … so that the life, property, and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the state.”

Their “second duty,” he continued, was to prevent and punish

“bribery and corruption. That really is a poison. We must put that down … as soon as possible.” Another “curse,” he added, “was black-marketing … a colossal crime against society, in our distressed condition, when we constantly face shortage of food.”
“If we want to make this great state of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor … If you will work … together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state … We are all citizens and equal citizens of one state.”

Mohammad Ali Jinnah devoted the last two decades of his life to the relentless struggle to realize his brilliant and beautiful dream of an independent state of Pakistan, born just 70 years ago out of the Muslim majority regions of partitioned British India.

Sent to London by his father to study business management, young Jinnah’s fascination with politics was ignited by the Congress Party’s president Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi whose campaign in the British parliament, demanding liberty, equality and justice for all Indians, lured Jinnah to work hard for him, helping Congress’s ‘Grand Old Man’ win his seat by only three votes, after which he was called ‘Mr. Narrow-Majority’.

Jinnah joined the Congress as Dadabhai’s secretary, and enrolled in the City of London’s Lincoln’s Inn, deciding to study law instead of business. His portrait still hangs in that Inn’s hall, its only Asian-born barrister to become governor general of a Commonwealth nation. After he returned to India, Jinnah also joined the Muslim League, brilliantly drafting the Lucknow Pact in l9l6, which was adopted by both the Congress and the Muslim League, as their post-World War I demand for Dominion status in Britain’s Commonwealth.

He launched his singularly successful career as a barrister in Bombay, rather than in his smaller birthplace, Karachi, which was destined to become Pakistan’s first capital. Before the end of the War, Jinnah ‘s negotiating skills and wise moderation earned him the sobriquet, ‘Best Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim Unity’. Throughout World War I, both Jinnah and Gandhi had supported the British cause, as did the Indian princes. Brave Muslims of Punjab were recruited to help hold the Maginot Line in France, and to fight and die in Mesopotamia. Congress and the League had hoped that such loyal service would be rewarded with freedom at the end of the War, or at least the promise of Dominion status. Instead, India was forced to accept martial ‘law’ regulations, extended indefinitely, and a brutal massacre of unarmed Sikh peasants in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, leaving 400 innocents dead and over 1,200 wounded.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Miss Fatima Jinnah enjoying a boat ride, possibly in Dhaka, in the early 1940s. Standing on the left [wearing sherwani] is Khawaja Nazimuddin, who was at the time the Premier of Bengal. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)
Jinnah immediately resigned from the prestigious ‘Muslim seat’ from Bombay he’d been elected to on the Governor General’s Council, arguing that the

fundamental principles of justice have been uprooted and the constitutional rights of the people have been violated at a time when there is no real danger to the state, by an over-fretful and incompetent bureaucracy which is neither responsible to the people nor in touch with real public opinion”.

Gandhi launched his first nationwide Satyagraha in response to Britain’s post-War ‘black acts’ and the Punjab murders. Jinnah, on his part, tried unsuccessfully to caution him against inciting Congress’s masses, who cheered the Mahatma’s revolutionary calls to boycott everything British, including all imported cotton goods from Britain’s midlands, and every British school as well as all commercial and legal institutions.

Jinnah cautioned Gandhi that his movement would lead to greater violence and disaster, but Gandhi insisted that non-violence (Ahimsa) was sacred to him, and Jinnah was booed out of Congress’s largest meeting for calling their Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi – “Mister” Gandhi. Jinnah felt obliged to resign from Congress, and returned to London to live, and practise law, in Hampstead with his sister, Fatima, and teen-aged daughter Dina. But soon Liaquat Ali Khan and other League stalwarts convinced him to return to India to revitalise the Muslim League, over which he would preside for the rest of his life.

“We must stand on our own inherent strength … It is no use blaming others,” Jinnah told the League in Karachi. “It is no use expecting our enemies to behave differently.”

To young Muslims who complained to him about the behaviour of inept League leaders, Jinnah replied, as he might admonish today’s youth: “It is your organisation … no use keeping out and finding faults with it. Come in, and … put it right.”

Faced with Congress’s revolutionary movement, from which most Muslim leaders were alienated, the British tried to win back mass support by holding provincial elections in 1937, devolving regional powers to popularly elected cabinets. Nehru campaigned most vigorously nationwide and led Congress to victory in seven of the 11 British Provinces. Jinnah’s Muslim League, however, faced with a number of competing Muslim regional parties, failed to capture even a single Province with a Muslim majority.

Young Nehru’s heady victory increased his arrogance and contempt for Jinnah, to whom he replied when Jinnah suggested joint cabinets for India’s large multi-ethnic provinces. “Line up!” Jawaharlal shouted. “There are only two parties” left in India, “Congress and the British”. Jinnah insisted, however, that there was a “Third Party; the Muslims!”

“Unless the parties learn to respect and fear each other,” Jinnah told the League, “there is no solid ground for any settlement. We have to organise our people, to build up the Muslim masses for a better world and for their immediate uplift, social and economic, and we have to formulate plans of a constructive and ameliorative character, to give immediate relief from the poverty and wretchedness from which they are suffering.”
Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah with Khawaja Nazimuddin during the former’s visit to Dhaka in April, 1948. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

Jinnah never again attempted to convince Nehru to agree to Congress-League cabinets, no longer wishing to link the League to Congress’s lumbering bullock-cart of a Party, insisting that the Congress

has now killed every hope of Hindu-Muslim settlement in the right royal fashion of Fascism … We Muslims want no gifts … no concessions. We Muslims of India have made up our mind to secure full rights, but we shall have them as rights … The Congress is nothing but a Hindu body.”

In Lucknow, in December 1937, wearing his black astrakhan Jinnah cap and long dark sherwani, instead of a British barrister’s suit, Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Jinnah presided over his League, assembled in the Raja of Mahmudabad’s garden.

Your foremost duty is to formulate a constructive programme of work for the people’s welfare … Equip yourselves as trained and disciplined soldiers. Create the feeling … of comradeship amongst yourselves. Work loyally, honestly and for the cause of your people and your country. No individual or people can achieve anything without industry, suffering and sacrifice. There are forces which may bully you, tyrannize over you … But it is by going through this crucible of the fire of persecution which may be levelled against you … that a nation will emerge, worthy of its past glory and history, and will live to make the future history greater and more glorious. Eighty millions of Musalmans in India have nothing to fear. They have their destiny in their hands, and as a well-knit, solid, organised, united force can face any danger to its united front and wishes.”

Throughout 1938 and 1939 Jinnah devoted himself to building the strength of the League, advancing it from a few thousand members at Lucknow to half-a-million by March, l940, when the League held its greatest meeting, demanding the creation of Pakistan, in the beautiful imperial Mughal Gardens of Punjab’s mighty capital.

“The Musalmans are a nation,”

Jinnah announced.

“The problem of India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” To “secure the peace and happiness of the people of this subcontinent,” Jinnah added, the British must divide India into “autonomous national states.” 

Pakistan was not mentioned in his speech, however, and every member of the press asked him the next day if he meant one or two new states, since Bengal’s Muslim leader, Fazlul Huq, had chaired the resolutions’ committee that proposed partition the day before Jinnah spoke.

Jinnah knew by then that his lungs were fatally afflicted with cigarette smoke, coughing up blood. He couldn’t wait for Congress and the British to agree to the birth of what later became Bangladesh. So he insisted that his League meant one Pakistan, though divided by a thousand miles of North India.

When the last British Viceroy, ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, urged Jinnah to accept him as joint governor general of Pakistan as well as of independent India, the job Nehru offered Mountbatten, Jinnah refused, never charmed by the Royal Mountbattens, as was Nehru, insisting on serving himself as Pakistan’s governor general.

After seven decades, how many of the problems Jinnah defined at Pakistan’s birth have as yet been resolved? And of late senseless terrorist murders have been added to Pakistan’s list of dreadful crimes against its innocent, impoverished people, helpless women and children, as well as devout Muslims bent in their prayers even inside the most beautiful mosques of Karachi, Quetta, Lahore and elsewhere.

Jinnah worked tirelessly for Pakistan to become a great nation basking in the sunshine and joy of freedom, enriched by citizens of every faith – Parsis and Hindus, Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims of every sect – all working together, harmoniously helping each other to build this Land of the Pure into one of the world’s strongest, wisest, richest countries. That was what the Great Leader dreamed his nation could and would become long before Pakistan’s birth.

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah smiling as he was welcomed at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Karachi in 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID)

 It would never be easy, he knew, yet Jinnah tried his best to remind his followers of what they needed to do, shortly before Pakistan’s birth, when he had little more than one year left to breathe, losing more blood every day from his diseased lungs.

Often asked by disciples, “What are we fighting for? What are we aiming at?”, Jinnah replied:

It is not theocracy – not for a theocratic state. Religion is there, and religion is dear to us. All the worldly goods are nothing to us when we talk of religion, but there are other things which are very vital – our social life, our economic life …We Muslims have got everything … brains, intelligence, capacity and courage – virtues that nations must possess … But two things are lacking, and I want you to concentrate your attention on these.
One thing is that foreign domination from without and Hindu domination here, particularly in our economic life, has caused a certain degeneration of these virtues in us. We have lost the fullness of our noble character. And what is character? The highest sense of honour and the highest sense of integrity, conviction, incorruptibility, readiness at any time to efface oneself for the collective good of the nation.”

His legacy of wisdom was worthy of the Quaid-i-Azam, who lived a life honouring justice and fair play. Every Pakistani must remember that Jinnah’s fearless integrity would never sanction any terrorist murder, nor the violent abuse of any man, woman or child in his noble Land of the Pure.


Feature Image: Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah autographs his portrait at a reception held in Karachi in December 1947. | Photo: The Press Information Department, Ministry of Information, Broadcasting & National Heritage, Islamabad (PID) 

A life well spent on all counts by Stanley Wolpert. The writer is a historian and a well-known biographer, among others, of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Al Jinnah.

Courtesy of 







HBL has been an indelible part of the nation’s fabric since independence, enabling the dreams of millions of Pakistanis. At HBL, we salute the dreamers and dedicate the nation’s 70th anniversary to you. Jahan Khwab, Wahan HBL


Defending John Alexander Macdonald Erases History Twice


The Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald GCB KCMG PC PCc QC, 1st Prime Minister of Canada

Recent condemnations of the unsavory aspects of John A. Macdonald’s record have drawn accusations of “presentism”: inappropriate application of 21st-century notions of justice to 19th-century history.

Canada’s prime minister helped eviscerate the self-determination of Indigenous nations and subjugate them to colonial rule, through laws like the Gradual Civilization of Indians Act in 1857 (when he was attorney general for Canada West) and the first federal Indian Act in 1869; he deliberately inflicted mass starvation on Indigenous communities, in violation of treaty obligations, to clear the western plains for railway construction and European resettlement.

Macdonald introduced the “pass system” which confined Indigenous people on reserves and prevented them from leaving without written permission from the Indian agent, an initiative that colonials acknowledged at the time was illegal; he was the architect of the residential school system, designed to take Indigenous children away from their “savage” parents in order to inculcate “the habits and thoughts of white men;” he criminalized Indigenous ceremonies and dances, which he deplored as “debauchery of the worst kind.”

Macdonald cheered the pro-slavery South in the American Civil War, and had family connections to the Caribbean slave trade; he justified keeping the death penalty for rape with the lie that Black men were “very prone to felonious assaults on white women;” he barred Chinese people from voting, and imposed a “head tax” on their immigration because he believed that “Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics”-a position that was considered extreme eve by many of his political contemporaries, according to University of Ottawa historian Timothy Stanley.

Present day supporters of Macdonald’s legacy maintain that he was a man of his era, so it is unfair to judge him by the standard o ours. They recite a list of other leaders with similar repugnant records- like George Washington, who enslaved hundreds of Black people; and Wilfrid Laurier, who increased the anti-Chinese “head tax” and tried to ban Black immigration–to apparently prove that Macdonald’s views were universal for his time. This ignores all the Indigenous, Black and Asian women and men of Macdonald’s time who never accepted the racist premise that they were inferior breeds of humanity. It ignores that all those who spoke and struggled against the injustice of being exterminated, expropriated, exploited and excluded on the basis of white supremacist myths- for example, the Plains Cree people who protested and resisted being criminalized , starved and robbed of their lands by the Canadian government in the 19th century.

In 1884, Chief Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear) castigated Canadian officials’ contravention of treaties supposedly signed in food faith: “Government came from far away to this place where we belong and said we must have a treaty . . . He said, ‘We are one blood, I want to help you stand on the same place with my white children, to live together like brothers. We are not going to buy your land’ . . .I see (now) how government agents bring us everything crooked. They take our lands, they sell them and they buy themselves fine coats.”

And in 1897, Chief Peyasiw-awasis (Thunderchild) objected to the unfairness of being jailed for participating in a traditional Give-Away Dance, under a law originally introduced by Macdonald: “Can things go well in a land where freedom of worship is a lie, a hollow boast? To each nation is given the light by which it knows God . . .Why has the white man no respect for the religion that is given to us, when we respect the faith of other nations?”

Macdonald current defenders accuse his critics of trying to erase history, but they erase history twice by minimizing Macdonald’s misdeeds, and by deleting those who opposed them. Denouncing Macdonald for his racism is not judging him anachronistically by the standards of our time; it is judging him by the standards of those on the receiving end of racist and colonial violence in his time. The fact that other celebrated Canadian leaders held similar prejudices is not an exculpation of Macdonald, but treating the perspectives of a handful of powerful white men as the only relevant ones for understanding the past, we perpetuate their racist legacy in the present.

Courtesy of :  Ms. Azeezah Kanji, The Toronto  Star, September 7, 2017



John A. Macdonald in 1858

Sir John Alexander Macdonald (11 January 1815 – 6 June 1891) was the first Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873, 1878–1891). The dominant figure of Canadian Confederation, he had a political career which spanned almost half a century.

Macdonald was born in Scotland; when he was a boy his family immigrated to Kingston in the Province of Upper Canada (today in eastern Ontario). As a lawyer, he was involved in several high-profile cases and quickly became prominent in Kingston, which elected him in 1844 to the legislature of the Province of Canada. By 1857, had become premier under the colony’s unstable political system.

In 1864, when no party proved capable of governing for long, Macdonald agreed to a proposal from his political rival, George Brown, that the parties unite in a Great Coalition to seek federation and political reform. Macdonald was the leading figure in the subsequent discussions and conferences, which resulted in the British North America Act and the birth of Canada as a nation on 1 July 1867. Macdonald was the first Prime Minister of the new nation, and served 19 years; only William Lyon Mackenzie King served longer.

In 1873, he resigned from office over the Pacific Scandal, in which his party took bribes from businessmen seeking the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, he was re-elected in 1878, continuing until he died in office in 1891. Macdonald’s greatest achievements were building and guiding a successful national government for the new Dominion, using patronage to forge a strong Conservative Party, promoting the protective tariff of the National Policy, and completing the railway. He fought to block provincial efforts to take power back from the national government in Ottawa. His most controversial move was to approve the execution of Métis leader Louis Riel for treason in 1885; it alienated many francophones from his Conservative Party. He died in 1891, still in office; he is respected today for his key role in the formation of Canada.


Law career, 1830-1843

Legal training and early career, 1830-1837

Macdonald’s parents decided he should become a lawyer after leaving school. As Donald Creighton (who penned a two-volume biography of Macdonald in the 1950s) wrote, “law was a broad, well-trodden path to comfort, influence, even to power”.  It was also “the obvious choice for a boy who seemed as attracted to study as he was uninterested in trade.” Besides, Macdonald needed to start earning money immediately to support his family because his father’s businesses were again failing. “I had no boyhood,” he complained many years later. “From the age of 15, I began to earn my own living.”

Macdonald travelled by steamboat to Toronto (known until 1834 as York), where he passed an examination set by The Law Society of Upper Canada, including mathematics, Latin, and history. British North America had no law schools in 1830; students were examined when beginning and ending their tutelage. Between the two examinations, they were apprenticed, or articled to established lawyers. Macdonald began his apprenticeship with George Mackenzie, a prominent young lawyer who was a well-regarded member of Kingston’s rising Scottish community. Mackenzie practiced corporate law, a lucrative specialty that Macdonald himself would later pursue. Macdonald was a promising student, and in the summer of 1833, managed the Mackenzie office when his employer went on a business trip to Montreal and Quebec in Lower Canada (today the southern portion of the province of Quebec). Later that year, Macdonald was sent to manage the law office of a Mackenzie cousin who had fallen ill.

In August 1834, George Mackenzie died of cholera. With his supervising lawyer dead, Macdonald remained at the cousin’s law office in Hallowell (today Picton, Ontario). In 1835, Macdonald returned to Kingston, and even though not yet of age nor qualified, began his practice as a lawyer, hoping to gain his former employer’s clients.  Macdonald’s parents and sisters also returned to Kingston, and Hugh Macdonald became a bank clerk.

Soon after Macdonald was called to the Bar in February 1836, he arranged to take in two students; both became, like Macdonald, Fathers of Confederation. Oliver Mowat became premier of Ontario, and Alexander Campbell a federal cabinet minister and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. One early client was Eliza Grimason, an Irish immigrant then aged sixteen, who sought advice concerning a shop she and her husband wanted to buy. Grimason would become one of Macdonald’s richest and most loyal supporters, and may have also become his lover.  Macdonald joined many local organisations, seeking to become well known in the town. He also sought out high-profile cases, representing accused child rapist William Brass. Brass was hanged for his crime, but Macdonald attracted positive press comments for the quality of his defence. According to his biographer, Richard Gwyn:

As a criminal lawyer who took on dramatic cases, Macdonald got himself noticed well beyond the narrow confines of the Kingston business community. He was operating now in the arena where he would spend by far the greatest part of his life – the court of public opinion. And, while there, he was learning the arts of argument and of persuasion that would serve him all his political life.

Legal prominence, 1837-43

All male Upper Canadians between 18 and 60 years of age were members of the Sedentary Militia, which was called into active duty during the Rebellions of 1837. Macdonald served as a private in the militia, patrolling the area around Kingston, but the town saw no real action and Macdonald was not called upon to fire on the enemy.

Although most of the trials resulting from the Upper Canada Rebellion took place in Toronto, Macdonald represented one of the defendants in the one trial to take place in Kingston. All the Kingston defendants were acquitted, and a local paper described Macdonald as “one of the youngest barristers in the Province [who] is rapidly rising in his profession”.

Battle of the Windmill, near Prescott, Upper Canada, 13 November 1838

In late 1838, Macdonald agreed to advise one of a group of American raiders who had crossed the border to liberate Canada from what they saw as the yoke of British colonial oppression. The inept invaders had been captured after the Battle of the Windmill (near Prescott, Ontario), in which 16 Canadians were killed and 60 wounded. Public opinion was inflamed against the prisoners, as they were accused of mutilating the body of a dead Canadian lieutenant. Macdonald biographer Donald Creighton wrote that Kingston was “mad with grief and rage and horror” at the allegations. Macdonald could not represent the prisoners, as they were tried by court-martial and civilian counsel had no standing. At the request of Kingston relatives of Daniel George, paymaster of the ill-fated invasion, Macdonald agreed to advise George, who, like the other prisoners, had to conduct his own defence. George was convicted and hanged. According to Macdonald biographer Donald Swainson, “By 1838, Macdonald’s position was secure. He was a public figure, a popular young man, and a senior lawyer.”

Macdonald continued to expand his practice while being appointed director of many companies, mainly in Kingston. Macdonald became both a director of and a lawyer for the new Commercial Bank of the Midland District. Throughout the 1840s, Macdonald invested heavily in real estate, including commercial properties in downtown Toronto.  Meanwhile, he was suffering from some illness, and in 1841, his father died. Sick and grieving, he decided to take a lengthy holiday in Britain in early 1842. He left for the journey well supplied with money, as he spent the last three days before his departure gambling at the card game loo and winning substantially. Sometime during his two months in Britain, he met his first cousin, Isabella Clark. As Macdonald did not mention her in his letters home, the circumstances of their meeting are not known.  In late 1842, Isabella journeyed to Kingston to visit with a sister.  The visit stretched for nearly a year before John and Isabella Macdonald married on 1 September 1843.

Political rise, 1843-64

Parliamentary advancement, 1843-57

In February 1843, Macdonald announced his candidacy for the post of alderman in Kingston’s Fourth Ward. On 29 March 1843, Macdonald celebrated his first election victory, with 156 votes against 43 for his opponent, a Colonel Jackson. He also suffered what he termed his first downfall, as his supporters, carrying the victorious candidate, accidentally dropped him onto a slushy street.

The British Parliament had merged Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada effective in 1841. Kingston became the initial capital of the new province; Upper Canada and Lower Canada became known as Canada West and Canada East.  In March 1844, Macdonald was asked by local businessmen to stand as Conservative candidate for Kingston in the upcoming legislative election. Macdonald followed the contemporary custom of supplying the voters with large quantities of alcohol.  In the era preceding the secret ballot when votes were publicly declared, Macdonald defeated his opponent, Anthony Manahan, by 275 “shouts” to 42 when the two-day election concluded on 15 October 1844.  At that time, the Legislative Assembly met in Montreal. Macdonald was never an orator, and especially disliked the bombastic addresses of the time. Instead, he found a niche in becoming an expert on election law and parliamentary procedure.

In 1844, Isabella fell ill. She recovered, but the illness recurred the following year, and she became an invalid. John Macdonald took his wife to Savannah, Georgia, in the United States in 1845, hoping that the sea air and warmth would cure her ailments. Although John Macdonald could return to Canada after six months, Isabella remained in the United States for three years. He visited her again in New York at the end of 1846, and returned several months later when she informed him she was pregnant.  In August 1847 their son John Alexander Macdonald Jr. was born in New York, but as Isabella remained ill, relatives cared for the infant.

Although he was often absent due to his wife’s illness, Macdonald could gain professional and political advancement. In 1846, he was made a Queen’s Counsel. The same year, he was offered the non-cabinet post of Solicitor General, but declined it. In 1847, the Joint Premier, William Henry Draper, appointed Macdonald as Receiver General.  Accepting the government post required Macdonald to give up his law firm income and spend most of his time in Montreal, away from Isabella. When elections were held in December 1848 and January 1849, Macdonald was easily re-elected for Kingston, but the Conservatives lost seats and were forced to resign when the legislature reconvened in March 1848. Macdonald returned to Kingston when the legislature was not sitting, and Isabella joined him there in June. In August, the child John Jr. died suddenly.  In March 1850, Isabella Macdonald gave birth to another boy, Hugh John Macdonald, and his father wrote, “We have got Johnny back again, almost his image.”  Macdonald began to drink heavily around this time, both in public and in private, which Patricia Phenix, who studied Macdonald’s private life, attributes to his family troubles.

The Liberals, or Grits, maintained power in the 1851 election, but soon, they were divided by a parliamentary scandal. In September, the government resigned, and a coalition government uniting parties from both parts of the province under Sir Allan MacNab took power. Macdonald did much of the work of putting the government together and served as Attorney General. The coalition which came to power in 1854 became known as the Liberal-Conservatives (referred to, for short, as the Conservatives). In 1855, George-Étienne Cartier of Canada East (today Quebec) joined the Cabinet. Until Cartier’s 1873 death, he would be Macdonald’s political partner. In 1856, MacNab was eased out as premier by Macdonald, who became the leader of the Canada West Conservatives. Though the most powerful man in the government he remained as Attorney General, with Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché as premier.

Colonial leader, 1858-64

In July 1857, Macdonald departed for Britain to promote Canadian government projects. On his return to Canada, he was appointed premier in place of the retiring Taché, just in time to lead the Conservatives in a general election.  Macdonald was elected in Kingston by 1,189 votes to 9 for John Shaw, who was subsequently hanged in effigy; other Conservatives, however, did badly in Canada West, and only French-Canadian support kept Macdonald in power.  On 28 December, Isabella Macdonald died, leaving John A. Macdonald a widower with a seven-year-old son. Hugh John Macdonald would be principally raised by his paternal aunt and her husband.

The Assembly had voted to move the seat of government permanently to Quebec City. Macdonald had opposed that, and used his power to force the Assembly to reconsider in 1857. Macdonald proposed that Queen Victoria decide which city should be Canada’s capital. Opponents, especially from Canada East, argued that the Queen would not make the decision in isolation; she would be bound to receive informal advice from her Canadian ministers. Nevertheless, Macdonald’s scheme was adopted, with Canada East support assured by allowing Quebec City to serve a three-year term as the seat of government before the Assembly moved to the permanent capital. Macdonald privately asked the Colonial Office to ensure that the Queen would not respond for at least 10 months, or until after the general election.  In February 1858, the Queen’s choice was announced, much to the dismay of many legislators from both parts of the province: the isolated Canada West town of Ottawa.

On 28 July 1858, an opposition Canada East member proposed an address to the Queen informing her that Ottawa was an unsuitable place for a national capital. Macdonald’s Canada East party members crossed the floor to vote for the address, and the government was defeated. Macdonald resigned, and the Governor General, Sir Edmund Walker Head, invited opposition leader George Brown to form a government. Under the law at that time, Brown and his ministers lost their seats in the Assembly by accepting office, and had to face by-elections. This gave Macdonald a majority pending the by-elections, and he promptly defeated the government. Head refused Brown’s request for a dissolution of the Assembly, and Brown and his ministers resigned. Head then asked Macdonald to form a government. The law allowed anyone who had held a ministerial position within the last thirty days to accept a new position without needing to face a by-election; Macdonald and his ministers accepted new positions, then completed what was dubbed the “Double Shuffle” by returning to their old posts.  To give the appearance of fairness, Head insisted that Cartier be titular premier, with Macdonald as his deputy.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Canada enjoyed a period of great prosperity. The railroad and telegraph improved communications. According to Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn, “In short, Canadians began to become a single community.”  At the same time, the provincial government became increasingly difficult to manage. An act affecting both Canada East and Canada West required a “double majority”—most legislators from each of the two sections of the province. This led to increasing deadlock in the Assembly.  The two sections each elected 65 legislators, even though Canada West had a larger population. One of Brown’s major demands was “rep by pop”, that is, representation by population, which would lead to Canada West having more seats, and was bitterly opposed by Canada East.

The American Civil War led to fears in Canada and in Britain that once the Americans had concluded their internal warfare, they would invade Canada again. Britain asked the Canadians to pay a part of the expense of defence, and a Militia Bill was introduced in the Assembly in 1862. The opposition objected to the expense, and Canada East representatives feared that French-Canadians would have to fight in a British-instigated war. At the time, Macdonald was drinking heavily, and he failed to provide much leadership on behalf of the bill. The government fell over the bill, and the Grits took over under the leadership of John Sandfield Macdonald (no relation to John A. Macdonald). John A. Macdonald did not remain out of power long; the parties remained closely matched, with a handful of independents able to destroy any government. The new government fell in May 1863, but Head allowed a new election, which made little change to party strength. In December 1863, Canada West MP Albert Norton Richards accepted the post of Solicitor-General, and so had to face a by-election. John A. Macdonald campaigned against Richards personally, and Richards was defeated by a Conservative. The switch in seats cost the Grits their majority, and they resigned in March. John A. Macdonald returned to office with Taché as titular premier. The Taché-Macdonald government was defeated in June. The parties were deadlocked to such an extent that, according to Swainson, “It was clear to everybody that the constitution of the Province of Canada was dead”.

Confederation of Canada, 1864-67

The Quebec Conference. Macdonald seated, fourth from left

As his government had fallen again, Macdonald approached the new governor general, Lord Monck, and obtained a dissolution. Before he could act on it, he was approached by Brown through intermediaries; the Grit leader felt that the crisis gave the parties the opportunity to join for constitutional reform. Brown had led a parliamentary committee on confederation among the British North American colonies, which had reported back just before the Taché-Macdonald government fell.  Brown was more interested in representation by population; Macdonald’s priority was a federation that the other colonies could join. The two compromised and agreed that the new government would support the “federative principle”—a conveniently elastic phrase. The discussions were not public knowledge and Macdonald stunned the Assembly by announcing that the dissolution was being postponed because of progress in negotiations with Brown—the two men were not only political rivals, but were known to hate each other.

The parties resolved their differences, joining in the Great Coalition, with only the Parti rouge of Canada East, led by Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, remaining apart. A conference, called by the Colonial Office, was scheduled for 1 September 1864 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; the Maritimes were to consider a union. The Canadians obtained permission to send a delegation—led by Macdonald, Cartier, and Brown—to what became known as the Charlottetown Conference. At its conclusion, the Maritime delegations expressed a willingness to join a confederation if the details could be worked out.

In October 1864, delegates for confederation met in Quebec City for the Quebec Conference, where the Seventy-Two Resolutions were agreed to—they would form the basis of Canada’s government.  The Great Coalition was endangered by Taché’s 1865 death: Lord Monck asked Macdonald to become premier, but Brown felt that he had as good a claim on the position as his coalition partner. The disagreement was resolved by appointing another compromise candidate to serve as titular premier, Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau.

In 1865, after lengthy debates, Canada’s legislative assembly approved confederation by 91 votes to 33. None of the Maritimes, however, had approved the plan. In 1866, Macdonald and his colleagues financed pro-confederation candidates in the New Brunswick general election, resulting in a pro-confederation assembly. Shortly after the election, Nova Scotia’s premier, Charles Tupper, pushed a pro-confederation resolution through that colony’s legislature.  A final conference, to be held in London, was needed before the British parliament could formalise the union. Maritime delegates left for London in July 1866, but Macdonald, who was drinking heavily again, did not leave until November, angering the Maritimers.  In December 1866, Macdonald both led the London Conference, winning acclaim for his handling of the discussions, and wooed and won his second wife, Agnes Bernard.  Bernard was the sister of Macdonald’s private secretary, Hewitt Bernard; the couple first met in Quebec in 1860, but Macdonald had seen and admired her as early as 1856. In January 1867, while still in London, he was seriously burned in his hotel room when his candle set fire to the chair he had fallen asleep in, but Macdonald refused to miss any sessions of the conference. In February, he married Agnes at St George’s, Hanover Square. On 8 March, the British North America Act, which would thereafter serve as the major part of Canada’s constitution, passed the House of Commons (it had previously passed the House of Lords).  Queen Victoria gave the bill Royal Assent on 29 March 1867.

Macdonald had favoured the union coming into force on 15 July, fearing that the preparations would not be completed any earlier. The British favoured an earlier date and, on 22 May, it was announced that the Dominion of Canada would come into existence on 1 July.  Lord Monck appointed Macdonald as the new nation’s first prime minister. With the birth of the Dominion, Canada East and Canada West became separate provinces, known as Quebec and Ontario.  Macdonald was knighted on that first observance of what came to be known as Canada Day, 1 July 1867.

Prime Minister of Canada

Canada’s economic growth was quite slow at only 1% annually 1867-1896. Canada verged on stagnation so many residents emigrated to the United States, where growth was much more rapid. Macdonald’s solution was to build the transcontinental railroad to stimulate growth, and to implement a “National Policy” of high tariffs that would protect the small Canadian firms from American competition.

First majority, 1867-71

Timeline of the evolution of Canada’s boundaries since 1867

Macdonald and his government faced immediate problems upon formation of the new country. Much work remained to do in creating a federal government. Nova Scotia was already threatening to withdraw from the union; the Intercolonial Railway, which would both conciliate the Maritimes and bind them closer to the rest of Canada, was not yet built. Anglo-American relations were in a poor state, and Canadian foreign relations were matters handled from London. The withdrawal of the Americans in 1866 from the Reciprocity Treaty had increased tariffs on Canadian goods in US markets.  Much of present-day Canada remained outside confederation—in addition to the separate colonies of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and British Columbia, which remained governed by the British, vast areas in the north and west belonged to the British and to the Hudson’s Bay Company.  American and British opinion was that the experiment of Confederation would quickly unravel, and the nascent nation absorbed by the United States.

In August 1867, the new nation’s first general election was held; Macdonald’s party won easily, with strong support in both large provinces, and a majority from New Brunswick. Parliament convened in November, surprisingly without Brown, who was defeated in Ontario and never served as a member of the House of Commons of Canada. By 1869, Nova Scotia had agreed to remain part of Canada after a promise of better financial terms—the first of many provinces to negotiate concessions from Ottawa.  Pressure from London and Ottawa failed to gain the accession of Newfoundland, whose voters rejected a Confederation platform in a general election in October 1869.

Macdonald in 1870, age 55

In 1869, John and Agnes Macdonald had a daughter, Mary. It soon became apparent that Mary had ongoing developmental issues. She was never able to walk, nor did she ever fully develop mentally. Hewitt Bernard, Deputy Minister of Justice and Macdonald’s former secretary, also lived in the Macdonald house in Ottawa, together with Bernard’s widowed mother. In May 1870, John Macdonald fell ill with gallstones; coupled with his frequent drinking, he may have developed a severe case of acute pancreatitis. In July, he moved to Prince Edward Island to convalesce, most likely conducting discussions aimed at drawing the island into Confederation at a time when some there supported joining the United States. The island joined Confederation in 1873.

Macdonald had once been tepid on the question of westward expansion of the Canadian provinces; as Prime Minister, he became a strong supporter of a bicoastal Canada. Immediately upon Confederation, he sent commissioners to London who in due course successfully negotiated the transfer of Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada.  The Hudson’s Bay Company received $1,500,000, and retained some trading posts as well as one-twentieth of the best farmland.  Prior to the effective date of acquisition, the Canadian government faced unrest in the Red River Colony (today southeastern Manitoba, centred on Winnipeg). The local people, including the Métis, were fearful that rule would be imposed on them which did not consider their interests, and rose in the Red River Rebellion led by Louis Riel. Unwilling to pay for a territory in insurrection, Macdonald had troops put down the uprising before 15 July 1870 formal transfer, but because of the unrest, the Red River Colony joined Confederation as the province of Manitoba, while the rest of the purchased lands became the North-West Territories. Following the North-West Rebellion of 1885 Macdonald implemented restrictions upon the movement of indigenous groups, requiring them to receive formal permission from an Indian Department Official to go off reserve.

“We don’t want you here.” Annexation to the United States was a political issue in Canada’s early days. In this anti-annexation cartoon by John Wilson Bengough from an 1869 issue of Grinchuckle, Uncle Sam is given the boot by Young Canada as John Bull looks on approvingly.

Macdonald also wished to secure the Colony of British Columbia. There was interest in the United States in bringing about the colony’s annexation, and Macdonald wished to ensure his new nation had a Pacific outlet. The colony had an extremely large debt that would have to be assumed should it join Confederation. Negotiations were conducted in 1870, principally during Macdonald’s illness and recuperation, with Cartier leading the Canadian delegation. Cartier offered British Columbia a railroad linking it to the eastern provinces within 10 years. The British Columbians, who privately had been prepared to accept far less generous terms, quickly agreed and joined Confederation in 1871. The Canadian Parliament ratified the terms after a debate over the high cost that cabinet member Alexander Morris described as the worst fight the Conservatives had had since Confederation.

There were continuing disputes with the Americans over deep-sea fishing rights, and in early 1871, an Anglo-American commission was appointed to settle outstanding matters between the British (and Canadians) and the Americans. Canada was hoping to secure compensation for damage done by Fenians raiding Canada from bases in the United States. Macdonald was appointed a British commissioner, a post he was reluctant to accept as he realised Canadian interests might be sacrificed for the mother country. This proved to be the case; Canada received no compensation for the raids and no significant trade advantages in the settlement, which required Canada to open her waters to American fishermen. Macdonald returned home to defend the Treaty of Washington against a political firestorm.

Second majority and Pacific Scandal, 1872-73

In the run-up to the 1872 election, Macdonald had yet to formulate a railway policy, or to devise the loan guarantees that would be needed to secure the construction. During the previous year, Macdonald had met with potential railway financiers such as Hugh Allan and considerable financial discussion took place. Nevertheless, the greatest political problem Macdonald faced was the Washington treaty, which had not yet been debated in Parliament.

In early 1872, Macdonald submitted the treaty for ratification, and it passed the Commons with a majority of 66. The general election was held through late August and early September (future Canadian elections would be conducted, for the most part, on one day). Redistribution had given Ontario increased representation in the House; Macdonald spent much time campaigning in the province, for the most part outside Kingston. Widespread bribery of voters took place throughout Canada, a practice especially effective in the era when votes were publicly declared; in future elections, the secret ballot would be used. Macdonald and the Conservatives saw their majority reduced from 35 to 8. The Liberals (as the Grits were coming to be known) did better than the Conservatives in Ontario, forcing the government to rely on the votes of Western and Maritime MPs who did not fully support the party.

“Whither are we drifting?” Macdonald is shown triumphant at obtaining a prorogation, but is trampling a weeping Canada and apparently drunk with bottle in pocket in this August 1873 cartoon by John Wilson Bengough. Macdonald is depicted claiming clean hands, but with “Send me another $10,000″ written on his palm.

Macdonald had hoped to award the charter for the Canadian Pacific Railway in early 1872, but negotiations dragged on between the government and the financiers. Macdonald’s government awarded the Allan group the charter in late 1872. In 1873, when Parliament opened, Liberal MP Lucius Seth Huntington charged that government ministers had been bribed with large, undisclosed political contributions to award the charter. Documents soon came to light which substantiated what came to be known as the Pacific Scandal. The Allan-led financiers, who were secretly backed by the United States’s Northern Pacific Railway, had donated $179,000 to the Tory election funds, they had received the charter, and Opposition newspapers began to publish telegrams signed by government ministers requesting large sums from the railway interest at the time the charter was under consideration. Macdonald had taken $45,000 in contributions from the railway interest himself. Substantial sums went to Cartier, who waged an expensive fight to try to retain his seat in Montreal East (he was defeated, but was subsequently returned for the Manitoba seat of Provencher). During the campaign Cartier had fallen ill with Bright’s disease, which may have been causing his judgment to lapse; he died in May 1873 while seeking treatment in London.

Even before Cartier’s death, Macdonald attempted to use delay to extricate the government. The Opposition responded by leaking documents to friendly newspapers. On 18 July, three papers published a telegram dated August 1872 from Macdonald requesting another $10,000 and promising “it will be the last time of asking”. Macdonald could get a prorogation of Parliament in August by appointing a Royal Commission to consider the matter, but when Parliament reconvened in late October, the Liberals, feeling Macdonald could be defeated over the issue, applied immense pressure to wavering members.

On 3 November, Macdonald rose in the Commons to defend the government, and according to his biographer P.B. Waite, gave “the speech of his life, and, in a sense, for his life”.  He began his speech at 9 p.m., looking frail and ill, an appearance which quickly improved. As he spoke, he consumed glass after glass of gin and water. He denied that there had been a corrupt bargain, and stated that such contributions were common to both political parties. After five hours, Macdonald concluded,

I leave it with this House with every confidence. I am equal to either fortune. I can see past the decision of this House either for or against me, but whether it be against me or for me, I know, and it is no vain boast to say so, for even my enemies will admit that I am no boaster, that there does not exist in Canada a man who has given more of his time, more of his heart, more of his wealth, or more of his intellect and power, as it may be, for the good of this Dominion of Canada.

Macdonald’s speech was a personal triumph, but it did little to salvage the fortunes of his government. With eroding support both in the Commons and among the public, Macdonald went to the Governor General, Lord Dufferin on 5 November and resigned; Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie became the second Prime Minister of Canada. Following the resignation, Macdonald returned home and told his wife Agnes, “Well, that’s got along with“, and when asked what he meant, told her of his resignation, and stated, “It’s a relief to be out of it.” He is not known to have spoken of the events of the Pacific Scandal again.  When Macdonald announced his resignation in the Commons, Conservative and Liberal MPs traded places on the benches of the House of Commons, though one Conservative MP, British Columbia’s Amor De Cosmos remained in his place, thereby joining the Liberals.

On 6 November 1873, Macdonald offered his resignation as party leader to his caucus; it was refused. Mackenzie called an election for January 1874; the Conservatives were reduced to 70 seats out of the 206 in the Commons, giving Mackenzie a massive majority.  The Conservatives bested the Liberals only in British Columbia; Mackenzie had called the terms by which the province had joined Confederation “impossible”. Macdonald was returned in Kingston but was unseated on an election contest when bribery was proven; he won the ensuing by-election by 17 votes. According to Swainson, most observers viewed Macdonald as finished in politics, “a used-up and dishonoured man”.

Opposition, 1873-78

Macdonald was content to lead the Conservatives in a relaxed manner in opposition and await Liberal mistakes. He took long holidays and resumed his law practice, moving his family to Toronto and going into partnership with his son Hugh John. One mistake that Macdonald believed the Liberals had made was a free-trade agreement with Washington, negotiated in 1874; Macdonald had come to believe that protection was necessary to build Canadian industry.  The Panic of 1873 had led to a worldwide depression; the Liberals found it difficult to finance the railroad in such a climate, and were generally opposed to the line anyway—the slow pace of construction led to British Columbia claims that the agreement under which it had entered Confederation was in jeopardy of being broken.

By 1876, Macdonald and the Conservatives had adopted protection as party policy. This view was widely promoted in speeches at many political picnics, held across Ontario during the summer of 1876. Macdonald’s proposals struck a chord with the public, and the Conservatives began to win a string of by-elections. By the end of 1876, the Tories had picked up 14 seats because of by-elections, reducing Mackenzie’s Liberal majority from 70 to 42. Despite the success, Macdonald considered retirement, wishing only to reverse the voters’ verdict of 1874—he considered Charles Tupper his heir apparent.

In this Bengough cartoon, Macdonald (centre, ankles crossed) rides the elephant of the National Policy into power in the 1878 election, trampling the Liberals underfoot. Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie is also being strangled by the elephant’s trunk.

When Parliament convened in 1877, the Conservatives were confident and the Liberals defensive. After the Tories had a successful session in the early part of the year, another series of picnics commenced in a wide belt around Toronto. Macdonald even campaigned in Quebec, which he had rarely done, leaving speechmaking there to Cartier. More picnics followed in 1878, promoting proposals which would come to be collectively called the “National Policy”: high tariffs, rapid construction of the transcontinental railway (the Canadian Pacific Railway or CPR), rapid agricultural development of the West using the railroad, and policies which would attract immigrants to Canada. These picnics allowed Macdonald venues to show off his talents at campaigning, and were often lighthearted—at one, the Tory leader blamed agricultural pests on the Grits, and promised the insects would go away if the Conservatives were elected.

The final days of the 3rd Canadian Parliament were marked by explosive conflict, as Macdonald and Tupper alleged that MP and railway financier Donald Smith had been allowed to build the Pembina branch of the CPR (connecting to American lines) as a reward for betraying the Conservatives during the Pacific Scandal. The altercation continued even after the Commons had been summoned to the Senate to hear the dissolution read, as Macdonald spoke the final words recorded in the 3rd Parliament: “That fellow Smith is the biggest liar I ever saw!”

The election was called for 17 September 1878. Fearful that Macdonald would be defeated in Kingston, his supporters tried to get him to run in the safe Conservative riding of Cardwell; having represented his hometown for 35 years, he stood there again. In the election, Macdonald was defeated in his riding by Alexander Gunn, but the Conservatives swept to victory. Macdonald remained in the House of Commons, having quickly secured his election for Marquette, Manitoba; elections there were held later than in Ontario. His acceptance of office vacated his parliamentary seat, and Macdonald decided to stand for the British Columbia seat of Victoria, where the election was to be held on 21 October. Macdonald was duly returned for Victoria, although he had never visited either Marquette or Victoria.

Third and fourth majorities, 1878-87

Macdonald in November 1883, age 68

Part of the National Policy was implemented in the budget presented in February 1879. Under that budget, Canada became a high-tariff nation like the United States and Germany. The tariffs were designed to protect and build Canadian industry—finished textiles received a tariff of 34%, but the machinery to make them entered Canada free.  Macdonald continued to fight for higher tariffs for the remainder of his life.

Macdonald uses his parliamentary majority to roll to victory over Liberal leader Edward Blake and his party in this 1884 cartoon by John Wilson Bengough

By the 1880s, Macdonald was becoming frailer, but he maintained his political acuity. In 1883, he secured the “Intoxicating Liquors Bill” which took the regulation system away from the provinces, in part to stymie his foe Premier Mowat. In his own case, Macdonald took better control of his drinking and binges had ended. “The great drinking-bouts, the gargantuan in sobrieties of his middle years, were dwindling away now into memories.” As the budget moved forward, Macdonald studied the railway issue, and found the picture unexpectedly good. Although little money had been spent on the project under Mackenzie, several hundred miles of track had been built and nearly the entire route surveyed. In 1880, Macdonald found a syndicate, led by George Stephen, willing to undertake the CPR project. Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) was a major partner in the syndicate, but because of the ill will between him and the Conservatives, Smith’s participation was initially not made public, though it was well-known to Macdonald. In 1880, the Dominion took over Britain’s remaining Arctic territories, which extended Canada to its present-day boundaries, except for Newfoundland, which would not enter Confederation until 1949. Also in 1880, Canada sent its first diplomatic representative abroad, Sir Alexander Galt as High Commissioner to Britain. With good economic times, Macdonald and the Conservatives were returned with a slightly decreased majority in 1882. Macdonald was returned for the Ontario riding of Carleton.

The transcontinental railroad project was heavily subsidised by the government. The CPR was granted 25,000,000 acres (100,000 km2; 39,000 sq. mi) of land along the route of the railroad, and $25,000,000 from the government. In addition, the government was pledged to build $32,000,000 of other railways to support the CPR. The entire project was extremely costly, especially for a nation with only 4.1 million people in 1881. Between 1880 and 1885, as the railway was slowly built, the CPR repeatedly came close to financial ruin. Not only was the terrain in the Rocky Mountains difficult, the route north of Lake Superior proved treacherous, as tracks and engines sank into the muskeg.  When Canadian guarantees of the CPR’s bonds failed to make them salable in a declining economy, Macdonald obtained a loan to the corporation from the Treasury—the bill authorizing it passed the Senate just before the firm would have become insolvent.

Protestants demanded Riel be executed; Catholics wanted him to live. The decision for execution was a major political blunder that permanently alienated Francophones.

The Northwest again saw unrest. Many of the Manitoban Métis had moved into the territories. Negotiations between the Métis and the Government to settle grievances over land rights proved difficult, Riel had lived in exile in the United States since 1870, he journeyed to Regina with the connivance of Macdonald’s government, who believed he would prove a leader they could deal with. Instead, the Métis rose the following year under Riel in the North-West Rebellion. Macdonald put down the rebellion with militia troops transported by rail, and Riel was captured, tried for treason, convicted, and hanged. Macdonald refused to consider reprieving Riel, who was of uncertain mental health. The hanging of Riel proved bitterly controversial, and alienated many Quebecers (like Riel, Catholic and culturally French Canadian) from the Conservatives—they soon realign themselves with the Liberals.

The CPR was almost bankrupt, but its essential role in rushing troops to the crisis proved its worth, and Parliament provided money for its completion. On 7 November 1885, CPR manager William van Horne who wired Macdonald from Craigellachie, British Columbia that the last spike was driven home.

In the summer of 1886, Macdonald traveled for the only time to western Canada, traveling from town to town by private railway car, and addressing large crowds. Macdonald traveled with his wife, and to get a better view, the two would sometimes sit in front of the locomotive on the train’s cowcatcher. On 13 August 1886, Macdonald used a silver hammer and pounded a gold spike to complete the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.

In 1886, another dispute arose over fishing rights with the United States. Americans fishermen had been using treaty provisions allowing them to land in Canada to take on wood and water as a cover for clandestine inshore fishing. Several vessels were detained in Canadian ports, to the outrage of Americans, who demanded their release. Macdonald sought to pass a Fisheries Act which would override some of the treaty provisions, to the dismay of the British, who were still responsible for external relations. The British government instructed the Governor General, Lord Lansdowne, to reserve Royal Assent for the bill, effectively placing it on hold without vetoing it. After considerable discussion, the British government allowed Royal Assent at the end of 1886, and indicated it would send a warship to protect the fisheries if no agreement was reached with the Americans.

Fifth and sixth majorities, 1887-91; death

A Conservative election poster from 1891

Fearing continued loss of political strength as poor economic times continued, Macdonald planned to hold an election by the end of 1886, but had not yet issued the writ when an Ontario provincial election was called by Macdonald’s former student, Liberal Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat. The provincial election was a bellwether for the federal poll. Despite considerable campaigning by the Prime Minister, Mowat’s Liberals were returned in Ontario, and increased their majority. Macdonald finally dissolved Parliament on 15 January 1887 for an election on 22 February. During the campaign, Macdonald suffered another blow when the Quebec provincial Liberals could form a government (four months after the October 1886 Quebec election), forcing the Conservatives from power in Quebec City. Nevertheless, Macdonald and his cabinet campaigned hard in the winter election, with Tupper (the new High Commissioner to London) postponing his departure to try to bolster Conservative hopes in Nova Scotia. The Liberal leader, Edward Blake, ran an uninspiring campaign, and the Conservatives were returned nationally with a majority of 35, winning easily in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba. The Tories even took a narrow majority of Quebec’s seats despite resentment over Riel’s hanging. Macdonald became MP for Kingston once again. Even the younger ministers, such as future Prime Minister John Thompson, who sometimes differed with Macdonald on policy, admitted the Prime Minister was an essential electoral asset for the Conservatives.

Blake, whom Macdonald biographer Gwyn describes as the Liberal Party’s “worst campaigner until Stéphane Dion early in the twenty-first century”,  resigned after the defeat, to be replaced by Wilfrid Laurier. Under Laurier’s early leadership, the Liberals, who had accepted much of the National Policy under Blake while questioning details, rejected it entirely, calling for “unrestricted reciprocity”, or free trade, with the United States. Advocates of Laurier’s plan argued that north–south trade made more economic sense than trying to trade across the vast, empty prairies, using a CPR which was already provoking resentment for what were high freight rates. Macdonald was willing to see some reciprocity with the United States, but was reluctant to lower many tariffs. American advocates of what they dubbed “commercial union” saw it as a prelude to political union, and did not scruple to say so, causing additional controversy in Canada.

Sir John A. Macdonald lying in state in the Senate chamber, 8 June 1891

Macdonald called an election for 5 March 1891. The Liberals were heavily financed by American interests; the Conservatives drew much financial support from the CPR. The 76-year-old Prime Minister collapsed during the campaign, and conducted political activities from his brother-in-law’s house in Kingston. The Conservatives gained slightly in the popular vote, but their majority was trimmed to 27. The parties broke even in the central part of the country but the Conservatives dominated in the Maritimes and Western Canada, leading Liberal MP Richard John Cartwright to claim that Macdonald’s majority was dependent on “the shreds and patches of Confederation”. After the election, Laurier and his Liberals grudgingly accepted the National Policy, and when Laurier himself later became Prime Minister, he adopted it with only minor changes.

After the election, Macdonald suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed and unable to speak. “The Old Chieftain” lingered for days, remaining mentally alert, before dying in the late evening of Saturday, 6 June 1891. Thousands filed by his open casket in the Senate Chamber; his body was transported by funeral train to his hometown of Kingston, with crowds greeting the train at each stop. On arrival in Kingston, Macdonald lay in state again in City Hall, wearing the uniform of an Imperial Privy Counselor. He was buried in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, his grave near that of his first wife, Isabella.


Legacy and memorials

Macdonald Monument, Montreal
Memorial to John A. MacDonald, St David’s Church, Ingram Street, Glasgow
Canadian stamp honouring Macdonald, 1927


John Alexander Macdonald

  • In office: 1 July 1867 – 5 November 1873
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Governor General: The Viscount Monck, The Lord Lisgar, The Earl of Dufferin
  • Preceded by: Office established (see Canadian Confederation)
  • Succeeded by: Alexander Mackenzie

Alexander Mackenzie

  • In office: 17 October 1878 – 6 June 1891
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Governor General: The Earl of Dufferin, Marquess of Lorne, The Marquess of Lansdowne, The Lord Stanley of Preston
  • Preceded by Alexander Mackenzie
  • Succeeded by John Abbott

John Abbott

  • Joint-Premier of the Province of Canada; Premier of Canada West
  • In office: 24 May 1856 – 2 August 1858
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by Allan MacNab
  • Succeeded by George Brown

 George Brown

  • In office: 6 August 1858 – 24 May 1862
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by: George Brown
  • Succeeded by: John Sandfield Macdonald

John Sandfield Macdonald

  • In office: 30 May 1864 – 30 June 1867
  • Monarch: Victoria
  • Preceded by John Sandfield Macdonald
  • Succeeded by John Sandfield Macdonald

John Sandfield Macdonald (as Premier of Ontario)

Personal details

  • Born: John Alexander Macdonald, 11 January 1815, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Died: 6 June 1891 (aged 76), Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  • Cause of death            Stroke
  • Resting place Cataraqui Cemetery, Kingston
  • Political party Conservative
  • Spouse(s): Isabella Clark (m. 1843; her death 1857); Agnes Bernard (m. 1867; his death 1891), Children: 3 (including Hugh John Macdonald)

Other political affiliations

  • Upper Canada Tories (1843–1867)
  • Great Coalition (1864–1867)
  • Liberal-Conservative (1867–1873)
  • Profession Lawyer
  • Military service Nickname(s): Old Tomorrow; The Old Chieftain
  • Allegiance British Empire / Upper Canada
  • Service/branch: Loyalist militia
  • Years of service: 1837
  • Rank: Private


  • Rebellions of 1837–1838
  • Upper Canada Rebellion

  By courtesy:


Lessons we have learnt in the last 70 years

Commemorative events like independence anniversaries are more than just occasions to revel and rejoice with symbolic displays of national pride and rhetorical fanfare. They are a time for mature reflection and informed discussion on what is happening around us, locally, regionally and globally, with a view to understanding how the past informs everyday life and practices. So, although skeptics may carp and complain about the tedium of officially orchestrated remembrances, staged ceremonials are potential catalysts for critical assessments of the present, seen and experienced through the revealing lens of the near and distant past.

Feature image: Revellers celebrate Independence Day at the mazar of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 2014 | Mohammad Ali, White Star

A renewed sense of self-confidence in the foundational ideals of a nation can pave the way for more concerted collective efforts to achieve a better and more fulfilling future.

On August 14, 2017, Pakistanis will mark the 70th anniversary of freedom amid widespread political disillusionment, high security concerns and intense economic anxieties. There are continuous uncertainties about the impact of an ongoing war in neighbouring Afghanistan that has taken a deadly toll on the social and moral fabric of Pakistan for almost four decades. The sense of insecurity gripping their nuclear-armed country will be especially poignant for those Pakistanis who can recall the fateful summer of 1947 when the departing colonial masters stood aloof as their erstwhile subjects celebrated their newly-won sovereignty with an orgy of horrific bloodletting.

As I cited in my 2013 book, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work across the India-Pakistan Divide: “Why have human beings become so thirsty for human blood these days?” Saadat Hasan Manto had asked in his essay Qatal-o-Khoon ki Lakirain (Lines of Murder and Blood). The pity of Partition was not that instead of one country there were now two, independent India and independent Pakistan, Manto bemoaned, but the fact that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry … slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity”.

Muslims were pitted against Hindus and Sikhs in a struggle for national survival then. In our own times, the killing of Muslim by Muslim has turned Pakistan into a virtual graveyard of Islam, leading some international commentators to smugly suggest that becoming the “epicentre of terror” is the inevitable fate of a country born in bloodshed and created in the name of religion. Inevitability overlooks the role of human agency and responsibility as well as the politically contingent nature of historical processes.

There was nothing inevitable about Pakistan’s descent into the murderous sectarian hatred that has engulfed it since the 1980s as a direct result of the support lent by the military regime of General Ziaul Haq to the American-led war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It is imperative to counter the presentist nature of most contemporary analyses of Pakistan with historical interpretations that are attentive to key shifts at the domestic, regional and international levels. Fed on officially constructed ‘truths’ about history, Pakistanis have been hard-pressed to grasp the reasons for their current predicament, much less counter misperceptions about their country at the global level. Instead of critical thinking marked by cautious optimism that might be expected of a people who have weathered many storms in their short but eventful history, including the traumatic dismemberment of the country in 1971, Pakistanis across different sections of society are confused and pessimistic.

This has much to do with growing economic disparities and the sense of alienation in regions that have been denied their share of resources and political power during prolonged periods of depoliticization under military and quasi-military rule. But the chronic state of national depression in Pakistan stems from a deeper psychological malaise.

Ayub Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Fatima Jinnah in Dhaka Cantonment on March 20, 1948 | White Star

There have been recurrent doubts about the country’s capacity to survive and considerable angst about the artificial nature of a state carved out of the predominantly Muslim extremities of the Subcontinent. In the brutally blunt metaphor of Britain’s last viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, “administratively it was the difference between putting up a permanent building, a nissen hut or a tent. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are putting up a tent. We can do no more”. Mountbatten had fully expected this fragile tent to collapse. Pakistan has belied this wicked prophecy of the last viceroy. But instead of the tent being replaced with a permanent building, Pakistan has transformed itself metaphorically into a sprawling military barrack.

The rise of the military to a position of dominance within Pakistan’s state structure took place within the very first decade of independence. A combination of domestic, regional and international factors tilted the balance firmly in favour of the non-elected rather than elected institutions of the state. Occurring within the context of the British-American rivalry, as much as the Cold War divide between the Soviet bloc and the West, military dominance had been established as early as 1951, well before the first military coup of 1958. Looking to raise a viable defence against India, senior civil and military officials like Iskander Mirza and General Ayub Khan reached out to the centres of the capitalist world system, especially the United States, which after the outbreak of the Korean War were looking for allies to contain the threat of communism.

An alliance with Pakistan would give the Americans military bases in the Indian Ocean, a crucial strategic move at a juncture when British prestige in West Asia was at an all-time low. But Washington was unwilling to pay the price demanded by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan — a territorial guarantee and assistance in pressing India to give way on Kashmir. The Americans had a better chance of swaying military and civil officials who, in an effort to gain some leverage, intimated to their American interlocutors that the prime minister was toying with the idea of declaring Pakistan’s neutrality in the Cold War unless Western powers helped resolve the Kashmir issue. On October 16, 1951, Liaquat was shot dead while addressing a public rally. The murder of Pakistan’s first prime minister heralded the imminent derailment of the political process and the onset of a brutal political culture of assassinations, sustained by the state’s direct or indirect complicity. His assassination cleared the way for Pakistan to join an American-backed security arrangement in the Middle East.

Without consulting either the central cabinet or parliament, Ayub, the commander-in-chief, told politicians – as cited in my book, The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics – to “make up their mind to go whole-heartedly with the West”; the Pakistan army would “take no nonsense”, nor allow them or “the public to ruin the country”. In the event of attempts to destabilize the government, Ayub warned, he would “immediately declare martial law and take charge of the situation” and the “army will do what I tell it to do”.

After Liaquat’s eviction from the national scene, a select combination of senior bureaucrats and military officials took steps to manipulate the administrative machinery, instituting a culture of state patronage that was detrimental to centre-province relations. These moves laid the foundations of what was to become a thriving political economy of defence. After formally aligning itself with the United States in 1954, Pakistan joined two American-sponsored security pacts — the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization in 1954 and the Baghdad Pact in 1955.

The alliance was unpopular in Pakistan, raising the spectre of American military assistance being put at risk by impending general elections. So, the ruling coterie of senior civil and military officials, working within the constraints of constructing and consolidating a state in an adverse regional and international environment, set about trying to control the political process and, failing that, suspending it altogether.

Pakistan’s inability to match India’s success in establishing a parliamentary democracy and avoiding military rule is generally attributed to an inept and corrupt political leadership. But the failure to create a functioning parliamentary system was not due to a ‘power vacuum’ created by a fractious and corrupt provincial leadership at the helm of political parties, with no real bases of popular support.

The very fact of a military takeover suggests that, despite the dominance of the civil bureaucracy and the army, the internal structures of the state were still fluid enough to be threatened by political forces, however disparate and divided. A clear distinction between phases of dominance and actual intervention by the military explains why weaknesses of political parties offer such an inadequate explanation for the army high command’s decision, in 1958, to directly wield state authority.

The military and its allies in the civil bureaucracy felt compelled to abort the incipient political processes before Pakistan could slip into an era of mass mobilization. It proved to be a momentous decision whose legacy is alive and well to this day.

General Ziaul Haq administers the oath of office of Federal Shariat Court chairman to Justice Salahuddin Ahmed on May 20, 1980 | White Star

The supremacy of non-elected over elected institutions not only survived the tentative experiment in parliamentary democracy during the first decade after independence, and the military dispensation after 1958, but also persisted following the separation of East Pakistan in 1971. A judiciary forced into subservience by an all-powerful executive gave constitutional legitimacy to the emerging structural imbalance within the state in the first decade.

The result was a centralized state structure, federal in form and unitary in substance, whose military authoritarian character went against the grain of politics in its constituent regions. These structural asymmetries have been singularly responsible for the failings and distortions of the Pakistani political system — a lack of democratic institutions, inadequate mechanisms for public accountability, a compromised media, inequitable distribution of resources and a chronic tussle between the centre and the provinces.

The dominance of the military has continued through various phases of Pakistan’s political history and is likely to persist into the future so long as extra-constitutional methods continue to be seen by some quarters as an effective means to disrupt the political process. There is a world of difference between holding elected officials accountable and discrediting the democratic political process altogether over acts of omission and commission by politicians.

Accountability requires legal norms and procedures as well as public vigilance and is undermined the instance it is used selectively for political ends. Since the country has been ruled by the military for extended periods of time, expectations of democracy in Pakistan often verge on the unrealistic. Democracy is not a magic wand waved at election time. Democracy is a process. Democracy is conflict and requires institutions to mediate workable resolutions. The difference between a successful democracy and a struggling democracy is the existence of robust elected institutions in the former and infirm or non-existent ones in the latter.

Pakistan’s survival has come at the cost of weakening democratic processes that are intrinsic to maintaining a fragile federal equation. Instead of learning from the tragic experience of dismemberment in 1971, the postcolonial Pakistani state has retained much of its centralized character, notwithstanding recent moves towards greater autonomy for the provinces. There are, however, some key elements of change that could signal a move away from cycles of military authoritarianism punctuated by short-lived elected governments. The Cold War is over, even if its legacies have endured in Pakistan. In the post-Cold War era, Pakistan is facing a more complex interface between domestic, regional and international factors, presenting opportunities and challenges alike. It took Pakistan 23 years to hold its first general election based on universal adult franchise and it was only in 2013 that the jinx of failed constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another was finally broken.

In the past, the judiciary typically toed the line laid down by the military and the civilian bureaucracy and state-controlled media were invariably cowed into submission. For the first time in Pakistan’s 70-year history, the third non-elective institution of the state and the fourth estate are showing some signs of wanting to side with popular political forces.

One of the more significant shifts in Pakistan’s international profile since the height of the Cold War, and one with vast consequences for domestic politics, is the relative decline of American influence. As America strengthens its economic and strategic partnership with India, Pakistan has acted swiftly to improve relations with Russia while further cementing ties with China.

General Pervez Musharraf | White Star

The role of the United States as Pakistan’s patron par excellence has given way to belief in a potentially dramatic turnaround with the help of China blowing the tantalizing bugle of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy. Pakistanis would do well to avoid the temptation of seeing China as their new benefactor. Unlike Pakistan’s past dependence on the United States, the relationship with China must be a partnership for the mutual benefit of both countries.

The extent to which the boons of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are distributed equally among the constituent units or, conversely, become another means for private accumulation of wealth at public expense will in large part determine this country’s future. An open and informed public debate on new policy directions can go a long way towards smoothening out anxieties in the smaller constituent units about the implications of Pakistan’s CPEC policy. While it is still too early to predict the likely outcome of the CPEC initiative, it provides Pakistan with a real incentive to recast itself internally, regionally and globally.

At a time of dynamic change and an uncharted course for the future, there is an urgent need for the citizens of Pakistan to take the lead in making their voices heard in the highest offices of the state. The need for citizen engagement cannot be overemphasised. Pakistanis might consider taking a lead from their American counterparts who, in the aftermath of the divisive 2016 elections, have shown that democracy is more than just the rite of voting, by actively lobbying their representatives to ensure that their interests are safeguarded in pieces of legislation emanating from Washington. Where politics divide, other concerns can unite.

Pakistani citizens could try and come together in defence of their consumer rights. A civic consumerism that is attentive to quality controls, rising prices of daily necessities and environmental degradation in the name of development can lend substance to the social and economic rights of citizenship and generate popular momentum for putting an end to a kleptocratic political culture.

Admittedly, civil society in Pakistan is still relatively unorganized even though new Internet-based technologies are facilitating novel forms of information dissemination and articulation of social protest. The political party system remains weakly established and, with the constitution repeatedly trampled under the praetorian jackboot, the rule of law continues to be flouted by the very elements expected to uphold it.

Another vital element of detrimental change has been the gathering strength of religious extremism that can be traced back to the military regime of General Ziaul Haq between 1977 and 1988. His rule ushered in qualitative changes in the political and ideological profile of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The confluence of international factors that came into play two years after his military takeover gave his regime greater longevity than the decade long reign of Pakistan’s first Cold War coup-maker Ayub Khan.

Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 brought a reversal of fortunes, Zia faced international ostracism and domestic opprobrium for hanging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and ignoring calls for clemency. American-backed international support for the Pakistan-based Afghan resistance movement gave a new lease of life to the sagging political fortunes of his regime but never came close to giving it popular legitimacy. While resistance to him assumed multiple forms, both at home and among diasporic communities abroad, urban and middle-class women led street protests against Zia’s so-called Islamisation policies. As enraged women organised the Women’s Action Forum and took on the baton-wielding arms of the state, they were beaten and hurled into jail.

Opposition to Zia’s dictatorship also assumed the form of artistic and intellectual expression more readily than of either symbolic or violent political protests. Ahmad Faraz wrote one of the most celebrated poems of resistance against military dictatorship in Pakistan during this era, called Mahasara (Siege), in which he vowed to wield his pen against deceit and oppression, regardless of the risks. Subjected to public floggings for exercising their fundamental right of expression and thrown out of their jobs, journalists, civil rights activists, labour leaders and intellectuals met in underground coffee houses and the privacy of homes to vent their anger at Zia, his Punjabi-Sunni prejudices and his hypocritical ‘Islamisation’ policies.

Creative writers and visual and dramatic artists used political allegories to register their disdain at the whole gamut of his regime’s self-projections — whether it was the premium placed on an Arabised form of piety or attempts to reverse the few gains women had made during the preceding decades. With women’s rights under attack, there was poetic irony in the fact of Benazir Bhutto leading the opposition charge against Zia’s military rule.

Basking in the glory of his newfound importance to the United States, Zia could afford to alienate Pakistan’s leading political parties as well as forego the support of a relatively small but resilient intelligentsia and dynamic community of artists and musicians. Flush with American largesse that was matched dollar for dollar by Saudi Arabia, he presided over Pakistan’s transformation into a front-line state for an American orchestrated ‘jihad’ against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is welcomed at Gilgit Airport on August 23, 1972 | White Star

Deployed for strategic rather than religious purposes, the uses of a jihadist ideology by the military regime created the space for a transnational congregation of radicalized individuals espousing different variants of Islam but united in their opposition to godless communists. Once this same configuration of forces turned against their erstwhile backers with unbounded hate and violence, Pakistan was left reaping the whirlwind of Zia’s dabbling in the geopolitics of global jihadism.

The ethical meaning of jihadj as striving for a noble endeavour has been completely lost sight of in the temporal maelstroms of Pakistan’s politics. Departing from Islamic tradition, today’s would-be jihadis have no qualms about jihad being declared and waged by non-state actors. The eagerness to become a martyr (shaheed) is seen by contemporary militant organisations as a sufficient condition to sanctify armed warfare against perceived injustices perpetrated by enemies of Islam. But in exemplifying a widespread desire among militants to become shaheeds and not just ghazis, warriors of the faith, this raises a troubling question about the erosion of an ethics of humanity amidst the brutalization of war.

What Pakistan has needed the most ever since its inception is an educational system that can keep pace with the expanding frontiers of knowledge in the rest of the world and inculcate genuine critical thinking. This had been one of the primary objectives of Sayyid Ahmad Khan and his bevy of acolytes at Aligarh – the intellectual forerunners of All-India Muslim League’s movement for Pakistan – who in the late 19th century exhorted their co-religionists to take to new forms of education as a means for both individual self-improvement and collective advancement.

It is one of the crueler paradoxes of Pakistani history that the breadth and openness of thinking so valued by Sayyid Ahmad Khan and his Aligarh associates stands in striking contrast to the narrow and hidebound world view of those who today claim to have inherited their intellectual mantle. Instead of a wide-ranging outlook capable of adopting and adapting to new ideas, the knowledge gap has assumed staggering proportions, notably in the humanities and the social sciences. The teaching of history has been severely impaired by its replacement with self-serving national dogmas to the extent that critical thinking has become the scarcest of all commodities in Pakistan. This is not to imply that Pakistanis are uncritical as a people.

In fact, it may be that they are a little too critical about everything and, therefore, incapable of the kind of well-considered and measured creative activity that can channel national energies into constructive debate and productive enterprise. It is the deficit in analytically coherent critical thought, more than anything else, which has allowed successive managers of the post-independence Pakistani state to frame the narratives of the nation into implausible moulds without being unduly concerned about facing a coherent intellectual challenge, far less a sustained political one.

In this disconcerting scenario, the burgeoning of a popular culture in the face of decades of state-sponsored Islamisation and terrorism is a remarkable feat for Pakistan. It draws upon rich and vibrant poetic, musical and artistic traditions that are well manifested in the country’s diverse regional and sub-regional settings.

Decades of authoritarianism and state-sponsored nationalism have only strengthened the appeal of regional counter-narratives in artistic productions. Creative engagements with the regional and transnational realms of cultural and intellectual production, facilitated by new technologies, are producing rich and innovative forms of artistic expression. These are being showcased in the literary festivals that have mushroomed across Pakistan in recent years.

Equally impressive are the extensively telecast Coke Studio sessions where talented Pakistani musicians are sponsored by an American multinational to render scintillating new fusions of some of Pakistan’s greatest folk and popular songs. There is a rich tradition of musical and artistic creativity in Pakistan that has actively engaged with transnational trends, resulting in innovative blending and fresh departures.

The transnational reach of the creative arts has paralleled the globalization of Pakistani music. Building on the works of those who pioneered the modernist phase in Pakistani painting in the earlier decades, a younger generation of painters is making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to engage with a dynamic transnational artistic scene.

Nawaz Sharif speaks at Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hasan Abdal on June 18, 2009 | White Star

New directions in contemporary art, literature and music underline the ongoing tensions between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture”. Unable to compete with the financial resources of India’s performing arts and film industry, there are many gifted Pakistanis who are nevertheless making their presence felt as independent artists, musicians, writers and film-makers in the Subcontinent.

Individual success in swamps of collective failure is not uncommon in an authoritarian state. Pakistanis’ cultural achievements, amply evident in the musical, artistic, literary and dramatic productions coming out of the country, reflect the politicization of the personal sphere that comes with the depoliticization of the public arena under authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. If military dictatorships have failed to stunt creative impulses, waves of terror and counter-terror are being resisted through imaginative recourse to local, regional, as well as transnational idioms of a cosmopolitan humanism that celebrates, rather than eliminates, the fact of difference.

Despite these signs of cultural renewal based on individual creativity, Pakistan has not been able to shake off the stigma of being the epicentre of global terror and the price of losing control of international narratives about Pakistan has been hefty. While Pakistanis must take part of the blame, much depends on the willingness of the international community to recognize their creative accomplishments.

Their efforts to promote peace and accommodation may appear inconsequential, given the aggressive and exclusionary narratives on jihad and Muslim identity that have enjoyed state support for nearly four decades. But the costs of external wars on Pakistani soil have been a potent influence in the rising popular interest in the rich cultural repertoire of the mystical traditions of the country. These conflicting dynamics of moderation versus extremism, openness and engagement with the world versus a narrow and inward-looking closing of the mind, signify the battle for the soul of Pakistan that is being waged on several fronts, most perceptibly in Pakistan’s literature, music and the arts.

This is not to deny that the magnitude and range of problems besieging Pakistan are so vast that even a competent elected government cannot expect to deliver on all its promises. Learning to live with the shortcomings of their chosen representatives without losing faith in the democratic process is difficult for a people who, under years of military rule, have internalized negative narratives about politics and politicians.

If there is one thing Pakistanis need to take from their own history, it is that there is a world of difference between an ineffective government that can at least be voted out of office and the abject failure of democratic processes that military interventions signify. This subtle but crucial distinction holds the key to Pakistan’s release from interminable cycles of military authoritarianism.

It can help trigger the beginnings of a long but arduous journey towards a functioning democracy based on checks and balances between different institutions of the state. Institution building is a long and painful process and Pakistanis have not dignified themselves in this crucial realm. If they can overcome this crippling handicap, they may yet lay the basis for a new and robust federal union based on mutual respect and accommodation among the different constituent units.

Pakistanis can engage fruitfully with the current nexus of political factors only by getting their bearings right. If they are to renegotiate the complex contours of the contested spaces and competing narratives of their collective identity to establish a mutually beneficial federalism, they must face up to some hard truths about their history and muster the courage to learn from its lessons.

The biggest challenge for them is to reject the received wisdom about the past to deal more realistically with the present as a first step towards planning for a better future. What they cannot afford is to continue to allow official idioms of state-sponsored nationalism to gloss over the multiple and conflicting aspirations in different regions that fueled the dream of Pakistan, a denial that constitutes the single biggest obstacle to fashioning a coherent, if not necessarily unanimous, nation. Forced unanimity is no unanimity at all while restrained conflict, respectful of the human rights of all contenders, is the very stuff of democracy.

Insofar as visions of the founding fathers are meant to signpost a nation’s historical trajectory, it may be tempting to attribute the failure of democracy in Pakistan to their flawed political and intellectual legacies. Seen this way, the very notion of a Muslim nation distinct from the Subcontinent’s Hindu-majority community smacked of an inherently undemocratic conception of politics.

Asif Ali Zardari at Benazir Bhutto’s funeral in 2007 | White Star

Even among those who otherwise hail Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s contribution to the creation of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims, measured skepticism about the appropriateness of democracy in Pakistan has been part and parcel of a self-serving agenda in which the convenience of continued access to state patronage is better than the uncertainties of dealing with an elected government.

As for those given to making sweeping judgments with little understanding of history or context, the absence of democracy in Pakistan is attributed to authoritarian strains in its Muslim culture. Those of the technocratic ilk are known to scoff at the prospect of democracy in a country with a woefully low literacy rate, conveniently overlooking social indicators in neighbouring India, billed as the largest democracy in the world.

One might disagree with the reasons why democracy went off the rails in Pakistan so early in its history. But it is palpably incorrect to locate the failure in Islam, socio-economic determinism or in the founding father’s political legacy.

An examination of Jinnah’s long and distinguished public career should disabuse anyone of doubts about his commitment to democracy and human rights. He was the most eloquent proponent of minority rights before feeling the need to claim national status for India’s Muslims. Firmly grounded in the democratic tradition, he was at the forefront of advocacy when it came to universal education, women’s rights, equal rights of citizenship irrespective of differentiations along lines of caste, class or religious community.

A moderate constitutionalist, he looked disdainfully upon professional rabble-rousers who made cynical uses of religion. “I know of no religion apart from human activity,” he once told Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, since it “provides a moral basis for all other activities”. Religion for him was meaningless if it did not mean identifying with the whole of mankind. Wary of all forms of exclusivity and an uncompromising opponent of bigotry, whether cultural or religious, Jinnah faulted the Indian National Congress’s methods but never once took his sights off the ultimate goal of independence from British colonial rule.

After March 1940, his insistence on national status for Indian Muslims was unshakeable. But the demand for a wholly separate and sovereign state, with no relationship whatsoever with a Hindustan containing almost as many Muslims, remained open to negotiation until the late summer of 1946. The claim that Muslims constituted a ‘nation’ was not necessarily incompatible with a federal or confederal state structure covering the whole of India.

This left open the possibility of an all-India entity reconstituted based on multiple levels of sovereignty. In keeping with the better part of India’s history, an overture to shared sovereignty seemed the best way of tackling the dilemma posed by the absence of any neat equation between Muslim identity and territory. With ‘nations’ straddling states, the boundaries between them had to be permeable and flexible, not impenetrable and absolute.

Therefore, Jinnah remained implacably opposed to a partition of Punjab and Bengal along religious lines, even while furthering the cause of a political division of India between ‘Pakistan’ and ‘Hindustan’. It was the Indian National Congress’ unwillingness to accept an equitable power-sharing arrangement with the All-India Muslim League that resulted in the creation of a sovereign Pakistan based on the partition of Punjab and Bengal along ostensibly religious lines.

Benazir Bhutto at a press conference in 2007 | White Star

Cast against its will in the role of a state seceding from a hostile Indian union, Pakistan has tried securing its independent existence by espousing an ideology of Muslim ‘nationhood’ that has entailed trampling on the provincial rights promised in the Lahore Resolution and dispensing with democracy for the better part of its history. It is no wonder that the claims of Muslim nationhood have been so poorly served by the achievement of territorial statehood.

These insights have been lost on those who unquestioningly parrot the official idioms of nationalism. Charting a linear course to the winning of statehood, these idioms paper over the vexed problems that a geographically dispersed and heterogeneous community such as the Muslims of India faced in its bid to be considered a ‘nation’. Nor can the sacred tomes of official nationalism explain why there are more subcontinental Muslims living in India and Bangladesh than in Pakistan, the much-vaunted Muslim homeland.

As if these confusions were not sufficient to plunge the Pakistani state into a serious identity crisis, its creation in the name of religion has heaped confusion upon confusion. Diehard secularists see in it the kind of anachronism that only Muslims are capable of conjuring. Self-styled representatives of religion, for their part, have seen in it an opportunity to realise the goal of an Islamic state in which they call the shots. Few have ventured to probe what religion as faith had to do with the politics of difference in late colonial India. It was mainly religion as a social demarcator – and for some also concerns about religion as faith – not the dream of an Islamic theocracy which prompted the demand for Pakistan.

Jinnah certainly envisaged Pakistan as a modern, progressive and democratic state and said as much in his speeches: “We … have a State in which we c[an] live and breathe as free men and which we c[an] develop according to our own lights and culture and where principles of Islamic social justice can find free play.”

This vision resonated with Muhammad Iqbal’s evocation of individual freedom, which was in complete contrast to the theological centralisation advocated by Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder Maulana Abul A’la Maududi. The political architect and poet-philosopher of a Muslim homeland espoused a conception that acknowledged the continued salience of some sort of a state of temporal and spiritual union presiding over regions with shares of sovereignty and citizens with multiple identities — an idea of freedom where Pakistanis in all their diversities and differences could live the lives they valued with dignity, responsibility and a sense of security.

The citizens of the Muslim homeland created by Jinnah, whose federalist vision played such a formative role in the creation of Pakistan, have both a self-interest and moral responsibility to reject the old and tired methods of coercion and neglect of constituent units. It is equally imperative to uphold his singular belief in the rule of law. Pakistan’s future historical trajectory will be what the citizens of Jinnah’s Muslim homeland want it to be. Speaking in Karachi before the Bar Association on January 25, 1948 – as cited in my book The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics – he had urged: “What reason is there for anyone to fear democracy, equality, freedom … as the highest standard of integrity and on the basis of fair play and justice for everybody?”

It remains an aspiration worth striving for, seven decades after the creation of Pakistan.

Lessons we have learnt in the last 70 years by Dr. Ayesha Jalal.  The writer is a noted historian and the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and is also the director of the University’s Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies. This was originally published in the Herald’s August 2017 issue.

By courtesy Dawn.

The Indian Crowd and Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Sometimes in the early 1820s a sailor from Devon in south-west England arrived in Calcutta to work as a river pilot. He met an English girl and they married in Calcutta Cathedral. John and Julia started a family that stayed in India until Indian opposition to British rule forced them to leave. The Indian careers of its members allowed the Dyer family to climb the social ladder. The couple’s three sons became technicians and surveyors. Their four daughters married into East India Company service families. Their second son was on track to become an engineer before he noticed the demand for beer from European soldiers. At Kassauli, a military town in the foothills of the Himalayas, Edward Dyer founded India’s first modern brewery, two years before the great insurrection of 1857. There, he made the beer that would-be India’s best seller for a century, naming it ‘Lion’ after the animal which symbolized British power.

Edward’s children continued he pattern of becoming ancillary staff to the imperial regime, building careers based on positions based on positions of small-scale domination over local Indian populations. Some became engineers. Most joined the army. So, when John Dyer’s grandson Reginald arrived to violent protests in Amritsar on 11 April 1919, he faced a challenge to his family’s way of life, not just a movement resisting the British state.

The First World War had left India in a state of economic crisis and political upheaval. To suppress dissent, the government extended wartime restrictions on civil liberties. The Indian National Congress declared a general strike. Indian leaders called for protests to be peaceful, but, as demonstrators were killed and arrested, rioting started to spread.

Imperial troops fired on crowds in Delhi on 30 March.
Aircraft machine- gunned people from the air at Gujranwala the following week.
At Ahmedabad rioters killed European officers and crowds were fired on.

Dyerism:  The worst violence, on both sides, occurred in the city of Amritsar in Punjab. Motivated by economic hardship and the government’s anxious suppression of dissent, crowds gathered to protest everything from the refusal of the railways to allow platform tickets to the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire. At the beginning of April 1919, the imperial authorities accused Congress activists of bringing

‘the Government established by law in British India into hatred and contempt’.

Police arrested two of the most prominent Congress leaders.

  • The newly famous political leader M.K. Gandhi was blocked from travelling to Punjab.
  • Violent protests spread through the city.
  • On 10 April, public buildings were stormed and gutted.
  • Two banks and a missionary school were looted.
  • Five Englishmen and ten Indian protesters were killed.
  • A crowd pushed a female missionary off her bicycle, beat her and left her for dead.

Europeans retreated to the enclaves of the city’s fort and cantonment but enemies of British rule ran riot in the rest of the city. On the evening of 11 April, hundreds gathered at a public meeting declaring that

‘the British Government had been overthrown’,
and decided to cut the railway line. Posters appeared calling on ‘the Indian nation’ to ‘Kill and be killed’ and ‘Conquer the English monkeys with bravery’.

Reginald Dyer was born near his father’s brewery in Punjab. Dyer spent the first eleven years of his life in India, but was sent to school in Ireland to preserve a sense of his separateness from Indian society. From there, he joined the army, helped suppress riots in Belfast and ended up back in India in 1887. By 1919 he had risen to become a temporary brigadier general, and had charge of the Jalandhar division of the imperial army. On 11 April, the city’s civilian Deputy Commissioner authorized General Dyer to use whatever force was needed to impose British order on a city which had been taken over by crowds. Two days later, just before noon, Dyer’s troops marched around the city announcing by drumbeat that all public meetings were banned. Early the same afternoon, Dyer learnt that a crowd had gathered at the public waste ground where many of the ‘seditious’ public meetings of the past few months has been held, the Jallianwalla Bagh. It was a mixed crowd of between 10,000 and 20,000. Some were there for a protest meeting, others for the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

General Dyer entered the ground with

  • fifty Indian soldiers carrying .303 rifles,
  • forty Gurkhas armed only with swords, and
  • the European chief of police.

With no warning, his troops started shooting, firing 1,650 rounds into the crowd. Official figures said

  • 379 people died.
  • The Congress inquiry into the shooting counted more than 1,000.

By a long way, this was the worst use of military force against a civilian crowd in British history. Dyer was briefly lauded his superiors in Punjab for quickly stopping the collapse of imperial power, and was sent to command troops in Afghanistan.

‘Your action correct and Lieutenant-Governor approves’,

Dyer was told when he first reported his action to the head of Punjab’s government. But as news of Amritsar killings spread to London his conduct began to be criticized by his compatriots. The British government’s liberal Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montague, insisted on a public investigation into the Punjab violence. Within months, Dyer was summoned to appear before a Disorders Inquiry Committee in the Punjab’s capital of Lahore. The committee consisted of a mild-mannered Scottish judge, Lord William Hunter, four other Britons and three Indian lawyers. The commission’s proceedings were irritable and anxious. Dyer and its British members agreed

  • that coercion was needed in Punjab.
  • The arrest of 3,200 ‘rebels‘, the shooting of massed gatherings and bombing from the air were difficult‘ but necessary nonetheless to ‘hold on’ to British imperial power if done in the right way.
The committee approved of thirty-seven cases of firing and censured only one. Their belief in the use of violence to preserve British power placed the Britons at odds with their Indian colleagues, essentially leading to a total breakdown between the two sides.
‘You people want to drive the British out of the country,’ 

Hunter shouted at C.H. Setalvad, a moderate lawyer on the inquiry committee, in one particularly tense exchange.

The Hunter inquiry marked the arrival of a new force in Indian politics: the crowd. Up until 1919, British officers thought about Indian politics in terms of

  • potentially seditious political leaders.
  • The mass of India’s population existed off-stage.

As passive subjects, they were the occasional target of government action.

In government reports, the ‘mob’ was sometimes described as

  • being brought into play by scheming political leaders,
  • sporadically excited by religious passion, but
  • the masses had no political life of their own.

From the events in Punjab in 1919 onwards, ‘the crowds’ began to be seen as a political actor in its own right. The Indian government’s report on the disturbances used the word ‘crowd’ 150 times in seventy pages; the Hunter Report 280 times in 175 pages, and the text’s narrative began with a mass ‘outbreak’. The fear, throughout, was that the escalation of crowd violence might cause the collapse of the Raj’s power. Hunter was not sure middle-class revolutionaries were a great threat, but the report’s authors feared that

 ‘a movement which had started in rioting and become a rebellion might have rapidly become a revolution’.
  • Dyer and his British critics disagreed about the best response to this new politics of spontaneous crowd violence.
  • The government in London and the Viceroy believed the quick and firm use of force against rioting needed to be accompanied by concessions to India’s political elites.
  • They wanted Indian nationalists to help them control the crowd.
  • They had started to believe that British sovereignty in India relied on conceding pockets of power to Indians in an otherwise despotic regime.

By 1919, the British government ha started to frame reforms to include a liberal element in India’s autocratic constitution. Dyer by contrast, thought any act of retreat would quickly cause the Raj to unravel. For him, British power in India was based on conquest, and conquest could only be maintained if violence was continually asserted against a population which could quickly turn into a mob. Any kind of equality entailed a dangerous lack of respect for India’s conquerors. After a crisis, such as those of 1857 or 1919, authority could only be restored if Indians were forced to submit themselves, sometimes humiliatingly, before their masters. So, after the initial disorders in Punjab,

barristers in Amritsar were forced to do menial work.
Every resident of Gujranwala was ordered to salute and salaam when they passed a British officer.
Any Indian passing along the street where the missionary Miss Sherwood had been attacked was commanded by Dyer to crawl on their bellies.

Given a packed Lahore assembly hall in November 1919, Dyer’s testimony before the Hunter Commission used the language of personal triumph and humiliation. Dyer treated his cross-examination as a series of insults and slights. He often lost his temper. The ‘rebel’ meeting at the Jallianwalla Bagh was, he argued, an act

‘of defiance’

against his authority that needed to be

‘punished’. ‘It was’,

Dyer famously argued,

‘no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd.’

The shooting was calculated to produce

‘a moral effect’,

to reduce

‘the morale of the rebels’,

and in the process, force Indian subjects to submit. Dyer’s response to riots in Amritsar was a retaliation to an existential challenge. The way of life he had been brought up in was wrapped up with the idea of Indian obedience to British commands. If those commands were not obeyed, Dyer would not be able to consider himself a dignified human being. When asked why he did not just shoot to disperse the crowd, Dyer said the who gathered

 ‘would all come back and laugh at me.’

Without the killing, he said,

‘I considered I would be making myself a fool’.

Dismissed quickly by his Commander- in-Chief, in poor physical and mental health, Dyer travelled to Bombay without a hotel reservation and was forced to stay in a dirty dormitory before taking a troopship back to England. The Army Council banned him from any further employment in the armed forces.

Back in Britain support for him grew in some quarters, and his actions at Amritsar were debated in Parliament. There Dyer became a political cause célèbre for die- hard. Tory and Unionist politicians who believed Britain’s global power was acquired and retained by conquest not partnership; they saw every act of concession as a humiliating desertion of the embattled bastions of imperial power before the insurgent crowd. The Irish Unionist, one-time First Sea Lord of the Admiralty and staunch opponent of Irish nationalism, Sir Edward Carson, was Dyer’s most fervent advocate. In his speech before the House of Commons, Carson portrayed Dyer as the defender of the English values and imperial power against the international revolutionaries manipulating crowd violence in Egypt, Ireland, Russia and India.

‘It is all one conspiracy, it is all engineered in the same way, it has the same object– to destroy our sea power an drive us out of Asia.’

Dyer’s British defenders and critics were united in their desire to sustain British sovereignty in India against new forces of resistance and rebellion. Theirs was a passionate, sometimes vicious debate: some of Dyer’s critics accused him of being ‘unBritish’ and on the verge of insanity; some of his defenders accused the Jewish Secretary of State of being part of a global conspiracy of Jews against British power.

The intensity of these arguments was partially caused by the deep- rooted commitment which the everyday operators of imperial power had long felt towards empire. But it was partly caused, too, by the fact that empire in India had recently become important to Britain in a new way. In 1919, India was no longer merely a self-sustaining, self-justifying outpost of British power that mattered only to families like the Dyers who ruled it. The First World War briefly turned British India into a vita source of British geopolitical power, a recruiting ground for soldiers and a base for materials and cash. World war forced Britain’s political leaders to adopt a more liberal attitude towards the Government of India. But it also created forces that ensured liberal imperialism could not last.

By courtesy of : The Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson, published by Public Affairs 2016 in the US

 Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer CB (9 October 1864 – 23 July 1927) was an officer of the British Indian Army who, as a temporary brigadier general, was responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (in the province of Punjab). Dyer was removed from duty; he was criticized both in Britain and India, but he became a celebrated hero among people with connections to the British Raj. Some historians argue the episode was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.

Early life and assignments


Dyer 1
Major Reginald Dyer at the Delhi Durbar of 1903
 Dyer was born in Murree, in the Punjab province of British India, which is now in Pakistan. He was the son of a brewer who managed the Murree Brewery. He spent his childhood in Murree and Simla and received his early education at the Lawrence College Ghora Gali, Murree and Bishop Cotton School in Simla. He attended Middleton College, County Cork, Ireland between 1875 and 1881.

Background: In 1919 the European population in Punjab feared the locals would overthrow British rule. A nationwide hartal (strike action) which was called on 30 March (later changed to 6 April) by Mahatma Gandhi, had turned violent in some areas.

Authorities were also becoming concerned by displays of Hindu-Muslim unity. Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, decided to deport major agitators from the province. One of those targeted was Dr. Satyapal, a Hindu who had served with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War. He advocated non-violent civil disobedience and was forbidden by the authorities to speak publicly. Another agitator was Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, a Muslim barrister who wanted political change and also preached non-violence.

The district magistrate, acting on orders from the Punjab government, had the two leaders arrested. On 9 April 1919, crowds soon gathered at a bridge leading into the Civil Lines, where the British lived, demanding a release of the two men. Unable to hold the crowd back, troops panicked and began firing, killing several protesters. The shooting of protesters resulted in a mob forming and returning to the city centre, setting fire to government buildings and attacking Europeans in the city. Three British bank employees were beaten to death, and Miss Marcella Sherwood, who supervised the Mission Day School for Girls, was cycling around the city to close her schools when she was assaulted by a mob in a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan. Sherwood was rescued from the mob by locals. They hid the teacher, who was hurt in the beating, before moving her to the fort.

Dyer, who was the commandant of the infantry brigade in Jalandhar, decided to take action. He arrived on 11 April to assume command, then instructed the troops of the garrison regarding reprisals against the population.

Though authorities initially claimed that the massacre was triggered by the assault on Sherwood, regimental diaries reveal that this was merely a pretext. Instead, Dyer and O’Dwyer feared an imminent mutiny in Punjab like the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Amritsar massacre: Dyer is infamous for the orders that he gave on 13 April 1919 in Amritsar. It was by his command that 50 troops, including 25 Gurkhas of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles (1st battalion, 9th Gurkha Rifles), 25 Pathans and Baluch, 54th Sikhs and 59th Sindh Rifles, all armed with .303 Lee–Enfield rifles opened fire on a non-violent gathering of unarmed civilians, men, women and children at the Jallianwalla Bagh in what later came to be known as the Amritsar massacre.

The civilians had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh to participate in the annual Baisakhi celebrations which are both a religious and a cultural festival of the Punjabis. Coming from outside the city, they may have been unaware of the martial law that had been imposed. The Bagh-space comprised 6 to 7 acres (28,000 m2) and was walled on all sides except for five entrances. Four of these entrances were very narrow, admitting only a few people at a time. The fifth entrance was blocked by the armed soldiers, as well as by two armoured cars with machine guns (these vehicles were unable to pass through the entrance).

Upon entering the park, the general ordered the troops to shoot directly into the gathering. Shooting continued until his troops’ supply of 1,650 rounds of ammunition was almost exhausted. The shooting continued unabated for about 10 minutes. Dyer is reported to have, from time to time, “checked his fire and directed it upon places where the crowd was thickest“; he did this not because the crowd was slow to disperse, but because he (the general) “had made up his mind to punish them for having assembled there.”  Some of the soldiers initially shot into the air, at which General Dyer shouted: “Fire low. What have you been brought here for?”  Later, Dyer’s own testimony revealed that the crowd was not given any warning to disperse and he was not remorseful for having ordered his troops to shoot.

The worst part of the whole thing was that the firing was directed towards the exit gates through which the people were running out. There were 3 or 4 small outlets in all and bullets were rained over the people at all these gates… and many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds and thus lost their lives… even those who lay flat on the ground were fired upon.

The official reports quote 379 dead and over 1,000 injured. However, public enquiry estimates, from Government civil servants in the city (commissioned by the Punjab Sub-committee of Indian National Congress) as well as counts from the Home Political cite numbers well over a thousand dead. According to a Home Political Deposit report, the number was more than 1,000, with more than 1,200 wounded. Dr. Smith, a British civil surgeon at Amritsar, indicated over 1,800 casualties. The deliberate infliction of these casualties earned General Dyer the epithet of the “Butcher of Amritsar” in India.

Threatening language: The day after the massacre Kitchin, the Commissioner of Lahore as well as General Dyer, both used threatening language. The following is the English translation of Dyer’s Urdu statement directed at the residents of Amritsar on the afternoon of 14 April 1919, a day after the Amritsar massacre:

You people know well that I am a Sepoy and soldier. Do you want war or peace? If you wish for a war, the Government is prepared for it, and if you want peace, then obey my orders and open all your shops; else I will shoot. For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same. I am a military man and I will go straight. Neither shall I move to the right nor to the left. Speak up, if you want war? In case there is to be peace, my order is to open all shops at once. You people talk against the Government and persons educated in Germany and Bengal talk sedition. I shall report all these. Obey my orders. I do not wish to have anything else. I have served in the military for over 30 years. I understand the Indian Sepoy and Sikh people very well. You will have to obey my orders and observe peace. Otherwise the shops will be opened by force and Rifles. You will have to report to me of the Badmash. I will shoot them. Obey my orders and open shops. Speak up if you want war? You have committed a bad act in killing the English. The revenge will be taken upon you and upon your children.

 Crawling order: Brigadier Dyer designated the spot where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted sacred. Daytime pickets were placed at either end of the street. Anyone wishing to proceed in the street between 6 am and 8 pm was made to crawl the 200 yards (180 m) on all fours, lying flat on their bellies. The order was not required at night due to a curfew. The order effectively closed the street. The houses did not have any back doors and the inhabitants could not go out without climbing down from their roofs. This order was in effect from 19 April until 25 April 1919. No doctor or supplier was allowed in, resulting in the sick being unattended.

Reaction in Britain and British India: Reaction to the massacre varied. A large section of the British population in India condoned it while many Indians were outraged. A Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Lord Hunter, was established to investigate the massacre. The committee’s report criticized Dyer,

arguing that in “continuing firing as long as he did, it appears to us that General Dyer committed a grave error.”

Dissenting members argued that the martial law regime’s use of force was wholly unjustified.

“General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O’Dwyer was of the same view,”

they wrote

“(but) there was no rebellion which required to be crushed.”

 He was met by Lieutenant-General Sir Havelock Hudson, who told him that he was relieved of his command. He was told later by the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Sir Charles Monroe, to resign his post and that he would not be reemployed.

General Dyer tried to win over the Sikhs as best as he could. He forced the manager of the Golden Temple and Sunder Singh Majithia to use their influence over the Sikhs, in favour of the government. As a result, priests of the Golden Temple invited General Dyer to the sacred shrine and presented him with a Siropa (turban and sword).

A significant number of ordinary Britons supported General Dyer.

Rudyard Kipling, who claimed Dyer was “the man who saved India“, is alleged to have started a benefit fund which raised over £26,000 sterling, including £50 contributed by Kipling himself for Dyer.

Subhash Chopra in his book Kipling Sahib – the Raj Patriot (2006), writes that the benefit fund was started by the Morning Post newspaper and not by Kipling and that Kipling made no contribution to the Dyer fund. His name was conspicuously absent among the list of donors as published in the Morning Post. But Kipling did admire Dyer.

The debate over the conduct of Gen Dyer following the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar, British India, sharply divided the British political class inside parliament and outside in the press. Curiously enough Rudyard Kipling was not one of the leading lights of Dyer’s frontline supporters who battled unsuccessfully for his promotion from the rank of Colonel to honorary Brigadier-General in retirement for ‘saving the empire’ in India.

  • Hailed by London’s Tory Morning Post as ‘The Man who saved India’ and popularly honoured as Brigadier-General, the massacre man remained a Colonel till the end of his life in 1927.
  • More specifically, while Kipling did not contribute the first £50 or anything to Dyer’s Benefit Fund, his friend Sir Michael O’Dwyer, former Lt- Governor of the Punjab, under whose jurisdiction Dyer carried out the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, did, of course, contribute £20 to the benefit fund. The fund raised £26,317,1s 10d when it was closed in December 1920.

Nevertheless, Kipling did pay his tribute to Gen Dyer at least twice, with brief but definitive words of edification. The first simply read:

 ‘He did his duty as he saw it.’— This tribute was inscribed on the card accompanying Kipling’s wreath at the funeral service for Gen Dyer at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

The second relating to a hospital project read:

 “These (hospital) beds have been endowed as a lasting memorial to Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer, a brave man who in the face of a great peril did his duty as he saw it — ‘he that observeth the clouds shall not reap’. The ‘hospital’ tribute is a dedication penned by Kipling at the request of the Dyer Memorial Committee which had hoped to donate a few beds or even a ward at the Walker Hospital in Simla. The man behind the hospital memorial campaign was none other than O’Dwyer. The rather modest size Walker Hospital itself had been built as a memorial to Sir J. Walker, once a partner of Dyer’s father Edward in his brewery business.

But O’Dwyer’s project in memory of his friend and co-servant of the Empire in Punjab failed to take off because of Walker Hospital’s ex-officio link with the New Delhi Government of India, which refused to be associated with any Dyer memorial in view of the damage it could do to the forthcoming visit of the Prince of Wales to India, where passions were running high against Dyer.

Dyer was heavily criticized both in Britain and India. Several senior and influential British government officials and Indians spoke out against him, including:

    • Pandit Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who called the massacre the “saddest and most revealing of all”.
    • Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate and distinguished Indian educator, who renounced his knighthood in protest the massacre and said, “a great crime has been done in the name of law in the Punjab“.
    • Sir Shankaran Nair, who resigned his membership of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in the Legislative Council of Punjab in protest at the massacre.
    • Punjab Legislative Council members Nawab Din Murad and Kartar Singh, who described the massacre as “neither just nor humane.”
  • Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican priest and friend of Gandhi, who termed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as “cold-blooded massacre and inhumane.”
  • Brigadier-General Surtees, who stated in the Dyer debate that “we hold India by force – undoubtedly by force”.
  • Edwin Samuel Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, who called it “a grave error in judgement”. In a debate in the House of Commons, he asked,
Are you going to keep your hold on India by terrorism, racial humiliation, subordination and frightfulness, or are you going to rest it upon the goodwill and the growing goodwill of the people of your Indian Empire?
  • Winston Churchill, at the time Britain’s Secretary of State for War, who called the massacre
 “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking”

during a debate in the House of Commons. In a letter to the leader of the Liberals and former Secretary of State for India, the Marquess of Crewe, he wrote,

“My own opinion is that the offence amounted to murder, or alternatively manslaughter.”
  • Former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party H. H. Asquith, who observed:
There has never been such an incident in the whole annals of Anglo-Indian history, nor, I believe, in the history of our empire since its very inception down to present day. It is one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”
  • B. G. Horniman, who observed: “No event within living memory, probably, has made so deep and painful impression on the mind of the public in this country [England] as what came to be known as the Amritsar massacre.”

The era of Michael O’Dwyer and Dyer has been deemed

“an era of misdeeds of British administration in India”.

During the Dyer debates in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, there was both praise and condemnation of Dyer.  In 1920, the British Labour Party Conference at Scarborough unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Amritsar massacre as a “cruel and barbarous action” of British officers in Punjab and called for their trial, recall of Michael O’Dwyer and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, and the repealing of repressive legislation.

Return to Britain: Churchill, the then Secretary of State for War, preferred for disciplining of General Dyer, but the Army Council headed by him decided to allow Dyer to resign with no plan for further punishment. Following Churchill’s speech defending the council’s action and debate in the parliament on 8 July 1920, MPs voted for the government, 247 to 37 and motion for mild approval of Dyer was defeated 230 to 129.

On his return to Britain, Brigadier Dyer was presented with a purse of £26,000 sterling, a huge sum in those days, (approximately £1,000,000 in terms of 2013 PPP) which emerged from a fund set up on his behalf by the Morning Post, a conservative, pro-imperialist newspaper, which later merged with the Daily Telegraph. A “Thirteen Women Committee” was constituted to present

 “the Saviour of the Punjab with the sword of honour and a purse”.

 Large contributions to the fund were made by civil servants and by British Army and Indian Army officers, although serving members of the military were not allowed to donate to political funds under the King’s Regulations (para. 443). The Morning Post had supported Dyer’s action on grounds stating that the massacre was necessary to

 “Protect the honour of European Women“.

The Morning Post blamed Montagu, Secretary of State (India), and not General Dyer for the massacre and asked for his court trial. Montagu, on the other hand, in a long letter to the Viceroy, passed the blame to Michael O’Dwyer and admitted

 “I feel that O’Dwyer represents a regime that is doomed.”

Many Indians, including Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, were outraged by the fund for Dyer, particularly the families of the victims killed at the Jallianwala Bagh, who were still fighting for government compensation. In the end, they received Rs 500 (then equal to £37.10s.0d; approximately £1,459 in terms of 2013 PPP) for each victim.

Dyer’s response and motivation: General Dyer made a series of three conflicting sets of statements about his motives and actions.

  • At first, immediately after he carried out the massacre, he made a series of partial but slightly varying explanations with the aim of exonerating him from any blame.
  • Later, after receiving approval for his actions from all his superiors in India, both civil and military, Dyer stated, that his actions were a deliberate attempt to punish people he believed were rebels and to make an example for the rest of the Punjab that would stop what he regarded as a rebellion.
  • Finally, on his return to England in disgrace in 1920, Dyer’s lawyers argued that his actions though deliberate & premeditated were justified because he was facing an insurrection and that, on those grounds, any amount of firing was permissible.

Dyer wrote an article in the Globe of 21 January 1921, titled, “The Peril to the Empire.” It commenced with “India does not want self-government. She does not understand it.” He wrote later that:

  • It is only to an enlightened people that free speech and a free press can be extended. The Indian people want no such enlightenment.
  • There should be an eleventh commandment in India, “Thou shalt not agitate”.
  • The time will come to India when a strong hand will be exerted against malice and ‘perversion’ of good order.
  • Gandhi will not lead India to capable self-government. The British Raj must continue, firm and unshaken in its administration of justice to all men.

In his official response to the Hunter commission that enquired into the shooting, Dyer was unremorseful and stated:

I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.

However, in his account of the massacre Nick Lloyd claims that Although Dyer later claimed to have undertaken the massacre to

 ‘save’ British India, he had had no such idea in his mind that fateful afternoon. As well as being ‘dazed and shaken up’ – hardly the response of a soldier who had had murder in his mind – all the witnesses recall how Dyer ‘was unnerved and deeply upset about what had happened’.

One witness described him as ‘distraught’, and he told a friend six month afterwards:

‘I haven’t had a night’s sleep since that happened. I keep on seeing it over again.’

Nigel Collett – author of biographical book The Butcher of Amritsaris convinced that, the Amritsar massacre preyed on Dyer’s mind from the very day he opened fire “He spent the rest of his life trying to justify himself. He persuaded himself it had been his duty to act as he did, but he could not persuade his soul that he had done right. It rotted his mind and, I am guessing here, added to his sickness.”

Collett, in his book, portrays Dyer as a man, who, got on extremely well with his men and his juniors, while his contemporaries and seniors were always wary of him and as a person, who when he approached a complex political problem:

  • his one thought was to have order;
  • his one tool to get it was the gun.

He notes that, at the time of the Amritsar massacre, Dyer was racked by ill-health and separated from his beloved family – and speculates that – perhaps, this encouraged his extreme view that the Punjab was on the brink of rebellion, the empire about to collapse and feared a mutiny like that of 1857. The solution, he decided, was not just to restore order but to show that the state was in charge. It was not enough to have shops and businesses reopen in Amritsar – an example was needed of the consequences of insubordination.

Collett quotes Dyer himself on the motivations that drove him to act as he did“…

It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity. The mutineers had thrown out the challenge and the punishment, if administered at all, must be complete, unhesitating and immediate.”

Death: Dyer suffered a series of strokes during the last years of his life and he became increasingly isolated due to the paralysis and speechlessness inflicted by his strokes. He died of cerebral hemorrhage and arteriosclerosis in 1927. On his deathbed, Dyer reportedly said:

So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right…but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer by Nigel Collett

The Morning Post remembered him in an article titled

 “The Man Who Saved India” and “He Did His Duty”

but the Westminster Gazette wrote a contrary opinion:

No British action, during the whole course of our history in India, has struck a severer blow to Indian faith in British justice than the massacre at Amritsar.”

Noted historian Gordon Johnson commented that

 “…Dyer’s actions ran counter to Army regulations. These required that force should be constrained by what was reasonable to achieve an immediate objective; minimum, not maximum, force should be deployed. Moreover, proper warning had to be given. On April 13, 1919, as demonstrated by Collett, Dyer ignored this. While he may have believed the Raj was threatened, and may have thought the mob was out to attack him and his soldiers, this does not justify his cavalier abuse of procedure and his indifference to Indian suffering. In so behaving, he brought not only death to the innocent but also destroyed himself and undermined the empire in which he took so much pride.

Popular culture: Dyer is played by Edward Fox in the 1982 film Gandhi. Dyer’s scenes in the film depict the massacre as well as Dyer’s testimony to the inquisition panel.

A fictionalized account of Dyer’s actions in Amritsar is contained in the 1981 prize winning novel Midnight’s Children, by author Salman Rushdie, and movingly depicted in Shashi Tharoor’s 1989 “The Great Indian Novel“.

Role of Michael O’Dwyer

Sir Michael O’Dwyer
Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab from 1912 to 1919, endorsed General Dyer and called the massacre a “correct” action.  Some historians now believe he premeditated the massacre and set Dyer to work. Many Indians blamed O’Dwyer, and while Dyer was never assaulted, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London in 1940 by Udham Singh in retaliation for his role in the massacre.


Reginald Edward Harry Dyer

Nickname(s) The Butcher of Amritsar General Dyer
Born 9 October 1864 Murree, Punjab, British India
Died 24 July 1927 (aged 62) Long Ashton, Somerset, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1885–1920
Rank Colonel
Commands held Seistan Force 25th Punjabis
Battles/wars Third Anglo-Burmese War Chitral Expedition First World War
Awards Companion of the Order of the Bath Mentioned in Despatches (2)
Spouse(s) Anne Dyer (1904–1938+)

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