The Build-Up to Jallianwala Bagh

The Jallianwala Bagh memorial in December 2022 (Source: Saisudha Acharya)

“Next, Jallianwala Bagh,” I announced, trying to hurry my son up. He pulled a face. He was demolishing a bowl of chilled phirni from an earthen bowl and had an eye on a kulfi vendor a little further on. From kulfi and phirni to the site of one of India’s most horrible tragedies – I couldn’t think of a way to make a smooth transition, and so I ended up ruining his kulfi by setting up the context. In retrospect, I think this is when I broke my son. This is advice to all parents who have obsessive interests. Its best to practice restraint. Do not ruin once in a life time Amritsari kulfi eating experiences with stories of British atrocities in the Punjab in the early 1900s. Teenage boys tend to hold it against you.

But, the thing is, Jallianwala Bagh without context does not really make sense. Today, if you walk into Jallianwala Bagh it looks like a tourist trap with touts and selfie sticks.

There is very little that helps you understand the world that Jallianwala Bagh was set in and why this one event changed the course of Indian history. Afterall, this wasn’t the first or only time that the British had used violence against local people. But something about the Jallianwala Bagh stirred a whole country and changed our goal from just swaraj to purna swaraj. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

A question I always had was why was Dyer so ready to fight – why did he go with those machine guns and with all these rifles? There must have been some reason for him to be so aggressive. I argue that the British were wary because Punjab had been revving up for a fight for years, and for good reason. To understand that reason, we need to look at Punjab in the early 20th century.

The Setting: Early 20th Century Punjab

Unlike Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidencies that had been under British ruled councils for nearly a century, Punjab had been a recent addition. Until the middle of the 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had held the Punjab together and protected it from British rule. But on his death, the British were quick to pull these fertile lands into its fold. Instead of a Council, the Punjab was governed by a Lieutenant Governor.

As soon as the British came to power in 1849, they quickly got to work. First, they built roads and railways across Punjab (mainly to allow movement of troops to and from the North-Western frontier) and next they turned to re-organize the administration.

The tax laws changed and instead of giving half their produce to the government (as they did under Ranjit Singh), they now paid cash taxes that were calculated based on average collections from the past three years. Unfortunately, the last three years had had exceptional harvests. But the Indian monsoon is notoriously moody. Harvests fell short and the farmers found the taxes far too steep. Did the British make concessions? No… they insisted that the revenues should remain the same regardless of yield.

Next, they began to mess around with laws related to how farmland could be sold or inherited.

In 1900, the British passed an Act that created “agricultural tribes” and prevented farming land to be sold to anyone outside of that. This meant that burdened farmers could either sell to other burdened farmers, who could not afford to buy any way, or sell to the government (who had wanted to acquire the land cheaply anyway).

Six years later, the British said that if the farmer did not have a legal male heir, the land would lapse to the government (and if this sounds familiar, then you are thinking of Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse which Rani Laxmibai and other kings and queens were so angry with). So, already by the early 1900s, the Punjabi farmer did not feel particularly loyal towards the government. They knew they were being ripped off and the Punjab countryside began to boil. There was even an attempt to assassinate Lord Curzon.

Six years after that, General Michael O’Dwyer came on the scene and made life in Punjab so much worse. This hardcore colonialist had become Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the end of 1912. He had a poor impression of the people over whom he reigned. I do not use the word “reign” casually. O’Dwyer did reign over the Punjab, like an authoritarian dictator. There was no Council to limit him and he had the power to veto anything he didn’t approve of.

With rising nationalism (thanks to the unfair laws I mentioned earlier) O’Dwyer instituted the Press Act of 1910 vigorously, warning the local government officials that the Government would deal with anyone breaking the law by employing all means at its disposal. I

Another year passed, and the world was thrown into a war. In 1915, the Defence of India Act was passed. It prevented any discussion of politics, any expression of discontent and any gathering that might appear threatening to the Government. Of course, people could be incarcerated and detained without trial and there were severe restrictions on free speech, writing and even movement.

Under this law, 46 people were executed and 64 life sentences were handed out in Punjab and Bengal. Across the country 705 Indians were under home arrest and nearly 1500 people were sent to jail. O’Dwyer recommended that they need not hold trials for those arrested. It was a waste of time in this time of war. He also gagged all vernacular press and didn’t allow nationalist papers from outside Punjab into the state. Were the Punjabis irritated? Sure! But all ways to express such discontent was constantly being stamped out.

O’Dwyer must have felt pretty pleased. Being an overachiever of the worst kind, O’Dwyer was now in imaginary competition with the other Presidencies. Using incredibly unethical means like threats, bribery and humiliation, O’Dwyer recruited 91,499 men in 1917, and 105, 876 in 1918. By the end of the war, he liked to say that Punjab alone had contributed 360,000 combatants – more than half the recruits in the Indian Empire during the war. In an investigation of O’Dwyer’s doings after Jallianwala Bagh (Hunter Committee) wrote of all the “abuses that occurred from time to time” during the recruitment effort.

Pran Nath Mago’s painting titled Farewell

So, Punjabi mothers had already lost their sons to a war that was not their own, but when the war ended, she found it difficult to feed the ones who were left behind. The price of wheat rose by 47%, sugar by 68%, cotton by 300%, and food grains by 100%. At the same time, wages hadn’t changed and taxes were raised by 30% in Lahore and 55% in Amritsar.

And then came the Rowlatt’s Act – that most textbooks tell us was the reason why thousands had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh on that Baisakhi morning in 1919.

Rowlatt Act or Black Bill

News headlines on the passing of the Rowlatt Act from an Indian newspaper

War was over but the British Government was worried about growing nationalism across India. So, they passed the Rowlatt Act to extend the emergency powers from War Time. It was named after this rather mild looking Englishman – Sidney Rowlatt, President of the Rowlatt Committee.

Rowlatt Act said:

  1. Anyone suspected of being a terrorist could be arrested for 2 years without trial
  2. If you were caught for a “forbidden act”, you could stand trial without a jury
  3. Police could detain people without stating reason
  4. Police could conduct searches without warrants
  5. Freedom of Press was restricted.

The whole nation, not just Punjab, erupted. Gandhi who had launched a satyagraha in response had to pause because of the violence across the country.

O’Dwyer was ready. He believed in the power of the sword and felt justified in the use of any amount of violence to quell this tide. He arrested Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal – two Amritsar based politicians who were highly regarded. Their arrests were underhanded and unprovoked. And expecting a violent response, Amritsar was placed under a Curfew in the days that followed.

Jallianwala Bagh Gathering

When O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor, or Brigadier General Dyer, the man who actually led the armed forces and ordered them to shoot at the people gathered that Baisakhi day in the large park, were later asked to justify their actions, both argued that it was an illegal gathering, it was in violation of the Curfew.

At around 4pm on 13 April 1919, officers in open cars accompanied by 99 armed soldiers carrying rifles and 2 armoured cars armed with machine guns were led to the Bagh’s entrance by 2 mounted policemen. Earlier, at around 2pm, Dyer had sent an aircraft over the Bagh to estimate the size of the crowd. There were between 20 to 25 thousand men, women and children there.

Many families had come to celebrate the spring festival of Baisakhi. They had walked through the narrow streets around the Golden Temple to get there; the same gullies that my family and I had explored on our visit – eating street food, and checking out phulwari dupattas. In the large Bagh, street food vendors had set up stalls. And then there was another crowd – a more politically aware set of men and women who had come to protest the arrest of Kitchelew and Satpal that was supposed to begin at 4pm. Could this crowd turn violent? There was no sign of that at all. It was a family event and Baisakhi was one of the region’s favourite festivals. This was not a rioting crowd.

What most of the 20,000 people in the crowd did not know was that earlier that day, Dyer had marched through Amritsar with a man on a drum and a notice: “It is hereby proclaimed to all persons it may concern that no person residing in the city is permitted or allowed to leave the city in his own private or hired conveyance or on foot, without a pass… Any person found in the streets after 8 pm is liable to be shot. No procession of any kind is permitted to parade the streets in the city or any part of the city or outside of it at any time. Any such procession or any gathering of four men will be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assembly and dispersed by force of arms if necessary.”

Dyer felt he had warned the lot.

The Bagh, a 6 to 7 acres large open ground, is at the end of a narrow lane. It was, and still is, enclosed by tall bare bricked walls over 10 feet high. Today, the walls on the sides of lane are covered with evocative art, which in my opinion ruins the place. I wish they had left it as it had been originally for the sake of authenticity. Jallianwala Bagh of 2023 feels like it overly caters to the tourist crowd – beautiful plants, a cheerfully tinny song playing on loop near the well that people had jumped in to escape bullets, and a large obelisk like memorial that people stood around taking selfies with.

Jallianwala Bagh (1919) from The Guardian

That day, people who were still walking towards the Bagh to join the fun, turned and ran when they saw Dyer’s contingency approach the narrow lane. The tank with machine guns could not fit in luckily. Anyone walking out just as the armed men marched down the lane towards the Bagh was pushed back into it. That one single exit was completely blocked. There was no escape.

Most people didn’t know what they had done wrong because Dyer had not made those proclamations in the inner city of Amritsar, in the lanes around the Golden Temple, the old market and the Bagh. Why hadn’t he? He had intelligence reports that indicated that he knew that Jallianwala Bagh would have a fair like gathering and that there were political speakers coming later in the afternoon to talk about protesting the Rowlatt Act.

After Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the British Government sent the Hunter Committee to investigate. Unsurprisingly, they found Dyer’s actions “indefensible”. The Government of India agreed with the Committee that General Dyer

  1. should have warned the crowd before firing, and
  2. that while Dyer was right in feeling that he had too small a force to fight off 25,000 people, he should have first allowed innocent villagers and townsfolk who had come to celebrate Baisakhi as well as any others to disperse or move to safety before firing.

The Government of India agreed that “there was not such an emergency existing to render the precaution impossible” and his decision to fire into the crowd (until they were completely out of ammunition) even as it tried to disperse was “indefensible”.

Having said all of that, the report then took an unexpected u-turn, suddenly coming to Dyer’s defense. “We are convinced that General Dyer acted honestly in the belief that he was doing what was right and we think that in the result his action at the time checked the spread of disturbances to an extent which is now difficult now to estimate.”

The Aftermath

People living in the multistorey houses around the Bagh heard the gunshots, screams and cries. They saw people scrambling over bodies or throwing their children over 10 feet tall walls, hoping for safety on the other side. When the armed forces had run out bullets they left. Word spread and mothers, uncles, cousins, friends, and good samaritans trickled into the Bagh to search for their loved ones. Those who survived looked for their families and friends among the heaps of bodies.

People helped each other but there was no sign of the government coming to anyone’s aid. The community pitched in but no one made an official count of how many had died and how many were severely injured. There were thousands.

In the immediate aftermath, the town threatened to bubble over with violence again.

On the 15th, crowds were gathering and moving through the streets of Gujranwala like a restless, powerful wave gathering momentum. The police fired into the crowd, killing people and wounding others.

At 3pm, as the crowds were settling down, military bombers swooped low over the city – so low that people on the ground could see the bombers in the seats of their planes. Bombs were dropped on random targets killing one washerboy and injuring others. The bombing was to have a “moral effect” on the people.

But in our minds the story stops at Jallianwala Bagh.. we don’t think about the bombing or the infamous crawling order (where ‘natives’ could only crawl while going down the lane – not walk).

It is stories like this that inspired Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh and hundreds of other Indians to take up a more violent route to independence. It also got even the fence-sitting Indians to finally choose a side. I was never really sympathetic of the radical freedom fighters who were comfortable with the use of violence to push out the British, but while at Jallianwala Bagh, as I looked at the bullet holes in wall at the corner, and imagining how trapped and afraid these people must have felt in those moments, I felt violently angry. I felt angry with the British for hurting these people but also for having Sikhs fire against their own countrymen. What kind of damage did it do to the men who were firing into the crowd that day?

Dyer himself died a broken man. Unlike his boss, O’Dwyer, who defended Dyer’s actions till Udham Singh assassinated him, Dyer seemed to be somewhat capable of reflection. He was forever torn by what he had done. The stress got to him and he soon became an invalid who supposedly 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.

I suppose colonialism had more victims than you’d expect – the colonial machinery was made up of men who were constantly at risk of losing their souls.


  1. Palat, R., & Palat, P. (2019). The case that shook the empire: One man’s fight for the truth about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Bloomsbury.
  2. Anand, A. (2019, June 25). The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India‚Äôs Quest for Independence. Scribner.
  3. Podcast: Dalrymple, W., & Anand, A. (n.d.). Jallianwala Bagh Massacre episode on Empire (also available on Spotify)
  4. Report of Disorders Inquiry Committee (1919-1920) – The outcome of the Hunter Commission that investigated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

P.S. Other online resources are hyperlinked in the article.

The Golden Temple & Its Turbulent History

Standing in the crush of people waiting to enter Harmandir Sahib (also called the Golden Temple), I was starting to panic just a little. I do not like crowds and this felt like the perfect recipe for a stampede – like the kind you read about in the newspaper about pilgrims at different Hindu temples.

Standing in the crowd waiting to enter Harmandir Sahib (Photo credit: Saisudha Acharya)

The Golden Temple claims to have nearly 150,000 visitors daily. It is easy to believe. There were nearly 500 of us, standing in the dark, on this cold December morning. And there was a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims filing in behind us. The previous night, I had pored through news articles about the spike in Covid cases around China . The news cheerfully predicted spikes in India too. “Just perfect,” I thought, as the tall Sardar man beside me sneezed so hard that my dupatta flapped against my cheek.

But as time passed, I started to notice that this was different from other crushes I had been in. Occasionally, a toddler or baby would begin to fuss, and suddenly the crowds would part and the young parents would be ushered forward to bypass the long wait. The crowd would part again and helpful arms would extend to help an old lady or aged gentleman move forward towards the inner sanctum. No one complained, groaned or passed snide comments.

By the time I was in the inner sanctum, the efficient crowd control systems in place allowed me the time to really soak it all in. I was able to examine the beautiful engravings in the walls, bow deep before the sacred Guru Granth Sahib and sit in the upper levels to listen to the simple but melodious music.

When I came out, I remember thinking, that I had never had such a peaceful experience at such a crowded place of worship before. This was unlike any of my visits to famous temples, where after waiting for hours for darshan I barely got a glimpse of the deity and the inner sanctum before being manhandled back into a line for the exit.

Harmandir Sahib at dawn (Photo credit: Prashant Acharya)

As I came out, a friendly elderly gent, pressed a bowl of prasad into my hand and I felt overwhelmed by his warmth. He was doing seva like he meant it.

As the dawn sky turned rosy over the temple, my worldly mind began to slowly creak into action. This was the Golden Temple built by Guru Arjan Singh and then terribly damaged by Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star 200 years later?

I looked around. There wasn’t any visible sign of the damage and yet, from Mark Tully’s book on the subject and other articles I had read, the Akal Takht had been severely damaged. Indeed, we had entered the temple without passing through any of the security you might expect in such a place.

The Golden Temple seemed to be above and beyond the ugly and dirty episodes of history that it had had to endure, it felt like. But what a crazy history it is!

The Story of Golden Temple: How it became the Centre of Spiritual and Temporal Authority

Amritsar today sits on the border of India and Pakistan, but in the 15th century there was no notion of nationhood. Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574) selected the area of modern day Amritsar and asked his disciple, Ram Das (who later became Guru Ram Das – the fourth Sikh Guru) to create a man made pool and establish a city around it. Guru Ram Das finished constructing the pool and founded the town of Ramdaspur by inviting merchants and artisans to settle in the town.

The temple was built during the lifetime of the next guru – Guru Arjan Singh who compiled the scripture Adi Granth and made Harmandir Sahib its home in 1604

Guru Arjan Singh supervising the construction of Harmandir Sahib (circa 1890-95) (Source: Wikipedia)

Under Guru Arjan Singh, Amritsar became the primary Sikh pilgrim centre. In line with Nanak’s pluralistic philosophy, Harmandir Sahib was open to all faiths. Some stories claim that Guru Arjan Singh invited the Sufi saint Mian Mir of Lahore to lay the foundation stone. We don’t know if this is true, but it reflects the community’s open ness to all belief systems.

As it turns out, this was the beginning of troubles for the Sikh faith itself – for while it was open to all other faiths, they did not receive such openness in return. To the Mughal governors who controlled the Punjab, the charismatic Guru Arjan Singh was becoming a source of concern. He was getting his followers to donate money and time to build gurudwaras and was set up cities. Although he was a spiritual leader who composed hymns, he was also a temporal leader who got involved in the lives of his followers, helping them resolve dispute and manage worldly affairs. Outsiders viewed him as a political threat and soon he was arrested by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. When he refused to convert to Islam, he was tortured to death.

Arjan Singh’s martyrdom was a traumatic event in Sikh history that changed its trajectory. Arjan Singh’s treatment woke the Sikhs up to the existential threat they faced and Arjan Singh’s successors became both military and spiritual leaders. Arjan Singh’s successor guided his followers to learn how to defend themselves from intolerance and violence.

The Golden Temple was to become the seat of both spiritual and temporal authority. The Akal Takht was established by Arjan Singh’s son Guru Hargobind Singh. The Akal Takht is highest authority of the Khalsa (collective Sikh body) and the seat of the Jathedar, the highest spokesman of the Sikhs.

Golden Temple: Centre of Conflict

For nearly all its history, the Golden Temple has been attacked, destroyed, rebuilt, attacked, destroyed, rebuilt… and repeat.

Jarnail Singh (Brar) Bhindranwale (1947-1984)

The most recent episode was in 1984, when Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to enter to Golden Temple complex to retrieve the popular Sikh militant leader — Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

In the late 1970s, suffering from the economic consequences of the Green Revolution and general political dysfunction typical of India, the rural youth in Punjab were unemployed and were increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol. Enter Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh preacher, who travelled through the Punjab countryside reminding people of basic Sikh values and encouraging them to unite under their religion and lead simple and moral lives. More importantly, he seemed to have genuine interest in the welfare of the community, certainly more than opportunistic politicians or corrupt government officials who only showed up when it was election time or needed a bribe to get them to do their basic job. He moderated disputes and tried to address local problems.

While he showed no interest in occupying a political office himself, he supported political parties – suggesting candidates and advising them on political strategy. But Bhindranwale was not averse to the use of violence. He and his followers were well armed and thanks to an excellent distribution network, cassettes of his fiery sermons were able to reach his followers all across the state.

As his popularity rose, he began to identify enemies to the Sikh cause. First it was the Nirankaris (a subsect of the Sikhs who believed in a living Guru instead of the Guru Granth Sahib) who were not accepted by traditional Sikhs, who believed in the ultimate authority of the Guru Granth Sahib. Bhindranwale led a violent clash with the Nirakharis in 1978 and was associated with several murders and acts of violence in the years that followed. Eventually he was even arrested for a while, which further skyrocketed his fame and popularity among the youth.

Why would anyone want to follow a man who was willing to justify violence in the name of religion? Popular leaders like Bhindranwale are a product of their times. At the time, Punjab and Kerala had the best literacy rates in the country at the time, but highschool graduates and college graduates in Punjab were unable to find any jobs. All through history we see that there is nothing as dangerous as a group of disenchanted young people. Bhindranwale’s arrest made his followers view the government as just another enemy of the Sikh community, like the Nirankaris and other critics.

In 1982, Bhindranwale moved into the Akal Takht in the Golden Temple (the temporal seat of authority). By this time, the Indian government viewed him as an extremist and militant. He balked under such labels but he was now the leader of a demand for Khalistan – an autonomous territory which included all Punjabi speaking lands, including Chandigarh. The police reacted to such calls for Khalistan with exceptional violence and every incident of extra-judicial violence became great material for Bhindranwale’s rousing speeches that continued to get spread across the state through cassettes.

As the police picked on the Sikhs, the Sikhs began to chafe under this harsh treatment and more people flew to Bhindranwale’s camp. With all this support, Bhindranwale’s demand for autonomy and Khalistan began to grow louder.

While his popularity increased in Punjab, incidents of violence increased and he and his followers were often blamed for it, even if he denied it. In 1984, Bhindranwale’s supporters assassinated a journalist for his pro-Hindu tone and in 1983, the Deputy Inspector General of Police was shot to death as he exited the Harmandir Sahib.

With Bhindranwale residing in Akal Takht, armed to his teeth and with an ex-Army man leading his forces, the sacred Golden Temple was now also drawing the attention of the Central Government who was nervous about the Sikh leader’s increasing power. In 1984, the army was ordered to enter the sacred temple and get Bhindranwale.

The disaster that followed was called Operation Blue Star. About 400 members of the Army and about 500-600 followers of Bhindranwale and innocent pilgrims were killed in the operation. The Army claimed that innocent bystanders were being used as human shields by Bhindranwale’s followers. But we don’t really know what happened because the press were forced to leave 2 days before the operation was launched. We do know that Bhindranwale died during the Operation . The Akal Takht prefers to use the word “martyred”.

The Akal Takht complex after Operation Blue Star (Source: The Statesman)

It was not a small operation. The Indian Army didn’t realise just how well armed Bhindranwale was – he had anti tank missiles and grenade launchers, not to mention a vast variety of guns. Eventually the Army had to go in there with a tank.

I cannot imagine any of this now, standing on the Guru Ram Das’s reservoir.

Just five months after Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the Operation, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. They were avenging the assault on their holy temple Harmandir Sahib. She had violated the sanctity of their holy place of worship.

The Golden Temple, though, feels invincible. This wasn’t the first time it had come under attack.

In the 18th century, the Golden Temple had been defiled or outright destroyed 6 times – three times by the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali, who, on one occasion, blew it up with gunpowder, poured cow intestines in the reservoir, and proceeded to raze the rest of the town to the ground.

Harmandir Sahib rose again after every attack. After Majaraja Ranjit Singh reconstructed the temple and donated gold to overlay the dome above the sanctum with gold, the temple was able to enjoy a century of peace which was shattered in 1919, when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened a stone’s throw away from its gates.

Now in the 21st century, Golden Temple is back in the news. A few days ago (24 February 2023), a new self styled guru and militant Khalistani separationist named Amritpal Singh Sandhu, led a group of his armed followers to free an associate from a police station in Amritsar. His associate had been arrested under the charge of kidnapping. The pictures from the scene were unbelievable.

After they freed ‘Toofan’, their comrade, they headed to the Golden Temple to pay their respects.

Eternally Resilient

The story of Harmandir Sahib feels like a parable in itself. Along with Guru Granth Sahib scripture within its inner sanctum, the Harmandir Sahib has been witness to all the worst that humans are capable of. But it also inspires the best that humans are capable of. That morning, a portly smiling woman took me my slippers over the counter, another elderly volunteer had smiled warmly as he extended his hand and welcomed me into the inner sanctum before he bent down and wiped the floor behind me. A young man folded his hands and guided me to the steps, politely encouraging me to make room for other pilgrims behind me without rushing me or disturbing my prayer. Like them, hundreds of volunteers help in the preparing and serving meals at the langar, wipe down condensation from the marble steps in the Harmandir Sahib, help manage crowds, distribute prasad, fill water in troughs, roll out carpets, dust and clean and cheerfully greet pilgrims and tourists of all faiths.

I grew up hearing about seva but I had seen most people doing seva like it was obligation. Is it seva or service if you are angry with the people you serve? Just a smile is an act of service because it can be just what a weary soul needs. That cold morning in Amritsar, I got a lesson in what real seva meant. I will not easily forget it.

Harmandir Sahib (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After reading the history of the Golden Temple, I wonder if perhaps the real lesson that Harmandir Sahib wishes to impart is what it means to be resilient and strong. Everything is temporary – both good and bad times – but the Harmandir Sahib gives off the feeling that it alone shall remain forever. It is like a challenge to the pathetic human condition. “Do what you will, fools. I will remain strong and steadfast. Learn from me if you will.”

Tourist Tip: For any one who plans to visit the temple, I recommend going very early in the morning. Make sure you carry something to cover your head and a mask.

Name of stamp: Golden Temple, Amritsar (1949)

Further Resources:

  1. Book recommendation: Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle by Mark Tully and Satish Jacob (2006)
  2. Podcast recommendation: ANI Podcast with Smita Prakash – Never before heard stories from the man who led Operation Blue Star – Lt Gen Kuldip Singh Brar
  3. Podcast recommendation: Sikh History 1469 to Present
  4. Book recommendation: Walking with Nanak: Travels in his Footsteps by Haroon Khalid (2016) – highly recommended!

Stamp #4: Stalin, Mao, Lenin and E.M.S. Namboodiripad on the Streets of Kochi

As we drove into Kochi, red flags with the hammer and sickle greeted us almost as soon as we entered the city. My son, whose energy and patience were flagging, suddenly perked up. “Wait!” he said. “Where are we?”

It was like we had entered another alternate universe. My son who had been studying about Indian democracy and who has been exposed to ample anti-communist, anti-China rhetoric through the media was surprised to see Mao smile benignly at him from behind parked vehicles.

Nearly every other lamp post and pillar had him exclaiming in delighted horror. “Isn’t that Hugo Chavez!” he cried, before he spotted Stalin standing guard outside the entrance of a Pay and Park lot. Karl Marx was expected, but Maradona’s smiling face confused all of us and demanded some quick googling to find the connection between Maradona and Communism. Turns out Maradona was an anti-American Leftist.

By the time we reached our hotel room, Kerala’s Communist party propoganda had been so successful that I myself was wondering if I had remembered history correctly. I mean, maybe Stalin wasn’t so bad… and I never knew Mao could look so gentle and kind. I may have misjudged the man.

Over our weekend in Kochi, we could not escape the hammer and sickle at all. And I began to wonder how Communism took hold in Kerala? And why has it survived? Afterall, history has not been kind to Communism. There are 5 nations that call themselves communist today: Cuba, North Korea, China, Laos and Vietnam and I wonder if any of them had Stalin staring sternly at cars entering a pay and park lot.

Communist leaders abroad have always concerned themselves with class struggle and the inequities of industrial economies. Yet despite typical Indian hero worship (parents even name their children after Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev – listen to this interesting podcast about why they do), political thinkers in Kerala were original thinkers. The founding fathers of Kerala’s Communist party, like EMS Namboodiripad, P. Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan, saw socialism and communism as a possible solution to the social inequalities caused by caste, gender and religious discrimination.

EMS Namboodiripad (EMS) came from the highest landowning caste in Kerala. The Namboodiris are the Brahmins and at the time, they were a feudal elite who intermarried with the Nairs (the caste of the monarchs) to dominate society, art, culture, politics and even the economy. While EMS could have led a comfortable life, he was influenced by a rising political awakening across the nation in the 1920s. Like AK Gopalan, his comrade who came from the Nair class, and P. Krishna Pillai, he was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagrahas and joined the Indian National Congress.

But over time, like many other regional political thinkers and actors, EMS and others were increasingly disillusioned by Gandhi’s particular blend of politics and spirituality. While Gandhi might be what was needed to get national independence, Gandhi’s method did not feel practical to the issue of caste discrimination, gender inequality nor did it address the issues of landless peasants. EMS came to see Gandhi as a “Hindu fundamentalist” and yet he also recognised Gandhi as a complex person and had embraced his ideas of simple living.

In 1939, after leaning more and more to the left, first within the Congress party, and then out of it, EMS, Krishna Pillai and AK Gopalan formed the Communist Party in Kerala. In 1956, when Kerala became a state, EMS became its first Chief Minister – the first and only non-Congress chief minister in India at the time.

How had the Communist party become so successful? I think this is because of the grassroots efforts of the Communist party in Kerala. Krishna Pillai, still fondly remembered as a founding father of Communism, died at the age of 42 while hiding from authorities in a little hut. He was bitten by a snake. Although a leader of great repute, his premature death isn’t very surprising because he lived an action packed life. Coming from a poor family and having left home early to make his way in the world, Pillai was uniquely qualified to understand the suffering and the needs of the masses. Everywhere he went his emotional attachment to the cause and his personal interest in the people was evident, and so Pillai became an effective missionary of sorts. He brought Communism to all corners of his state and made an intellectual philosophy a meaningful cause. Of course, the British and the Indian government had concerns about Communists and all their talk of armed revolution, but it is important to note that apart from the Punappra Vayalar uprising against the Diwan of Travancore in 1946, Kerala’s Communists functioned within the India’s democratic multi-party framework and grew increasingly popular because were addressing specific social problems.

So when Kerala became a state in 1956, EMS became the chief minister, because the people in Kerala were familiar with the Communist Party. Those in power in Kerala society trembled because with his arrival came also terrible signs that things were about to change. EMS quickly set about making aggressive agrarian land reforms by capping the amount of land anyone could own and passing ownership of land to tenants who had been working that soil for generations. Although he could not immediately bring these land reform laws into action, eventually it went a long way in redistributing land and opportunity across Kerala.

Unfortunately, he perhaps tried to do too much too soon. His controversial attempts to reform private education to make it more accessible to all, led to vast, mostly peaceful protests led by the Syrian Catholic Church, Nairs and the Congress. In 1959, EMS was forced to resign and Kerala was under President’s rule for a while. He came back to power in the 1960s where he was able to pass more reform laws and today is credited for the state’s high literacy rates.

A curious thing I learnt as I read about EMS and other Communist thinkers in India was how international the Communist movement was. Indian Communist thinkers like M.N. Roy travelled outside India, even meeting Lenin, and helped other countries with their own movements. During the Sino-Indian war in 1962, Communists like EMS remained neutral – choosing to side with neither Mao-led China nor their own nation, India. Isn’t that curious? In the minds of the early Communists what came first – the political ideology or their nation? And what about Indian Communists today?

At any rate, today, nearly 75 years later, from the looks of things Communism is still going strong in Kerala. It bypasses religious differences by being vocally atheistic. Their gods were the faces we saw on the sides of Kochi’s street – Lenin, Maradona, Hugo Chavez, Engels, Marx, EMS, Krishna Pillai and others. Like the hundreds of Hindu gods who smile down at us from prints on the wall, in calendars, wedding invitations and car stickers, they are more or less forgotten in our daily busy-ness, and only remembered in times of crisis or when in need of inspiration.

Stamp Series #3 – Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi

Name: Cochin Synagogue (1568-1968)
Date of Issue: 15 Dec 1968
Denomination: 20 nP
Source: India Postage Stamps

Kochi is one of my favourite cities in India. It is just all kinds of beautiful. My son had wanted a city holiday after several holidays in national forests. He wanted people and traffic and shopping. We wanted greenery and water, history and culture. Kochi delivers on all those.

I was particularly interested in Kochi, because in my classes we had been talking about secularism and as I was reading about the subject for class, I learnt about the diverse religious and ethnic communities that formed along the Konkan and Kerala coastline thanks to trade from ancient times.

When I was in school, I always thought of the Muslims arriving in India on horseback, from Central Asia – raiders who became conquerors and eventually settlers. Similarly, I associated Christianity in India with the missionary zeal of 18th-century colonists. But Muslims, Christians and Jews were in India much before that. They had come on ships from the Middle East as merchants and traders interested in spices like pepper and cardamom and luxury goods like ivory, peacocks and teak. Then they stayed on, retaining their individual religious identities for centuries before the invading Central Asians and Europeans. While they were here, they adopted the local language, adopted elements of local cuisine and clothing and surprisingly, elements of social customs like casteism. But more on that later.

On this visit to Kochi, I was keen on visiting at least one of the several synagogues in the area. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was closest to us and so that is where we went.

At the entrance of the synagogue was a little room with paintings that showed the history of the Cochin Jews. I thought the Jews arrived in India with the Europeans but I did a double take on the very first painting. According to the caption, the Jews first arrived in Kochi in 72 AD. 72 AD! (You can see the paintings here). That’s just 72 years after Christ! That is over 100 years before the great Guptas in Pataliputra! The Jews had arrived on trading ships after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Palestine. When they left India in the 1950s and 60s, they would have left this sanctuary of nearly 2000 years.

This is the entrance to the Paradesi Synagogue. The clock tower behind us was added to the synagogue in the 18th century.
In this picture, we see these beautiful white and blue hand painted porcelain tiles that were imported from China in the 18th century. The ceiling is crowded with elegant glass chandeliers imported from Belgium in the 19th century. Everything in the Paradesi Synagogue reminds you that this serviced a trader community that was part of a global marketplace. Source: Wikimedia Commons (photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, so we couldn’t take our own).

The 1968 stamp of Cochin Synagogue was issued to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jewish temple. It had been built by the Jews who had sought a safe haven after escaping persecution during the Spanish Inquisition in Europe. They had come on Portuguese ships who followed Vasco Da Gama’s route to trade with India. The compound of the synagogue shares a wall with the Kochi royal family’s palace temple and a painting in the museum showed the Hindu Cochin king gifting a crown to the elders of the synagogue, indicating a friendly relationship between ruler and the Paradesi Jewish community. Unlike the Western world, in India, Jews – both Malabari and Paradesi Jews – did not suffer any sort of persecution from other religious groups. Yet, with the arrival of the Paradesi Jews came the pernicious practice of caste and the Paradesi synagogue became the centre stage of a struggle for equality within this tiny community.

I have always associated caste with religion – I thought caste was part of Hinduism, and so the resulting caste-ism was a Hindu problem. Perhaps it is. Perhaps Hinduism institutionalised it and the other religious communities in South Asia found it convenient to adopt it into their own cultures. Over time all religions in the subcontinent practiced a form of casteism within their own communities.

Lower caste converts to Islam, Sikhism and Christianity faced discrimination for centuries even though all three religions preach equality, and even though often people converted to these religions to escape caste discrimination in their Hindu society. The Jews have a long history of trying to escape discrimination. In fact that is why they first arrived in India – seeking refuge from discrimination overseas. But, no community seemed safe from caste and the Jews needed their own Jewish Gandhi to fix endemic discrimination in their community.

Abraham Barak Salem
Source: Jews of Malabar

Abraham Barak Salem was actually known as the Jewish Gandhi – that isn’t a name I made up for him. Born in 1882 in Kochi, Salem was the first Jew to be trained as a lawyer. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent methods, Salem joined the Indian nationalist movement. But today Salem is most remembered for his non violent efforts to reform the division within the Jewish community.

For centuries the Cochin Jewish community were split into three groups. The brown skinned Malabari Jews (called the Black Jews) who had come in 72 AD and who were no virtually indistinguishable from the local, the Paradesi Jews (White Jews) who were of European descent and who had come in the mid-15th century, and finally the freed slaves of the Paradesi Jews called the meshuchrarim. Meshuchrarim were slaves of mixed racial descent who had supposedly adopted the religion of their masters. While the Malabari and Paradesi Jews each claimed to be more Jewish than the other, both agreed that the meshuchrarim were not Jewish enough.

Each group was endogamous – which means they only married within their own communities. A Malabari Jew could not marry a Paradesi Jew. Worse, a Paradesi Jew could never marry a meshuchrarim Jew. That would be unthinkable.

Black Jewish Family in Kerala, around the early 20th century. Source: Academic
White Jewish Women around the same time period. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was a strict unbending social hierarchy. The Paradesi/Cochin Synagogue was for the White Jews. The Malabari Jews had built other synagogues in other parts around Kochi . At the Paradesi Synagogue, the White Jews had rules that enforced the social hierarchy. Meshuchrarim were not allowed to sit on the chairs. They had to sit on the floor at the back, during prayer, and were not to interact with the White Jews. When they died, at first they were not allowed to be buried in the White Jewish Cemetery, but later they made concessions to allow meshuchrarim to be buried against the walls of the cemetery. Caste is simply a hereditary based social hierarchy. Although they arrived with the Paradesi Jews in the 16th century, the meshuchrarim were forever at the bottom of the social hierarchy because they were descendants of slaves. It was a fate they could not escape no matter how hard they tried.

Abraham Barak Salem objected to the discrimination he and his fellow meshuchrarim faced by protesting non-violently outside the temple much like lower caste Indians were doing all over India during the same time. Eventually, the elders in the Paradesi synagogue agreed to make concessions. Meshuchrarim were allowed into the synagogue and could sit on the chairs. Although they received these privileges, it turned out that they did not have very much time to enjoy it.

In 1933, Salem made a trip to Jerusalem. Here he was impressed with the idea of creating a nation state for the Jews. When Israel was created, they opened their doors to Jews from all parts of the world. Aliyah means immigration to Israel and it was the dream of most displaced Jewish communities. When he came back, Salem actively encouraged the local Jewish community to think of moving to Israel.

After Independence, during Partition driven mass migration of Hindus and Muslims, the Jews from across India were also getting ready to leave India. Salem played a key role in Jewish migration. During this time, the divisions between the Jews of Cochin blurred further because, once outside India, the Jews of Indian origin came together in Israel and live in the same neighbourhoods. Differences that seemed so important in Cochin, dissolved when it came to adapting to a new life. In India however, it seems those who stayed back held onto their age-old prejudices.

The Jewish migration from India was not fraught with violence and tragedy. Jewish communities from the Konkan coast, Kerala, and Bengal were excited to return to the homeland, Israel. But upon arrival, many were faced with racial discrimination. Darker-skinned and so long isolated from other Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East, they often had to prove their Jewishness. Some communities like the Bene Israelis were even sent back to India because Israel didn’t recognise them as being actual Jews. They were only allowed to stay if they re-converted to Judaism – an offensive suggestion to many who strongly identified as originally Jewish.

Whenever I dig deep into history I am always confronted by examples of one group of humans tries to clamber to the top at the expense of another group. The winning group tries to secure their position by making up reasons to justify their position and it is almost always linked to birth. “I was born better than you”. The observation depresses me.

Recently, in my classroom discussions on the Preamble and equality, we looked at caste and religious discrimination. We looked at news stories of sectarian violence or legal cases where the fundamental right to practice religion freely was challenged. Several 11-year-olds asked questions to understand both sides of the argument and then seemed confused about why this was even an issue. Children are a constant reminder to me that prejudice is learnt and not natural. Their constant bemusement when they hear stories of violence, prejudice, war and loss always fills me with happiness because their confusion tells me that we are fundamentally compassionate beings.

Some people grew up holding tightly onto childlike compassion. People like Salem are not in our textbook but they found other like-minded people to stand with and challenge the status quo. And while the intensity of activism always intimidates me, what would we do without the activist who points at something that is off and makes a big racket about it?

It is impossible to expect a textbook to be filled with stories of men and women like Abraham Barak Salem but it should pay some attention to the story of the Jews in India. It is a story instructive of how Indian society’s diversity was not just a result of invasion, violence and exploitation. People came to India for safety and found it here. They came to make money, not by looting, but by doing business. They have contributed to our culture, architecture, food and music in ways that we cannot keep track of.


(I have hyperlinked most of my sources in the blog above. However, below are some links to videos and websites that I didn’t really use in the blog but I found gave me a rounder picture of the community and culture)

  1. Discover the world of Indian Jewish cuisine
  2. The Jews of Malabar blog
  3. On Aliyah and Life in Israel
  4. Museum of the Jewish People
  5. Biography of Abraham Barak Salem