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Ireland and India – Conflict and Commonality

In the north of Ireland town where I was born and grew up, in Market Square, stands a statue. On a lofty stone base stands an even loftier bronze cast of a local lad who came to a sticky end in far off India. He was always a bit tinged with green, due to the environment, and peppered with pigeon pooh.

Brigadier General John Nicholson was not born in Lisburn but grew up there when his physician father died. After some schooling at the Royal School Dunganon he was sent to India in the service of queen (Victoria) and country and the British East India Company.

Being forceful, sadistic and racist with a puritanical Christian – sorry, good Christians – character he had a skill set that served well the expansion of British based capital in the mid-19th century.

During one of many rebellions against British colonial rule in India he led a famed assault on Delhi. That was what became known as the Indian Munity of 1857. During the attack my townsman met his comeuppance, was wounded and died soon after.

Lisburn is now a prosperous dormitory town with city status. Over the centuries it has had its share of battles, hangings of Irish rebels, assassinations, burnings and bombings. Really not so different from many other places in Ireland.

But since January 1922 the imperial presence of John Nicholson, pistol and sword in hand, has adorned Market Square. Perhaps not surprising, his arrival came just nine months after partition of Ireland and the consolidation of British rule in that part of the island. More later.

***

The Sikh holy city of Amritsar lies in India’s northern state of Punjab. On Sunday 13April 1919, in Jallianwala Bagh public gardens, troops of Britain’s Indian Army opened fire for around 10 minutes on a peaceful crowed of men women and children.

Some were celebrating the Sikh Baisakhi festival. Others were protesting high taxes and forced conscription, products of the 1914-18 First World War. With a distain for public demonstrations, except for adoration of the Raj (British rule in India), martial law was declared and demonstrations were banned.

Enter Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. He was in command of the troops and gave the order to fire. Estimates of the slain differ. The colonial authorities of the day say 379 were killed, others say it was more likely 1000 dead. And over a thousand wounded.

Jallianwala Bagh gardens are said to have covered seven acres and lay within high walls with very narrow street access. Too narrow for the machine gun carrying vehicles which were also under Dyer’s command. The rifle shooting lasted until the ammunition began to run out.

Dyer was born in India, in what is now Pakistan. Both his parents were Irish and in India the family owned a successful beer brewing business. Young Reginald started school in India but later was sent to Tipperary in Ireland. From there he went to England and the Royal Military Academy Sunburst, training to be a leader and officer in the British army.

The hundred year passing of the Amritsar Massacre was marked in Britain by Prime Minister Teresa May trotting out the line of previous British leaders, including Queen Elizabeth. “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused,” She said it was a “shameful scare” on the relationship of the two countries. Far short of the apology many had hoped for.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, sees history differently. In parliament he said a “full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place” is deserved by those who lost their lives that day.

***

After the First World War many of the world’s borders were rejigged. It has to be said, in favour of the triumphant Allied forces, particularly Britain and France. Iran, Iraq and Syria emerged out of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the creation of Israel in what had been accepted as Palestine. But there was no sign of independence for India.

During the war nationalists and socialists rose up against British rule in Ireland and were swiftly defeated. Soon Ireland too went through a rejigging process. The island was partitioned into the Irish Free State, later becoming the independent Republic of Ireland. My north eastern tip of the island was formally incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But before that happened Ireland went through the torturous process, now officially known as the War of Independence (1919 – 1921). In more common parlance this is often referred to as the Tan War. It takes that name from the black and tan uniforms the British issued to an armed auxiliary force.

It is well accepted now that it was the atrocities committed by “the Tans” that motivated Irish soldiers of the Connaught Rangers in the British army to mutiny in far off India. The mutiny itself is the subject multiple perspectives.

Was there solidarity with the idea of Indian independence? Or was it solely a call for Irish independence? Perhaps no more than a soldier’s protest against injustices in his own country. Or a mixture of all these.

Whatever the interpretation, it resulted in a number of the mutineers being imprisoned. A total of four were killed. One, James Joseph Daly, was executed by firing squad. The imprisoned were all released without completing their sentences. And the bodies of the four killed were repatriated back to Ireland, which included one who was actually born in English city of Liverpool.

The repatriation, obviously facilitated by the Indian government, was received with mixed feelings in Ireland. Some thought it played into the game plan of those viewed as republican extremists.

But what is the value of a nation’s apology following a long ago act of brutality? The sorts of governments we have usually only take action if they believe there is considerable support for that action. So an apology in the Amritsar case would indicate a sharing of values between the ordinary – the non-Establishment –people of Britain with their counterparts in India.

It’s a long time since I was last in my home town. But knowing my countrymen and women as I do I expect John Nicholson to be around for some time. After all he has survived bombings and burnings. Perhaps the pigeons can make a positive contribution.

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Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

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