Nanak Singh: the man who survived the Amritsar massacre

The Indian ambassador to the UAE has translated his grandfather's searing indictment of the British massacre to mark its centenary

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It was late in the afternoon when British Army troops entered the Jallianwala Bagh, a walled public garden in Amritsar.

Thousands of people had peacefully assembled there on April 13 to protest against the arrest of local leaders but also to celebrate an important Sikh festival.

But there was no mercy in India that day in 1919. Fearing a major insurrection, Brig Gen Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire.

They strafed the crowd until their ammunition was spent and within a few minutes between 500 and 600 people lay dead, with possibly three times as many wounded. Exact figures will never be known.

Caught in the stampede during the horrific bloodbath was a 22-year-old writer, Nanak Singh, who had gone to the Bagh with his two friends.

While they were both killed, he fainted and was covered by falling corpses. Singh then wrote a searing poem about the massacre which was published in 1920 and promptly banned by the British for sedition. But the flame of Indian independence had been lit.

“He was so traumatised by the event that he would rarely speak about it,” said Navdeep Suri, 60, Singh’s grandson and India’s current ambassador to the UAE.

“It is like he wanted to bury this and leave it behind,” said Mr Suri, who grew up in Amritsar just a stone’s throw from the site.

“And it was only through our grandmother that we would hear that not only was he present but that he fainted and was piled up among the corpses. It was pretty gruesome.”

The poem was lost for decades and only tracked down by Mr Suri’s father in the 1980s. Now the ambassador has published the first English translation of Singh’s poem to mark the 100-year anniversary of the massacre.

“I felt that we as a family are in a unique position that our grandfather was an eye-witness and what he wrote was not just poetry, but history,” said Mr Suri.

Khooni Vaisakhi is scathing critique of the British Raj, a poignant tribute to those who needlessly died that day and an important reminder of how Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims came together to confront colonisation.

Nanak Singh was a much-loved storyteller, as can be seen here from an episode in the 1960s. The current Indian ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Suri, can be seen at far left. Courtesy Navdeep Suri
Nanak Singh was a much-loved storyteller, as can be seen here from an episode in the 1960s. The current Indian ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Suri, can be seen at far left. Courtesy Navdeep Suri

Singh was born in Lahore and the Punjab at this time was seething with discontent following the sacrifices made in the First World War.

Of the million soldiers that fought for Britain, about 450,000 came from the Punjab. The passage of the Rowlatt Act a month earlier - allowing for indefinite detention and incarceration without trial - had exacerbated the situation.

“One of the reasons that resentment to the Rowlatt Act was so strong in Punjab was that there was a feeling that after all the sacrifices the Punjab made – there would be some reward or relaxation,” said Mr Suri.

The massacre politicised Singh - the British jailed him for a separate offence later - and he went on to become one of the most revered authors in Indian history, writing at least 55 books.

“Growing up, we sort of took him for granted,” said Mr Suri. “He was our grandfather, a great storyteller and children would listen to his stories.”

AMRITSAR, INDIA - APRIL 12: Visitors have a look at the bullet marks on a wall on the eve of 95th anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Jallianwala Bagh on April 12, 2014 in Amritsar, India. The 1919 Amritsar massacre, known alternatively as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre after the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, was ordered by General R.E.H. Dyer. On Sunday April 13, 1919, which happened to be 'Baisakhi', one of Punjab's largest religious festivals, fifty British Indian Army soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, began shooting at an unarmed gathering of men, women, and children without warning. Dyer marched his fifty riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to kneel and fire. Dyer ordered soldiers to reload their rifles several times and they were ordered to shoot to kill. Official British Raj sources estimated the fatalities at 379, and with 1,100 wounded. Civil Surgeon Dr Williams DeeMeddy indicated that there were 1,526 casualties. However, the casualty number quoted by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with roughly 1,000 killed. (Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Visitors look at the bullet holes in the walls at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India. Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It was only the public reaction to Singh’s death in 1971 at the age of 74 that made Mr Suri aware of the long shadow cast by his grandfather. “He was so famous that the chief minister came - he had a celebrity status.”

The new edition of Khooni Vaisakhi features the original poem in Punjabi alongside the translation, an essay by Mr Suri about his grandfather and a reflection by former BBC South Asia Correspondent, Justin Rowlatt, about the legacy of his great-grandfather Sidney, who introduced that fateful act.

The massacre lit the fuse for Indian independence and by 1947, the British had lost the jewel in the crown.

The book will be launched on April 13 in India, while an event featuring Mr Suri and Mr Rowlatt will take place on April 18 at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Nanak Singh in his latter years. He wrote more than 50 books and is an acclaimed in India. Courtesy Navdeep Suri
Nanak Singh in his latter years. He wrote more than 50 books and is an acclaimed in India. Courtesy Navdeep Suri

“I don’t think I’ve had a weekend for the past eight months,” said Mr Suri, of the time the book has taken. “On one level it gives me real sense of satisfaction. At the same time there is a sense of apprehension over how people will react.”

Khooni Vaisakhi: A Poem from the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre 1919 will be available in book stores and on from April 19 for about Dh43.