western academic bias?

Western academic bias in narrating colonial histories was something I always heard about; today, I confronted it. I am reading Walter C. Langsam’s The World Since 1919.
This is from the part ‘National Developments, 1919-1939’, chapter: ‘The Arousing of Asia and Africa’, section: ‘India’.

Following these interviews and a resultant report, parliamentary committees in 1918 framed legislation. Meanwhile an increasing discontent in India, manifested by strikes and agitation, led to the decreeing of the Rowlatt Acts. These acts empowered the government to suspend any jury trial, curtail the right to appeal, and inflict severe penalties. Later all public meetings were forbidden. In 1919 the conflict between the authorities and the natives reached a climax at Amritsar.

Here the rioting had caused the lives of some British persons. Brigadier Reginald E. Dyer was called upon to restore order, and, on one occasion, British troops killed about 400 people. Popular indignation was so great that Parliament appointed a committee to investigate the “massacre.” The report of the commission whitewashed the affair though it did censure Dyer. The Indians were indignant over the report, and their anger was not appeased when Dyer, though recalled from India, lost neither rank nor pension. [pp 252-3; emphasis added]

The event described is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I have visited the site twice. Many of the people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh that day were there just because it was the harvest festival of Baisakhi, not ‘native’ political protestors. There were over 15,000 people there and 1,650 rounds of bullets were fired by Dyer’s men. It’s laughable to think only 400 people died. Estimates go thrice as high – 1,500. Over a 100 were pulled out of wells.

Dyer appeared in front of the Hunter Commission soon after this episode. Two of his responses are of particular interest:

  1. “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.”
  2. He stated that he did not make any effort to tend to the wounded after the shooting. “Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there,” was his response. (via)

I might be wrong, this might not be bias, but a case of plain misinformation or ignorance. But it is irritating nonetheless, the way a massacre of over a 1,000 people is brushed under the carpet with matter-of-fact phrasing like ‘on one occasion, British troops killed about 400 people.’ And yes, such things (lesser magnitude) happen everyday. They are happening right now in Iraq, Afghanistan, in many Arab world countries trying to quell protestors emboldened by the Egypt affair. But atrocities hit home only when they happen at home. True empathy is otherwise impossible.


2 thoughts on “western academic bias?

  1. I do not think there is any need to doubt whether the way the incident was written in the book was biased or not. It was a distorted version of the incident, in terms of its enormity and terming. Indians call it a massacre and not an occasion that killed 400 Indians.It is important to bring out such biases. You know written history is full of biases because it is written by the winners.

  2. I just didn't expect a world history to have such biases. It isn't a British history of India… Anyway, thanks for dropping by, Prasanna.

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