Secret Massacre: Slaughter by British that the Indians helped to cover up

Click to follow
Yesterday the Queen arrived in India on the second and final leg of her tour of the sub-continent, and tomorrow morning she will fly to Amritsar in the Punjab. Here, in the most controversial stop of her trip, she will visit Jallianwalla Bagh, a park where on 6 April 1919 troops under British command killed at least 379 unarmed demonstrators. But in 1922, there was an even more horrific massacre, the details of which have been kept secret for 75 years.

Jallianwallah Bagh is one of the most emotive place names in the Indian freedom struggle. The word itself cannot be spoken in Indian company without very specific images of infamy rising in the mind: the crowded park, the massed demonstrators in angry mood, the Gurkha troops marching in, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer coolly giving the order, the bodies falling, the panic as people tried to flee, the firing going on and on until the ammunition was spent. It was the decisive moment in Britain's loss of its Indian Empire, the moment when the moral advantage passed irreversibly to the Indian side.

Jallianwallah Bagh was horrific. But was it unique? In the past few weeks, the story has surfaced in India of another British-directed massacre, possibly as bad as or even worse than what happened at Amritsar, news of which was so vigorously suppressed that the world learnt nothing about it.

Unlike Jallianwallah Bagh, Palchitaria is not a name Indians know. Today it can no longer be found even in the gazetteer. This small, dusty village of cement and mud-walled houses amid fields of maize and rice in northern Gujarat, western India, is now called Dadvav. Here 75 years ago, on 7 March 1922, several thousand freedom fighters gathered to pay homage to their leader. A paramilitary force under the command of a British major tracked them down to the meeting place, which was in the bend of a river and beside a large well.

Something happened there which was taken as provocation and the order was given to fire. As at Amritsar three years before, soon the bodies of the dead lay in piles ("as high as a mango tree," according to one witness), and the wounded fled for their lives.

The news of what happened by the bend in the river went nowhere. There was no fuss in the press. No commissions of inquiry were dispatched from London. The nationalist movement was silent on the matter. But last month an article about the secret massacre entitled "The Other Jallianwallah" appeared in the weekly magazine India Today, suggesting that 1,200 people were shot dead at Palchitaria. I was sceptical but intrigued, so I travelled to Gujarat to have a look for myself.

Gujarat, Gandhi's birthplace, is the richest state in India; its capital, Gandhinagar, is a planned garden city, and its most populous city, Ahmadabad, is one of the few places in India where growing affluence is a palpable, visible reality, with erupting boutiques, nicely paved main roads and lots of expensive new cars. But travel north of these two cities and you enter a quite different India: the India of what the authorities call "the scheduled tribes". It's an India of tiny hamlets, sparse electric power, few road signs, no English spoken, what caste Hindus call "a backward area", which used to be profoundly feudal.

On my journey north I stopped to introduce myself to Amarsinh Chaudhuri, former chief minister of Gujarat and now a member of the state's Legislative Assembly. Mr Chaudhuri's first constituency contained the village where the secret massacre took place. "That's how I came to know from the local people that this thing had happened," he told me. "It's a bigger massacre than Jallianwallah - more than 2,500 people were killed, but because it's a 100 per cent tribal area, the facts about it have remained unknown."

Three hours later, in the village of Dadvav, we settled down to listen to the first of a string of 90-year-olds recount their memories of what happened on that March day. On most essentials, their testimony agreed. Like many parts of India in the years after 1919, the region was in a state of political ferment, and its focus was Motilal Tejawat, a former spice trader from the Rajasthan city of Udaipur. Though a caste Hindu, Tejawat had identified with the grievances of the tribal people. By 1922, Tejawat and his swelling band of tribesmen were on the move. By the time they poured into Palchitaria, the villagers were readily persuaded that an awesome phenomenon was in their midst.

Kaliba Patel, in her 90s, recalled: "There were 10,000 people there, and they were worshipping him like a god. People talked about him as `the Gandhi', they believed the dust he trod in contained kanku, a magical essence, so they gathered it up and kept it."

Koyaji Patel, who lives in the same mud-walled house in the neighbouring village of Kodiya- wada as he did in 1922, said: "I was 14 and I went there to have darshan [holy sight of him] and I offered him money and he gave me his blessing. But the next day the soldiers came looking for him, around 50 of them."

It was a repeat, three years later and in the depths of the forest, of the Jallianwallah Bagh confrontation: the excited freedom fighters, their heads full of political grievance and religious fervour, some of them armed with spears and bows and arrows and primitive guns; and the tribal soldiers of the Mewar Bhil Corps, under the command of Major HG Sutton, ranged against a crowd numbering in the thousands, nervously fingering their machine guns, the man they had been tracking through the woods finally at bay before them.

One of Tejawat's supporters fired a shot which may or may not have grazed the head of Major Sutton. And like General Dyer before him, the Major gave the order to fire.

Koyaji Patel, who witnessed it, said: "They were firing at anybody with tribal ornaments, then looting the bodies. After it was over the locals dragged away the bodies of their neighbours and relatives. The rest were dumped into the nearby well, on the orders of the local landlord."

Tejawat got away unharmed and went underground for the next seven years. And the event itself disappeared. Gandhi, in a magazine article published in 1921, had condemned Tejawat's methods; and in February 1922, fearing that in its violence the mass movement throughout India was getting beyond his control, he had called off the non-cooperation campaign, and his word was heeded. And only three days after the massacre, on 10 March 1922, 100 kms (62.5 miles) to the south in Ahmadabad, Gandhi himself went on trial for sedition.

Thus it was in no one's interest that news of what had happened at Palchitaria got out: neither the British, nor the local landlords, nor even the nationalist movement. As the sound of firing died away, the terrible event disappeared into the memories and the nightmares of the local people, where it has been locked away ever since.