Connecting Revolutions on the Anniversaries of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and Ireland’s Partition
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
I highlight the alliance between Ireland and India through a text I discovered while researching the installation "An Archive of 1919."
Irish War of Independence
The Irish Declaration of Independence on 21 January 1919, conclusively marked the island as a sovereign state, independent from British rule. Notably, the declaration was preceded by ‘The Proclamation of the Republic’, a formal document asserting Ireland’s independence. The 1919 Declaration ratified the 1916 proclamation of the Easter Rising. The 1919 Irish Declaration of Independence honors the Easter Rising revolutionaries and concretely marked Irish freedom.
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
On April 13, 1919, in a small town called Amritsar in Punjab, India, General Reginald Dyer led ninety British army soldiers to a public park called the Jallianwala Bagh and ordered them to open fire on a peaceful gathering of 5000 men, women, and children. The troops blocked the park's only passageway and fired until they ran out of ammunition, killing 1500 people including small children.
One year later, in 1920, Eamon de Valera, the president of the Sinn Fein party of Ireland, published “India & Ireland,” a pamphlet where he condemned the British for their violence in Amritsar. In it, de Valera compares India and Ireland to George Washington's plight to free the United States. He also presented the text as a speech during the Friends of Freedom dinner in New York for India. In the pamphlet, he details the two countries’ mutual goal to become free from the British.
Two colonies under one Empire
In 2008, I visited the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar, India. Walking through the narrow entrance, I wondered how this massacre could have happened. It was so brutal, so callous, and so public. I started researching what could have caused it, and very quickly discovered that the British empire was very rattled by the Irish declaration of independence earlier that year, and that the Irish and Indian freedom fighters were in contact.
The British passed the Rowlatt Acts in India which were similar to acts passed in Ireland that suspended habeas corpus of Irish people. Similarly, the British passed several laws in Ireland and India to prevent gatherings of people, and to suppress any groups or associations of native people from forming lest they lead to mutinies and rebellions.
The Ghadar Party of Indian freedom fighters founded in Oregon, USA in 1913, was supported by the Irish freedom fighters in the US, and they would even attend the meetings of the Ghadar Party.
Indo-Irish Independence League
It is widely reported that the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre catalyzed India’s freedom movement. However, less publicized are the warm relations and mutual support between Indian and Irish revolutionaries that predated the massacre but were solidified after the bloody event.
In 1932, the Indian-Irish Independence League was founded. One of the League’s aims was to use “every possible means to secure the complete independence of India and Ireland, and to achieve the closest solidarity between the Irish and the Indian masses in their common struggle against British imperialism”. Ireland had achieved independence in 1932, but it was a dominion of the Empire and more than anything else, it sought to become a republic (which it achieved in 1948).
As I conducted research for “An Archive of 1919” I scoured archives of letters and newspapers to find connections between the events of 1919. April and May mark the important intertwining anniversaries of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and, two years later in May 1921, Ireland’s Partition it seems important to revisit “India & Ireland” which was one of the most prominent historical texts that connect the two countries.
1919 - The Year of the Crack-Up
One of the most important parts of decolonization, or counteracting eurocentric ideals, is connecting revolutionary events globally. Taking as its starting point the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre my installation "An Archive of 1919" functions as a visual and experiential archive of the year 1919 - weaving together global events of resilience.
The project includes—the Irish Declaration of Independence in Dublin; the Treat of Versailles in Paris; the Race Riots of Chicago in America; the May Fourth Revolution in Tiananmen Square, China; the Turkish War of Independence in Istanbul, Turkey; the Russian Civil War in Kyiv; the creation of the Weimar Republic in Germany; the Great Iraqi Revolution in Baghdad; the Third Anglo-Afghan War in Peshawar; the Red Flag Riots in Brisbane, Australia; the Egyptian Revolution in Cairo; the Third Battle of Juarez in El Paso—all of which took place in 1919.
Drawing on F. Scott Fitzgerald's description of a crack-up—"the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function"—I ask viewers to hold together various historical moments and conflicts to look for connections across space and time.
Spittoons as containers of memory
The work consists of fourteen brass spittoons etched with the name of a historical event and a map that locates the city and building where the event occurred. Inspired by Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," in which a silver spittoon, became a character symbolizing the nation's lost memory, I decided to use brass spittoons from the 1920s in this installation. You can read more about it here.
The Martyrs' Well
Although maps unite the installation “Archive of 1919.” “The Martyrs’ Well” is its center point. It is a well-like structure in the center of the gallery space using old, locally sourced bricks that reference the Martyrs' Well. After the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, hundreds of bodies were found in the Martyrs' well; presumably, they had jumped into it to protect themselves from Dyer's bullets. Although they are oceans apart, this violence in Amritsar moved de Valera to the point that he called out to the world to view Ireland and India’s causes as unified.
India and Ireland - concluding thoughts
Counteracting British supremacism, de Valera proclaimed Irish and Indian peoples as equals as he addressed a global community of supporters in New York in 1920. To honor the anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and Irish Independence and by weaving together these interrelated events we can both understand the magnitude of human lives lost due to colonialism. But also, importantly and less historicized, diverse colonized peoples formed alliances in order to better fight for freedom.
I highly recommend reading this article, Revisiting India's Bond With Ireland, 100 Years After The Easter Rising for more details and specific examples of Indo-Irish connections.