Several prominent social media handles claimed that Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, great-grandfather of activist Teesta Setalvad, was a member of the 'Hunter Commission' on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre incident, which gave a clean chit to Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who led the charge on firing at the civilians causing the massacre. The posts insinuate that Sir Setalvad was party to the decision to provide a clean chit to Dyer.
BOOM found this claim to be false; our analysis of the 'Hunter Commission' report revealed that the verdict on Dyer's actions were split into two parts - a majority report signed by four British members of the Commission, which found Dyer's actions justified, and a minority report signed by the three Indian lawyers in the Commission, which included Setalvad, which was highly critical of Dyer's actions and found it unjust. It was therefore the majority report, which Setalvad and the two other Indian lawyers refused to sign, which had given a 'clean chit' to Dyer.
BOOM also spoke to Anita Anand, a British journalist and author, who, in her book 'The Patient Assassin' - on Indian revolutionary Udham Singh, had provided detailed accounts of the court proceedings by the Hunter Commission. In her book, she described Setalvad as a 'skillful interrogator' who was able to extract key admissions from Dyer which would expose the latter's actions as unjustified.
"The Indian lawyers - especially Setalvad, were extremely brave to stand up to the establishment and produce their blistering minority report," Anand told BOOM.
Just a day after activist Teesta Setalvad was arrested by Gujarat police for allegedly falsifying evidence in the 2002 Gujarat riots case, some prominent handles started sharing the claim about her great-grandfather being part of the committee to clear Dyer of any wrongdoings for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
These included the verified handles of Kanchan Gupta, a Senior Advisor in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, right-leaning author Madhu Kishwar, and right-leaning Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated magazine Organiser Weekly.
Combing through the discussions on this topic on Twitter, we found a post made by Indian journalist and author Nilanjana Roy, where she cited from the book 'A Patient Assassin' by Anita Anand to state that Chimanlal Setalvad and the other Indians in the committee had "refused to put their name to the report and denounced it".
Taking cue from this, we reached out directly to Anand, who highlighted to us that Setalvad and the other two Indian lawyers were in disagreement with the committee's observations, and had gone on to produce a separate minority report, which took a more critical view of Dyer's actions at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, along with Michael O'Dwyer's martial law in Punjab.
The Disorders Inquiry Committee 1919-1920
Following the massacre at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, the Government of India under British Raj formed the Disorders Inquiry Committee to investigate the shootings led by Dyer. The committee was also called the 'Hunter Commission', after the name of its chairman Lord William Hunter. The committee was comprised of four British lawyers - George C. Rankin, Walter Francis Rice, Sir George de Symons Barrow, and Thomas Smith, along with three Indian lawyers - Pandit Jagat Narayan, Sardar Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Khan and Sir Chimanlal Setalvad.
BOOM accessed a copy of the Disorders Inquiry Committee report, and found the final report to be indeed split into two sections.
The Majority Report
While the majority report was critical of two aspects of Dyer's actions - one, being the lack of warning to disperse given to the crowd before firing, and two, being the continuation of firing even when the crowd started dispersing - it argued that due to the existence of a de facto martial law, and due to the powers granted to Dyer to "take such steps as he thought necessary to re-establish civil control", his actions were justified.
We noticed at the end of the majority report that it was signed by only five names - that of committee chairman Lord Hunter, along with the four British lawyers. None of the names of the Indian lawyers in the committee appeared in the majority report.
The Minority Report
Following this, we accessed the minority report, which we found to be signed by the three Indian lawyers in the committee, including Sir Chimanlal Setalvad.
While the minority report agreed with several of the conclusions made by the committee, it made some starkly opposition observations on Dyer's actions in Punjab as compared to the majority report, particularly in the case of the Jallianwala Bagh shootings.
The report highlighted the issues with the actions carried out by Dyer, leading up to the fateful massacre, revealing the unjustifiable nature of the act.
Through an analysis of the evidence produced before the committee, the minority report observed that the proclamation prohibiting meetings and gatherings were insufficiently communicated to the public, leaving out most parts of the town. It also highlighted that Dyer had ordered to shoot without giving a warning to the crowd, and continued firing until the ammunition ran out.
As to Dyer's intent, it noted the following:
"His was not the case of a person who had to take a quick decision on a sudden emergency. After he received the information about the contemplated meeting he had four hours to think before he started to go to Jallianwala, he took half an hour to reach there and he arrived there with his mind already made up as to the action he was going to take. His action was in accordance with a determined resolution that he had deliberately arrived at."
It finally noted that the key to his actions were unjustifiable, and by citing Dyer's testimony from court proceedings, proved that the firing was done not to disperse the crowd, but to rather "reduce the moral of the rebels".
"He fired on this meeting, and killed about 400 people wounded about 1,200; because, in his view, they were rebels and he was "going to give them a lesson" and "punish them" and "make a wide impression" and "strike terror throughout the Punjab" and he "wanted to reduce the morale of the rebels." That was why he began to fire without warning and without calling upon them to disperse. He continued firing even when the people began to run away, and went on firing till his ammunition was nearly exhausted."
From the minority report, it becomes clear that Setalvad, along with the two other Indian lawyers, were highly critical of Dyer's actions at Jallianwala Bagh, and were not willing to give him a 'clean chit'.
Setalvad's Role In Court Proceedings
While writing on Setalvad's role in the court proceedings led by the Hunter Commission, Anita Anand referred to the interrogation of Dyer by Setalvad, as mentioned in Volume 3 of Evidence by the Hunter Commission.
Here is an excerpt from her book, highlighting the Setalvad's interrogation of Dyer:
"Setalvad put it to Dyer that innocent men, women, and children were in the garden. Dyer disagreed. In his view, all those gathered were rebels: "Therefore, I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well." Setalvad pressed him to elaborate:
DYER: They had come out to fight if they defied me, and I was going to give them a lesson.
SETALVAD: I take it that your idea in taking that action was to strike terror?
DYER: Call it what you like. I was going to punish them. My idea from the military point of view was to make a wide impression.
SETALVAD: To strike terror not only in the city of Amritsar, but throughout the Punjab?
DYER: Yes, throughout the Punjab. I wanted to reduce their moral, the moral [sic] of the rebels.
Quietly pursued by the dogged line of questioning, Dyer made one incendiary comment after another. Why had he fired for so long? "I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realise that they were not to be wicked.""
- Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, 2019
She wrote that Setalvad's 'skilful interrogation' drew the ire of the British officers, making him "the main hate figure for those brought before him". "Setalvad was seen as so malign to British interests he was banned from Punjab," she told us.
The evidence from the court proceedings, and from the minority report makes it aptly clear that Setalvad was not party to giving a clean chit to Dyer for his actions at Jallianwala Bagh, and that he, along with the two other Indian lawyers, were pushing for further accountability for his actions.
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