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Hans Raj - The British Approver

Posted by Maddy Labels:

And his role in the Amritsar Massacre

I spent a considerable amount of time reading various published accounts of the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre. A summary of the events that transpired and an accounting of some of the persons who attained notoriety from it was posted the other day. But there was one thread that I did not unravel in that article, for I thought it deserved a more studious effort. That related to the murky role played by a person of some consequence and mentioned in the various records of the event. Many Indians refused to agree that it was a minor role and some even went on to characterize his role as a part of a large conspiracy. Who was that person and was there a conspiracy? Let’s check out the involvement of the infamous local lad Hans Raj, in the Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919.

Now Jallianwalla was once upon a time a home site belonging to the Jalhewalas who hailed from the Jalla village. You may not recall Pandit Jalla, the unpopular Brahmin deputy in Hira Singh’s court, the one who used to be remembered once upon a time by this couplet ‘Ooper alla, Talley Jalla, Jalla de sir tey khalla’ (in heaven lived Allah, in earth lived Jalla…may Allah give Jalla a shoe beating), well his name became immortalized with the events of 1919 when Col Dyer ordered the shooting of some 20,000-25,000 assembled in this 24,000 sqmts space, without any provocation.

Who exhorted the unfortunate masses to attend a meeting in this compound? It was largely due to the exertions of an energetic young man named Hans Raj. As records put it, Hans Raj, an aide to Dr. Kitchlew, announced on the 11th that a public protest meeting would be held at 16:30 the following day in the Jallianwala. People flocked to hear these speeches instead, as festivities (the cattle market fair was closed) had been banned by specific proclamations at the usual meeting places, by Col Dyer. Was Hans Raj such a popular figure to be heeded to, was he a real activist? Why did people follow him like pied piper to the Bagh? What happened to him at the ground? What was his relationship with Dr Satyapal and Dr Kitchlew the leaders who had been exiled a few days earlier? And who was the mysterious Bashir who was involved in the two days preceding the massacre, the one who was to speak and the one who never turned up? Let’s take a deeper look.

The first writer to provide some details of the character was Pt Peary Mohan, a vakil of the Lahore high court, writing his account in Dec 1919, just 8 months after the incident. The book’s opening page shows a man in the buff being whipped, setting store for the gory details of the massacre in the pages that follow.  The Hunter commission had been convened in October and Dyer had given his evidence in Nov. The British report was published in March 1920 and Mohan’s book itself was published in May 1920.

According to Mohan, HansRaj, son of a local prostitute Devi Ditta Mal Bedi aged 23, had passed his matriculation in 1911. His less than stellar background traversed many jobs until the 1919 event, and we see that his services had been terminated on many occasions, due to his dubious and shifty character. First he was a ticket examiner in the NWR where he had been dismissed for embezzlement, then he clerked for the municipal commissioner LH Shah, next as a clerk at the Union club, then with a banker Seva Singh and so on. During this period he tried to obtain employment in the police department and was on a waiting list, but was apparently allowed to act as a CID (more correctly as an informer, perhaps). During the events that transpired in 1919, he was a commission agent for printing and stationery. Until Feb 1919, he kept a low profile and suddenly began to appear at all kinds of public political meetings. Mohan argues that it was not fervent nationalism which made him do this, but the responsibility to report inside information to his police superiors. He also cultivated acquaintances with important public figures, expressing his ability and willingness to organize meetings, record and copy meeting minutes, print notices and so on.

By 8th April he was accorded a formal title, the Secretary of the Satyagraha Sabha. Thus he got closer to Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, the two leaders who had been banished days before the Amritsar event. In fact he was present as the two were deported and carried back copies of the deportation notices to inform their relatives (why did the police entrust him with this duty?). He then bound himself to the next in line Dr Bashir and many other activists who continued to rebel. Before we cast doubts on his character, let us see what he did next, for he certainly went on to stir the hornets’ nest. After leaving Satyapal and Horniman who were being carted off to Dharmasala in high secrecy, Hans Raj reported the deportations to the friendly press and snapped of a telegram to Gandhiji. He then went around town and informed the public of the happenings. It was following this that a crowd collected demanding details on their leaders and the mob violence as well as the event involving Sherwood of 10th April took place. For all practical purposes, Hans Raj was the instigator of the 10th April violence, though Hans Raj later implicated Dr Bashir for these events.

It was on the 12th evening that Hans Raj was involved again, in a meeting at Bashir’s house where Bashir was exhorting the people gathered to call off the agitation if the British promised no reprisals on the mob participants, but Has Raj would not agree stating that each and every one had to be aware that their leaders had been spirited away and that they should all take up individual leadership to continue the agitation. He then called for a meeting at Jallianwala Bagh the next day under the leadership of an elderly resident Lala Kanhiya Lal (who had no idea of all this!). The plan was to announce a hartal on 13th and suspend all businesses until their leaders were released. Gandhiji who had been released in the meantime addressed a meeting in Bombay stating there should be no demonstrations against any leader’s arrest, but that message never reached anybody in Amritsar.

From Draper’s accounts, we note the sequence of events as follows - On the 13th Hans Raj was busy preparing for the meeting at the Bagh. He arranged for a platform to be erected for the speakers and a batch of sweepers to clean up the area as much as possible, and organized for water carriers to carry water through any crowd that assembled. Meanwhile somebody noticed that Has Raj was in conversation on two occasions, with some undercover CID officers in the area. It appears that some people already knew of potential violence even before the event and stayed away from the Bagh or decided to go back. The meeting started and speakers talked about Kitchlew and Satyapal, later some poets recited poems. A plane flew overhead and some witnesses saw Hans Raj wave a handkerchief at it and while at the same time a few policeman in the crowd left the locale. As the sight of the plane triggered some panic, Hans Raj asked the people not to worry and the plane was quickly gone. The speakers continued and just about then, at 5:15 PM, the boots of Dyer’s troops could be heard pounding the entrance path. Again, witnesses noticed Hans Raj wave a handkerchief and the crowd chanted ‘they have come’. Hans Raj exhorted the speakers to sit down assuring them that the Sarkar would not fire. At that instant, Dyer shouted out his orders ‘Gurkhas right, 59th left fire’. Hans Raj shouted – they are only blanks – and it seems, he bolted. The soldiers knelt, loaded and fired, and fired and fired…all of 1650 of .303 Mark VI ammunition into the crowd, methodically, with Dyer directing the aim to the most crowded spots. Dyer and his troops then retreated as collective wails floated up from the walls of the Bagh.

Hans Raj by some accounts had vanished, but that part as well as his kerchief waving were perhaps exaggerations. Let’s now go on to see what Hans Raj did next, for he would reappear soon in the so called Amritsar leader’s case, which took place in June 1919.

The Jalianwala Bagh massacre (courtesy Indian Express)
Lala Jowahar Lal, a CID inspector who had been observed speaking to Hans Raj at the meeting and had left before Dyer arrived, was the first to pick up Hans Raj on the 21st, 8 days after the horrible event, and stated that Hans Raj wanted to confess and help the government, but that he did not have in possession the statements or notes made during pervious interrogation meetings as he had destroyed them. All other police officers speaking for the crown, had interestingly done the same thing. Fellow prisoners had noticed that Has Raj was being treated preferentially and seemed to be leading a jolly life in detention. Lal then took Hans Raj to A. Symour, the magistrate where he admitted that his confession was not being made under duress (though he was held in the British fort for 4 days preceding the confession), but curiously declined to make it under an oath. Thus Hans raj became the key witness for the prosecution, he had turned approver in exchange for full pardon, since he had also been charge sheeted.

The case was held ‘in camera’ though news of JP Ellis’s adhocism trickled out of the chambers. He went on to name each and everyone involved with a remarkably lucid memory and accuracy, and summarized the meetings before 13th to being not related to Satyagraha but as meetings cloaking a plan to agitate violently. He also told the court that Satyapal and Kitchlew had before leaving, asked him to incite the crowds in Amritsar in revenge. With this one statement, Hans Raj nailed the leaders to the board. During his examination, he also provided the court with hundreds of names, their exact statements, in other words, everything that was required by the court, in a way they wanted it, to make a judgment just as they wanted to. He confidently assured the people of the court that he was not committing perjury in exchange for pardon. Many of the onlookers were convinced that Hans Raj had been carefully coached for the narration. Everything he said was taken note of without corroboration or cross-examination and accepted as evidence even though he was the main culprit, the person who had organized and conducted the so called rebellious meeting. Instead all the others leaders who were absent, were convicted.

As the defense counsels were not provided any of the evidence beforehand, they could not take apart Hans Raj other than cast aspersions on his character and this obviously was not sufficient to dent the prosecution’s case. Another crown witness Brij Lal however mentioned that while in detention, Hans Raj worked with the police in forcing Lal to make a confession as they wanted.  Lal was also forced to memorize the content of his statement so that he could stick to it faithfully while in court. In addition, all the accused refuted the evidence given by Hans Raj, with Satyapal even going onto say that he would never have been involved with Hans Raj as the latter was on a much lower social scale! Bashir emphatically stated that he had not asked Hans Raj to organize the 13th meeting at the Bagh. But they were all of no avail.

The court as expected decided that that Punjab had been on the brink of a revolt, that a criminal conspiracy existed and that war had been waged on the 10th of April against the crown. They also mentioned that Has Raj, a person of little standing was ‘worthy of credence’ a statement made strangely without even a bit of corroboration! The record states - We have arrived at the conclusion that Hans Raj had endeavored to tell his story as fully as he was capable of doing and has not deliberately made any false statements. That he has been occasionally confused is apparent, but that is not surprising considering the numbers of persons he had to deal with (a good deal more than the accused in this case and we have given the accused concerned the fullest benefit of any such confusion of ideas, dates and names.

Kitchlew and Satyapal were to be transported and had all their property forfeited. Dr Bashir who was not even involved and who had actually treated some of the injured, was sentenced to death, for his involvement in the 10th April mob violence. Hans Raj was also used in another case to deliver identical results and even more people were sentenced to death on the weight of his evidence. However some of them including Dr Bashir were later acquitted on appeal.

Whatever happened to Hans Raj following the case? As some Indian leaders fumed and planned a retort, or wrote letters to the press, Hans Raj vanished. If he had been let go after the case, he would have been torn to pieces by the angry people of Amritsar. The British apparently rewarded him with a large sum of money and spirited him away to Mesopotamia. It is not clear if his hapless mother or sister accompanied him, perhaps not. The British, interestingly paid out about Rs 18 lakhs as compensation, a couple of years after the event, to families of many of the victims.

Many contemporaries such as Lala Hans Raj (a senior advocate) felt that Hans Raj was actually part of a larger conspiracy, in which Dyer planned in order to make an example of the British iron hand.  Jalianwala Bagh, was carefully chosen location to inflict maximum damage due to its being walled. They were also of the opinion that the Bagh firing was a retaliation for the mob actions of the 10th and that it was deliberately planned and executed by Dyer, not something that happened on the spur of the moment, as recounted by Dyer. But to date no proof exists or whatever existed have been carefully erased or vanished, like Hans Raj himself.

Dyer of course was confident all along that under no circumstance would the crown fail to support him, O’Dwyer certainly did support him to the end, but as events transpired, Dyer got castigated by the crown in the process, whereas O’Dwyer did not. VN Datta believes that both Kitchlew and Gandhiji preferred to remain silent on the Hans Raj issue and let the matter lie, for this was more on the side of national interest and presented a poor image of the crown’s handling of the law and India’s innocent.

Raja Ram in his analysis brings out a point that it was clear from records that O’Dwyer had all the time been gearing up for a major event on the 13th due to the Baisakhi celebrations, the influx of people into Amritsar, and that the event of the 10th happened by chance.  The 10th events provided an even more convenient excuse to announce that a rebellion was being staged, which is defined as ‘waging war’ under martial law. He also mentions of plans to carry out an aerial bombardment of Amritsar which was however called off to prevent damage to the Golden Temple.

Without doubt, what precipitated the disturbances was the unnecessary arrest of Kitchlew and Satyapal. They were the only two leaders who could have controlled the events of 10th April. Gandhiji stated - The police expected that the demonstrators would try to liberate the two leaders and precautions were taken, but 'there was no attempt at rescue'. The banishing of the leaders removed from Amritsar the two men who might have restrained the populace. 'Starting in anger at the action of the government in deporting the two local politicians,' reads the Hunter Report, a mob raged through the streets. That reckless decision by O’Dwyer was what led to Chettur Sankaran Nair’s statement and the court case we discussed in the previous article. In fact Gandhiji said later - The truth of the matter is that the wrong man was in the wrong box; the right man to have been in the box of the accused should certainly have been Sir Michael O'Dwyer. Had he not made inflammatory and irritating speeches, had he not belittled leaders, had he not in a most cruel manner flouted public opinion and had he not arrested Drs. Kitchlew and Satyapal, the history of the last two months would have been differently written.

Nick Lloyd’s book however presents Hans Raj’s relationship with Bashir in a different light based mostly on Hans Raj’s testimony and conflicts those provided by Draper, Mohan and Datta. Quoting Lloyd – ‘According to Hans Raj, Bashir was the man who pushed for the meeting and never turned up (Bashir was according to another account, watching the events as they transpired, from a nearby shop). He narrates that it was Bashir who ordered Hans Raj to organize a meeting at the Bagh. Conflicting Mohan’s notes, Lloyd mentions - When Hans Raj suggested that they should end the hartal, Bashir told him that he was ‘a child’ who did not understand ‘such matters’. He does not believe that Dyer was a premeditated murderer, but he did so due to the size and nature of the crowd he faced and since he had few troops had no option but to keep firing. Nigel Collett reviews Lloyd’s book and rebuts many of these comments in his article linked here.

It is also interesting to see how the judgement was reviewed at a later date in the House of Commons, especially the case of Dr Bashir. When asked by Col Yate why Bashir was released subsequently, Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India replied “Dr. Muhammed Bashir was sentenced to death by a martial law commission in the Amritsar Leaders' case, which included the charge against him of inciting the mob in the attack on the National Bank. The sentence was reduced by Sir Edward Maclagan, Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, to one of six years' rigorous imprisonment. The two High Court Judges appointed to examine cases tried by Martial Law Courts agreed that the part of the case against the doctor relating to the events at the National Bank rested on the, uncorroborated testimony of an approver; one judge was of the opinion that there was sufficient evidence to justify a conviction for waging war only, but the other judge would not admit the sufficiency of the evidence to justify a conviction at all. The Punjab Government, in the circumstances, recommended the release of Dr. Muhammed Bashir on certain conditions, and the Government of India accepted these recommendations.” This goes on to prove that much of what Hans Raj provided as testimony was upon detailed analysis, considered dubious and unworthy of merit or action.

It is now time to glance at a peculiar event that transpired after the massacre. Col Dyer and Maj Briggs were made honorary Sikhs by the elders of the Golden Temple. They thanked him for protecting the temple, not bombing it and for saving Amritsar from plunder by the mobs. Excused from growing a beard, Dyer did promise to cut his smoking at the rate of one cigarette a year. The Mahants then offered the services of 10,000 men to Dyer in order to fight the Afghans, which was declined. Anyway two years from then, the Akali Gurudwara reform movement would wrest power away from those powerful Mahants and turn it over to the SGPC.

Collett’s paper provides an aside that Dyer was perhaps fed with a good amount of misinformation by various vested interest groups when he landed up in Amritsar and this clouded his judgement and made him very nervous indeed. Kitchin told him that 200 armed Sikhs from the manja were about to raid Amritsar. The Superintendent of Police, Ashraf Khan had informed Dyer that the rebellion was being spread into the surrounding districts by agents from Amritsar and that large numbers were coming into the city to form a dandafauj (armed with sticks) and drive the British out.  Thus Dyer formed a belief that an army of the Punjabi insurgents would face him the next day and that he should stop it at any cost.

Collett concludes - Who were these Indian informants who had dripped such poison into the administration ears, why had they done so and why had the administration taken any notice of them?  All around these villages clustered the large houses of wealthy and locally powerful Sikh families, supporters, in the main, of the status quo. All were families whose stakes in land and property were threatened by the disorder in nearby Amritsar and who in all likelihood would have desired the British to act decisively before events got further out of hand. It is perhaps from such sources that Kitchin and Donald received the information which they passed on to Dyer. So, by default, the administration consulted its old sources and received advice that was less and less useful as time passed.

An unintended effect of all this was the overhearing of Dyer’s bombast by Jawaharlal Nehru who was lying down on an upper berth in a train compartment which had Dyer and his friends. The infuriated Nehru who was until then ambivalent about Satyagraha, decided to throw his weight into in the lead.
Years later, another Hans Raj, also a state approver, became prominent in the Bhagat Singh case. That is another story, for another day…..

Read Part 1 Dwyer, Dyer and Nair

An Imaginary rebellion and how it was suppressed – Pt Peary Mohan
The historiography of the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre - Savita Narain
The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer - Nigel Collett
Imperial Crime & Punishment – Helen Fein
Jalianwala Bagh Massacre - VN Datta, S Settar
The Jalianwala Bagh Massacre - Raja Ram
A Muse Abused: The Politicizing of the Amritsar Massacre - Nigel Collett
The O'Dwyer v. Nair Libel Case of 1924: New Evidence Concerning Indian Attitudes and British Intelligence During the 1919 Punjab Disturbances: Nigel Collett
British administration and the Amritsar Massacre – Horniman
The Amritsar Massacre – Nick Lloyd
Armies of the Raj: From the Mutiny to Independence, 1858-1947 - Byron Farwell
Jallianwala Bagh Commemoration volume – VN Datta
Amritsar – Alfred Draper


  1. Luiz Fabiano de Freitas Tavares

    Sad and fascinating at once... Congratulations for the detailed and careful research! Greetings from a brazilian reader! Luiz Fabiano

  1. Maddy

    thanks Luis Fabiano,
    Yes, the whole tale is sad and sordid...
    It would have been interesting to know what happened to hansraj, but I guess we will never find out! His trail ran cold...