‘Take aim – Fire!’
At his commanding officer’s command, with steady hands sepoy Lacchiman Gurung took aim and fired. An unarmed man dropped dead. Taking innocent lives no longer bothered him. He no longer questioned the unjustified commands to shoot. He was a seasoned soldier, ever since…
13th April 1919, Amritsar
The walled-off courtyard was packed with thousands celebrating Baisakhi. Most people in the crowd were unaware that that very morning an order had been promulgated banning such gatherings.
When news of the gathering reached the Commanding Officer of The British Raj, he was incensed. How dare his order be defied? This was open rebellion. He would nip it in the bud. He would set an example. Fuelled by a murderous rage, the Brigadier General and his troops stormed into the courtyard and surrounded everyone. The officer surveyed the situation and barked – ‘Fire.’
At the order, seventeen-year-old sepoy Lacchiman Gurung palsied in shock. Open fire? The courtyard was full of innocent women, children, young and old; all unarmed. Had he just been ordered to open fire without warning?
Is the Brigadier General asking us to massacre innocent people? How can we? We are men of honour. This is sheer cowardice.
Beside him, he saw the veteran sepoy Padam Lama lift his Lee-Enfield and take aim. ‘Lama, don’t shoot,’ Lacchiman shouted in alarm. ‘This is mass murder. It will only bring dishonour to the Gurkhas.’
But, sepoy Lama fired. His job was not to question but to obey higher commands. For a steady pay check, he had sold his soul to The British Raj. Did it matter now what his body did for them?
‘You are a sepoy,’ Lama shouted back coldly. ‘Your honour is in doing your sworn duty.’
Pandemonium broke out as the first round of shots hit the crowd. Within minutes the courtyard transformed into a killing field. A clamour rose, punctuated by terrified screams and wails. Alarmed and desperate to escape, the people started stampeding towards the exits.
‘Fire at the exits. Don’t let them escape,’ the Brigadier General’s voice bellowed.
The command further horrified Lacchiman who was still wrestling with his conscience. Where’s the honour in shooting innocent people in the name of duty? It’s a sin. God won’t forgive me. I’ll be damned to hell.
Lama witnessed Lacchiman’s inaction. This greenhorn will bring the wrath of The Raj upon the entire regiment. We’ll all pay with our lives. In a commanding tone, to spur Lacchiman, he shouted, ‘Sepoy Gurung…shoot! You took a soldier’s oath. Honour that.’
But, Lacchiman’s limbs still refused to move.
Lama understood the youngster’s angst. ‘Sepoy,’ he reasoned, ‘God knows that it’s not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet that is to be blamed. This isn’t your burden. It’s the Brigadier General’s. Open fire!’
Lama’s words found their mark.
Slowly, Lacchiman lifted his rifle, took aim and fired…again and again.
That day, with the innocents, Lacchiman’s innocence died a violent death and another seasoned soldier was born to serve The British Raj.
Baisakhi – A spring harvest festival celebrated in Punjab
Image credit – Indian Express public archives