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Racial Equality Bill of 1919 and Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh

"In January 1901, Immigration Restriction Act of Australia became White Australia Policy.  Professor Neville Meaney, a famous historian of Australia, in his books mentions fear of Japan as the single most important reason for the enactment of White Australia Policy.  This overtly racist policy barred the entry of any non-white race into Australia."

Mrs Shizuka Imamoto & Dr Nachiketa Das : February 3, 2008

Last year Indian film actress Shilpa Shetty, while participating in a British reality TV show Big Brother was racially abused by her British colleagues.  This most charming woman was harassed for no other reason than she was a non-white Indian.  The verbal taunts and abuses recorded by the camera and aired on the TV, outraged millions of people all over the world including Britishers, many of whom lodged complaints with the various authorities managing TV broadcasts in Britain.  Shilpa Shetty won the show, and many felt it was poetic justice after all.  The fact however, remains that such a blatant racial abuse could take place at all, in the full glare of the TV cameras in this twenty-first century.  Imagine what transpired when there were no TV cameras; say a century and a half ago, in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the sun did not set over the British Empire.  Racial abuses in some form or the other happened all over the world, and still happening to-day.

In 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, a peace conference was held in Paris, where the League of Nations was born.  In the conference, Japan proposed to enshrine the principle of racial equality in the charter of the League of Nations.  The Japanese proposal known as the Racial Equality Bill was, however, rejected, essentially due to a very obstinate and determined opposition from the Prime Minister of Australia William Morris Hughes.  Hughes was a champion of White Australia Policy, and in the conference he received the support of the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa to defeat the Japanese proposal.  In the following paragraphs rise of racism is discussed as a prelude to the proposal of racial equality; and the events at Paris Peace Conference leading to the rejection of the bill are also narrated.

Rise of Racism:

In the middle of the nineteenth century, in order to solve serious labour shortage, Australia started drawing workers from Asia Pacific in the form of indentured labour, and invited Chinese immigrants ‘to work the fields and tend the sheep’.  Then gold was discovered in 1851, and the number of Chinese workers in Australia increased.  The diligent Chinese excavated for gold in fields of poor yield or on plots abandoned by the European settlers, yet successfully produced good quantities of gold.  The success of the Chinese, in stead of arousing admiration drew open hostilities from the European settlers.  By 1860 racialism in Australia was firmly established, and violent attacks on racial minorities were acknowledged facts.  The institutionalised racism in Australia led to the first Restriction Act on Chinese Immigration in 1888.

Later in the second half of the nineteenth century, pearl-bearing oyster beds were discovered in the seas off the coasts of Australia.  The Japanese had established themselves as the very best pearl divers in the world, so in 1883 one Australian pearling business recruited 37 Japanese workers.  Diving for pearls was a dangerous profession with high rates of casualties.  Despite the hazards, the Japanese pearl divers plied their trade and made the pearling company very profitable.  Their expertise created further demands for more Japanese pearl divers and that led to a small scale migration of the Japanese into Australia.  Despite their diligence and decency, the Japanese migrants in Australia faced blatant racial abuses.  John Hamilton, a member of the Queensland Parliament is recorded to have stated, ‘We are not afraid of them (Japanese) on account of their vices, but on account of their virtues…’ 

In January 1901, Immigration Restriction Act of Australia became White Australia Policy.  Professor Neville Meaney, a famous historian of Australia, in his books mentions fear of Japan as the single most important reason for the enactment of White Australia Policy.  This overtly racist policy barred the entry of any non-white race into Australia.  The Japanese, the Chinese, and other Asian settlers including Indians, also faced overt racial discrimination in Canada, the US, New Zealand and South Africa.  Readers may recall that Mahatma Gandhi fought racial discrimination in South Africa around this time.  A little later in 1914, a wealthy Sikh Indian entrepreneur from Amritsar, Gurdit Singh presently settled in Singapore, mounted a direct challenge to the Asian exclusion laws of Canada, when he chartered a Japanese steam liner Komagata Maru and ferried 376 Indian emigrants, mostly from Punjab to Canada.  The ship sailed from Yokohama in Japan to Vancouver in Canada, where the passengers were disallowed by the Canadian authorities to disembark because they were non-whites.  Kamagata Maru was turned back and she sailed to Calcutta port, where the British forces shot dead 31 of her passengers.

In 1902 Britain had signed a treaty of alliance with Japan that came to be known as the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.  The Japanese keen on modernising their country looked up to the British, and remained a faithful partner of the Alliance, which was renewed twice and eventually liquidated in 1921.  When the First World War broke out in 1914, Britain requested Japan to provide protection to Australia.  The Government of Japan instantly honoured the British request and despatched their naval vessels to patrol the Australian coasts, in spite of the humiliation her nationals suffered in Australia.  Moreover, in 1914, the Japanese naval cruiser Ibuki led one of the biggest convoys in naval history of thirty-eight vessels that carried thirty-thousand ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops with military hardware and 7,843 horses from Australia to Egypt.  As a faithful ally of the British, the Japanese fought the Germans in China and in the Asia Pacific, and captured their territory.   

The First World War raged for four years and four months causing eight million deaths and twenty million injuries.  In the aftermath of the war, as mentioned earlier, a peace conference was proposed.  With majority support Paris was chosen as the site for hosting the conference that commenced on 18 January 1919 and would continue till 28 April 1919.  Japan as a victorious ally of Britain was invited to participate.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story


Paris Peace Conference:  

The Japanese made elaborate preparations for Paris Peace Conference.  They had three demands, and the most important being the enshrinement of racial equality in the world as a principle in the charter of the League of Nations.  The Japanese public and the press were determined to see Japan gain racial equality.  Japanese newspaper the Yorozu announced that ‘now is the time to fight against international racial discrimination’.  Another newspaper the Ashahi announced ‘…Japan should insist on the equal international treatment of all races…not only for Japan, but for all the countries of Asia…’  The Japanese delegates set sail for Paris amid deafening cheers from the Japanese public, who expected them to achieve great success.  Lest the delegates forget their mission, the Ashahi issued one last piece of advice for them ‘Above all our peace envoy must not forget to persuade the Conference to agree to the relinquishment of the principle of racial discrimination, which if allowed to exist would continue to be a menace to the future peace of the world.  Fairness and equality must be secured for the coloured races who form 62 percent of the whole mankind’.

The Japanese delegates led by Mr Nobuaki Makino and ably supported by Mr Sutemi Chinda were very confident of achieving their goals in Paris Peace Conference.  Their conviction was based on the fact that Japan had proven herself as the faithful ally of the British in the just concluded war.  Moreover, they had much faith in the US President Wilson.  The Japanese delegates however, did not know that Wilson was the first to have introduced racial segregation into the departments of the US federal government.  Wilson also had advocated for a policy of exclusion on the issue of Asian immigration; the relevant portion of his speech being:

‘I stand for the national policy of exclusion.  We can not make a homogenous population out of a people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.  Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve.’

The Japanese delegates also did not know that Wilson was a staunch believer of the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxons evident from one of his earlier assertions:

‘We, Anglo-Saxons, have our peculiar contribution to make towards the good of humanity in accordance with our special talents.  The League of Nations will, I confidently hope, be dominated by us Anglo-Saxons; it will be for the unquestionable benefit of the world.  The discharge of our duties in the maintenance of peace and as a just mediatory in international disputes will rebound to our lasting prestige.  But it is of paramount importance that we Anglo-Saxons succeed in keeping in step with one another’.

Moreover, the Japanese did not foresee that Wilson will ultimately support his Anglo-Saxon brethren William Morris Hughes of Australia.

The Japanese delegates also did not realise that in England, publications emphasising the racial stereotypes of superficial differences with statements like, ‘the Japanese are five foot high, brown in colour, they have swivel shaped eyes, and they eat raw fish’ kept appearing.  Even during the conference Britain circulated her legal arguments to the representatives of other nations demonstrating ‘why different states and races should not be considered equal’.

During the conference that lasted three and a half months, the Japanese delegates systematically held meetings and discussions with the representatives of other participating countries to achieve their objectives.  After some initial success in negotiations, the Japanese encountered the stubbornness of the Prime Minister of Australia Hughes, who vehemently opposed their proposal in any form or shape, because he saw Racial Equality Bill as a direct threat to White Australia.  Hughes, ‘through shrewd belligerence and a skilful use of his hearing aid, had had most of his own way’ at the conference.  The US and Britain, who could have restrained Hughes, never did so.

On the evening of the 11th of April 1919, in the final session of the League of Nations Commission, when a discussion on the Preamble commenced, Japanese delegate Makino proposed to include the phrase ‘by the endorsement of the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals’ as a fundamental basis of future relations in this world organisation.  British delegate Robert Cecil speaking for the entire British Empire, deliberately evaded the issue of racial equality and objected to its inclusion.  In the ensuing debate that continued until the early morning of the 12th of April 1919, majority of the delegates argued in favour of the Japanese proposal.  At Japan’s insistence Wilson as the Chairman ‘reluctantly and nervously called for the vote’.  Out of the sixteen members in attendance, excluding the chairman, eleven members raised their hands in favour, that included the two French delegates, two Italian delegates, and one delegate each from Greece, China, Serbia, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and the two Japanese delegates.  Five delegates, one each from Britain, the US, Poland, Brazil and Romania voted against the proposal.  The final tally showed a clear majority support for the proposal on racial equality.

Wilson instead of accepting the decision of the majority, suddenly announced that the proposal had failed, as it did not get a unanimous support.  The Japanese delegates most valiantly argued their case but Wilson would not budge, and the proposal of racial equality was not approved for enshrinement in the charter of the League of Nations.

The very next day, on the 13th of April 1919, while the Paris Peace Conference was still going on, the British Government massacred a huge number of unarmed peaceful civilians in Jallianwala Bagh.

Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh:

India made the single largest contribution to the British war efforts, more than the combined contributions by all the British dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.  India provided 1.2 million men of whom 800,000 were soldiers.  26 thousand Indian soldiers died in the battle fields of France, Turkey and Africa, and 70 thousand were wounded.  India made an outright contribution of 100 million pounds, and further contributions of at least 30 million pounds annually for the duration of the war.  Indian princes, industrialists and the Indian public at large, most generously supported the British.  Even Mahatma Gandhi helped in recruitment of soldiers, and offered to work as a volunteer for the Red Cross.    

The British were so overwhelmed by the massive tide of unconditional Indian support that they decided to give in to some of the Indian demands.  In August 1917, therefore, the new Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, in the British House of Commons announced a promise to make India a dominion like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were.  Once the war ended the British, however, conveniently forgot their promise.  Moreover, when the Indian legislators unanimously passed a motion demanding the abrogation of the repressive war time legislation of Defence India Act of 1915, the British enacted the Rowlatt Act in February 1919 essentially designed to suppress all Indian demands.  The Rowlatt Bill drew nation wide protests.  The people of Amritsar chose to hold a peaceful meeting on Sunday the 13th of April 1919, which was also the Baisakhi, in Jallianwala Bagh to express their opposition to the Bill. 

The British General Reginald E. H. Dyer was a staunch imperialist and he was determined to teach the natives a lesson.  Dyer commanded his troops to open fire, without warning, on a peaceful gathering of about 20,000 local Indians from Amritsar and the nearby villages.  The machine guns killed 379 men women and children, and at least 1200 received serious injuries.  Eminent journalist and historian Khuswant Singh claims a higher figure of 2000 wounded, many of whom succumbed to their injuries in the months to follow.  The Government of Britain as of to-day, despite demands from the Government and people of India, have not offered an official apology for the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh.

The 13th of April 1919 was the day of Baisakhi, which marks the beginning of the solar New Year in India.  For the people of the province of Punjab where lies the city of Amritsar, where the massacre took place, Baisakhi is a mega event.  The adherents of the Sikh religion celebrate Baisakhi for a combination of reasons; it is the day of their most important religious festival, harvest festival and the New Year’s Day.  The religious significance of Baisakhi stems from several important historical facts.  In 1567, Sikh Guru Amar Das institutionalised Baisakhi as the special day of gathering to seek the Guru’s blessings.  The fifth Guru Arjun Das, who constructed the golden temple at Amritsar, was most savagely murdered by the Muslim rulers by being thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil on Baisakhi of 1606.  He became the first Sikh martyr, and Baisakhi became a day of martyrdom. 

The tenth and the last Guru of Sikhism, Guru Govind Singh on Baisakhi in 1699, in an assembly of 80,000 Sikhs established the order of Khalsa or the Pure Ones.  On the same day he announced the elimination of the differences between the high of caste or wealth, and the low; thus establishing egalitarianism among the Sikhs.  On the same day again, he terminated the tradition of appointing a guru, and anointed the holy book of Sikhism, the Granth Sahib, as the Guru.  This was also the day when Guru Govind Singh initiated the much loved Panch Piaras or the Five Loved Ones. 

The Hindus, not only of Punjab but of the entire country of India, observe Baisakhi as the New Year’s Day, celebrated by ritual bathing, worshipping and merriment.  The equivalent of Baisakhi in the West would be the Christmas and the New Year’s Day combined.  And the Baisakhi is the day the British chose to massacre the unarmed civilians, men women and children, of Punjab, and to utterly humiliate Indians, who had most generously contributed to the war efforts of the British.

The massacre of Jallianwala Bagh was a turning point in Indo-British relations, just as the rejection of the Racial Equality Bill was for the Anglo-Japanese relations.  The massacre brought a new resolve among the Indian leadership demanding freedom.  Mahatma Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement that would eventually succeed in driving the British off India.

[Authors' Declaration: This article, except for the sections on Jallianwala Bagh and Komagata Maru, and the first two paragraphs, is based on research carried out by Mrs Shizuka Imamoto at Macquarie University of Sydney, Australia]

(Dr Nachiketa Das is the Director, NRI-Enviro-Geo-Tech - Australia, Sydney; and, Mrs Shizuka Imamoto is a Scholar working, mainly, on International relations, strategic politics and Diplomatic Initiatives. Both are presently based in Hiroshima, Japan)



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