What happened on April 13, 1919, in Amritsar is well known. However, the incidents preceding the Jallianwala Bagh massacre have shrunk to a mere footnote in history. An unsung hero from those turbulent times was Gerard Anstruther Wathen, then Principal of Khalsa College. Thanks largely to his initiative, claims a historian, the administration didn’t carry out aerial bombing of the riot-hit holy city on April 11. There could have been an even bigger bloodbath than the one perpetrated by General Reginald Dyer, had the bombs rained down.
Sharing his research findings with The Tribune, London-based historian Dr Kim A Wagner says, “Wathen intervened to let local residents gather for funerals on April 11, before Dyer arrived, and negotiated an arrangement with the authorities — if people failed to disperse by 2 pm, airplanes would drop bombs on the city. The residents did the needful, averting a major tragedy. His intervention was crucial as some British officers, including AJW Kitchin, Commissioner of Lahore, were quite prepared to use force.”
Wathen feared that if any damage was caused particularly to the Golden Temple, the Sikh soldiers would rise together in rebellion against the Empire. His artist wife, Melicent, noted in her diary that he sent his students and a local ‘maulvi’ to warn people about the 2 pm deadline.
Born in Kent (England) in 1878, Wathen entered the elite Indian Education Service in 1905. He served as Professor of English and Economics at Government College, Lahore, and Inspector of Schools, Jalandhar Division, before joining as Principal of Khalsa College, Amritsar, in 1915.
Legend has it that the Principal and his wife carried basketfuls of rubble on their heads during the construction of the college’s main building and cubicles for boarders. He spearheaded the “coats off” movement, which was aimed at teaching students the importance of manual labour. During his tenure, the college produced several outstanding students, including Ram Parsad Singh Grewal (also known as S Pertab), who made it to the Indian Civil Service in 1921 and later served as the Deputy Commissioner of Delhi, Ferozepur, Lahore and Shimla. Another distinguished alumnus was civil engineer Kishan Singh, father of Arjan Singh, Marshal of the Indian Air Force.
In his book, ‘Time Present & Time Past: Memoirs of a Top Cop’ (2013), former Punjab DGP Kirpal Singh Dhillon writes that his father, Jagjit Singh, represented Khalsa College in sports at the university level. The retired IPS officer recalls: “He was particularly nostalgic about Principal Wathen, an eminent academic of his time… Wathen often joined the resident students for meals in the hostel and was fond of mixing informally with them, conversing in fluent Punjabi. The British, who were seriously engaged in befriending the Sikhs at that juncture in Indian history, so as to keep them away from the fast-growing nationalist movement, sent their best men to manage premier Sikh institutions…”