The name जलियाँवाला बाग (Jalianwala Bagh) is surely familiar to most Indians. For the uninitiated: hundreds of peaceful, unarmed civilians were massacred without provocation in Jalianwala Bagh, an odd shaped open ground in the city of Amritsar, Punjab on 13th April 1919. 96 years after that colossal tragedy, let’s recount the events that led to it and the aftermath.
Prelude to Massacre
1919 was a particularly difficult time in Indian history. Having contributed over a million soldiers to the great war in Europe (out of which, over 40,000 were killed in the battlefields of world war I), Indians were expecting political concessions from their victorious colonial masters. All such delusions were quickly shattered, as the British rulers soon made it clear that with the war over it was to be business as usual.
The trade disruption and scarcities caused by war time rationing had led to massive unemployment and high inflation. The situation, already precarious, was compounded by a failed monsoon in 1918. If that wasn’t bad enough, the British government imposed new taxes to fill up the virtually bankrupt coffers. Not surprisingly, discontent was rife.
With memories of the Lahore conspiracy trials fresh in mind, the British government reacted to the simmering discontent by enacting the Anarchial and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919 (popularly known as the Rowlatt Act), which authorised the government- among other things- to imprison people on mere suspicion and detain then without trial. Put it simply, India had effectively become a police state. The gunpowder was dry. A spark was all it needed to cause a conflagration.
That spark was provided by the government on the night of 9th April, when two prominent leaders of Punjab: Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested along with Mahatma Gandhi and moved to an undisclosed location. Not surprisingly, violent protests erupted across Punjab, prompting the state government to impose martial law on the 13th.
Sunday, 13th April 1919- the day on which martial law was imposed- happened to be the day of Baisakhi, an important religious and cultural festival in Punjab. Since the notice was not widely disseminated outside of the major cities, the vast majority of the populace from the countryside was unaware of the fact that gatherings were prohibited. And so thousands of people found themselves in Jalianwala Bagh that afternoon.
The news of the gathering infuriated Colonel Reginald Dyer, commandant of the military brigade in Amritsar. Born and brought up in India, Dyer was a second generation Britisher settled in India. Not atypically for Raj era Britishers who grew up in India, Dyer strongly distrusted Indians and had a marked hatred for the ‘natives’. Temporarily named Brigadier General during the war in 1916, he still retained that post in April 1919.
Determined to teach the natives a lesson, Dyer arrived with a group of 90 armed soldiers. The road leading up to the ground was too narrow and so the armoured vehicle in which they arrived had to be abandoned. With muskets in hand, the troops sealed the main entrance (the remaining entrances, most of which were normally locked, were very narrow) and on his orders, opened fire on the crowd. The firing lasted around 10 minutes, by which time about 1,650 rounds were fired. As the troops ran out of ammunition, Dyer ordered them to return to base.
In those ten minutes or so, scores of people were shot to death and several others were killed after getting trampled in the ensuing stampede. Many more jumped into the well at a corner of the ground to avoid the gunfire and drowned to death. According to a plaque placed there (the well is now sealed), 120 bodies were subsequently recovered from the well. The official figures revealed that as many as 379 persons were killed in the firing. The Indian National Congress, which conducted its own inquiry, quoted a figure well in excess of 1000, as did many other officials at the time.
The numbers may be in dispute, but what is beyond dispute is the fact that hundreds of unarmed people were shot in cold blood without provocation. In his testimony before the Hunter commission, Dyer admitted that he had not given the crowd any warning to disperse and that he had no remorse for having ordered his troops to fire.
The curfew precluded any possibility of providing medical aid to injured people who were still alive. As a result, scores of injured were left to die.
A significant number of ordinary British citizens condoned Dyer’s action, as did the vast majority of the British population in India. Rudyard Kipling, who claimed that Dyer had saved India, started a benefit fund which raised over 26,000 pound sterling (over a million pounds in today’s money).
- The British government attempted to suppress the news, due to which details of the massacre came to be known in Britain only in December, resulting in a change of popular attitude
- Several influential voices in Britain condemned Colonel Dyer, notably Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State for War), who described it as “…a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation…” (ironically, he would himself be more responsible than anyone else for the great Bengal Famine of 1943 which claimed over a million lives- more about that at a later date).
- For English educated, Anglophile Indians steeped in the ideas of British justice, the Jalianwala Bagh massacre shattered all faith in British justice and undermined their loyalty to the empire.
- The Hunter Commission, constituted to inquire into the massacre, did not impose any penal or disciplinary action on Colonel Dyer. However, he was forced into pre-mature retirement in 1920. His recommendation for a CBE (for his services during the third Afghan War) was withdrawn.
- Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governer of Punjab, who had imposed martial law and who supported Dyer, denied responsibility for the massacre on the grounds that he was not responsible for the implementation of his orders on the ground. Nevertheless, O’Dwyer copped severe criticism from influential persons in the British establishment. He would be relieved of his office.
- Mahatma Gandhi, whose faith in British rule was shattered by the massacre, would launch the Non-Cooperation Movement the following year, which shook the British empire to its very foundations
- Reginald Dyer suffered a series of strokes which left him paralysed and specchless before he passed way in 1927 due to cerebral haemorrhage and arteriosclerosis
- Michael O’Dwyer was assassinated in March 1940 by a young revolutionary called Udham Singh, who is remembered as a hero in popular culture to this date
- A memorial was built on-site to the victims of the massacre, inaugurated in 1960 by then Indian president Rajendra Prasad
- Several historians recognise the Jalianwala Bagh massacre as a tippping point in India’s struggle for independence (a point of view that is hotly disputed )
- While on a visit to India in February 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the Jalianwala Bagh massacre as a “deeply shameful event”
- Apologists for Dyer exist to this day, not least the writer of this article in the Dailymail