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THE JALLIANWALA BAGH MASSACRE, 1919, AMRITSAR (PUNJAB)

 

The brutal massacre of innocent Indians on 13th April 1919 in Amritsar is one of the bloodiest events in the history of India. The killings on the Baisakhi day and the repression that followed shocked and stunned the Indians.  It evoked national pride among the Indians and paved way for the end of the British Raj.  

 

India had contributed enormously to the British during the First World War in the hope of gaining constitutional advancement. Punjab had sent about five lakh soldiers to war fronts in Europe and the Middle East.  They contributed heavily to the War Fund. The British, however, were worried over the end of the Defense of India Act at the end of the War. They wanted to replace it with another draconian kind of legislation. A Committee was formed on 10th December 1917 under Justice Sydney A.T. Rowlatt to inquire into ‘criminal conspiracies and revolutionary movement in India’.  The Committee after 46 sittings submitted its report on 15th April 1918. On its recommendations, the Indian Government drafted two bills that provided for the trial of the political workers by special Tribunal, consisting of three judges without juries, detention without trial up to two years. The accused were denied the right of defense with the help of a counsel.  The Bills were rushed through the Imperial Legislative Council between 6th February and 18th March 1919.  Nevertheless, much against the unanimous opposition of all non- official Indian members, one of the Bills became an Act.  Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to oppose the Bills. On the 24th February, Mahatma Gandhi decided to launch the Satyagraha at all India level with the following pledge:

 

“Satyagraha is a process of self-purification and ours is a sacred fight, and it seems to be in the fitness of things that it should be commenced with an act of self-purification. Let all the people of India suspend their business on that day and observe the day as of fasting and prayers”.

 

THE HARTALS AND THE FIRING BY THE POLICE 

 

Five districts of Punjab viz. Amritsar, Lahore, Gujranwala, Gujrat, and Lyallpur were hit by widespread protests against the Rowlatt Bills.  Amritsar from the very beginning showed unprecedented enthusiasm under the leadership of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew. On the call of Mahatma Gandhi, a peaceful hartal was observed on 30th March and 6th April. However, it was the joint procession of the Hindus and the Muslims on the Ram Naumi on 9th April in which slogans such as ‘Satyapal and Kitchlew ki Jai”, “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai” and “Hindu- Muslim ki Jai” were raised which panicked the British authorities. Such type of unity had never been seen in Amritsar before. Sensing danger, the Punjab Government decided to remove Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew.  On 10th April, they were called to Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow and deported to Dharamsala. As the news of their deportation spread in the city, the followers of the leaders proceeded to the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow.  The police prevented them. The crowd in retaliation began stone pelting the police. About twelve Indians were killed in the police firing. However, the Congress Inquiry Committee mentioned the number of killed to be between 20 and 30.

 

REACTION OF THE PEOPLE 

 

The shooting infuriated the crowd.  The procession went back to the Hall Bazar.  On their way back, they indulged in arson and looting. They attacked the Telegraph office, ransacked the National Bank, beat to death its manager and assistant manager. The Alliance Bank was also attacked and its manager was killed. In all, five British were killed.  Moreover, the crowd also burnt the Town Hall and the sub- Post Office attached to it. The sub-Post Offices at the Golden Temple, Majith Mandi, and Dhabi Basti Ram were also looted. They also misbehaved with Miss Sherwood, a Christian missionary. Another group set goods-shed at the Railway Station on fire and killed its guard. They destroyed railway lines at the Bhagtanwala Railway Station also.  However, the night of 10th April was relatively calm and quiet. After persistent pleadings, a funeral procession was allowed on 11th April on the understanding that it would end before 2.00 pm.

 

BRIGADIER-GENERAL REGINALD DYER ARRIVES IN AMRITSAR 

 

On the afternoon of 11th April, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer reached at the Railway Station Amritsar from Jalandhar. He immediately shifted his headquarters to the Ram Bagh popularly called the Company Bagh. On 12th April, the last ceremonies of the dead were performed. On the morning of 12th April, General Dyer made a tour of the city and drafted prohibitory orders. However, there were counter-proclamations of a meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh. Next day, on the morning of 13th April, General Dyer issued a proclamation, thus prohibiting all the public meetings. Twenty such proclamations were made at different parts of the city. Nineteen proclamations were made in the walled city, but surprisingly more than half and most populous part of the city was left untouched.  In fact, General Dyer did not know much about the city. Moreover, no attempt was made to put up printed copies of the proclamation at the entrance of the Jallianwala Bagh, a place where public meetings were often held. General Dyer was in haste and found sweltering heat unbearable.

 

THE JALLIANWALA BAGH MASSACRE    

 

On the Baisakhi of 1919, a religious and cultural festival of the Punjabis, people, as usual, came to visit the Golden Temple. After their visit to the Temple, they were relaxing in the Bagh. Most of those, who were in the Jallianwala Bagh had no knowledge of the prohibitory orders of General Dyer as many had come from adjoining villages. Some of them, however, had gathered to hear the local leaders.

 

About 1 O’clock, General Dyer was informed that a big meeting was being organized at the Jallianwala Bagh around 4.30 pm. He immediately proceeded with pickets which he left at pre-arranged places and a special force of 25 Gurkhas, 25 Baluchis armed with rifles and 40 soldiers armed with kukris and 2 armored cars. He reached there by 4.30 pm. On reaching the Bagh he left the armored cars outside the Bagh as the entrance to the Bagh was very narrow.  He entered the Bagh by 5 or 5.15 pm and stationed 25 troops on the one side of the higher ground at the entrance and 25 troops on the other side. Unfortunately, he did not consider it necessary to give them the warning to disperse despite the fact that he could speak Punjabi like a native. He considered it unnecessary as they had collected despite his prohibitory orders. Moreover, he had made up his mind. He ordered shooting immediately, and in all 1650 rounds were fired; fire being directed on crowds not on individuals and redirected from time to time where the crowd was the thickest. The ammunition used was the ordinary .303 army cartridges. He stopped firing because the ammunition was running low. The firing continued for ten minutes. On the conclusion of the firing, he along with the troops retired back to the Ram Bagh by 6 pm. The wounded were left unattended to and the number of casualties remained uncounted. In his first report, Mr. Miles Irving, Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, who did not accompany General Dyer, mentioned just 200 killed without warning.

 

The first reaction of the people to firing was shocking verging on panic. There were 4-5 small outlets. People found themselves completely trapped. Close to their left were houses, farther ahead of the well, on their right the open space.  Each soldier was loading and firings. Dyer cautioned those soldiers whom he found firing over the heads. Many fell dead on the spot and thus many more, while falling got crushed under the weight of others. Waves of men fell over each other and many died of suffocation. Towards the exits on either flank, the crowd converged in their frantic efforts to escape, jostling, clambering, elbowing and trampling over each other.  The firing led to the death of 379 as per official records (with names and addresses) and fatal injuries to thousands. However, the casualties were much higher. The counting of the dead did not start before 20th August i.e four months after the Massacre. The Seva Samiti gave a figure of 500. Madan Mohan Malaviya gave a figure of 1500 and the Congress Inquiry Committee put the figure at 1000. The exact number, however, would never be known, as many did not come forward out of fear.

 

Next day, April 14th was devoted to clearing the dead or wounded and burying the dead. General Dyer himself went through the city to check the situation. He made a threatening speech in Urdu: 

 

“You people know well that I am a sepoy and soldier. Do you want War or peace? If you wish for War, the Government is prepared for it; and if you want peace, then obey my orders and open all your shops, else I will shoot….. You must inform me of the badmashes. I will shoot them. Obey my orders and open shops. Speak up if you want War”.

 

On 15th April, all shops were forcibly opened in Amritsar. But the revenge of the Punjab Government was yet not complete.   The same day the Martial Law was promulgated in Amritsar city. It was followed by the Martial Law in Gujranwala and Lahore on 16th April. On 14th and 15th April bombs were dropped from airplanes to scare the crowd in Gujranwala and surrounding villages. Martial Law was imposed in Gujarat on 19th and in Lyallpur on 24th April. Rest of the towns and cities were put under the Police Act.

 

MARTIAL LAW 

 

Under the Martial Law administration, the life of the people in Amritsar was miserable and they had to suffer indescribable indignities and humiliation. Indiscriminate arrests were made and people were subjected to tortures and so-called fancy punishments.  

The street in which Miss Sherwood was assaulted was set apart for flogging and all passing through that street had to crawl on their bellies. The ‘crawling lane’ was a narrow and thickly populated place with numerous blind alleys shooting out. Those who wanted to go out even for the most essential jobs had to pass through some part of the lane and they had to crawl. Sanitary or medical service was rendered only on condition of crawling. In the middle of the lane, an oblong platform was erected which was specially raised for flogging people. General Dyer wanted the people to go on all fours. In fact, the process consisted of people lying flat on their bellies and crawling like reptiles. Any lifting of the knees or bending brought the rifle butts on their backs. General Dyer said that “it did not enter his brain that any sensible man, in the circumstances, would voluntarily go through that lane”. He also sent ‘moveable columns’ to different places in the countryside to terrorize the people. Later he told the Hunter Committee that people were obliged to crawl only when they moved out between six in the morning and eight in the evening. But then after eight, they could not move out in any case because of the curfew. General Dyer could not care and he told the Hunter Committee, ‘if they had suffered a little it would be no harm under Martial Law’. Lt. Governor Michael O’Dwyer ‘disapproved’ the crawling order.

General Dyer’s sadism did not end with the crawling order. He directed that all people should salaam every Englishman and all lawyers should work like constables and even as coolies and that even for small offenses flogging should be resorted to. Arrests were made in large numbers and special Tribunals meted out summary justice. He introduced ‘Dyerism’ in the region. In Kasur, an entire wedding party, including the priest, was flogged. Bribery became rampant for escaping punishments. 

General Dyer could do so as he had the full support of Michael O’Dwyer, Lt. Governor of Punjab. O’ Dwyer was later shot dead by Sardar Udham Singh at the Caxton Hall London, on 13th March 1940. He held Michael O’Dwyer equally responsible for what happened in the Jallianwala Bagh and during the Martial Law administration in Punjab. 

The Martial Law was withdrawn from Amritsar, Gujranwala, Gujarat, and Lyallpur on 9th June and from Lahore accepting railway lands on 11th June 1919. 

Within a year of the massacre, a trust was founded and the land was purchased with public subscriptions and made into a memorial park. The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Trust was established in 1951 by the Government of India, to commemorate the massacre by British occupying forces of peaceful celebrators including unarmed women and children. 

 

EVIDENCE OF BRIGADIER-GENERAL REGINALD DYER: 

“I had made up my mind that I will do all men to death if they were going to continue the meeting…. I had made up my mind that I would fire immediately in order to save the military situation”.

 

“I fired and continued to fire till the crowd dispersed, and I considered that this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect, it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been in greater proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd but producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view,  not only on those present but more especially through the Punjab”.

 

(Disorders Inquiry Committee Report 1919-1920, p.47)

 

EVIDENCE OF LT. GOVERNOR MICHAEL O’ DWYER

 

“I approved of Gen Dyer’s action in dispersing by force the rebellious gathering and thus preventing further rebellious acts.  It was not for me to say that he had gone too far when I was told by his superior officer that he fully approved Gen Dyer’s action. Speaking with perhaps a more intimate knowledge of the then situation than anyone else, I have no hesitation in saying that General Dyer’s action that day was decisive in crushing the rebellion the seriousness of which is only now being generally realized”   

 

(Disorders Inquiry Committee Report 1919-1920, p.48)

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE JALLIANWALA BAGH

 

Rabindranath Tagore renounced his Knighthood in protest to Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  In a letter to the Viceroy he wrote:

 

"The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India ... The very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honor make our shame glaring in the incongruous context by humiliation and I, for my part wish to stand shorn of all special distinction by the side of those of my countrymen who for their so-called insignificance are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings and these are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask your Excellency, with due deference and regret, to release me of my title of knighthood.”     

                                         

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Source: Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds., Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, CUP, 1997.

 

“Plassey laid the foundation of British Empire, Amritsar has shaken it”.

“In Amritsar, innocent men and women were made to crawl like worms on their bellies. Before this outrage, Jallinawala tragedy paled into insignificance in my eyes, though it was this massacre principally which attracted the attention of the people of India and the world”.

Mahatma Gandhi

(An Autobiography, p. 358)

 

“It is a monstrous event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.

Winston Churchill

(Secretary of State for War in the House of Commons, London, 8 July 1920)

“It is one of the worst outrages in the whole of history”.

                Herbert Asquith

(P.M, United Kingdom (1908-16))

 

“All the world knows of the massacre that took place on April 13 in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, when thousands fell dead and wounded, in that trap of death from which there was no escape. The very word “Amritsar” has become a synonym for massacre”.

 

       Jawaharlal Nehru on May 11, 1933

(Glimpses of World History, pp. 714-15)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Report of the Commissioners appointed by the Punjab Sub-Committee of the Indian National Congress, 1920.

Disorder Inquiry Committee 1919-1920: Government of India, 1920.