The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 13 April 1919
by Jaibans Singh on 13 Apr 2019 2 Comments

“I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, I consider 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.......It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view....”

- Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre


Baisakh is the second month of the Sikh (Nanakshahi Calendar); it is marked by the festival of Baisakhi which heralds the beginning of the harvesting season. The day has been celebrated across Punjab for centuries on end. It is because of its significance that it was chosen by the tenth Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, to initiate his followers into the fold of the Khalsa (pure) in 1699. At that time, Baisakhi fell on March 30 of the western calendar.


Baisakhi continues to be celebrated by the Punjabi community across the world with great fervour. There is, however, a twinge of sadness attached to it since on this day in 1919, a tragedy of monumental proportions, now called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, took place in Amritsar.


On April 13, 1919, as the whole of Punjab was celebrating the festival, a British officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, ordered his troops to open fire on a non-violent and unarmed gathering that had collected there to celebrate Baisakhi at Jallianwala Bagh. His troops, comprising of about 50 Gorkha, Pathan and Baluch soldiers, were ordered by him to fire directly at the congregation of men, women and children of the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities. It is reported that the troops came well prepared with Armoured Cars in support and fired 1650 rounds of .303 Lee-Enfield Rifles. The brutal attack lasted barely ten minutes and left in its wake, according to official figures, 379 dead of whom 217 were Hindus, 102 Sikhs and 57 Muslims; the actual count is said to be much higher.


The operation was in contravention of the instructions contained in the Manual of Military Law, according to which a formal warning was required to be given before opening fire and then too, minimum force was to be used. Dyer justified his action by saying that en route to the Bagh he had stopped at 19 places to read out a proclamation prohibiting public gatherings. The justification is false and perfidious. His junior officers also attempted to restrain him but he took no notice. It was fortuitous that the armoured cars that Dyer had brought along could not enter the narrow alley otherwise he would have used them too with devastating consequences, as admitted by him during the enquiry. When the operation culminated, Dyer is said to have congratulated his troops for their high level of training and discipline: “We have done a jolly good thing”.


In terms of casualties, the incident cannot be termed as the worst example of British barbarity and brutality in India. The British conquest of Bengal in 1757 devastated the wealthy region and reduced the people to famine and penury. The aftermath of the uprising of 1857 witnessed a far larger count of casualties and a much higher degree of ruthlessness.


The Jallianwala Bagh incident, however, stands out for its total lack of morality and military ethics; it put a permanent blot on the standards of justice and fair play that the British associate themselves with. The Punjabis, Sikhs in particular, who had shown exceptional loyalty to the British during World War I, got alienated. It was a major turning point in the Indian freedom struggle and gave it unprecedented momentum. It is often said that the British lost their Indian Empire that very day.


The trigger for the incident can be found in the appointment of Justice Rowlatt to enquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies in India; his recommendation to suspend civil liberties was accepted by the government and legislated as the Rowlatt Act. There was a nation-wide agitation against this Act on the call of Mahatma Gandhi.


Punjab was simmering due to agrarian unrest caused by monsoon failure. This apart, many Sikh families had lost their sons in the world war and they had a grudge against the British. The widespread demobilisation left many frustrated, jobless soldiers on the street, who had imbibed concepts of freedom and nationhood while serving in foreign shores. The agitation witnessed maximum impact in Punjab.  


The Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic Irishman hailing from a poor family, had a tendency to go overboard in his show of loyalty to the Crown.  Being of a feudal mindset, he did not take kindly to the strike calls. He was informed by his Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving that Hindus and Muslims of Punjab had united against the British, which added to his apprehension. He responded with an order to arrest two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew. Both leaders were revered by the people for their efforts to bring about a change through non-violent agitation and civil disobedience. Their arrest on April 9 led to demonstrations and large scale unrest in which about 20 people were killed due to Police firing. 


By April 10, the agitation had taken a violent turn in Amritsar, the seat of religious and temporal power for the Sikh community. It reached a state where Europeans in Amritsar had to be evacuated, reminding the British of the terrible days of the uprising of 1857. The matter was aggravated by the beating up of a British woman, Marcella Sherwood, 45, superintendent of the city’s mission schools, by a crowd while on her way to one of the schools. Though she was saved by Indians, the British, particularly O’Dwyer and Dyer, were infuriated by the incident.


A word about the perpetrator of the tragedy: Reginald Edward Harry Dyer is erroneously called General Dyer. He was, in fact, an acting Brigadier General at the time the Jallianwala Bagh incident occurred and he retired as Colonel. He was born in Murree, now in Pakistan, to a reasonably wealthy family in the Distillery business. The modern day Mohan Meakins Brewery in Kasauli once belonged to the Dyer family. He was educated in Lawrence College, Murree and Bishop Cotton School, Shimla before being commissioned from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. As part of the British Indian Army, he served in the Punjab Regiment and held many staff appointments. He is known as the “Butcher of Amritsar” for what he did in Jallianwala Bagh and otherwise in the city on declaration of Martial Law. He retired on July 17, 1920, retaining the rank of colonel.


Brigadier General Reginald Dyer considered the congregation at Jallianwala Bagh to be a direct defiance of his orders. The reports that he was given were factually incorrect and from unreliable resources. Those whom he thought to be revolutionaries were, in fact, common people and their families who had collected to celebrate Baisakhi. It was definitely not a political gathering even though some activists did seize the opportunity to get their word through. Dyer wanted to set an example by instilling terror in the hearts of the common people. By not allowing families to collect their dead and wounded for 24 hours he added to the shame that he had brought upon his peers and Britain. Under the garb of Martial Law the public was humiliated and forced to perform punishments. The most degrading was the “crawling order” which entailed natives crawling through the alley where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted. The order was cancelled by O’Dwyer within five days on directions of Lord Chelmsford himself when nationalist people, especially youth, started crawling voluntarily.


The administration backed Dyer to the hilt and attempted to portray the incident as one of a minor nature with the action taken having elicited the required effect in quelling the unrest. The estimated casualties were also watered down to say that no more than 200 people had died.


The matter was investigated for almost a year by what is termed as the Hunter Enquiry. The three Indian members submitted their own minority report. “We feel that General Dyer, by adopting an inhuman and un-British method of dealing with subjects of His Majesty the King-Emperor, has done great disservice to the interest of British rule in India,” they said.


Once the actual facts started coming out there was nationwide disgust. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood in protest. Gandhi too returned the medals awarded for his wartime services to the Empire and formally withdrew his loyalty to the British Government. The Non-cooperation Movement was launched the very next year.


Sadly, Dyer was not without support; the Anglo-Indian community looked upon him as the “Saviour of Punjab” and money was collected for him. The Empire, however, looked upon him as an embarrassment and he was asked to resign and go back to England. Yet, he was accorded a hero’s send-off. An article in India Today claims that Governor O’Dwyer was also given a fund of rupees 1.75 lakh collected by Punjabi elite like Kunj Bihari Thapar, Umar Hayat Khan, Chaudhary Gajjan Singh and Rai Bahadur Lal Chand. Clearly, there was no dearth of self-servers in those days.


The issue finally came before the House of Commons in the form of a debate on Dyer’s future on July 8, 1920. Dyer, his wife and Sir Michael O’Dwyer were present in the Visitors’ Gallery. Lord Montagu, in his opening speech asked the House, “Are you going to keep your hold upon India by terrorism, racial humiliation and subordination, and frightfulness, or are you going to rest it upon the goodwill…?” The debate turned highly acrimonious since there were many who stood in support of Dyer. Winston Churchill, however, ended the debate by terming the act as “monstrous.” The government won 230 to 129 votes and Dyer was wrested of his commission; he resigned and went into retirement thereafter. The conservative Morning Post launched an appeal for funds for the benefit of Dyer and portrayed him as ‘The Man Who Saved India’. More than £26,000 were raised, that afforded for him and his wife a fairly comfortable retired life. He died in 1927 due to prolonged illness.


So high was the level of emotion generated by the brutal massacre that a Sikh named Udham Singh went all the way to England to seek revenge. On March 13, 1940 he killed Michael O’Dwyer at Caxton Hall, London. Udham Singh was later tried and hanged in accordance with British Law. 


India and Pakistan both have been demanding an apology from the British government for the brutal massacre of innocents in Jallianwala Bagh. The Government of the Indian state of Punjab has unanimously passed a resolution demanding an apology from Britain. “The tragic massacre remains one of the most horrific memories of British colonial rule in India. This shameful military action against locals peacefully protesting… has since received worldwide condemnation,” the resolution says.


The British Government, sadly, lost the opportunity provided by a parliamentary debate on the subject in February this year, to apologise for the atrocity. Mike Field, Minister for Asia and Pacific, said that he recognised the “strong and compelling case” for Britain to go beyond the deep regret already expressed but was reluctant to apologise for things that had happened in the past. Pressure, however, is on the British government since some members of the British Parliament have signed a letter to the Prime Minister demanding a formal apology.


On February 19, Lord Rajinder Paul Loomba requested a short debate to ask her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre. Statements made by some peers indicate the feelings on the issue. “Those innocent, unarmed civilians who died immediately, and those left to suffer a horrendous and prolonged death, were let down by the very people who should have been protecting them... At the time, many Indians had given of their lives “for King and country” by fighting in the First World War”, Lord Loomba said in his opening address.


“That most horrific day in history remains in the memories of Indians all over the world even today. This act of complete disregard – opening fire on innocent people who had no escape routes or an opportunity to voice their protests is truly a black cloud in British history”, said Baroness Sandip K Verma.


“It is not too late for the British Government to apologise. I was with David Cameron in India on that visit in 2013. I was hopeful that he would apologise, but he did not. He said that it was a “deeply shameful event”, but he did not apologise,” said Lord Karan Billimoria.


It is notable that Queen Elizabeth visited the memorial in 1997. “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness”, she had said.


At Jallianwala Bagh, the bullet marks have been kept as they were and the Well has also been preserved. There is a Martyrs Memorial and the area which was barren has a coat of lawns. One gets an eerie feeling while trying to relive the times gone by, even as many visitors pose for selfies. It would be best for the authorities to create an ambiance that is commensurate with the history of the place.


More than looking for an apology for what happened 100 years back it is important for all Indians to read history properly and understand the consequences of being divided and intolerant. It is also important to understand the role being played by the Armed Forces of the nation in ensuring that the people enjoy their freedom unhindered. There are always powers looking for ways and means to exploit weaknesses in a country and a civilisation. Successive generations need to ensure that Jallianwala Bagh is not repeated in our great nation ever again.


(Jaibans Singh is a noted scholar, author and motivational speaker)

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