Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath, when British forces led by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on unarmed, innocent Indians, including children, who were present at a gathering on April 13, 1919 on the occasion of the Punjabi New Year (Baisakhi).
Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer (55) commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of 15,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.
Some had come to protest peacefully against the oppressive Rowlatt Act of the British government while some to celebrate Baisakhi – the harvest festival in northern India. The crowd included men, women, children and pilgrims who were visiting the nearby Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites for Sikhs.
Dyer had brought two armoured cars with mounted machine guns as well, but the entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to let them in. Perhaps to compensate for this shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest.
Apart from the main entrance, there was no way for the crowd to escape the garden as the area was surrounded by buildings. This is a major reason for the high number of casualties.
The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1,650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded. Civil Surgeon Dr Smith indicated that there were 1,526 casualties. The true figures of fatalities are unknown, but are very likely to be many times higher.
On March 10, 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, extending repressive measures in force during World War I (1914-18). The unpopular legislation provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless in camera trials for proscribed political acts. The accused were denied the right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial. The Act angered many Indian freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi, and the public, who suspended businesses and went on strikes and would fast, pray and hold public meetings against the ‘Black Act’ as a sign of their opposition and civil disobedience would be offered against the law.
In northern Punjab the protest movement was very strong, and on 10 April two leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, were arrested and taken secretly to Dharamsala as the authorities were becoming concerned by displays of Hindu-Muslim unity. On 13 April people from neighbouring villages gathered in Jallianwala Bagh for Baisakhi Day celebrations and to protest against deportation of two Indian leaders in Amritsar.
After the massacre
The shooting was followed by the proclamation of martial law on April 16 by British colonial administration in Punjab that included public floggings, indiscriminate arrests and a host of other humiliations including forced crawling in the lane where a British missionary was attacked. Children were stripped naked before whipping them in public for trivialities.
To punish Amritsar, the military ordered residents to compulsorily salute all British men, arrested hundreds without charge, tortured them and tried them under martial law.
Considered “the Butcher of Amritsar”, Dyer was removed from duty; he was criticised, but he became a celebrated hero in England.
Ironically, Dyer was offered the honorary Sikh title of ‘Sardar’ by the mahant of the Golden Temple at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.
Born in Ireland, Michael O’Dwyer was the Governor of Punjab when the massacre happened. Dwyer endorsed Dyer’s action regarding the massacre and termed it a “correct action”. And the day after the massacre in another Punjab town he ordered the bombing of men, women and children, with one plane even pursuing the fleeing peasants returning from their fields and machine gunning their homes.
In 1940, Michael O’Dwyer – then aged 75, was assassinated by Udham Singh, a revolutionary belonging to the Ghadar Party in London in revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Two shots hit Dwyer, one bullet passing his right lung and heart, the other piercing both kidneys.
Udham Singh did not flee from the spot and was subsequently tried and convicted of murder and hanged in July 1940.
While in custody, he called himself “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”: the first three words of the name reflect the three major religions of Punjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh); the last word “azad” (literally “free”) reflects his anti-colonial sentiment.
On 31st July, 1940, Udham Singh was hanged at Pentonville Prison and buried there. His remains were returned to India in 1974.
Udham Singh was born as Sher Singh on 26 December 1899 to a Kamboj family of Sunam in Sangrur district. He lost his parents at an early age. According to legend, Udham Singh, then 20, was in the Jallianwala Bagh on the day of the massacre.
In March 1940, Indian National Congress leader Jawahar Lal Nehru, condemned the action of Udham Singh as senseless, however, in 1962, Nehru had to reverse his stance.
Jallianwala Bagh @100
Nation pays tribute to martyrs
As the nation commemorates the 100th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of innocent Indians by British forces at the Jallianwala Bagh, President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday paid tributes to the martyrs.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh was joined by people in large numbers who gathered at the national memorial in Amritsar to pay homage to hundreds of men and woman who were gunned down by British troops .
On Friday, hundreds of people, including students, residents and visitors held a candlelight vigil in Amritsar.
“Shameful act,” says British High Commissioner
British High Commissioner to India Dominic Asquith, who paid his tribute and laid a wreath at the memorial in Punjab’s Amritsar, wrote in the visitors’ book, “The events of Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago today reflects a shameful act in British-Indian history. We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.”
UK’s Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has sought for an unequivocal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
The British government, even after 100 years, has only regretted the massacre but stopped short of apologising for the killing of so many innocent people.
The last known survivor of the massacre, Shingara Singh, died in Amritsar on June 29, 2009, at the age of 113.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre lives on in our national consciousness as an extreme expression of racialised colonial violence.