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General O’Dyer: Civil Service Officer or Murderer?

Soon after the villagers gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer arrived with his troops and opened fire on almost 10,000 unarmed people, which included women and children. They fired 1650 rounds in almost ten minutes, stopped only when they ran out of ammunition. Dyer later admitted that the firing would have sustained had more ammunition been accessible.

“I tried to go on my hands and knees at first, but I was threatened with a bayonet and had to creep on my belly.”

Lala Devi Das, Banker

In 1919, undivided Punjab, which was already grappling with an uproar witnessed a tragedy that marked a turning point in India’s modern history and led to the clarion call for nationalism among the netizens and independence from Britain. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, also called “The Massacre of Amritsar”, took place on 13th April, 1919, in which British General Reginald Dyer opened fire on hundreds of unarmed Indians leaving a permanent scar on the Indo-British relations.

During World War I (1914-1919), Britain introduced a series of emergency powers to combat the increasing rebellious activities among the Indians. By the end of the war, it was expected among the Indian populace that these repressive measures will be eased and India will get more political freedom. However, on the contrary, the British rulers passed what came to be known as the Rowlatt Act in early 1919, which essentially prolonged the oppressive wartime measures.

This instigated widespread anger and discontentment among the Indians which was met by strikes, especially among the Punjab regions. There was unrest all over the country. The British began to feel outnumbered as Indian independence leaders called for nonviolent protests against the doomed Rowlatt Act. With the growing unrest, British General Reginald Dyer was convinced that any moment a major insurgence could take place, so he banned all meetings and public gatherings.

This notice was not widely spread among the citizens, therefore, on 13th April, 1919, some 10,000 unarmed men, women and children gathered defiantly at Jallianwala Bagh to celebrateBaisakhi’, protesting peacefully against the growing British imperiousness, and the arrest of Gandhiji, alongwith two local leaders, Dr. Kichlew and Dr. Satyapal, which took place on 10th April, 1919. Soon, Dyer and his troops entered the garden of Jallianwala Bagh, barricading the main entrance behind them, took up position on an elevated sole and with no warning, opened fire on the unarmed crowd.

They continued firing for about 10 minutes, directing their bullets mainly towards the few open gates through which people were trying to escape. They fired until their bullet supply was almost exhausted. It is still not certain how many people died but according to one official report by the Sewa Samiti, “379 were declared dead and more than 1200 injured.” Dyer stated in a report the next day, “I have heard that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds.”

After they stopped firing, the troops instantly withdrew from the place, leaving behind the dead bodies and wounded. The martial law was immediately enforced in Punjab on 13th April. This was followed by a series of humiliating orders. From the writings of Sivasswamy Aiyer, a knighthood recipient from the government, we came to know that the people were made to crawl where two British women were assaulted. Students had to walk sixteen miles a day for roll calls. Arrested persons were confined in an open cage and were also kept on the open trucks for 15 hours.

Such severe acts of brutality shocked the entire nation which spawned a loss of confidence among the Indian public about the intentions of the British. The widespread fury and anguish filled in the public later took the form of the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22). When General O’Dyer, often called “The Butcher Of Amritsar”, was on his deathbed, he said, “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right. But so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”

Sidra Fatima is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Samra Ejaz

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members. 

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Written by Sidra Fatima

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