Every year, on the 13th of April, the festival of Baisakhi is celebrated but unfortunately, this day also marks the anniversary of the brutal massacre in which thousands of people lost their lives just because a man wanted to teach Indians a lesson for being ‘disobedient’ to their so-called colonial rulers. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, also known as the Amritsar Massacre, has completed 102 years today as one of the bloodiest massacres. It was undoubtedly a turning point in India’s struggle for Independence, and the stories and cries of those innocent people still haunt us today.
It all started when the Rowlatt Act, also known as the Black Act, was passed on March 10, 1919, granting the government authority to arrest or confine anyone engaged with seditious activity without a trial. This sparked a widespread uproar. Gandhi started Satyagraha to resist the Rowlatt Act. On April 7, 1919, Gandhi wrote ‘Satyagrahi’, an article detailing how to oppose the Rowlatt Act. The British officials resolved to take action against Gandhi and any other Satyagraha leaders; thus, orders were issued prohibiting Gandhi from entering Punjab and arresting him if he disobeyed the orders.
Two prominent leaders, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal, who were symbols of Hindu-Muslim unity, organized a peaceful protest against the Rowlatt Act in Amritsar. On April 9, 1919, Ram Naumi was celebrated when O’ Dwyer issued orders to the Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Irving, to arrest Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew.
As a result, on April 10, 1919, enraged protestors marched to the apartment of the Deputy Commissioner to demand the release of their two leaders. The military picket opened fire on the mob, killing and injuring several protesters. The mob set fire to British banks, killed many British citizens, and assaulted two British women.
One of the mishaps was the attack on Marcella Sherwood, an elderly English missionary, on April 11. According to her account, the mob attacked her, yelling phrases like, “Kill her, she is English” and “Victory to Gandhi, Victory to Kitchlew”. The mob beat her until she passed out and then walked away, assuming her to be dead. However, according to a counter-narrative published in Bombay’s Lokasangraha, she was rescued by some local Indians, one of whom hid her from the mob and took her to the safety of Gobindgarh fort. Infuriated by the incidents, General Dyer issued an order on April 19, ordering every Indian man using that road to crawl the length on his hand and knees as a punishment, stating that British women are as sacred as Hindu gods and that they must crawl in front of her as well.
Following the ongoing protests, the British government declared Martial law in most of Punjab, prohibiting any gathering of more than four people. Despite the fact that the proclamation was issued, no effort was made to ensure that the general public was aware of it. Because the public was unaware of the proclamation, a public meeting was planned for April 13th at 4:30 p.m. at Jallianwala Bagh. The gathering, which drew between 10,000 and 20,000 people, had no political intention and was held to commemorate the Baisakhi celebration. According to documents in the National Archives of India, the British point of view was that it was a political assembly to discuss the firing on April 10 and request the authorities to release their leaders.
When the news reached General Dyer, he headed to the Bagh with his troops. Jallianwala Bagh was a six-to-seven-acre enclosed garden surrounded by 10-feet-high walls on all sides, with only one main gate and two or three tiny exits. The few narrow exit points were usually locked, and they were on that horrible day as well. A Samadhi (cremation place) and a large well partially filled with water, measuring around 20 feet in diameter, was located in the center of the Bagh.
General Dyer arrived with a force of 50 soldiers, comprising 25 Gurkhas, 25 Pathans and Baluchs, 59th Sindh rifles, and two armored trucks with mounted machine guns. He closed the exit gates and tried to drive his vehicle in, but the entrance was too small. Instead of trying to disperse the crowd peacefully, he ordered his soldiers to march inside through the main entrance and shoot blatantly at the crowd without warning. The crowd panicked and began running in all directions in an attempt to save themselves. Many people jumped inside the well to escape the bullets and ended up dying. Nearly 1650 rounds were fired, with the firing lasting approximately 10 minutes until they ran out of ammunition.
According to the reports released by the British Raj, between 200 and 300 people were killed; however, several other reports put the death toll at a different figure. The death of 337 men, 41 boys, and a six-week-old baby was confirmed by the Hunter Commission. The number of casualties reported by Congress was over 1,500, with almost 1,000 people dead. Swami Shraddhanand, an Indian nationalist, wrote to Gandhi, stating that 1500 people had died in the tragedy.
Two days after the massacre, Martial law was declared in five districts – Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, Gujarat and Lyallpur. As the words of the massacre spread across the nation, Rabindranath Tagore renounced his Knighthood, and Mahatma Gandhi gave back the Kaisar-i-Hind medal that he had received for his service during Boer War.
On 14 October 1919, the government of India announced the formation of a commission of investigation known as the Disorders Inquiry Committee, which was later known as the Hunter Commission, to investigate events in Punjab. The British government passed the Indemnity Act to protect their officers. General Dyer walked clean, except that he was called back to England after resigning.
Dyer received a hero’s welcome from the House of Lords and many well known Britons, including the famous author Rudyard Kipling in 1920. In 1927, Dyer died of a cerebral hemorrhage. On his deathbed, he reportedly 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 whatever I did right or wrong.”
One of the survivors and eyewitnesses of the massacre was a 21-year old orphan, Udham Singh, who twenty-one years later, on 13 March 1940, shot Michael O’ Dwyer at Caxton Hall in London. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison in July 1940 and was given the title of Shaheed-i-Azam (the great martyr).
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is widely believed to have never happened if it hadn’t been for one man who wanted to teach Indians a lesson for disobedience. Despite the fact that what has been done cannot be undone, we may express respect and gratitude to all those who have fought and died for Mother India. They will live on in the hearts of all Indians forever.
Maria Aqdas is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee