Jalianwala Bagh is in the news again with British Prime Minister Theresa May reiterating the UK government’s long-standing expression of ‘deep regret’ over the April 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre and called the massacre a ‘shameful scar’ on British Indian history. But the words of the PM May fell short in issuing a formal apology. Since 2019 was the centenary of a horrendous act in the history of India’s freedom struggle, there was a growing demand from many quarters for the formal apology including Indian diaspora and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Jallianwalla Bagh - a flashback. The 1919 Amritsar massacre, also known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre after the Jallianwala Bagh a public garden in the northern Indian city of Amritsar, was ordered by General R.E.H. Dyer. It was April 13, 1919, a Sunday, which happened to be 'Baisakhi', one of Punjab's largest religious festivals. Fifty British Indian Army soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, began shooting at an unarmed gathering of men, women, and children without warning.
Dyer marched his fifty riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to kneel and fire. Dyer ordered soldiers to reload their rifles several times and they were ordered to shoot to kill. The Jallianwala Bagh was bounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few narrow entrances, most of which were kept permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wider, but was guarded by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles. General Dyer ordered troops to begin shooting without warning or any order to disperse, and to direct shooting towards the densest sections of the crowd. He continued the shooting, approximately 1,650 rounds in all, until ammunition was almost exhausted.
What led to the massacre?
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was the result of the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, famously known as the Rowlatt Act. The Act came into force a month before the massacre. It shocked most Indians who had expected to be rewarded, not punished, for willingly fighting alongside the British in the First World War. The Act allowed political cases to be tried without jury, and imprisonment of suspects without trial.
This was the time when Mahatma Gandhi came to light. The Act resulted in furious protests throughout the country. Gandhi started a campaign against Rowlatt Act. There were violent protests that resulted in the burning of the Town Hall and Railway station, disruption of telegraphs and communication system. As part of these protests, thousands of people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab on April 13, 1919. The civilians assembled for a peaceful protest to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. That was also the day of Sikh festival Baisakhi and many villagers had also gathered in the Bagh.
Under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, over 50 troops of the British Indian Army began firing rifles into the crowd. The narrow exits from the bagh were blocked; no one could escape the ill-fated incidence. Over 1200 got injured and more than 350 people died. Some of them jumped into the well in the bagh to escape dying by the bullets.
As per the records of the British Government, the massacre killed 379 and caused 1200 injuries. However, as per the Indian Nation Congress, around 1000 died and 1500 got injured.
The bullet marks can be still seen on the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh which is now a national memorial.
The massacre aroused the fury of the Indian people and the British Indian government replied with more intense brutalities. People in Punjab were made to crawl on the streets; they were put in open cages.
Aftermath of the massacre
Following the massacre, the Hunter Commission was appointed to investigate into the matter. The Commission in 1920 held Dyer guilty for his actions. He was relieved of his command and prematurely retired from the army.
Udham Singh, a Punjabi revolutionary, killed Michael O’ Dwyer, former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, on March 13, 1940 in London in revenge for the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. He was subsequently convicted and hanged in July 1940.
Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood he had received in 1915.
The massacre marked the start of a new rebellion and liberation struggle under Mahatma Gandhi to free India from the British rule. Jallianwalla Bagh has gone down to the annals of Indian history as an incident which set a clear direction to the country’s independence struggle.