Jallianwala Bagh,a name that evokes painful memories in our history, a reminder of the brutality of the British rule. It was a place I actually visited in 2001, walked through the narrow entrance, stood on the ground stained with the blood of Indians, saw the well where many jumped in. And was totally shaken up by the magnitude of the atrocity.
The backdrop to Jallianwala Bagh was the Ghadr mutiny, which planned for a large scaled armed uprising against the British. The planned February mutiny was crushed by the British, and they passed the Defense of India Act in 1915, that basically granted them powers to detain without any trial.
Michael O’ Dwyer, then Lt Governor of Punjab, was one of the strongest supporters of the Defense of India Act, with the state in the throes of a total revolt. In the meantime outbreak of WWI, caused untold suffering in India too with heavy taxation, trade disruption. The freedom struggle intensified after end of WWI, with Mahatma Gandhi taking charge. On the other hand, though the Ghadr movement was crushed, the revolutionary movements were still active in Punjab, Bengal and the North.
The British passed the draconian Rowlatt Act in 1919, to clamp down on the growing unrest. It was met with widespread protests, Jinnah resigned from his position, and on Gandhi’s call, there were large scale demonstrations against the act. Punjab especially witnessed the most intense protests against the draconian Rowlatt Act, rail and telegraph communications were cut off. Lahore witnessed massive protests, and Amritsar saw more than 5000 gathering in protest.
Prior to Jallianwala Bagh, there was a large protest in Amritsar on April 10, 1919 at the residence of the Dy. Comissioner. It was to demand the release of Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satyapal Dang, two of the more popular leaders, detained in an unknown location. A military picket fired at the crowd, leading to large scale violence, in Amritsar. Banks, the Town Hall and many Govt buildings were attacked and set on fire by the protestors. 5 Europeans were killed in the ongoing clashes, while around 20 Indians were killed in the firing. While Amritsar was somewhat quite on the following days, the rest of Punjab continued to burn. Railway lines were cut, telegraph posts destroyed, Govt buildings attacked, by April 13, the province was entirely under martial law.
April 12, 1919
Meeting was held at Hindu college in Amritsar, Hans Raj, an aide to Dr. Kitchlew, announced that a large scale protest meeting wud be held the next day at Jallianwala Bagh to be organized by Mohd Bashir and Kanhaiya Lal, both senior Congress leaders.
April 13, 1919
It was Baisakhi, a day of festivities and joy, that was soon to turn into a day of darkness and tragedy. Col Reginald Dyer, announced a curfew in Amritsar, and a ban on all processions and meetings. By mid afternoon around 1000s had joined the protest meeting in Jallianwala Bagh, many of them had earlier visited the Golden Temple for prayers and were coming back. This was the narrow entrance to the Bagh which was blocked by Dyer.
Jallianwala Bagh is roughly around 200 by 200 yards in size, surrounded by 10 feet walls, and houses overlooking it. There was a well, a small cremation ground, and just one narrow entrance to it. The place was a veritable death trap. The fact is though Dyer was well aware of the large crowd, he showed no intent in giving them a warning and asking them to disperse. It was clear that the massacre was a deliberate “punishment” which he intended to mete out.
Around 4:30 PM, Dyer arrived at Jallianwala Bagh with a force of around 90 soldiers, mostly Sikh, Gurkha and Baluchi. Armed with .303 Lee-Enfield bolt rifles, 2 armored cars with machine guns, which however cud not enter inside. It had around 5 entrances to it, of which only one was in use, and that too a narrow one. Surrounded by houses on all sides, nowhere to go really, a complete death trap.
Dyer gave no warning to the crowd, blocked both the exits. And then began the horror, the troops began the shooting, he purposely directed it towards where the crowds were largest. For around 10 minutes, firing continued, it was carnage all over. Gen Dyer, explicitly stated later, he had no intention in asking the crowds to disperse, he wanted to teach them a lesson for civil disobedience. He was truly the Butcher of Amritsar, what was worse he was hailed as a hero by sections of British media.With nowhere to run, people began to run helter, skelter. Many died in the stampede. Many jumped into this well to escape the firing, later that well was filled with corpses. What was happening was a murder of humanity.
This well at Jallianwala Bagh was filled with the corpses of those who jumped in to escape the firing. Even now you can see, the bullet marks on the walls, it was one of the most horrendous atrocities ever inflicted on humanity.
While numbers were not known, it is estimated around 1500 people died in the horror at Jallianwala Bagh. More than the numbers it shattered the myth of the “civilized British”. Gen Dyer was a monster, who had no guilt about his actions. If Jallianwala Bagh was horrendous, what followed was even worse, martial law was declared all over Punjab. Indians were made to crawl on the streets, flogged in public. General Dyer, unleashed a reign of terror in Punjab.
“Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too.”
Gen Dyer’s action was roundly condemned by then British PM Asquith and Secretary of State Winston Churchill, around 247 MPs voted against Dyer in the House of Commons, and his action was censured. However many ordinary Britons considered Gen Dyer a hero for saving British rule in India. Some even raised funds for him. What was worse, some of the Sikh priests granting a saropa to Dyer for maintaining peace in Punjab.
I … wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings. -Rabindranath Tagore.
Called for enquiry before the Hunter Comisssion, Gen Dyer, had the least remorse on his act. He clearly stated that his intention was to unleash a reign of terror in Punjab. And he stated he did not stop shooting, till ammunition was exhausted.
” Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?”
Gen Dyer- Yes
In that case much higher casualties”.
Gen Dyer- Yes
Colonel Reginald Dyer, the Butcher of Amritsar, the face of pure evil, and this is what he had to say
“Its only enlightened people who deserve freedom, Indians want no such enlightenement”
And never ever forget all those who died at Jallianwala Bagh, it was darkness on Baisakhi. Every Indian should ensure that at least once in their lifetime, they make a visit to Jallianwala Bagh, stand there, feel the horror of that fateful day, look at the bullet marks in the walls. You will come out of it totally overwhelmed.