A hundred years since Jallianwala Bagh

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It is exactly a century since the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, one of the lowest points of British rule in India. Lt.Gen. Vijay Oberoi recounts the events, to better understand our history.

April 13, 1919, marks the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. On this day, soldiers of the British Indian Army, on the orders of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, massacred peaceful and unarmed civilians, including women and children, who having prayed at the Golden Temple were celebrating the Punjabi spring festival (Baisakhi), at the garden. This massacre was one of the deadliest attacks on peaceful civilians in the world. Some call it the beginning of the end of the British colonial rule in India.

Background

During World War I (1914-18), when Britain and its allies were on the verge of losing the war, it was the Indian Army and forces of Indian princely states, which had turned the tide against the British. About 1.3 million Indian soldiers and workers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while the Indian government and the princes contributed large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. It was generally believed that on account of the overwhelming support to the war effort, India would be given more political autonomy when the war ended.
The Montagu-Chelmsford Report, presented to the British Parliament in 1918, did recommend limited local self-government in India. However, this was negated by the promulgation of the Rowlatt Act next year. The Act gave the Viceroy’s government great powers, which included censoring the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arrest without warrant of any individual suspected of treason. This Act sparked a wave of anger within India. In early April 1919, there were widespread protests, especially against the restrictions on a number of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly, and banning gatherings of more than four people.

The law and order situation, especially in Punjab deteriorated quickly. Many rail, telegraph and communication systems were disrupted, along with processions and protests. By April 13, the British government had placed most of Punjab under martial law.

Events leading to the massacre

Following a protest at the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar on 10 April, 1919, wherein the release of two popular leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew was demanded, the crowd was shot at by British troops, resulting in more violence. Several banks and other government buildings, including the town hall and the railway station were attacked and set on fire. The violence continued to increase and resulted in the deaths of some Europeans, including government employees and civilians.

For the next two days, the city of Amritsar was quiet, but violence continued in other parts of Punjab. On 13 April 1919, Brigadier Dyer reached Amritsar from Jalandhar Cantonment, and virtually occupied the town, as the civil administration under the Deputy Commissioner, had come to a standstill. On the same day, convinced of a major insurrection in the offing, Dyer banned all meetings. However, this notice was not widely disseminated.

The Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919 and today

Massacre by the British

The Jallianwala Bagh, located close to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, derives its name from that of the family of the owner who was a noble in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). In 1919, the site was an uneven and unoccupied space, an irregular quadrangle, indifferently walled, approximately 225 x 180 meters. It was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings, and had a few narrow entrances, most of which were kept locked. It had only one entry/exit leading from a narrow lane. It was here that Dyer deployed his troops.

On 13 April 1919, thousands of people, both locals and from surrounding areas had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate the Baisakhi festival, which was also the Sikh New Year. There were also a small number of protestors who were defying the ban on public meetings, and had come to pass a protest resolution to condemn the arrest and deportation of their national leaders, Satya Pal and Dr. Kitchlew; and the repressive Rowlatt Act. The entire assembly was peaceful and unarmed.

In the afternoon of that fateful day, at about 04:30 p.m, Dyer, on hearing that a gathering had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, went with 90 soldiers to a raised bank near the entrance to the Bagh, sealed off the only exit, and without giving any warning, ordered his troops to shoot at the crowd indiscriminately.

Everyone ran helter-skelter, and many tried to climb the walls and escape this attack, while others were trampled to death. Many jumped into the only well inside Jallianwala Bagh, from where 120 bodies were later taken out. Dyer continued the firing for about ten minutes, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted. The soldiers withdrew, leaving behind the dead and wounded.

It was later stated that 1,650 bullets had been fired. Official toll was 379 identified dead, and approximately 1,200 injured. The number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead. It was a most dastardly and cowardly act that can be classified as the lowest point of the British rule in India. The incident fueled anger among people, leading to the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22.

The aftermath

The shooting, followed by the proclamation of martial law, public floggings and other humiliations, enraged all Indians as news of the shooting and subsequent British actions spread throughout the subcontinent. The Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood that he had received in 1915. Mahatma Gandhi began organising his first large-scale and sustained nonviolent protest (Satyagraha) campaign, and the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920–22), which thrust him to prominence in the Indian freedom struggle.

The Government of India ordered an investigation of the incident (the Hunter Commission), which in 1920 censured Dyer and ordered him to resign from the military. Reactions in Britain were mixed. Many condemned Dyer’s actions — including Sir Winston Churchill, then secretary of war, in the House of Commons, but the House of Lords praised Dyer, and a large fund was raised and presented to him. In July 1920, Dyer was censured and forced to retire.

The denouement

Udham Singh (26 December 1899 – 31 July 1940), a Punjabi revolutionary assassinated Michael O’ Dwyer, former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab on 13 March 1940, in Caxton Hall in London. The assassination was in revenge for the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre as Dwyer had supported the action of Dyer. Singh was subsequently convicted of murder and hanged in July 1940.

He is well known as Shaheed-i-Azam Sardar Udham Singh. A district (Udham Singh Nagar) of Uttarakhand was named after him in October 1995.

On the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, all Indians need to pay their tributes to those wantonly killed by an egoist colonial army officer, without any compassion for the dignity of human beings. The indomitable spirit of all Indians who had fought the British Colonial Raj and ultimately gained Independence for us needs to be remembered and honoured, for they had sacrificed their lives for our freedom.


Lt.Gen. Vijay Oberoi

The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff

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