Saleh Mamon

Remembering the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of April 1919

Saleh Mamon

By all accounts, the massacre of innocent civilians who had gathered to protest on the day of the Sikh festivity of Vaisaki (New Year Harvest Festival) in Jallianwala Bagh in Amirtsar on April 13, 1919 was one of the bloodiest episodes in British colonialism. They were unarmed children, women and men of different faiths, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim. They were gunned down in the garden's walled enclosure as they tried to escape through the narrow closed gates by the soldiers, under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer. Many people died in stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. The wounded were deliberately left uncared for without medical attention.

In the aftermath of World War I, there were political unrest and revolts across the world, often inspired by the success of the October Russian revolution in 1917. India was no exception. Millions of Indian soldiers and labourers had fought in the British army in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. High casualty rates in the war, increasing inflation compounded by heavy taxation, the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, and the disruption of trade during the war escalated human suffering in India. The dismantling of the Turkish Caliphate in the Middle East after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire led to a widespread agitation by the Khilafat movement in defence of the Caliphate. There was an explosion of trade union militancy in urban centres which led to massive strikes. The Punjab had cells of the Ghadar (Rebel) movement for the liberation of India. Facing unprecedented social turmoil, the colonial authorities saw any rebellion as a conspiracy assisted by Russia and Germany to destabilise the Empire and were ready to use emergency measures to suppress all political dissent.

Having sacrificed blood and treasure in the war effort, Indians has high hopes for self-rule such as the dominion status given to white people in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 1918, a package of reforms, the Montague-Chelmsford reforms, introduced limited self-government on a restricted franchise at the provincial level. However these were accompanied the Rowlatt Act (aka the Black Act), a draconian piece of legislation, suppressing press freedom and civil and political liberties in the name of preventing 'terrorism' and 'conspiracies'. Enacted on March 18, 1919, the police were given powers to search premises, arrest without warrant, detain individuals indefinitely without trial by a jury, and convict by special courts in secret. Widespread protests erupted across the country with a massive hartal (or strike) in Delhi against the Rowlatt Act. In Punjab repression had been acute because Michael O'Dwyer, the governor, was a strong advocate of repression. In Amritsar the news broke on 10 April that two popular anti-colonial leaders, Dr Satya Paul and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew had been arrested and deported to a secret location for indefinite internment. On the same day, news that Gandhi had been arrested brought large crowd took into the streets moving in the direction of the District Magistrate. The troops opened fire killing several people. Not unexpectedly, in reaction to this, an angry and outraged crowd set about attacking British property, killing five British citizens. On 11 April, Miss Marcella Sherwood, a missionary teacher, was badly beaten up by a mob while cycling through a narrow street called Kucha Kurrichhan. She was rescued by some parents of some of her schoolchildren and smuggled to safety to the British fort. The situation across the Punjab had got out of control and the Governor General imposed martial law.

On 13 April, thousands of pilgrims and families, many from the rural areas, visited the Golden Temple to worship and celebrate Vaisakhi. By late afternoon, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in the Bagh and the crowd heard speeches from campaigners denouncing the Rowlatt Act and demanding the release of Dr Satpal and Dr Kitchlew. The meeting had got underway and soon after General Dyer entered the arena and lined up his 50 soldiers on the perimeter in firing positions and blocked the exit from the ground. Without any warning, he ordered the soldiers to fire into the gathering, and for 10 to 15 minutes 1,650 rounds of ammunition were unloaded. The colonial government estimated that 329 people were killed, of whom 42 were children, and 1,200 injured. The Indian National Congress estimated through its survey that 1,000 had died and 1,500 were injured. To this day the numbers remain disputed.

Fortunately years after the incident, a few historians gathered 40 testimonies from people - survivors who had experienced the massacre or individuals who had lost a near relation. A survivor, Lala Guranditta who was shot twice in the leg recalled “After the soldiers had left, I looked round. There must have been more than a thousand corpses there. The whole place was strewn with them. At some places, seven or eight corpses were piled, one over another. In addition to the dead, there must have been about a thousand wounded persons lying there. Close by where I was lying, I saw a young boy, aged about 12 years, lying dead with a child of about 3 years clasped in his arms, also dead.”

Back in army headquarters, Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been 'confronted by a revolutionary army,' and had been obliged 'to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.' On 19 April, after visiting Marcella Sherwood in the hospital, to humiliate residents of Amritsar, he sealed Kucha Kurrichhan street and imposed a crawling order which required Indians wishing to go down the street to crawl on their bellies, face downwards in the dirt along the street with soldiers wielding bayonets at their back. He also instigated a regime of public flogging with Indians tied to a post with backs bared and flogged with a whip.

He was unrepentant and showed no remorse. Responding to the Hunter Commission inquiry in October 2019, he said he would have used machine guns had he been able to get the armoured cars into the enclosure. He confessed he did not take any steps to attend to the wounded after the firing. ''Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there,'' came his cynical response.

Senior British officers applauded his massacre as the suppression of 'another Indian Mutiny' showing that the spectre of 1957 hung over their minds. The House of Lords exonerated him by passing a measure commending him. The Conservatives presented him with a jewelled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab." Overnight, incredibly, Dyer had become a hero to the British in India and back at home. But defending the indefensible had its limits and the House of Commons censured him. The Legal and Home Members on the Viceroy's Council ultimately found him guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved him of his command on 23 March. When Dyer was removed from his post in July 1920, the conservative paper the Morning Post launched an appeal under the title 'The Man Who Saved India' and raised a hefty sum on £26,000 ( worth £1.3 million today) for his retirement.

The Jallianwala massacre electrified Indian politics and was a turning point in its struggle for freedom from the British Raj. The British reaction to the massacre hardened Indian attitudes and was one major factor behind Gandhi's decision to launch a campaign of non-cooperation. A whole generation of young revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh were radicalised by the massacre. They did not just want India to be free from British yoke but also from the capitalist system of exploitation.

To avenge the massacre, Udham Singh who had witnessed the carnage as a 15 year old orphan, worked his way to London and shot dead the retired governor of Punjab Sir Michael O'Dwyer at a meeting in Caxton Hall, London, on 13 March 1940. Udham Singh was tried and hanged on 31 July 1940 at Pentonville prison. More than 20 years later, his bodily remains were taken back to India and interred at Jallianwala Bagh, which has been transformed into a memorial to the massacred.

There have been many calls that the British government must offer an official apology for the slaughter just as it has apologised for slavery, the Irish famine, Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough. Neither the Queen's visit to the memorial in 1997 nor David Cameron's visit in 2013 elicited an apology. At PMQs on 10 April, Theresa May acknowledged the tragic events and Jeremy Corbyn called for an unqualified apology. Even if belated, such a move would assuage the bitterness felt by Indians for whom it is living memory. It could provide an opening for a reckoning with the misdeeds of the British Empire and for including them in the school curriculum. However, given that the majority of newspapers failed to cover the centenary, hardly anyone in the UK has heard about Jallianwala Bagh.

Churchill's assertion that Jallianwala Bagh was an isolated, singular and 'monstrous' event still remains highly questionable. During their nearly two centuries of rule in India, the British authorities committed a multitude of massacres especially during the course of suppressing India’s 1857-1859 first War of Independence – dubbed 'the Mutiny' in Britain - which shook the Empire to its core. Dyer was not a 'rotten apple' in the barrel. His callousness was shared by the entire officer class who held the natives in disdain. British colonial rule was based on institutionalised racism, coercion and pervasive violence. The mindset of the colonisers was based on white supremacy with the dark-skinned native population deemed as Untermenschen. Society was segregated with the British community residing in cantonments. As long as the colonised population was compliant and massive profits were siphoned off, calm prevailed. Whoever was in charge, imperial rule rested in the end on the back of the policeman torturing a suspect. But any dissent and call for freedom and democracy were met with administrative, police and military repression.