13 April 1919
Jallianwala Bagh massacre
On 13 April 1919, British troops fired at a gathering of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar leading to the deaths of at least a thousand people.
- The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act was passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in March 1919.
- This was a very unpopular bill as it gave the police sweeping powers to arrest and incarcerate anyone suspected of ‘terrorist’ activities without trial for up to two years. It also empowered the police to search without a warrant and put severe restrictions on the freedom of the press.
- The act was condemned across sections in India and there were many protests against its passing. Many Indian members of the Council resigned in protest and this included Madan Mohan Malaviya and Muhammad Ali Jinnah as well.
- Gandhi called for a peaceful Satyagraha but in certain places, protests were marred by rioting and violence.
- In Punjab particularly, the situation was grim. The government was also afraid of a Ghadarite revolution.
- Congress leaders Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal were arrested in Punjab.
- On 10th April, a few people who were protesting at the residence of Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner were shot and killed by the police. There were reports of violence at some place directed against Europeans also.
- The Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer put Punjab under martial law which meant that it was unlawful for people to assemble at a place.
- 13 April was the day of Baisakhi which is a very popular festival in Punjab.
- In Jallianwala Bagh, which is a public garden enclosed from all sides except its narrow entrance, a group of Indians had gathered to protest peacefully against the Rowlatt Act and the arrest of their two leaders. They were unarmed and the crowd consisted of women and children too.
- The crowd also had pilgrims who had come to Amritsar to celebrate Baisakhi.
- On getting wind of the impending meeting, Colonel Reginald Dyer, an officer in the British army, arrived there with his troops at about 4:30 PM.
- The garden was about 7 acres in area surrounded by walls about 10 feet high.
- Even though Dyer and Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner Irving were aware of the impending meeting since morning, they did nothing to peacefully disperse the crowd.
- Dyer’s troops closed the main entrance to the garden. Without warning, he ordered his troops to fire at the crowd. Shooting continued for ten minutes until the ammunition was nearly exhausted.
- Almost 1,650 rounds were spent.
- People died either by the firing or because of the ensuing stampede. Some people also died by jumping into the lone well that was present to escape the merciless firing.
- The official figure of the death toll is 379. However, the actual figure is much higher – between 1000 and 2000 killed and more than 1000 injured.
- Because of the curfew, the wounded could not be moved for treatment and many more died in the night on the grounds of the garden.
- The dead included children and infants also.
- The act drew widespread condemnation and shock among Indians. However, Dyer was congratulated by some quarters of the British. It is to be noted that celebrated writer Rudyard Kipling called Dyer the ‘man who saved India’ and even collected money for his homecoming.
- Winston Churchill, who was then the British Secretary of State for War and former British PM HH Asquith condemned the massacre openly. Churchill called the act ‘monstrous’ and censured the act in the House of Commons.
- Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest.
- The government of India formed a commission called the Hunter Commission to inquire into the massacre and other events in Punjab. It was officially called Disorders Inquiry Committee.
- It was chaired by Lord William Hunter, former Solicitor-General for Scotland.
- Dyer appeared before the Commission in November and his comments and replies to questions asked by the members indicated that he had no regrets in the affair.
- The commission found that he was guilty of ‘a mistaken notion of duty’. He was relieved of his command although no penal or disciplinary action was recommended. This was because Dyer’s actions were condoned by his superiors in the army. He had been recommended for a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his services in the Afghan War, but this recommendation was negated. Dyer was prohibited from being appointed in India further. He died in 1927 of an illness.
- The Lieutenant-Governor O’Dwyer was assassinated at London in 1940 by Udham Singh, who had himself witnessed the events at Jallianwala Bagh that fateful day. Singh, in his trial, stated that he did it in revenge against the horrific acts of the British Empire.
- Today, there is a memorial in place at the Bagh in honour of the victims.
- There are many demands for a British apology for this brutal atrocity, but apart from expressing ‘regret’ at the incident, no British politician has ever formally apologised for the dastardly act. A ‘sorry’ cannot erase the events that happened on 13 April, 1919, but it can go a long way in raising British-Indian diplomatic relations to new heights. A heartfelt apology is long overdue.
- On April 10, 2019, the British Prime Minister Theresa May repeated the “regret” refrain that British politicians have always done, and fell short of a full apology on the 100th anniversary of the dastardly incident.
See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.