Jallianwallah Bagh. Amritsar. 13th April, 1919

Please welcome fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra who has written a guest post at my urging about this profound stain on British conduct in India. Thank you, Rajiv.


‘I saw three men writhing in great pain and a boy of about 12. I could not leave the place. The boy asked me for water but there was no water in that place. At 2 am, a Jat who was lying entangled on the wall asked me to raise his leg. I went up to him and took hold of his clothes drenched in blood and raised him up. Heaps of bodies lay there, a number of them innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I spent the night crying and watching…”

plaqueThe above is an excerpt from the diary of Rattan Devi, who spent the night of the 13th April, 1919, in Jallianwallah Bagh. Her husband was amongst those killed, and she sat watch over his dead body through the night, protecting it from jackals and vultures.

This was the aftermath of the massacre of innocent Indians (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs), gathered peacefully, to celebrate the Indian festival of Baisakhi, on the 13th April, 1919.

The period, 1914-1918, was a turbulent one in Indian history. The Nationalist movement was underway, yet India had contributed much to England’s efforts during World War I, as she would again, during World War II.  While India expected to be compensated for her contribution during World War I by way of better opportunities for Indians, the English governors reacted to the happenings on the ground.

One of the events that lead to significant protest, was the Rowlatt Act of March 1919. As per the tenets of the Act, Nationalist papers were banned. Furthermore, an Indian could be imprisoned on mere suspicion, without the requirement of any proof of unlawful activities, or those considered to be an act of sedition.

Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned in Delhi, and two other freedom fighters – Satya Pal, and Saifuddin Kitchlow – were arrested. Rumours flew, as people expected them to be removed to a secret location.

On the 11th April, an English school teacher, Marcella Sherwood, was beaten up by a mob. She was saved by Indians, including by one who was the father of her pupil. The attack on her became the pretext for the British forces to launch an attack that must go down as one of the most infamous acts of the British Government. 

This incident was used, as a pretext, by the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, to presume that mob attacks were now the norm in the Punjab.

Jallianwallah Bagh is a small garden, bounded on all sides by houses and buildings. The few small gates were kept mostly closed. It is within walking distance of the holiest of Sikh shrines,  the Harminder Sahib, or the Golden Temple.

Baisakhi is a festival that is much revered in the region. It is also the day on which the Sikhs celebrate the inauguration of the Khalsa Panth, by 10th Guru of the Sikhs – Guru Gobind Singh.

It is on this day that a crowd of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus gathered together to celebrate the festival.

Dyer circa 1919 [Wikipedia]

Dyer circa 1919 [Wikipedia]

It is also on this day that the British Indian Army, under the leadership of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, gathered at the main entrance and, without any warning or order to desist, began shooting at the crowd.

The shooting went on and on until all the ammunition had been exhausted. By some estimates, 1,650 rounds were used. As per Brig. Gen. Dyer’s comments, the only reason he did not use the machine guns was because they were mounted on armoured vehicles, which could not be moved into the garden.  He ordered his troops to shoot and kill.

wellBullets passed through bodies and entered other people’s bodies. The crowd ran about in panic trying to escape but there was no escape. Some threw themselves into the well in the garden and more bodies fell down on the bodies that had already fallen into the well.

When the ammunition was exhausted, 379 people lay dead, and 1,100 were wounded. This is the estimate given by the British official records. The Indian Congress estimated that 1,100 died and a total of 1,500 injured.

Brig. Gen. Dyer did not arrange for any medical help for those wounded and dying.  “Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open, and they could have gone there” were his words.

Lt. Gov. O’Dwyer supported his actions and in a telegram congratulated him with these words, “Your actions are correct. Lt Governor approves.”

Marshall Law and shoot-at-sight orders were imposed in Amritsar after the massacre, and the Crawling Order. Indians, passing through the 200-foot road on which Ms Sherwood lived, were forced to crawl on their bellies to compensate for the alleged incident that had taken place earlier.

Many hailed Brig. Gen. Dyer as the Saviour of Punjab. Yet he was to appear before a commission – the Hunter Commission. The commission did not impose any penal or other action against Brig. Gen. Dyer since his actions were supported by his superiors.

Many conservatives in Britain applauded his actions, and claimed that he had averted another Indian Mutiny. He was presented with a bejewelled sword and was called The Saviour of the Punjab. A group of his sympathisers gathered a sum of £26,000 which was presented to him.

Yet, apart from the inevitable Indian backlash and the intensification of the freedom movement,  the actions of Brig. Gen. Dyer did come under criticism from some quarters in England. One of his most trenchant critics was Winston Churchill. In his words, in Parliament, on the 18th July 1921:

“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8-10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition reached the point of exhaustion.”

Udham Singh [Wikipedia]

Udham Singh [Wikipedia]

There was a young Sikh teenager, Udham Singh, who did vow revenge. He killed Lt .Gov. O’Dwyer at Saxton Hall of London in 1940. He was hanged at Pentonville Jail in London on the 31st July, 1940.

During the last years of his life, Gen. Reginald Dyer became increasingly isolated due to a series of strokes. Some say that he never did regret his actions. I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.” “…I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well.”

Yet, other sources would have us believe that he was haunted by memories of that day.  On his deathbed, The Butcher of Amritsar, as he was also called, is said to have said.  “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right. But so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”

Bullet marks, visible on preserved walls, at present-day Jallianwala Bagh [Wikipedia]Not much remains, except a memory. Jallianwallah Bagh endures as a memory of those brutally murdered on this day ninety-six years ago. The bullet holes on the walls are a grim reminder of one of the most ghastly acts of military power in a bid to suppress the soul of the people who would be free.

Holistic Thought
Important India.com – Rowlatt Act
Sikh History
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Jallianwallah Bagh
The Butcher of Amritsar – Gen. Reginald Dyer by Nigel Collet

Rajiv Chopra © 2016