April 13 is a dark day in India’s colonial history. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on thousands of unarmed Indians who had congregated there on Baisakhi day for a peaceful protest against the arrests of Gandhi and other freedom fighters. They wanted to show their resentment towards the repressive laws the British were enacting in India to facilitate arrests and convictions without warrants and trials.
The “Jallianwala Bagh 1919: The Real Story” by Kishwar Desai is a well-researched book and it brings out shocking and heart-rending findings. Her book has enough evidence to prove that the massacre and subsequent imposition of martial law in Punjab, with its harsh and sadistic punishments, were not just random acts of madness on the part of a tyrannical and whimsical army officer – General Dyer. On the contrary, it was a part of a larger programme to humiliate, crush and punish the citizens of Punjab for participating in Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement and agitating against the Rowlatt Act. The then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O Dwyer, was determined to teach his citizens a ‘moral lesson’ and his administration was given a carte blanche to do as they pleased with the natives.
Amritsar witnessed riots April 10, 1919 that resulted in the killing of five Europeans – a ‘blasphemous act’ in the eyes of the administration, which clearly didn’t care that these unfortunate deaths were in retaliation to the killing of 20 unarmed Indian protestors in police firing the same morning after the people of Amritsar had taken to the streets to protest against the arrests of Gandhi, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew.
What alarmed O Dwyer and his officials even more was the growing unity amongst Hindus and Muslims, who were now bound together by a common cause. In fact, for the first time both communities were gathering together in mosques and Hindus were delivering speeches at these gatherings. What’s more, the Muslims were participating in Hindu festivals like Ram Navami. The Punjab government felt extremely threatened by this and had to act fast.
The people of Punjab had to be put in their place. Lieutenant Governor O Dwyer was retiring soon and he couldn’t leave office on a weak note where the natives had the upper hand. Drastic measures were needed and the right man for the job was Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who was brought in from Jalandhar where he was commanding a division at the time. Dyer arrived in Amritsar on the night of April 11 and proceeded to unleash his reign of terror.
Dyer issued a proclamation forbidding public gatherings on the morning of April 13. However, it is doubtful whether sufficient announcements were made in order to inform all sections of society. Moreover, this proclamation wasn’t even posted at the entrance of Jallianwala Bagh, which was a popular venue for most public gatherings in Amritsar. A meeting had been advertised for 4.30 p.m. that day and the authorities were well aware of it. However, nothing was done to stop this gathering. All these point to the fact that the rulers of Punjab wanted a large crowd to gather there and defy the proclamation so that they could be taught a cruel lesson.
Shortly after the meeting commenced, Dyer, accompanied by 25 Gurkhas and 25 Baluchis, armed with rifles, made their way to Jallianwala Bagh through a narrow road, and without any warning opened fire on the 5,000 unarmed people who had gathered there to listen to prominent citizens of Amritsar voice their concerns about the growing repressiveness of the regime in Punjab. They had also gathered there to celebrate Baisakhi. There were very few exits and they were very narrow. People stumbled upon each other as they tried to make their way out, but the bullets rained on them relentlessly. In fact the firing was aimed at the exits so as to cause maximum damage. Even though the crowd began to disperse, the bullets didn’t stop for at least 10 minutes. People lying down were also fired upon.
What’s worse is that a curfew was imposed on Amritsar and people couldn’t leave home after 8 p.m. This meant that relatives could not go and search for their near and dear at Jallianwala Bagh. The dead bodies lay rotting and the wounded bled to death with no one to give them even a sip of water through the night. Many who escaped died on their way home and several died over the next few days, as they had no access to medical help.
The government put the toll at about 300, however, the Indian National Congress estimated the casualties to be closer to 2,000 dead and many more injured. Indian lives didn’t matter and the Punjab government wasn’t interested in compiling a detailed list of victims.
Fast forward: A century later. Thursday, British PM Theresa May expressed “deep regret” for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. Why is it so hard for the British government to offer us a sincere and straightforward apology? She referred to it as a “shameful scar on British Indian history”. Even Churchill had referred to it as a “monstrous event”, and Edwin Montague, the then Secretary of State for India, had said in the House of Commons during the hearing of Dyer’s case, “Are you going to keep your hold on India by terrorism, racial humiliation, subordination and frightfulness?”
This is no surprise. Theresa May is the leader of the Conservative Party and back in 1920 it was the Conservatives who praised Dyer’s actions in Amritsar and elevated him to the status of a hero. The passage of 100 years does not make the monumental tragedy any less.
A century later in India, we don’t need the British to divide and rule us. In 1919, Ram Navami was celebrated amidst great fanfare with Muslim participation. Now Lord Ram is invoked for political gains in a very different way.
Looking back at the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, we can learn a lot from our Indian leaders of that era. The contribution of the Jallianwala tragedy victims to our freedom struggle should never be forgotten.