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Massacre in Amritsar - History

Massacre in Amritsar - History

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The British instituted the anti-sedition Rowlatt Acts, which gave the government the power to intern agitators without trial. Mohandas Gandhi called for a day of work stoppages and fasting throughout India. This call, however, led to demonstrations and rioting. On April 13th, British General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on demonstrators at Amritsar in the Punjab of India. Three hundred and seventy-nine people were killed and nearly twelve-hundred were wounded. This marked a turning point for anti-British sentiments in India. From this point, public sympathy was firmly with the Nationalists who were demanding independence.

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala Bagh is a historic garden and ‘memorial of national importance’ in Amritsar, India, preserved in the memory of those wounded and killed in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that occurred on the site on the festival of Baisakhi, 13 April 1919. [1] It houses a museum, gallery and a number of memorial structures. [2]

The 7-acre (28,000 m 2 ) garden site of the massacre is located in the vicinity of the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of Sikhism [3] and is managed by the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, which was established as per the 'Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act, 1951'. [4]

How significant was the Amritsar Massacre?

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 was incredibly significant in causing deterioration in relations between the British and Indians and, in India is remembered as the ‘watershed that irrevocably put Indian nationalists on the path to independence.’ Most importantly, the Massacre caused a shift in the Indian attitudes and severely affected their tolerance of the British. There was a breakdown of trust and respect due to the brutality that occurred of the 13 th April, as what was supposedly a peaceful meeting turned into a massacre of up to 1,500 casualties. The event shocked Indians nationwide and had a profound effect on one of the movement's leaders, Mohandas Gandhi who saw the massacre as ‘an insufferable wrong.’During World War I, Gandhi had actively supported the British in the hope of winning partial autonomy for India, but after the Amritsar Massacre he became convinced that India should accept nothing less than full independence. To achieve this end, Gandhi began organizing his first campaign of mass civil disobedience against Britain's oppressive rule, and his methods became far more militant. Ghandi further went on to say that ‘the present representatives of the Empire have become dishonest and unscrupulous’ with little regard for ‘Indian honour.’ This was a view shared by the majority of the Indian people and explains why the fight for independence through the expanding nationalist movement became so much stronger as it was decided ‘The British were no longer worthy of respect.’ Following on from Mutiny, Dyer’s actions towards Indians did not improve as he declared the martial law. This was aimed at ‘humiliating the Indians who lived in Amritsar’and stated that any Indian who passed Dyer or any other European had to salaam, if they failed to do so they were ‘flogged or arrested and made to suffer indignities.’This was massively embarrassing for the people of Amritsar and showed further disgrace on the part of the British, demonstrating the lack of remorse from General Dyer for his careless actions. Not only this but in a testimony Dyer admitted that he had intended to teach the people of the Punjab a lesson and that ‘there could be no question of undue severity.’ Public subscription raised thousands of pounds for him as a reward. This only served to disgust Indians even more, leading them further towards the fight for independence.

In contrast, the Amritsar Massacre also served in changing the attitudes of British people as well as having a huge impact on their influence over India. British credibility was hugely damaged by the massacre and some have suggested that the massacre marked the beginning of the end of the British rule. It massively damaged the reputation of the British, as they appear to be hypocritical, it was said that ‘never again could the British claim to be ruling India with the aim of developing civilised public values or even that they governed by the rule of law.’However, the Hunter Enquiry conducted by the British into the misconduct by General Dyer could be said to have shown a possible change in attitudes. It was said that ‘London and Delhi both condemned Dyer’s actions’ and the Hunter Enquiry could support this point as it showed acceptance of wrong doing by the British. However, it could be said the Hunter Enquiry was only conducted in order to prevent international humiliation and a further decline in their reputation as a great empire. Despite this attempt at blame, Dyer again showed little remorse and claimed afterwards that his action had made a ‘wide impression’ and had considerable undermined the morale of the ‘rebel’ movement. This statement shows how he strongly believed he had done both Brittan and India a service through the massacre and that it was a positive outcome. Many people in Britain were in agreement and believed that Dyer had saved India from another mutiny, the House of Lords even went as far as to pass a vote in thanks, naming him the ‘hero of Amritsar.’ Also in Britain, public subscription raised thousands of pounds for him as a reward. This only served to disgust Indians even more. We can very clearly see that the Amritsar Massacre ‘left a permanent scar on Indo-British relations and was the prelude to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement of 1920–22.’

Reexamining Amritsar

Does the Historic Massacre of 1919 Warrant an Apology?

Kritika Agarwal | Apr 9, 2019

O n April 13, 1919, British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered 50 troops to open fire on a gathering of about 15,000 to 20,000 people in Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed park in Amritsar, Punjab, in colonial India. On February 19 of this year, nearly 100 years later, the House of Lords conducted a short debate on how the British government should commemorate the events of that fateful day. Lord Raj Loomba, born in Punjab, opened by expressing hope that the government would finally &ldquomake amends and offer a formal apology for the atrocities.&rdquo &ldquoIt is a shocking event to recall, even after one hundred years,&rdquo he said, reminding the chamber that even Winston Churchill in his time had called it &ldquoan extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.&rdquo

White boxes enclose bullet holes left by General Dyer&rsquos troops in the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab. Abhijit Tembhekar/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The next day, Kim Wagner, senior lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London, tweeted his reactions. &ldquoThroughout the hour-long debate,&rdquo he wrote, &ldquomany of the usual misconceptions and factual inaccuracies were trotted out&rdquo&mdashincluding the number of shots fired, the number who were killed, and the amount of compensation received by the victims and their families. &ldquoThis is more than just an academic quibble,&rdquo he concluded. &ldquoWhen the facts cease to matter, the very grounds upon which historical claims are made, or apologies demanded, are critically undermined.&rdquo

Wagner&rsquos new book, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre (Yale Univ. Press, 2019), opens with scenes from what is perhaps the most popular account of the event&mdashRichard Attenborough&rsquos 1982 film Gandhi. As Wagner writes, this is &ldquohow many people today think of what was arguably the bloodiest massacre in the history of the British Empire.&rdquo In Gandhi, Dyer&rsquos troops fire indiscriminately and without warning on a political gathering at Jallianwala Bagh. Men fall, women scramble toward a gate only to find it locked, a mother leans over her baby to protect it from bullets, and dozens of people jump into a well. When some try to scale the high walls of the park, Dyer directs his troops to fire on them, hitting them in their backs. Later we find out that the troops fired 1,650 rounds, killing 1,516 people Dyer is revealed as soulless and unrepentant.

Despite being one of the &ldquomajor historical markers&rdquo of the British Raj, Wagner says, the Amritsar Massacre isn&rsquot understood very well. There are no visual records of the deaths caused by the violence, and British accounts of what happened and why vary significantly from Indian accounts. &ldquoEveryone can invoke it in a single word,&rdquo Wagner says, so &ldquoyou never have to really go into detail because everybody assumes they know what that is.&rdquo In contrast, Wagner&rsquos book goes into the details, offering a micro-historical approach to the massacre, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath.

To understand the massacre in 1919, one needs to go all the way back to 1857, when the first Indian uprising against the British took place: the so-called Indian Mutiny, during which hundreds of Europeans were massacred in places such as Meerut, Delhi, and Kanpur. In 1919, the Indian National Congress was cooperating with the British on reforms that would give Indians greater participation in governance. But, Wagner writes, &ldquooutright independence&rdquo from British rule was still a distant concept for many Indians. Rather, he says, Indians aspired to &ldquothe status of white dependencies of Empire, such as Canada or Australia[.]&rdquo At the same time, contradictorily, the British, haunted by memories of 1857 and ever fearful of a revolt by &ldquosavage&rdquo natives, were busy preparing the Rowlatt Act, which would give them sweeping powers to suppress any form of political agitation in India. Many Indians saw the Rowlatt Act as antithetical to the promised reforms. Gandhi, in response, called on Indians to pledge satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, to oppose the act.

&ldquoGeneral Dyer&rsquos experience was basically incompatible with that of the Indians who were on the other side.&rdquo

These national events set the backdrop for what eventually took place in Amritsar. Inspired by Gandhi&rsquos pledge, in late March 1919, local leaders and activists in Amritsar called for a series of general strikes that eventually led to the arrest of two local leaders. On April 10, when activists found out about the arrests, they gathered a crowd and started walking to a British official&rsquos home to issue a petition to secure the leaders&rsquo release. From an Indian perspective, writes Wagner, the petition acknowledged the British in paternalistic terms: rather than challenge the terms of rule, the Indians sought to appease. The British, however, reacted with racialized panic, meeting the crowd with a military picket. Shots were fired, and the crowd erupted into chaos. By the time things calmed down, five Europeans and dozens of Indians were dead. Many businesses associated with the British were burned, and two white women were physically assaulted.

It was the first time since the mutiny, Wagner writes, that &ldquoEuropean civilians had been killed by Indian rioters, and white women had been attacked by brown men.&rdquo In response, the British issued an order forbidding any meetings or processions. The proclamation failed to have an impact. Activists, many either unaware of the proclamation or not believing that the British would actually resort to violence, proceeded to announce a meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh that would take place on April 13, 1919. The stage was set.

Up to 20,000 people were present at the park, anticipating a lecture by a 75-year-old local judicial officer. Many were out-of-towners, celebrating a religious festival, who just happened to be there. Others had shown up to see what the fuss was about. Few women were present, as was common in public gatherings in India at the time. When the speeches began, they focused primarily on the Rowlatt Act, the petition for the release of local leaders, and the sacrifices that Indians had made during World War I. Wagner says: &ldquoOn the 13th of April, 1919, there was nobody in Jallianwala Bagh who thought about independence. They were not heroic freedom fighters. They still had an abiding belief in the ultimate justice of the Raj, and they still thought of the British government as being the arbiter of justice.&rdquo

Dyer did not go to Jallianwala Bagh with the intention to massacre people. But when he got there, Wagner writes, &ldquohe was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the gathering that he had walked in on.&rdquo Dyer later noted that he had &ldquono doubt&rdquo that he was &ldquodealing with no mere local disturbance but a rebellion[.]&rdquo Fearing a &ldquogreat offensive movement gathering&rdquo against him, Dyer ordered his troops to fire.

As Wagner says, the massacre illustrates the difficulties of creating a set narrative about the event and what happened. &ldquoGeneral Dyer&rsquos experience,&rdquo he says, &ldquowas basically incompatible with that of the Indians who were on the other side. They were facing each other, but they were by no means experiencing the same situation.&rdquo The Indians expected a paternalistic British government to ultimately be just in its rulings and actions, while the British reacted with racialized fear and violent suppression. Following the massacre, the British did not remove the dead, provided no immediate medical assistance to those injured, imposed a curfew and martial law, arrested and tortured individuals they suspected were involved in the April 10 riots, and in an instance that particularly reveals the racialized nature of their retribution, enforced a &ldquocrawling order&rdquo that made locals wanting to pass through an alley where a British woman had been assaulted during the riots to crawl on their bellies.

British censorship ensured that details of what had happened in Amritsar took months to emerge. It wasn&rsquot until October 1919 that the British, facing growing criticism from Indian political leaders and the vernacular press, set up an investigative committee, and it wasn&rsquot until its report became available that the British press and public became aware of the true scale of the massacre. In July 1920, the House of Commons voted to censure Dyer for his actions. Those opposed to the measure justified Dyer&rsquos actions as necessary. Those in favor noted the &ldquoun-English&rdquo nature of what happened and painted his actions as a blemish on an otherwise untarnished British rule.

&ldquoThe British government is never going to apologize for the Empire.&rdquo

Wagner&rsquos mining of the archival records discloses insights into the massacre that challenge some of the most commonly held beliefs about it. Examining both British and Indian estimates as well as accounts by eyewitnesses, he argues that 500 to 600 is a more &ldquoplausible estimate&rdquo of the casualties. He also finds that eyewitness accounts recall only one or two bodies as having been recovered from the well inside the park. These estimates differ quite starkly from the ones that often frame current conversation about the massacre, particularly the debate about whether the British should apologize. The number of dead, according to Wagner, is both higher than what the British officially estimated and much lower than what many Indian nationalists and those asking for an apology claim. The number, however, he says, doesn&rsquot &ldquoactually change the enormity of what happened.&rdquo But, he adds, &ldquoIf we don&rsquot have the facts, it becomes just a deeply emotive discussion.&rdquo

Wagner says that he has thought about the question of apology for a while and considers himself &ldquocynical.&rdquo He says he&rsquos always wondered why, &ldquoof all the things that you could ask for,&rdquo one would ask for an apology for Amritsar. In the history of the Raj, there are things, he says, like the Bengal famine or the partition of India and Pakistan that were arguably &ldquomany, many times worse.&rdquo The &ldquoobviously one-sided&rdquo nature of the massacre, however, he says, makes it an easy event to demand an apology for. Furthermore, because the event also symbolizes the inequities of the Raj, he continues, &ldquoan apology for Amritsar&rdquo becomes &ldquoan apology for the Raj more generally.&rdquo The problem with this, Wagner says, &ldquois that the British government is never going to apologize for the Empire.&rdquo An apology for one man&rsquos actions, he says, is &ldquodeeply problematic because it perpetuates a narrative of the British Empire as a force for good in the world. And that, to me, is really achieving the opposite of what an apology is intended to achieve.&rdquo

So rather than an apology, what Wagner wants for the centennial of the event is &ldquoa real reckoning with the past and what happened.&rdquo There could be a public debate, a ceremony, or something else&mdashits exact form, he says, is not so important. With Brexit having opened &ldquothe floodgates&rdquo for British nostalgia for and amnesia about the Empire, he says he wants a &ldquoreal debate about the bloody nature of the British Empire.&rdquo &ldquoIt&rsquos a deeply bitter and it&rsquos a deeply emotive debate that&rsquos going on in the moment in Britain and one in which I&rsquove sometimes found it a bit futile to sit and shout about facts and what actually happened,&rdquo he says.

Wagner isn&rsquot hopeful that his book will change the conversation on Amritsar. When there&rsquos a demand for an apology, he says, &ldquopeople who are deeply invested in the Empire as a force for good . . . feel personally under attack.&rdquo A book, he says, won&rsquot &ldquonecessarily change people&rsquos minds.&rdquo

Kritika Agarwal is managing editor of Perspectives . She tweets @kritikaldesi.

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Jallianwala Bagh remains open from 6 AM – 7 PM in the Summer season. However, the management changes the time in winter from 7 AM – 6 PM. Visit once to see & read the History of Jallianwala Bagh. Entry to Jallianwala Bagh is absolutely free.

Jallianwala Bagh is located just next to the Golden Temple complex. It is located less than 500m of distance from Golden Temple in Heritage Street. You can visit this place by walk while enjoying the cultural stores and shops on Heritage Street. This 6-7 acres of land is surrounded by walls and nearby houses.

Amritsar: day of shame

A century ago, hundreds of innocent civilians were massacred on the orders of a brutal British general. Writing for BBC History Revealed, journalist Nige Tassell looks at a watershed moment in Indian history

This competition is now closed

Published: April 1, 2019 at 12:00 pm

When the Punjabi city of Amritsar woke from its fitful sleep on 14 April 1919, its population remained frozen by the twin emotions of disbelief and horror. Less than 12 hours earlier, one of the 20th century’s most brutal peacetime atrocities had taken place within its city limits.

In a small, walled-in area of open ground known as Jallianwala Bagh, a 20,000-strong crowd had gathered for both a public meeting and to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Instead they were exposed to ten long minutes of indiscriminate Indian Army gunfire which, directed by an English brigadier general, took the lives of hundreds of unarmed citizens. As the bullets rained down on those frantically trying to flee the scene through the park’s narrow exits, the bodies fell where they were hit, piling on top of each other, sometimes 12 corpses high. Among the dead were dozens of boys: one was as young as six weeks old.

As the sun rose to signal another blisteringly hot day in the state of Punjab, the full horror of the previous evening made itself known. With a curfew in place the previous evening, those who had avoided the bloodbath were unable to recover the bodies of their loved ones. The majority had died instantly those who were injured and unable to move at the time were likely to have perished overnight. The dead were subjected to the indignity of having stray dogs feast on their flesh. “The Bagh was like a battlefield,” described Lala Karam Chand, a survivor of the prolonged shooting, who searched for his brother among the carnage. “There were corpses scattered everywhere in heaps.”

Rising tensions

As shocking and significant as the Amritsar Massacre was, the violence didn’t come from nowhere. In the few months since the end of World War I, discontent had been brewing across India – and across the Punjab in particular. In these immediate postwar years, Punjabis felt understandably aggrieved. Having served on the Allied side during the war (often having been recruited by strong-handed means), they were now feeling the brunt of the economic hardship that continued to dislocate much of the world in this new, young era of peace.

The Defence of India Act of 1915 had been passed in order to outlaw any indigenous political insurrection that might compromise the war effort. Now, in peace time, the British government sought to replace the legislation. The Rowlatt Act – enacted in March 1919 and named after its architect, Sir Sidney Rowlatt – was controversial, introducing some strident and deeply unfair measures. Local government was invested with the power to search people and property without a warrant, and to put civilians on trial in specially constructed courts where, if found guilty, there was no right to appeal.

Accordingly, there was a growing distrust of the British-led government right across the Punjab. This revolutionary, anti-colonial spirit was not only on the rise, but was crystallised in Amritsar with the imprisonment, and ordered deportation, of two significant Indian nationalists, one a Muslim lawyer (Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew), the other a Hindu who had previously served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (Dr Satyapal). On 10 April, rioting broke out in protest at the pair’s intended deportation. Around 20 protestors lost their lives as a result, killed by the massed rifles of the Indian Army.

Retaliation came swiftly, with the more militant Indian activists setting their sights on white Europeans. Five lost their lives, killed at the hand of baying, bloodthirsty mobs. In the centre of Amritsar, an English missionary teacher called Marcella Sherwood was knocked from her bike, set uponMand left for dead sheonly survived after being rescued by the father of one of her Indian pupils.

Punjab was now nothing short of a powder keg the merest spark could set the region ablaze. Yet, on the day of the massacre in Amritsar, one man was confident that he could quell the insurrectionary tension that hung heavy in the air. His methods, though, would prove myopic, misguided and murderous.

Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer arrived in Amritsar on 11 April, charged with taking over the running of the city. He wasn’t going in lightly, declaring that his soldiers had been instructed to use “all force necessary” to restore social order. He quickly swung into action. Two days later – the morning of the day of the massacre – Dyer took to the streets of Amritsar to publicise the clampdown he was applying to the city. Accompanied by foot soldiers and two armoured vehicles, he visited 19 locations. At each a town crier read aloud, in several languages, a list of fresh restrictions being placed on Amritsar’s citizens. One new restriction in particular would have grave consequences within a matter of hours:

“Any procession or gathering of four persons or more will be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assemble, and dispersed by force of arms if necessary.” Amritsar’s streets were especially busy during Baisakhi, with many pilgrims travelling to and from the city’s famous Golden Temple. The nearby Jallianwala Bagh was a convenient place to rest and recuperate, even if it was little more than a dusty wasteground. At the Bagh, Satyagraha Sabha – the civil disobedience movement recently formed by Mahatma Gandhi in opposition to the Rowlatt Acts – was holding a public meeting. Many of the attendees were unaware of the proclamation made earlier in the day that banned all but the smallest public gatherings.

The British Raj – a brief history

The Raj refers to the 89 years that the British Crown ruled India. Previously under the rule of the East India Company, India came under the control of the crown in 1858, with Queen Victoria recognised as Empress of India in 1876. In Victoria’s words, the aim of the arrangement was: “to stimulate the peaceful industry of India, to promote works of public utility and improvement, and to administer its government for the benefit of all our subjects”.

Under a Secretary of State for India answerable to the British parliament, and a viceroy based in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a programme of infrastructure improvements was embarked upon. A substantial railway network was constructed, and thousands of miles of metalled roads built. The respective economies dovetailed India became a major market for British exports, while supplying Britain with goods such as tea, rice and cotton.

However, the way British values were imposed on India, and the racially superior outlook such impositions were based on, fuelled the movement for Indian independence. The Indian National Congress fought hard for national self-determination and, in 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. India became its own sovereign state, albeit in reduced form, following Partition – the splitting of India in two, which created the nation state of Pakistan.

When Dyer got wind of the numbers that had congregated at Jallianwala Bagh, he summoned some of his men, including 50 riflemen, and headed to the park. They arrived three hours after the rally had started, but didn’t stop to assess the nature of the gathering. Setting his men on raised banks either side of the main entrance, the order to fire came within 30 seconds. Over the course of the next ten minutes, around 1,650 rounds were fired. There was little escape for the thousands trapped within the Bagh. Not only had Dyer’s men blocked off the main exit, but the other exits were extremely narrow. And the walls surrounding the Bagh were ten-feet tall.

This was no scattergun assault. Dyer commanded his men to fire on the more densely populated areas of the Bagh understandably these were the congested exits. The casualties didn’t just die from gunshot injuries many were trampled to death in the ensuing stampedes. In order to escape the bullets, many jumped into the well in the centre of the Bagh. It was reported that 120 bodies were later recovered from the water. When his men had run out of ammunition, Dyer ordered them to withdraw and return to their barracks. Several hundred victims, either dead or dying, were given no attention. The brigadier-general simply left the scene of the crime.

Sheer brutality

The severity and swiftness of the incident were chilling. “The grating sounds of rifle fire, combined with the screams and cries of the crowd, made for a horrid cacophony that echoed around the Bagh and into the surrounding streets,” wrote the military historian Nick Lloyd, who has written a book on the massacre. “Many years later, people in Amritsar would still recall the roar that was produced when Dyer’s 50 rifles opened fire.”

There was no denying that Dyer’s orders were brutal and inhumane, despite subsequent attempts to defend his actions. “There could be no question of undue severity,” he rather astonishingly remarked later. “The mutineers had thrown out the challenge, and the punishment, if administered at all, must be complete, unhesitating and immediate.” He even admitted that, had his armoured vehicles been able to fit through the main entrance to the Bagh, he would have set their machine guns on the crowd.

The British government appointed the Hunter Commission to hold an inquiry into the massacre, an investigation boycotted by the Indian National Congress, which embarked on its own inquiry into the brutality of that day. Despite wildly conflicting casualty numbers (the Hunter Commission put the death toll at 379, while the Congress claimed it was into four figures), there was some similarity in the two reports.

Who was was the Butcher of Amritsar?

Although he was trained at Sandhurst and made a sharp upward trajectory through the ranks of the British Army, Reginald Dyer was far from the typical expat enjoying the benefits of the British Raj. He was born in India and had spent a fair proportion of his life as both boy and man on the subcontinent, and had the rare honour conferred upon him of being made a Sikh of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. As his biographer Nigel Collett notes, Dyer was “more of a stranger to the English than he ever was to the Indians amongst whom he lived almost all his life”.

This background makes it trickier to understand hismotivation to fire upon 20,000 trapped Indians on 13 April 1919. The ultimate irony is what those actions caused both to him personally and to his precious British Empire: having been stripped of his rank in 1920, he was exiled to England, where he failed to resurrect his career and fell into ill health meanwhile, the tragic events in Amritsar accelerated the call for Indian independence.

That devastating day rightfully plagued Dyer for the rest of his life. On his deathbed, he told his daughter-in-law that he was impatient to hear the final judgement: “I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong”. The widespread condemnation of his actions from all around the world at the time (echoed in the 100 years since) suggests that Reginald Dyer didn’t need to wait until the afterlife to find out the answer.

Both condemned Dyer for ordering the rifle fire without due warning and for not ceasing the onslaught until ammunition stocks had run out. Dyer, a man not given to sophistication and subtlety, himself admitted that he saw life in brutally absolute terms. His motivation “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience”. In more conservative quarters back in Britain, Dyer was seen as the hero of the Raj, as a saviour. This was certainly how a majority in the House of Lords viewed him. However, the House of Commons took a different perspective. Winston Churchill, then Secretary for War, was one of Dyer’s sternest critics.

“The crowd was unarmed,” he told Parliament, “except for bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything.” Churchill also placed the massacre in the context of history. “This is an incident that appears to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire,” he announced. “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

An overwhelming House of Commons vote saw Dyer stripped of his position in March 1920. An existing recommendation for him to be awarded a CBE was rescinded. He was overlooked for promotion and disqualified from further employment in India – the place of his birth and where he spent a large part of his childhood and adult life.

As much as Dyer was the villain of the piece, some historians also blame Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, whose expulsion of the two Indian nationalists had sparked the unrest. He enthusiastically backed Dyer’s actions and is thought by some to be the real architect of the massacre. Whatever the level of his involvement, the events in Amritsar ultimately led to his demise.

Twenty-one years later, in 1940, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London by Udham Singh, an Indian revolutionary. It was a case of revenge. “I did it because I had a grudge against him,” Singh explained at his trial, where he would be convicted and hanged. “He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.”

Patriot martyrs

Today, 100 years on from the atrocity, a permanent memorial notice at Jallianwala Bagh reminds visitors of the barbarity witnessed that April day in 1919. “This place is saturated with the blood of thousands of Indian patriots,” reads the inscription, “who were martyred in a non-violent struggle to free India from British domination.”

The massacre marked a strengtheningin the resolve and the militancy of the Indian independence movement, with O’Dwyer and Dyer’s actions precipitating a process that would ultimately end in the partition of the country. Gandhi, for one, found his commitment to rejecting every facet of British rule immeasurably emboldene by the massive loss of life. As Nick Lloyd concludes, that fateful, inexplicably bloody day in Amritsar continues to represent “a fatal parting of the ways between British and Indian that would never be mended”.

Jallianwala Bagh massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on 13 April 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians [3] in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab, killing at least 379 people and injuring over 1,200 other people.

On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Dyer, convinced a major insurrection could take place, banned all meetings. This notice was not widely disseminated, and many villagers gathered in the Bagh to celebrate the important Hindu and Sikh festival of Baisakhi, and peacefully protest the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. Dyer and his troops entered the garden, blocking the main entrance behind them, took up position on a raised bank, and with no warning opened fire on the crowd for about ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted. The following day Dyer stated in a report that "I have heard that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds". [4] [5]

The Hunter Commission report published the following year by the Government of India criticised both Dyer personally and also the Government of the Punjab for failing to compile a detailed casualty count, and quoted a figure offered by the Sewa Samati (a Social Services Society) of 379 identified dead, [1] and approximately 1,200 wounded, of whom 192 were seriously injured. [6] [7] The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead.

Dyer was lauded for his actions by some in Britain, and indeed became a hero among many of those who were directly benefiting from the British Raj, [8] such as members of the House of Lords. [9] He was, however, widely denounced and criticised in the House of Commons, whose July 1920 committee of investigation censured him. Because he was a soldier acting on orders, he could not be tried for murder. The military chose not to bring him before a court-martial, and his only punishment was to be removed from his current appointment, turned down for a proposed promotion, and barred from further employment in India. Dyer subsequently retired from the army and moved to England, where he died, unrepentant about his actions, in 1927. [10] [11] [12]

Responses polarized both the British and Indian peoples. Eminent author Rudyard Kipling declared at the time that Dyer "did his duty as he saw it". [13] This incident shocked Rabindranath Tagore (the first Indian and Asian Nobel laureate) to such an extent that he renounced his knighthood and stated that "such mass murderers aren't worthy of giving any title to anyone".

The massacre caused a re-evaluation by the British Army of its military role against civilians to minimal force whenever possible, although later British actions during the Mau Mau insurgencies in Kenya have led historian Huw Bennett to note that the new policy was not always carried out. [14] The army was retrained and developed less violent tactics for crowd control. [15]

The level of casual brutality, and lack of any accountability, stunned the entire nation, [16] resulting in a wrenching loss of faith of the general Indian public in the intentions of the UK. [17] The ineffective inquiry, together with the initial accolades for Dyer, fuelled great widespread anger against the British among the Indian populace, leading to the Non-cooperation movement of 1920–22. [18] Some historians consider the episode a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India. [19]

Britain never formally apologised for the massacre but expressed "regret" in 2019. [20]

Defence of India Act

During World War I, British India contributed to the British war effort by providing men and resources. Millions of Indian soldiers and labourers served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, while both the Indian administration and the princes sent large supplies of food, money, and ammunition. However, Bengal and Punjab remained sources of anticolonial activities. Revolutionary attacks in Bengal, associated increasingly with disturbances in Punjab, were significant enough to nearly paralyse the regional administration. [21] [22] Of these, a pan-Indian mutiny in the British Indian Army planned for February 1915 was the most prominent amongst a number of plots formulated between 1914 and 1917 by Indian nationalists in India, the United States and Germany.

The planned February mutiny was ultimately thwarted when British intelligence infiltrated the Ghadarite movement, arresting key figures. Mutinies in smaller units and garrisons within India were also crushed. In the scenario of the British war effort and the threat from the militant movement in India, the Defence of India Act 1915 was passed limiting civil and political liberties. Michael O'Dwyer, then the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was one of the strongest proponents of the act, in no small part due to the Ghadarite threat in the province. [23]

The Rowlatt Act

The costs of the protracted war in money and manpower were great. High casualty rates in the war, increasing inflation after the end, compounded by heavy taxation, the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, and the disruption of trade during the war escalated human suffering in India. The pre-war Indian nationalist sentiment was revived as moderate and extremist groups of the Indian National Congress ended their differences to unify. In 1916, the Congress was successful in establishing the Lucknow Pact, a temporary alliance with the All-India Muslim League. British political concessions and Whitehall's India Policy after World War I began to change, with the passage of Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms, which initiated the first round of political reform in the Indian subcontinent in 1917. [24] [25] [26] However, this was deemed insufficient in reforms by the Indian political movement. Mahatma Gandhi, recently returned to India, began emerging as an increasingly charismatic leader under whose leadership civil disobedience movements grew rapidly as an expression of political unrest.

The recently crushed Ghadar conspiracy, the presence of Mahendra Pratap's Kabul mission in Afghanistan (with possible links to then nascent Bolshevik Russia), and a still-active revolutionary movement especially in Punjab and Bengal (as well as worsening civil unrest throughout India) led to the appointment of a Sedition committee in 1918 chaired by Sidney Rowlatt, an English judge. It was tasked to evaluate German and Bolshevik links to the militant movement in India, especially in Punjab and Bengal. On the recommendations of the committee, the Rowlatt Act, an extension of the Defence of India Act 1915, was enforced in India to limit civil liberties. [23] [27] [28] [29] [30]

The passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919 precipitated large scale political unrest throughout India. Ominously, in 1919, the Third Anglo-Afghan War began in the wake of Amir Habibullah's assassination and institution of Amanullah in a system strongly influenced by the political figures courted by the Kabul mission during the world war. As a reaction to the Rowlatt act, Muhammad Ali Jinnah resigned from his Bombay seat, writing in a letter to the Viceroy, "I, therefore, as a protest against the passing of the Bill and the manner in which it was passed tender my resignation. . a Government that passes or sanctions such a law in times of peace forfeits its claim to be called a civilized government". [31] In India, Gandhi's call for protest against the Rowlatt Act achieved an unprecedented response of furious unrest and protests.

Especially in Punjab, the situation was deteriorating rapidly, with disruptions of rail, telegraph, and communication systems. The movement was at its peak before the end of the first week of April, with some recording that "practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets, the immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000". [32] Many officers in the Indian army believed revolt was possible, and they prepared for the worst. The British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O'Dwyer, is said to have believed that these were the early and ill-concealed signs of a conspiracy for a coordinated revolt planned around May, on the lines of the 1857 revolt, at a time when British troops would have withdrawn to the hills for the summer.

The Amritsar massacre and other events at about the same time, have been described by some historians as the end result of a concerted plan by the Punjab administration to suppress such a conspiracy. [33] James Houssemayne Du Boulay is said to have ascribed a direct relationship between the fear of a Ghadarite uprising in the midst of an increasingly tense situation in Punjab, and the British response that ended in the massacre. [34]

On 10 April 1919, there was a protest at the residence of Miles Irving, the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. The demonstration was to demand the release of two popular leaders of the Indian Independence Movement, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, who had been earlier arrested by the government and moved to a secret location. Both were proponents of the Satyagraha movement led by Gandhi. A military picket shot at the crowd, killing several protesters and setting off a series of violent events. Riotous crowds carried out arson attacks on British banks, killed several British people and assaulted two British females. [35]

On 11 April, Marcella Sherwood, an elderly English missionary, fearing for the safety of the approximately 600 Indian children under her care, was on her way to shut the schools and send the children home. [9] [36] While travelling through a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan, she was caught by a mob who violently attacked her. She was rescued by some local Indians, including the father of one of her pupils, who hid her from the mob and then smuggled her to the safety of Gobindgarh Fort. [36] [37] After visiting Sherwood on 19 April, the Raj's local commander, Colonel Dyer, enraged at the assault, issued an order requiring every Indian man using that street to crawl its length on his hands and knees as a punishment. [9] [38] Colonel Dyer later explained to a British inspector: "Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too." [39] He also authorised the indiscriminate, public whipping of locals who came within lathi length of British policemen. Marcella Sherwood later defended Colonel Dyer, describing him "as the saviour of the Punjab". [38]

For the next two days, the city of Amritsar was quiet, but violence continued in other parts of Punjab. Railway lines were cut, telegraph posts destroyed, government buildings burnt, and three Europeans murdered. By 13 April, the British government had decided to put most of Punjab under martial law. The legislation restricted a number of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly gatherings of more than four people were banned. [40]

On the evening of 12 April, the leaders of the hartal in Amritsar held a meeting at the Hindu College - Dhab Khatikan. At the meeting, Hans Raj, an aide to Kitchlew, announced a public protest meeting would be held at 18:30 the following day in the Jallianwala Bagh, to be organised by Muhammad Bashir and chaired by a senior and respected Congress Party leader, Lal Kanhyalal Bhatia. A series of resolutions protesting against the Rowlatt Act, the recent actions of the British authorities and the detention of Satyapal and Kitchlew was drawn up and approved, after which the meeting adjourned. [41]

At 9:00 on the morning of 13 April 1919, the traditional festival of Baisakhi. Reginald Dyer, the acting military commander for Amritsar and its environs, proceeded through the city with several city officials, announcing the implementation of a pass system to enter or leave Amritsar, a curfew beginning at 20:00 that night and a ban on all processions and public meetings of four or more persons. The proclamation was read and explained in English, Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, but few paid it any heed or appear to have learned of it later. [43] Meanwhile, local police had received intelligence of the planned meeting in the Jallianwala Bagh through word of mouth and plainclothes detectives in the crowds. At 12:40, Dyer was informed of the meeting and returned to his base at around 13:30 to decide how to handle it. [44]

By mid-afternoon, thousands of Indians had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) near the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. Many who were present had earlier worshipped at the Golden Temple, and were passing through the Bagh on their way home. The Bagh was (and remains today) an open area of six to seven acres, roughly 200 yards by 200 yards in size, and surrounded on all sides by walls roughly 10 feet in height. Balconies of houses three to four stories tall overlooked the Bagh, and five narrow entrances opened onto it, several with lockable gates. During the rainy season, it was planted with crops, but served as a local meeting and recreation area for much of the year. [45] In the center of the Bagh was a samadhi (cremation site) and a large well partly filled with water which measured about 20 feet in diameter. [45]

Apart from pilgrims, Amritsar had filled up over the preceding days with farmers, traders, and merchants attending the annual Baisakhi horse and cattle fair. The city police closed the fair at 14:00 that afternoon, resulting in a large number of people drifting into the Jallianwala Bagh.

Dyer arranged for an aeroplane to overfly the Bagh and estimate the size of the crowd, that he reported was about 6,000, while the Hunter Commission estimates a crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 had assembled by the time of Dyer's arrival. [45] [6] Colonel Dyer and Deputy Commissioner Irving, the senior civil authority for Amritsar, took no actions to prevent the crowd assembling, or to peacefully disperse the crowds. This would later be a serious criticism levelled at both Dyer and Irving.

An hour after the meeting began as scheduled at 17:30, Colonel Dyer arrived at the Bagh with a group of ninety soldiers from the Gurkha Rifles, the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sind Rifles. [46] Fifty of them were armed with .303 Lee–Enfield bolt-action rifles. It is not clear whether Dyer had specifically chosen troops from that ethnic group due to their proven loyalty to the British or that they were simply the Sikh and non-Sikh units most readily available. He had also brought two armoured cars armed with machine guns however, the vehicles were left outside, as they were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrances. The Jallianwala Bagh was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had only five narrow entrances, most kept permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wide, but was guarded heavily by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles.

Dyer, without warning the crowd to disperse, blocked the main exits. He stated later that this act "was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience." [47] Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd in front of the available narrow exits, where panicked crowds were trying to leave the Bagh. Firing continued for approximately ten minutes. Cease-fire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted, after approximately 1,650 rounds were spent. [5]

Apart from the many deaths directly from the shooting, a number of people died of crushing in the stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. A plaque, placed at the site after independence, states that 120 bodies were removed from the well. The wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew was declared, and more who had been injured then died during the night. [48]

The number of total casualties is disputed. The following morning's newspapers quoted an erroneous initial figure of 200 casualties, offered by the Associated Press, e.g.

“News has been received from the Punjab that the Amritsar mob has again broken out in a violent attack against the authorities. The rebels were repulsed by the military and they suffered 200 casualties (sic).”

The Government of Punjab, criticised by the Hunter Commission for not gathering accurate figures, only offered the same approximate figure of 200. When interviewed by the members of the committee a senior civil servant in Punjab admitted that the actual figure could be higher. [6] The Sewa Samiti society independently carried out an investigation and reported 379 deaths, and 192 seriously wounded. The Hunter Commission based their figures of 379 deaths, and approximately 3 times this injured on this, suggesting 1500 casualties. [6] At the meeting of the Imperial Legislative Council held on 12 September 1919, the investigation led by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya concluded that there were 42 boys among the dead, the youngest of them only 7 months old. [50] The Hunter commission confirmed the deaths of 337 men, 41 boys and a six-week old baby. [6]

In July 1919, three months after the massacre, officials were tasked with finding who had been killed by inviting inhabitants of the city to volunteer information about those who had died. [6] This information was incomplete due to fear that those who participated would be identified as having been present at the meeting, and some of the dead may not have had close relations in the area. [51]

Winston Churchill reported nearly 400 slaughtered, and 3 or 4 times the number wounded to the Westminster Parliament, on 8 July 1920. [52]

Since the official figures were obviously flawed regarding the size of the crowd (6,000–20,000 [6] ), the number of rounds fired and the period of shooting, the Indian National Congress instituted a separate inquiry of its own, with conclusions that differed considerably from the British Government's inquiry. The casualty number quoted by the Congress was more than 1,500, with approximately 1,000 being killed. [2]

Indian nationalist Swami Shraddhanand wrote to Gandhi of 1500 deaths in the incident. [53]

The British Government tried to suppress information of the massacre, [54] but news spread in India and widespread outrage ensued details of the massacre did not become known in Britain until December 1919. [55] [56] [57]

This event caused many moderate Indians to abandon their previous loyalty to the British and become nationalists distrustful of British rule. [58]

Colonel Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been "confronted by a revolutionary army", to which Major General William Beynon replied: "Your action correct and Lieutenant Governor approves." [59] O'Dwyer requested that martial law should be imposed upon Amritsar and other areas, and this was granted by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford. [60] [61]

Both Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill and former Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, however, openly condemned the attack, Churchill referring to it as "unutterably monstrous", while Asquith called it "one of the worst, most dreadful, outrages in the whole of our history". [62] Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons debate of 8 July 1920, said, "The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. 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 madly 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 to 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion." [63]

After Churchill's speech in the House of Commons debate, MPs voted 247 to 37 against Dyer and in support of the Government. [64] Cloake reports that despite the official rebuke, many Britons still "thought him a hero for saving the rule of British law in India." [65]

Rabindranath Tagore received the news of the massacre by 22 May 1919. He tried to arrange a protest meeting in Calcutta and finally decided to renounce his British knighthood as "a symbolic act of protest". [66] In the repudiation letter, dated 31 May 1919 and addressed to the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, he wrote "I . wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings." [67]

Gupta describes the letter written by Tagore as "historic". He writes that Tagore "renounced his knighthood in protest against the inhuman cruelty of the British Army to the people of Punjab", and he quotes Tagore's letter to the Viceroy "The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India . [T]he very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation. " [68] English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore Miscellaneous Writings Vol# 8 carries a facsimile of this hand written letter. [69]

Hunter Commission

On 14 October 1919, after orders issued by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, the Government of India announced the formation of a committee of inquiry into the events in Punjab. Referred to as the Disorders Inquiry Committee, it was later more widely known as the Hunter Commission. It was named after the chairman, William, Lord Hunter, former Solicitor-General for Scotland and Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The stated purpose of the commission was to "investigate the recent disturbances in Bombay, Delhi and Punjab, about their causes, and the measures taken to cope with them". [70] [71] The members of the commission were:

  • Lord Hunter, Chairman of the Commission
  • Mr Justice George C. Rankin of Calcutta
  • Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad, Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University and advocate of the Bombay High Court
  • W.F. Rice, member of the Home Department
  • Major-General Sir George Barrow, KCB, KCMG, GOC Peshawar Division
  • Pandit Jagat Narayan, lawyer and Member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces
  • Thomas Smith, Member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces
  • Sardar Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Khan, lawyer from Gwalior State
  • H.C. Stokes, Secretary of the Commission and member of the Home Department [71]

After meeting in New Delhi on 29 October, the commission took statements from witnesses over the following weeks. [72] Witnesses were called in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bombay, and Lahore. Although the commission as such was not a formally constituted court of law, meaning witnesses were not subject to questioning under oath, its members managed to elicit detailed accounts and statements from witnesses by rigorous cross-questioning. In general, it was felt the commission had been very thorough in its enquiries. [71] After reaching Lahore in November, the commission wound up its initial inquiries by examining the principal witnesses to the events in Amritsar. The commission held its official sittings in the Lahore Town Hall building near Anarkali Bazaar.

On 19 November, Dyer was ordered to appear before the commission. Although his military superiors had suggested he be represented by legal counsel at the inquiry, Dyer refused this suggestion and appeared alone. [71] Initially questioned by Lord Hunter, Dyer stated he had come to know about the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh at 12:40 hours that day but did not attempt to prevent it. He stated that he had gone to the Bagh with the deliberate intention of opening fire if he found a crowd assembled there. Patterson says Dyer explained his sense of honour to the Hunter Commission by saying, "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." [73] Dyer further reiterated his belief that the crowd in the Bagh was one of "rebels who were trying to isolate my forces and cut me off from other supplies. Therefore, I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well". [71]

After Mr. Justice Rankin had questioned Dyer, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad enquired:

Sir Chimanlal: Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?

Dyer: I think probably, yes.

Sir Chimanlal: In that case, the casualties would have been much higher?

Dyer: Yes. [71]

Dyer further stated that his intentions had been to strike terror throughout Punjab and in doing so, reduce the moral stature of the "rebels". He said he did not stop the shooting when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep shooting until the crowd dispersed, and that minimal shooting would not prove effective. In fact, he continued the shooting until the ammunition was almost exhausted. [74] He stated that he did not make any effort to tend to the wounded after the shooting: "Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there." [75]

Exhausted from the rigorous cross-examination questioning and unwell, Dyer was then released. Over the next several months, while the commission wrote its final report, the British press, as well as many MPs, turned increasingly hostile towards Dyer as the full extent of the massacre and his statements at the inquiry became widely known. [71] Lord Chelmsford refused to comment until the Commission had been wound up. In the meanwhile, Dyer became seriously ill with jaundice and arteriosclerosis, and was hospitalised. [71]

Although the members of the commission had been divided by racial tensions following Dyer's statement, and though the Indian members had written a separate, minority report, the final report, comprising six volumes of evidence and released on 8 March 1920, unanimously condemned Dyer's actions. [71] In "continuing firing as long as he did, it appears to us that General Dyer committed a grave error." [76] Dissenting members argued that the martial law regime's use of force was wholly unjustified. "General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O'Dwyer was of the same view", they wrote, "(but) there was no rebellion which required to be crushed." The report concluded that:

  • Lack of notice to disperse from the Bagh, in the beginning, was an error.
  • The length of firing showed a grave error.
  • Dyer's motive of producing a sufficient moral effect was to be condemned.
  • Dyer had overstepped the bounds of his authority.
  • There had been no conspiracy to overthrow British rule in the Punjab.

The minority report of the Indian members further added that:

  • Proclamations banning public meetings were insufficiently distributed.
  • Innocent people were in the crowd, and there had been no violence in the Bagh beforehand.
  • Dyer should have either ordered his troops to help the wounded or instructed the civil authorities to do so.
  • Dyer's actions had been "inhuman and un-British" and had greatly injured the image of British rule in India.

The Hunter Commission did not impose any penal or disciplinary action because Dyer's actions were condoned by various superiors (later upheld by the Army Council). [77] The Legal and Home Members on the Viceroy's Executive Council ultimately decided that, though Dyer had acted in a callous and brutal way, military or legal prosecution would not be possible due to political reasons. However, he was finally found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved of his command on 23 March. He had been recommended for a CBE as a result of his service in the Third Afghan War this recommendation was cancelled on 29 March 1920.

Reginald Dyer was disciplined by being removed from his appointment, was passed over for promotion and was prohibited from further employment in India. He died in 1927. [10]

Demonstration at Gujranwala

Two days later, on 15 April, demonstrations occurred in Gujranwala protesting against the killings at Amritsar. Police and aircraft were used against the demonstrators, resulting in 12 deaths and 27 injuries. The Officer Commanding the Royal Air Force in India, Brigadier General N D K MacEwen stated later that:

I think we can fairly claim to have been of great use in the late riots, particularly at Gujranwala, where the crowd when looking at its nastiest was absolutely dispersed by a machine using bombs and Lewis guns. [78]

Assassination of Michael O'Dwyer

On 13 March 1940, at Caxton Hall in London, Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist from Sunam who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and had himself been wounded, shot and killed Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, who had approved Dyer's action and was believed to have been the main planner.

Some, such as the nationalist newspaper Amrita Bazar Patrika, made statements supporting the killing. The common people and revolutionaries glorified the action of Udham Singh. Much of the press worldwide recalled the story of Jallianwala Bagh, and alleged O'Dwyer to have been responsible for the massacre. Singh was termed a "fighter for freedom" and his action was referred to in The Times newspaper as "an expression of the pent-up fury of the down-trodden Indian People". [79] Reporter and historian William L. Shirer wrote the next day, "Most of the other Indians I know [other than Gandhi] will feel this is divine retribution. O'Dwyer bore a share of responsibility in the 1919 Amritsar massacre, in which Gen. Dyer shot 1,500 Indians in cold blood. When I was at Amritsar eleven years after [the massacre] in 1930, the bitterness still stuck in the people there." [80]

In Fascist countries, the incident was used for anti-British propaganda: Bergeret, published in large scale from Rome at that time, while commenting upon the Caxton Hall assassination, ascribed the greatest significance to the circumstance and praised the action of Udham Singh as courageous. [81] The Berliner Börsen Zeitung termed the event "The torch of Indian freedom". German radio reportedly broadcast: "The cry of tormented people spoke with shots."

At a public meeting in Kanpur, a spokesman had stated that "at last an insult and humiliation of the nation had been avenged". Similar sentiments were expressed in numerous other places across the country. [82] Fortnightly reports of the political situation in Bihar mentioned: "It is true that we had no love lost for Sir Michael. The indignities he heaped upon our countrymen in Punjab have not been forgotten." In its 18 March 1940 issue Amrita Bazar Patrika wrote: "O'Dwyer's name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget." The New Statesman observed: "British conservativism has not discovered how to deal with Ireland after two centuries of rule. Similar comment may be made on British rule in India. Will the historians of the future have to record that it was not the Nazis but the British ruling class which destroyed the British Empire?" Singh had told the court at his trial:

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland? [83]

Singh was hanged for the murder on 31 July 1940. At that time, many, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, condemned the murder as senseless even if it was courageous. In 1952, Nehru (by then Prime Minister) honoured Udham Singh with the following statement, which appeared in the daily Partap:

I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.

Soon after this recognition by the Prime Minister, Udham Singh received the title of Shaheed, a name given to someone who has attained martyrdom or done something heroic on behalf of their country or religion.

The Massacre That Led to the End of the British Empire

The events at Jallianwala Bagh , in the Indian city of Amritsar, marked the beginning of the resistance against colonial governance.

Mr. Prakash teaches history at Princeton University and is the author of “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point.”

On April 13, 1919, Gen. Reginald Dyer led a group of British soldiers to Jallianwala Bagh, a walled public garden in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. Several thousand unarmed civilians, including women and children, had gathered to celebrate the Sikh New Year.

Viewing the gathering as a violation of the prohibitory orders on public assembly, General Dyer ordered his troops to fire without warning. According to official figures, the 10 minutes of firing resulted in 379 dead and more than a thousand injured.

As news of the massacre became public, many British officials and public figures hailed General Dyer’s actions as necessary to keep an unruly subject population in order. For Indians, Jallianwala Bagh became a byword for colonial injustice and violence. The massacre triggered the beginning of the end of the colonial rule in India.

General Dyer’s very British determination to teach the colonized population a lesson was rooted in the memories of the Great Rebellion of 1857, when Indian rebels — sepoys of the British Indian Army, peasants, artisans and dispossessed landholders and rulers — revolted against the East India Company, killed several Europeans and brought the company to its knees in much of northern India. The British responded ferociously, decisively defeated the rebels, and carried out wanton retribution to teach the natives a lesson in imperial governance.


The fear and panic of 1857 was still alive among the colonial authorities in 1919. The East India Company had always portrayed its governance of India as the rule of law. But the company was in fact a conquering regime, and saw itself surrounded by the disaffection and sedition of its conquered subjects.

In 1859, the British Crown assumed direct control of the colony. Forever fearful of sedition and conspiracies, the colonial government used the opportunity offered by the First World War to introduce the Defense of India Act in 1915. The wartime legislation gave the government extraordinary powers of preventive detention, to lock up people without trial and to restrict speech, writing and movement.

The war’s end did not diminish the government’s anxiety. In March 1919, it introduced the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, which extended its wartime emergency powers into peacetime.

Not long after the war began, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had returned to India after 21 years in South Africa fighting for the rights of Indian immigrants. Gandhi was loyal to the British Empire and supported Britain in the First World War. Upon his return to India, he spent the first few years leading nonviolent struggles on local grievances.

But when news of the impending Rowlatt legislation became public, Gandhi immediately expressed his opposition and called for a nationwide general strike on April 6, 1919. He asked people to engage in nonviolent struggle, or satyagraha: Observe a daylong fast and hold meetings to demand the repeal of the legislation.

Anger in the northern Indian province of Punjab was already heating up well before Gandhi called for the satyagraha. Across the state, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh nationalist leaders had been agitating against the Rowlatt Act Gandhi’s call raised the popular fervor against the law to a boil.

The unrest was of particular concern to the British because Punjab was a vital economic and military asset. They had invested heavily in canal irrigation to turn the province into a food basket of the empire. The colonial army recruited heavily in the region, regarding the Sikhs as a “martial race.” By World War I, soldiers from Punjab constituted three-fifths of the British Indian Army, which was extensively deployed in the war. The combustible presence of the demobilized soldiers in the heat of the anticolonial agitation alarmed the British.

Tensions mounted as Gandhi announced his decision to travel to Punjab. On April 10, the colonial government stopped the train carrying Gandhi, arrested him and sent him back to Bombay. Protesters in Amritsar clashed with the authorities the troops killed at least 10 people. The crowd attacked government property and set fire to two banks. Five Europeans were killed, but the event that angered the British the most was the assault of Marcella Sherwood, a European missionary, who was wounded and left for dead on the street.

Dispatched to Amritsar, General Dyer took control from the civil authorities on April 11. He issued a proclamation prohibiting public assembly and warning that such gatherings would be dispersed by force. Peace was restored, but the people were not cowed.

On April 13, several thousand gathered in Jallianwala Bagh in defiance of General Dyer’s orders. Incensed, he rode to the venue with his troops on two armored vehicles. Finding the lane leading up to the walled garden too narrow, they dismounted, marched to the ground and opened fire.

The massacre made headlines worldwide. Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and Nobel laureate, returned his knighthood in protest. Winston Churchill condemned the shooting as “monstrous.” The government was forced to institute an inquiry commission, where the unrepentant general acknowledged that his principal aim was not to disperse the crowd but to produce a “moral effect.” The colonial government of India determined that General Dyer’s actions were unwarranted and dismissed him from service.

The fear of insurgency, kept alive by the memories of “native treachery” in 1857, had made violence and laws of exception part of the colonial government’s arsenal of rule. General Dyer’s actions stemmed from this — a fact that the British could not officially acknowledge. Much of the colonial bureaucracy shared his views. The conservative press in London hailed him as a hero upon his return home.

For Indians, General Dyer became a symbol of British oppression. When they reacted violently to the news of the massacre, Gandhi withdrew the Rowlatt satyagraha, calling his belief in Indians’ readiness for his message of nonviolence a “Himalayan blunder.” But Jallianwallah Bagh also shook his faith in British justice.

A year later, Gandhi resumed the struggle against the British. He led India to independence less than three decades later, in 1947, setting into motion a process of decolonization that profoundly shaped the 20th century.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre marked the beginning of the resistance against the exceptional laws of colonial governance. Ironically, the postcolonial Indian state retained several of these laws of exception, the very same ones that people in Amritsar had died fighting against.

Gyan Prakash is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point.”

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Facts

In this article, I will tell you about 10 such facts that every Indian must know.

  1. In the year 1919, the British Government passed the ‘Rowlatt’ Act. This act was brought to control the activities of Indian revolutionaries. In this act, the government used to get the right to arrest people on the basis of suspicion without conducting any trial. The seeds were sown at the core of this massacre by the Rowlatt Act.
  2. On April 10, 1919, two popular leaders Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kichlu were arrested under this act. This arrest sparked anger across Punjab. People became so angry that there was a danger of provoking violent activity all over Punjab. On this, General Dyer issued an order on behalf of the government and banned the public meeting or gathering of the crowd in Amritsar.
  3. A public meeting was held on 13 April at Jallianwala Bagh. Due to Baisakhi on this day, a large number of devotees had gathered in the Golden Temple of the world. Around 6 to 10 thousand devotees returning from there started to gather at Jallianwala Bagh. Women and children were also among these devotees.
  4. Jallianwala Bagh was completely surrounded by houses. Whereas it had only two narrow lanes for the exit. General Dyer decided to take advantage of this opportunity.
  5. Dyer enters the ground with 90 soldiers after closing the main gate. All soldiers had loaded rifles in their hands. Dyer ordered the soldiers to shoot without waiting.
  6. The soldiers stopped firing only after firing about 1650 rounds and ending the bullets. The most colorful festival in Punjab was now bathed in blood. According to Amritsar civil surgeon Dr. Smith, the number of martyrs was more than 1800.
  7. There was a fast response to this massacre all over India. This incident is considered to be responsible for many events in India’s freedom struggle. Ravindra Nath Tagore returned his title of Knighthood after this scandal. Whereas Gandhiji had returned the title of Kaiser-i-Hind.
  8. The Hunter Commission was formed under the leadership of Lord Hunter to investigate this massacre. However, no one in India trusted this investigation. That is why the Congress gave the task of investigating the incident to Madan Mohan Malaviya, Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das.
  9. However, the British government suspended Dyer due to the angry anger against General Dyer across India. He was later quietly summoned to Britain. However, later in London itself, Sardar Udham Singh killed General Michael O Dyer on 30 March 1940. This is considered revenge for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on behalf of India. Michael O Dyer was the man who was considered a supporter and protector of Dyer.
  10. The Indian National Congress had built a memorial in memory of the innocent martyrs killed in this scandal. The memorial was inaugurated by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the country in the year 1961.

However, the incident that took place in that period cannot be changed in any way. But it is important that the incident burns in our hearts like a lamp. So, let us never forget those people who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: What Happened On April 13, 1919 In Amritsar?

In Jallianwala Bagh, visitors can still see the bullet marks on garden's walls.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on April 13, 1919. This is remembered as one of the deadliest attacks in the history of the world and is also a turning point in India's freedom struggle. At the Jallianwala Bagh, which is garden spread across 6 to 7 acres, a large gathering of 15,000-20,000 people with a majority of Sikhs, took place to celebrate the Punjabi harvest festival of Baisakhi. They had also gathered to revolt against the repressive Rowlatt Act that provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial. But little did they know what the British India Army had in mind.

People come from around the world to visit the Jallianwala Bagh.

Here's what happened in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 13, 1919 in Amritsar:

1. On this day, around 50 troops of the British Indian Army, under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, fired rifles into a crowd of Baishakhi pilgrims, who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab.

2. The civilians, that had a majority of Sikh population, had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate the harvest festival and also to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew.