Jallianwala Bagh

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on April 13, 1919, in Amritsar, Punjab, British India

A large, peaceful crowd had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. The garden was nearly completely enclosed by walls and had only one exit, making it a confined space. In response to the public gathering, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer and his soldiers arrived and sealed off the only exit, blocking the protesters inside the garden. Dyer then ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd, continuing to shoot even as the protesters tried to flee. The troops only stopped firing when their ammunition was exhausted

Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar Massacre)

The year is 1919 in Amritsar, Punjab – It has been officially 61 years since the British Raj has been ruling over the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia (although their actual control and presence dates much further back). At the center of Amritsar lies Harmandir Sahib, better known as The Golden Temple, the holiest complex and shrine of the Sikh faith.

On Sunday April 13th 1919, just a mere 200 meters from the Golden Temple complex, history witnessed one of British Raj’ most deadly massacre by the hands of a British officer named Reginald Edward Harry Dyer. This was known as the Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar massacre. Jallianwalla Bagh is a large public garden, walled on all sides with narrow entrances. The events that took place in the build up to this massacre and the moments proceeding this day led to the fall of the British empire in India 28 years later.

So, what did happen on that fateful Sunday afternoon on April 13th 1919? Why were innocent people killed in such brutality by the British under the orders of Reginald Dyer? There were several key events happening during this time in India and especially in Punjab – India was tiring of the oppression from the British Raj and just four years prior, WW1 broke out in Europe and the British desperately needed troops and asked India to help in the war effort. Roughly 50% of all troops enlisted within the British imperial infantry from India came from Punjab. This was no coincidence; Punjab was known for its majority Sikh population and the British revered the bravery of the Sikh’s from the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and their skirmishes in the 19th century. The Sikh’s and Indians at the time thought that fighting for the British would help bring the entire nation more autonomy and equality. Instead, what the British did was arm itself with the Defense of India Act (1915) also referred to as a Defense of Indian Regulation Act. It was intended as an emergency measure against anyone who dare revolt against the British Raj during the first world war. What it meant in practice is that they (British) could imprison anyone suspected of terrorism in the Raj without a trial. It in turn gave the authorities the power to silence any revolutionary activities.

As the WW1 ended and troops came back to Punjab and other regions, the desire to attain democracy, equality and freedom was at its highest. There was, however, a strong feeling amongst the masses that the British were not going to hand over any freedom of any form. The Rowlett Act (1919) was also bought in as the British feared the repeat of the 1857 mutiny. The act allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries and permitted internment of suspects without trial. Their objective was to replace the repressive provisions of the wartime Defense of India Act (1915) by permanent law. It is important to note that all non-official Indian members of the council (i.e., those who were not officials in the colonial Government) voted against the acts. The act produced a great amount of unrest, especially in Punjab. Dr. Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal were leading the anti-British demonstrations. They were arrested on April 10th, 3 days before the massacre. This led to a large protest and the public were demanding their release. The British military and police clashed with protestors which led to violence -12 Indians died and 13 were injured. General Dyer was drafted in following this and arrived at Amritsar, taking immediate control of the city.

Who was General Dyer? Dyer’s family had been in India since the 1820’s and he himself was born there. He was a disciplinarian and he believed that the British had a divine right to rule India. He held a strong moral code and if anyone deviated from this they must be punished. He arrived at Punjab Railway Station on April 11th and was briefed on the events that occurred on the previous day. Intelligence reports were coming in that Punjab was getting restless and there were even rumors that the Government had fallen. Dyer ordered a plane to fly over Amritsar to see if any crowds were gathering. His pilot reported crowds gathering in numerous places. Dyer ordered a proclamation that no public meetings were allowed and any gatherings of more than four people were illegal and would be treated as unlawful. Many did not even know about this supposed proclamation.

The day of the massacre

On the morning of April 13th 1919, General Dyer went out with a column of men around the city to deliver his proclamation. He paraded the streets of Punjab with his soldiers and was mocked by the public. This day was an important day in the Sikh calendar; It was Baisakhi which is a traditional spring festival for the Sikhs and Punjabis therefore thousands gathered around the streets and in their homes. How could General Dyer possibly think in his right mind that there would be no more than four people gathering on an auspicious day like this? Was he certain that his message was understood by every civilian? He knew exactly what this day meant for Punjabi’s yet still decided to declare his proclamation. Further, it was April in Punjab where temperatures reached over 35 degrees Celsius. There was a large crowd resting in Jallianwala Bagh (garden) with their children and families peacefully.

Dyer was informed that at 4pm there were meetings happening at Jallianwala Bhag which infuriated him. He began to assess the situation and decide how to teach the public a ‘lesson’. He told two of his senior officers not to come with him and quoted as saying ‘’If there is anything to be done, I shall do it alone’’. General Dyer gathered his men, took two armored vehicles, machine guns, and proceeded to Jallianwala Bagh. When he arrived, to his surprise he noticed that there was only one main entrance to enter and exit the garden and realized his tanks would not fit in the narrow alley. When he reached the alley, he was shocked to see well over 10,000 people gathered.

What happened next changed the course of the British Raj and their rule in India, subsequently leading to their demise. General Dyer asked his men to take position and aim their rifles at the unexpected crowd of unarmed civilians. It did not occur to him to look at the crowd and fire a warning shot. It did not occur to him to check if there were women, children, and the elderly. It did not occur to him to assess what threat these civilians posed to his men and others. Instead, ‘’Take aim, fire!’’ he ordered his men, and did not give the order to stand down. As the bullets kept raining on the crowds many people tried to lie down to save themselves but there was no stopping the gunfire. Dyer himself directed the fire where the crowed was the thickest to ensure maximum casualties. Some believed it was fake bullets until they saw blood. Terrified children attempted to hide behind others whilst many were jumping into the well nearby not knowing dead bodies were already piling up, surpassing the water. There was no escape however, as the only exit to leave the garden was blocked by Dyer and his soldiers. Once the shooting had stopped approximately ten minutes later, Dyer left the scene immediately making no arrangement to assist the wounded. 1650 rounds were fired and 379 people were killed, 1500 wounded. Many experts however believe the number to be much higher given there were 1500 wounded who later succumbed to their injuries. This figure does not include the hundred who died in the well.  Many were too frightened to come forward and give information. The real figures put it closer to 2000.

Martial law was imposed on the city in the days following the massacre. General Dyer later stated in his personal statement to his superiors that he opened fire on a large crowd of 20,000 people because he feared of being overwhelmed by the crowd. An inquiry followed known as the Hunter Enquiry where Dyer then changed his statement quoting ‘’I had the choice of carrying out a very distasteful and horrible duty or of neglecting to do my duty of suppressing a mutiny or of becoming responsible for all future bloodshed. The enemy had given me a fleeting opportunity of suppressing the mutiny there and then, I had to take advantage of it at once or lost it forever’’. The so called ‘enemy’ were children, women, and the elderly, all unarmed. In the eyes of the Empire, he did an honorable act, just as applying salt to the open wound of all Indians. Michael O ’Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre and had supported the actions of General Dyer. Dyer was forced to retire a year later in 1920 and sent back to England. He died in 1927 due to a stroke. On 13 March 1940, Udham Singh, a revolutionary avenged and shot dead Michael O ‘Dwyer at a meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at the Caxton Hall in London. This was for his role played in the massacre. Udham Singh was subsequently tried and convicted of murder and hanged in July 1940. The British government till date has issued no apology for what happened that day.