How do you shoot more than one thousand defenceless, unarmed, peaceful men, women, the elderly, and children in cold blood? How do you get honoured as a hero, as saviour, by your countrymen for saying you would have murdered even more women and children had you been able to? That, my dear fellows, is a question that does not seem to have troubled most people.
The Jallianwalla Bagh murders on the 13th of April, 1919 – on the holy day of Baisakhi, and a stone’s throw from Harmandir Sahib, the holy shrine of the Sikhs – were perhaps the second most brutal act by the British empire against the citizens of its Bharatiya colony in the twentieth century. The Bengal famine genocide, in which more than 3 million Bharatiyas were starved to death through a deliberate system of deprivation of food and denial of aid, comes at the top of the list, but since that genocide happened over a period of several years, it has still not been acknowledged as pre-meditated mass-murder. The Jallianwalla Bagh murders of over one thousand people, however, could not be glossed over.
In a nutshell, what happened on April 13, 1919 (the Sikh new year) was this: Brigadier General Dyer entered the park that was Jallianwalla Bagh (in the holy Sikh city of Amritsar and a stone’s throw from the holiest Sikh shrine – Harmandir Sahib), with his soldiers, where a peaceful rally of close to ten thousand people had been taking place, and ordered his soldiers to shoot to kill at this mass of men, women, and children. For ten minutes the firing continued, and at the end of which a thousand people lay dead, and many more injured. Dyer then marched away, leaving the dying to die. He declared a curfew in the town that day, preventing any medical help from reaching the dying. Eventually, he was hailed as a “saviour” of the British Empire, a “hero”, and feted by the men and ladies of the Empire.
I have been wanting to write a post on the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar on the 13th of April 1919, since April 2010 when I had visited Punjab and the holy city of Amritsar. However, things not posted then will get posted now. For this post I will rely on three sources. First, my own visit to Jallianwalla Bagh and the photos I took there. Second, the Amar Chitra Katha comic titled Jallianwalla Bagh. Third, Vol. 11 – “Struggle for Freedom” – of the fantabulous “History and Culture of the Indian People”, edited by the legendary historian, RC Mazumdar. I have also made a few visits to B.G. Horniman’s book, “Amritsar and Our Duty to India“. Horniman was a British journalist and editor of the Bombay Chronicle who published this book in 1920, a year after the Jallianwalla Bagh murders.
Of the four “outstanding” events in the context of British rule in Bharat in 1919, there are three that have had a long lasting impact, and that affects the national psyche of our nation and the Bharatiya sub-continent even today. The first was the Rowlatt Bills and “reign of terror” unleashed in Punjab and whose highlight was the wanton massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh and the “barbarous enforcement of martial law” in the state. The second was the emergence of Mohandas Gandhi as a political leader in Bharat, while the third was the “development of Pan-Islamism as a force in Indian politics.“
Without getting into the details of the events that led to the gory massacre of Bharatiyas at Jallianwalla Bagh, the most pertinent catalyst in the chain of events that led to that fateful day in Amritsar, a stone’s throw away from the holiest shrine of the Sikhs – Harmandir Sahib, aka “Golden Temple” – was the series of protests against the decidedly repressive Rowlatt Bill. The Sedition Committee – as the Rowlatt Committee was officially called – was formed by Lord Chelmsford (Viceroy) on December 10, 1917, and headed by Mr. Justice Rowlatt, “Judge of the King’s Bench Division of His Majesty’s Court of Justice“.
This committee was set up in mortal fear of the revolutionary activities being perpetrated by freedom fighters in Bharat – “to investigate and report on the nature and extent of the criminal conspiracies connected with the revolutionary movement in India“, and more ominously, to “advise as to the legislation, if any, necessary to enable Government to deal effectively with them.” Note the language – no different from that used by various committees that are formed by our democratically elected governments and which lead to laws designed to suppress free speech – especially of the dissenting flavour – and to provide for harsh punitive measures against such dissenters (Section 66A of the Indian IT Act being a case in point in recent memory, though countless such laws have been enacted with no different philosophy).
As a result of this Committee, two Bills were framed, one of which passed – the “Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919“. The crux of this Act was that speedy trials were provided for, that could be held in camera, evidence that would not have been admissible under the Indian Evidence Act was allowed, and – there was no appeal from this Court. The “Provincial Government” was also given powers “to search a place and arrest a suspected person without warrant and keep him in confinement in ‘such place and under such conditions and restrictions as it may specify.’” These provisions basically “denied the protection of law to Indians” and the Bill was placed on the Statute Book on 21 March, 1919.
As soon as these Bills were introduced, Gandhi introduced the Satyagraha campaign, the public rose in protest, and the brutal British suppression began. On the 30th of March, a “hartal” took place, the police fired upon the crowd, “killing a few and wounding a large number.” The British nurses at the Police Hospital, it was reported, “refused to attend to the wounded” – “They have been well served. They are rebels and we won’t attend on them.”
Gandhi was prevented entry into Punjab. He was removed to Bombay, where mounted police charged upon a throng of people gathered to see him, crushing a large number of people. At Ahmedabad, more than 20 protesters were killed and more than a hundred were wounded in police firing. Basically, protests had erupted over the nation, and the British were more than equipped to crush them with bestial brutality.
Gandhi however soon suspended the Satyagraha agitation – alarmed at the escalating levels of violence. Meanwhile, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-General of Punjab, had made an honourable name for the empire with a sustained campaign of brutality against the residents of Punjab. Not only were hundreds of people imprisoned, the local press gagged, but he forced people to give funds for the war and men for the war, by forcing “Lambardars (land-owners) to furnish recruits on the penalty of forfeiting their rights to the land.” The same General Dwyer would later enter “into an elaborate explanation of how, at a time when he was very busy receiving reports of disturbances, General Beynon pressed him for an expression of approval of General Dyer’s action” (of proclaiming Martial Law). Poor General. So many to oppress, so little time.
Meanwhile, two hartals called in Amritsar, on 30th March and 6th April, 1919, had gone off peacefully. But on 9th April, the government “deported two prominent local leaders, Dr Satyapal and Dr Kitchlew.” These two leaders were ordered to be deported by Michael O’Dwyer himself, “over the heads of local officials“. A hartal was called, which passed off almost peacefully, till it was fired upon by the police, after which violence broke out and people were killed and property destroyed. Things seemed to be returning to normal, when, on April 11th 1919, Brigadier General Dyer arrived, and who “immediately established de facto Martial Law, though it was not officially proclaimed before 15 April.“
Though all meetings and gatherings had been prohibited, “the proclamation was not read out in all places“, and even when it was announced on the 12th of April that a meeting would be held at Jallianwalla Bagh the next day at 4-30pm, Dyer, although fully aware of the announced meeting, “took no steps to warn the people about its illegality, or prevent it being held…“
Thus dawned the fateful day of April 13, 1919. What should have otherwise a day of celebrations for the Sikhs, celebrating their new year, would turn out to be a day of horrific mass-murder.
On the 13th of April, with the gathering in full force, Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd, “at about 100 yards’ range“, “estimated by him at 6,000 and by others at 10,000 and more, but practically unarmed, and all quite defenceless.” For “ten consecutive minutes” (to get a real life sense of ten minutes, start counting “one-thousand-one” and say that six hundred times) he “kept up a merciless fussilade“, “in all 1650 rounds“, and which “‘he personally directed to the points where the crowd was thickest.’“
By the end of it all, official estimates put the number of those killed at 250, and then 500 – “based upon an inquiry held four months after the tragedy.“
“According to more reliable estimates the death roll was probably about 1,000”
Not everyone who was shot died. Even though a thousand men, women, elderly, and children died, several more were wounded. Like a good, honest, God-fearing person, it was not Dyer’s responsibility to tend to the wounded – “it was not his job, they might go to the hospital if they liked.” But it was his job to make sure that no help reached the wounded, the dying, the thirsty.
“But on that very day (13th April) ‘he had issued a Curfew Order, that all persons must be indoors after 8 p.m., and would go abroad in the streets at the risk of being shot at sight.'”
Friends and relatives of those killed or wounded could not venture out to inquire about their loved ones’ fate. Those who knew could still not venture out to either take the dead to perform their last rites, nor tend to the wounded. Temperatures in the city of Amritsar in the month of April can near 38 °C, so the good General in effect made sure that even water would not reach those still left alive. Have to admit, a real man.
This curfew order was ““maintained for weeks, and was administered with the utmost rigour.”“
“Among General Dyer’s inspirations was the cutting off of the water supply and the electric supply of the city.”
But the depravity of the noble Englishmen did not stop at mere killing. There were several innovations that sprang from their fertile minds.
First, it was Dyer who came up with the “crawling order.” No, it was not so named because the order made its way through the province in a “crawling” manner. No sirree bob, not by a long means.
“By his orders, for several days, everyone passing through the street in which Miss Sherwood, the lady doctor, was assaulted, was ordered to crawl with belly to the ground.
A public platform for whippings was erected near the fort, and a number of triangles for flogging were erected in various parts of the city.””
Dyer found a “worthy colleague” in Capt Doveton at Kasur. Per the good captain himself, “some people were made to touch the ground with their foreheads by way of making them acknowledge superiority. … Some persons were lime-washed and made to stand in the sun. As many as 107 persons were kept in a public cage, without any overhead covering, specially built for the purpose.“
Lala Lajpat Rai – prominent freedom fighter and who had the good fortune to die at the hands of the British police when leading a non-violent protest on 16th November 1928 – had more gruesome incidents to recount at the “Indian National Congress in Calcutta, held on 4th September 1920.“
“Six boys were flogged in public; one of them, Sunder Singh, became senseless after the fourth stripe, but after some water was poured into the mouth by soldiers, he regained consciousness; flogging was then resumed. He lost his consciousness for the second time, but the flogging never ceased till he was given 20 stripes.”
Mr. Bosworth Smith was a civilian officer who administered Martial Law in Sheikhpura. An abstract of his report to the Government was “placed before the Hunter Committee.“
“There is no place,” he said, “where disloyalty is so deep as in Delhi, Lahore, and Amritsar.”
He was cross-examined by Sir Chimanlal Setalwad, and here are a few lines from that cross-examination:
- You don’t arrive at opinions without materials. What is the material on which you based your opinion?
A. I prefer not to say…
- I want to have your position clear. You don’t want to answer the question?
A. I have already said I don’t think it is desirable.
- Is it against the public interest?
A. I don’t wish to answer this.
- May I know your reason?
A. I don’t wish to give it to you.
- You don’t wish to answer the question and you don’t wish to give your reasons?
- You think this is the way in which to come here to assist the Committee?
Mr. Bosworth Smith was quite the ladies man, and a chivalrous one too, as can be gleaned from this encounter of his.
“Mr Bosworth Smith went towards the women. He removed their veils and used abusive language. He called them “flies, bitches, she-asses” and worse things. He said to them: “Your skirts will be examined by the Police Constables. … He spat on them.”
Beating protesters. Shooting protesters. Not enough. How about bombing them from aeroplanes? Yes, that would be most appropriate.
The Lieutenant-Governor “himself conceived the idea of sending aeroplanes to throw bombs upon the rioters…“
“Lt. Dodkins, R.A.F., machine-gunned twenty peaceful peasants working in the field. He dropped a bomb on another party in front of a house, simply because a man was addressing them.”
“Major Carberry, R.A.F., bombed a party of people because he thought they were rioters. The crowd was running away and he fired to disperse them.”
State-sanctioned murders were committed under the garb of justice. Kangaroo courts and trials, if ever there were any.
“On major charges 298 people were put before the Martial Law Commissions, who tried cases unfettered by the ordinary recognized rules of procedures or laws of evidence. Of these 218 were convicted: 51 were sentenced to death, 46 to transportation for life, 2 to imprisonment for ten years, 79 for seven years, 10 for five years, 13 for three years, and 11 for lesser periods.”
Why the British authorities wanted to keep a lid on the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh is inexplicable, since it had been the intent of the murders to show the Indians who was boss.
“For eight months the Government of India tried to draw a veil over the horrible atrocities perpetrated in the Punjab.”
So, while Gandhi’s reaction to the massacre “appears to be somewhat mysterious“, “The great poet Rabindranath Tagore relinquished his Knighthood as a measure of protest“, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya “patiently collected the details of the tragic incident“, and the 92 leading questions that he tried to place in the Central Legislative Council were disallowed by the Viceroy. It is a sad commentary on how heroes are treated in this world, that the British government had to intervene to provide immunity to the heroes of these murders. The Government brought out a Bill of Indemnity “for protecting the civil and military officials in the Punjab from consequences of their action.”
The Congress Committee submitted a unanimous report on 25 March 1920, while the report of the Hunter Committee was issued on 28 May, 1920, with “the five European members signing the Majority Report and the three Indian members, the Minority Report.” Here, the majority committee held that Dyer committed a grave error of judgment. Why? Because he fired without warning (firing after warning 10,000 unarmed people gathered peacefully would have been totally acceptable one supposes) and that he continued firing too long. Perhaps firing just a wee bit under five minutes may have sufficed?
A few dissenting voices did arise from some Englishmen, with Mr Hyndman writing that “Our own atrocities stand almost on a level with the outrages committed by Germany in Belgium, France and Poland.” However, the overwhelming opinion was otherwise. Even the mildest of mild actions that was taken – “a mild censure of on Dyer and removed him from active service” – was “carried in the House of Commons only by a vote of 232 to 131.” The House of Lords was more loyal. It “passed a resolution by 129 votes to 89, deploring the removal of Dyer from army as unjust“.
Dyer was regarded as “the saviour of the British Empire“. A fund for Dyer was launched by the Morning Post in London.
“A collection was made by the English ladies in India who started a Dyer Appreciation Fund in Mussorie. Dyer was presented with a sword and a purse of £20,000.”
The murderer of a thousand defenceless people was feted with a purse of £20,000. That, in one sentence, sums up the story.
1. Struggle for Freedom – The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol -11, RC Majumdar (Editor)
2. Jallianwalla Bagh, Amar Chitra Katha (Publisher)
3. Amritsar and our duty to India : Horniman, Benjamin Guy, 1873- : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive
4. Wikipedia contributors, “B. G. Horniman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=B._G._Horniman&oldid=528210920 (accessed April 14, 2013).
(This article first appeared at http://blog.abhinavagarwal.net/2013/04/jallianwalla-bagh.html and is being reproduced with the permission of the author, Abhinav Agarwal)