April 13, 1919
Anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Punjab
At the festival of Baisaki, the Sikh New Year, on April 13, 1919, the British opened fire on men, women and children in Amritsar, massacring more than 1,000 and injuring many more. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre went down in history as one of the most heinous crimes of British rule. Today the site commemorates all those who were murdered there under British orders.
The First World War had already been brought to a close with the Armistice of November 11, 1918. The October Revolution in Russia the previous year was a major factor in bringing peace. The Peace Conference convened in Paris in January 1919, was to last six months, and conclude with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. India had three delegates at the conference, the Secretary of State for India, Edward Montagu, the Maharaja of Bikaner and Lord Sinha. All three shared a vision of India eventually governing itself, but within the British Empire, with Sinha commenting that Britain must remain “the paramount power.”
Back in India the intellectual elite had backed the war expecting concessions as a reward for the sacrifices made. But they were to be bitterly disappointed. The Government of India Act of 1919 only consolidated colonial rule.
The war had had a devastating effect on India. Besides the thousands of young lives lost of those conscripted to serve, crops had failed, prices were high and a spirit of unrest was growing. Famine had been declared in Central India. The greatest unrest was in the Punjab. Severe hardship was occurring in the cities. There was great anger at the seizure of foodstuffs for the war effort under the Defence of the Realm Act. War weariness gripped the region, which had sent the most combatants to the front. Villages were mourning the dead and tending the wounded.
The response of the British Government was the Rowlatt Act, passed in London in March 1919. It banned public meetings and muzzled the press. It authorized in camera trials without jury. Persons suspected of revolutionary activity were imprisoned without trial for up to two years. Protests were put down by troops with lethal force.
On April 11, 1919, General Reginald Dyer occupied Amritsar, imposing a curfew and banning all gatherings. A proclamation to that effect was read out on April 13. That day was the festival of Baisaki, the Sikh New Year. Crowds had gathered at the Golden Temple in a festive mood. Nearby was the enclosed park called Jallianwala Bagh. Thousands had gathered there peacefully at a rally to discuss the Rowlatt Act and recent police killings. As is now well known, Dyer brought armed troops in through the single narrow entrance to the park and opened fire on the crowd, ordering his troops to keep firing until their ammunition was exhausted. There was no escape. Around 1,000 were killed and some 1,500 wounded.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre shocked and enraged the country. Barely five months from the end of the war, in which 400,000 Punjabis had fought, this was Britain’s reward. Dyer was unrepentant. The massacre was followed by the bombing of Punjab cities, the extension of martial law and further repression. In London, the report to the War Cabinet for that week barely mentioned the event, simply stating that there had been “trouble” at Amritsar where “troops were called in to restore order.” No mention was made of the killings. It was not raised at the Peace Conference in Paris either.
The troop ships returned to Bombay and Karachi. Bands played but there was no heroes’ welcome. Too many had died. Too many were crippled, blind or shell-shocked. Some hospitals for the wounded and limbless were set up, but of little help to those returning to remote regions. Crops had failed. Unrest was rife. A new mood of nationalism was growing in the country. The heroes would now be those who sacrificed their lives for independence or in the Freedom Movement. In the British official histories of the war there would be little mention of the Indian soldiers who had made such sacrifice.
As for those who were plowed down in Jallianwala Bagh, the dead bodies were identified and given to their relatives, the injured were removed to the hospitals, and a commission of inquiry known as the Hunter Commission was appointed. However, even though the commission held that the shooting was unjustified and awarded compensation of Rs.2,000 to the relatives of those who were killed and Rs.500 to the injured in the early 1920s, it failed to punish General Dyer or the then governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer finally met his maker when the patriot Udham Singh who had lost his entire family in the massacre, executed him at Caxton Hall in London on March 13, 1940, for which Singh was hanged by the British in July of that year. The British continued committing crimes in India, including enforcing the conditions which led to the Bengal famine of the 1940s which eliminated over three million people. After that they partitioned India and imposed their system of rule for Indians in their service to carry out colonial rule in their stead. None of the promises made at the time of independence were carried out. Today anarchy and violence prevail and India is in dire need of revolutionary change so that its people can finally achieve peace, freedom and democracy.
The following poem comes to mind:
Bahrupiye Dilli Baithe Hain Nadir or Dyer Ke Chele
Har Shahar Bana Jalianwala, Har Zarra Khoon Se Hai Lathpath
Phir Lal Hai Jumna Ka Paani Katil Hain Wahi Naye Chehare
(Fraudsters are in power in Delhi, followers of Nadir Shah and Dyer
They have turned cities into Jallianwala, drenched soil with innocent blood
Once again the Jamuna is red, butchers with new faces)
1. By the end of the war, nearly one-and-a-half million soldiers and non-combatants from India had been brought to the Western Front in Europe and to the other theatres of war. Of these, around 70,000 were killed, and tens of thousands more left shell-shocked, blind, crippled or suffering other severe wounds and mental trauma. India was also bled dry in terms of foodstuffs and other resources for the war effort, with disastrous consequences.