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Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, was named after the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in Amritsar, where, on April 13, 1919, British Indian Army soldiers opened fire on an unarmed gathering of men, women and children. Official sources place the casualties at 379. According to private sources, the number was over 1000, with more than 1200 wounded, and Civil Surgeon Dr Smith indicated that they were over 1800. The figures were never fully ascertained for political reasons.

The gathering

In the morning hours of April 10th, 1919, a crowd that had been proceeding towards the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, an important city in the Punjab, a large province in the north-western part of the then undivided India, to demand the release of two popular leaders against whom deportation orders had been issued was fired upon by a military picket. Later in the day, several banks and other buildings, either housing government property or otherwise emblematic of British rule, were set fire to, and here and there other acts of incendiarism were committed. Four European men were, in separate incidents, brutally murdered. The infantry fired upon the crowd on several different occasions in the course of the day, and nearly twenty Indians were killed. Miss Marcella Sherwood, a Church of England missionary and a resident of Amritsar for over fifteen years, was unable to escape the wrath of the crowd. As she was bicycling down a narrow lane, she was set upon by a crowd that knocked her down from her bicycle, and then delivered blows to her head with sticks while she was still on the ground. Miss Sherwood rose to her feet, and had just started to run when she was again brought down. On the subsequent attempt she reached a house but the door was slammed shut in her face. She was again beaten and left on the street in a critical condition. The crowd then dispersed; Miss Sherwood was soon thereafter rescued, and prompt medical attention saved her life.

For the next two days the city of Amritsar was quiet, but to the British it appeared that cry of revolution was resounding in other parts of the Punjab. Railway lines were cut, telegraphic posts destroyed, and government buildings burnt, but no more than three other European lives were to be lost over the next few days. By April 13th, that is on the third day after the assault on Miss Sherwood, the decision to place most of the Punjab under martial law had been taken.

On April 13 (three days after the above incident), thousands of Punjabi Indians gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in the heart of Amritsar, one of the major cultural, religious and commercial towns of Punjab state. The occasion was Baisakhi Day, a Sikh religious day. A tradition had been established for Sikhs to gather in Amritsar to participate in the Baisakhi festival. Those coming from the rural areas of Amritsar District were unaware of the events in Amritsar as communications were inadequate and highly underdeveloped in Punjab. Legally, the gathering in the Bagh was in violation of the prohibitory orders banning gatherings of five or more persons in the city, a term of martial law.

The massacre

A band of 90 soldiers armed with rifles and kukris marched to the park accompanied by two armoured cars on which machine guns were mounted. The vehicles were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrance.

The troops were commanded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer who, immediately upon entering the Bagh and without the slightest warning to the crowd to disperse, ordered his troops to open fire, concentrating especially on the areas where the crowd was thickest. The firing started at 17:15 and lasted for about ten to fifteen minutes. The Bagh, or garden, was bounded on all sides by brick walls and buildings and had only five narrow entrances, most of which were kept permanently locked. Since there was only one exit except for the one already manned by the troops, people desperately tried to climb the walls of the park. Some also jumped into a well inside the compound to escape the bullets. A plaque in the monument says that 120 bodies were plucked out of the well alone.

After the firing was over, hundreds of people had been killed and thousands had been injured. Official estimates put the figures at 379 killed (337 men, 41 boys and a six week old baby) and 200 injured, though the actual figure was almost certainly much higher (see above); the wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew had been declared. Debate about the actual figures continues to this day.

Back in his headquarters Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been confronted by a revolutionary army, and had been obliged to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.

In a telegram sent to Dyer, British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer wrote: "Your action is correct. Lieutenant Governor approves."  But many Englishmen in India, as well as the British press, defended Dyer as the man who had saved British pride and honour. The Morning Post opened a fund for Dyer, and contributions poured in. An American woman donated 100 pounds, adding ‘‘I fear for the British women there now that Dyer has been dismissed.’’

O'Dwyer requested that martial law be imposed upon Amritsar and other areas; this was granted by the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, after the massacre.

Dyer was called to appear before the Hunter Commission, a commission of inquiry into the massacre that was ordered to convene by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, in late 1919. Dyer admitted before the commission that he came to know about the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh at 12:40 hours that day but took no steps 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.

"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." — Dyer's response to the Hunter Commission Enquiry.

Dyer said he would have used his machine guns if he could have got them into the enclosure, but these were mounted on armoured cars. He said he did not stop firing when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep firing until the crowd dispersed, and that a little firing would do no good.

He confessed that he did not take any steps to tend to the wounded after the firing. "Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there," was his response.


In the storm of outrage which followed the release of the Hunter Report in 1920, Dyer was placed on the inactive list and his rank reverted to Colonel since he was no longer in command of a Brigade. The then Commander-in-Chief stated that Dyer would no longer be offered employment in India. Dyer was also in very poor health, and so he was sent home to England on a hospital ship.

Some senior British officers and many civilians in India applauded his suppression of 'another Indian Mutiny'. The House of Lords passed a measure commending him. The House of Commons, however, censured him; in the debate Winston Churchill claimed: "The incident in Jallian Wala Bagh was an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation". Dyer's action was condemned worldwide. He was officially censured by the British Government and resigned in 1920.

The Morning Post started a sympathy fund for Dyer and received over £26,000. Dyer was presented with a memorial book inscribed with the names of well-wishers.

In India the massacre evoked feelings of deep anguish and anger. It catalysed the freedom movement in the Punjab against British rule and paved the way for Mohandas Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement against the British in 1920. The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the King-Emperor in protest. The massacre became an important catalyst of the Indian independence movement.

Monument and legacy

A trust was formed in 1920 to build a memorial at the site following a resolution passed by the Indian National Congress. In 1923 the trust purchased land for the project. A memorial was built on the site and inaugurated by the then-President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad on 13 April 1961 in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders. A flame was later added to the site. The bullet holes can be seen on the walls and adjoining buildings to this day. The well into which many people jumped and drowned attempting to save themselves from the hail of bullets is also a protected monument inside the park.

The massacre is depicted in Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi with the role of General Dyer played by Edward Fox. It is also depicted in Indian films Rang De Basanti and The Legend of Bhagat Singh.

In 1997, the Duke of Edinburgh, participating in an already controversial British visit to the Amritsar monument, provoked considerable outrage in India and in the UK with an offhand comment. Having observed a plaque claiming 2,000 casualties, Prince Philip observed, "That's not right. The number is less."

Revenge for Jallianwala Bagh

On 13 March 1940 an Indian revolutionary from Sunam, named Udham Singh, who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and was himself wounded, shot dead Sir Michael O'Dwyer, believed to be the chief planner of the massacre (Dyer having died years earlier) at the Caxton Hall in London.

The action of Singh was generally condemned, but some, like Amrit Bazar Patrika, had different views. The common people and revolutionary circles glorified the action of Udham Singh. Most of the press worldwide recalled the story of Jallianwala Bagh and held Sir Michael O'Dwyer responsible for the tragedy and commended Singh's action. Singh was called 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" [4]. 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 outrage, ascribed the greatest significance to the circumstance and praised the courageous action of Udham Singh [5]. Berliner Börsen Zeitung called the event "The torch of the 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 humilation of the nation had been avenged. Similar sentiments were expressed in numerous other places country-wide [6]. Bi-weekly 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 March 18, 1940 issue, Amrit Bazar Patrika wrote: "O'Dwyer's name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget." The New Statesman newspaper 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 a greater honor could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland." [7]

Singh was hanged for the murder on July 31, 1940. Jawaharlal Nehru applauded Udham Singh in 1952 with the following statement which had 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." [8] But earlier in March 1940, many, including Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, had condemned the action of Udham as senseless.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Jallianwala Bagh Massacre".
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