Jallianwala Bagh massacre 100 years on



by Rajeewa Jayaweera

As Sri Lanka prepared to celebrate the Sinhala and Tamil New Year last week, an atrocity which took place in neighboring India one hundred years ago passed almost unnoticed other than perhaps in Amritsar and surrounding areas.

Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden of six to seven acres, walled on all sides with five entrances located in Amritsar in the Punjab of undivided British India. On April 13, 1919, the British massacred over 1,000 unarmed civilians including women and children.


British India contributed massively to the British war effort during WWI by way of men and material, a policy endorsed by Mahatma Gandhi himself though opposed by Indian nationalists such as Subhash Chandra Bose. Millions of Indians fought as soldiers and worked as laborers in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. In return, Indians expected dominion status, already enjoyed by countries such as Australia, Canada, and South Africa, once the war was over.

Fueled by the pan-Indian mutiny in the British Indian army, the Punjab and Bengal became hotbeds of anti-colonial activities. It resulted in the passing of Defense of India Act 1915 limiting civil and political liberties. The Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 further infringed on civil rights and political activities. It precipitated large scale unrest across the sub-continent.


The situation in Punjab deteriorated rapidly with rail, telegraph and communication systems being disrupted cutting off Amritsar from the rest of India and the world. On April 10, 1919, there was a protest at the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, a city in Punjab. The demonstration was to demand the release of two popular leaders who had been earlier arrested by the government and moved to a secret location. British troops opened fire killing over a dozen protestors resulting in British establishments being attacked and the killing of five British civilians in retaliation.

On April 11, Marcella Sherwood, a British missionary, while cycling through a narrow street was caught by a mob, pulled to the ground by her hair, stripped naked, beaten, kicked, and left for dead. She was rescued by some local Indians and smuggled to safety. After visiting Sherwood on April 19, the local commander, Colonel Reginald Dyer (Acting Brigadier General), issued an order requiring every Indian man using that street to crawl its length on his hands and knees. 

He 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." Marcella Sherwood, despite her status of a messenger of God later defended Colonel Dyer, describing him "as the savior of Punjab." By April 13, most of Punjab was under Martial Law.

The Massacre

In the morning of April 13, Dyer issued a proclamation in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi announcing a curfew from 8 p.m. Meanwhile, a large crowd had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh near the Sikh holy shrine Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) to celebrate the Sikh festival ‘Baisakhi.’

Other than the pilgrims, the Baisakhi festival had also drawn large numbers of farmers and traders attending the annual horse and cattle fair in the vicinity. The Police without warning closed the fair at 2 p.m. The crowd at the Jallianwala Bagh by mid-afternoon was estimated between 15,000 and 20,000.

At 4.30 p.m., Dyer arrived at the location with 90 Sikh, Gurkha, Balushi and Rajput soldiers from the 2nd/9th Gurkha Rifles, the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Sindh Rifles, fifty .303 Lee Enfield Bolt Action Rifles and two armored cars mounted with machine guns. The armored vehicles had to be kept outside as they could not move through the narrow entrances to the Bagh.

Without requesting the crowd to disperse, he had the main exits blocked before ordering his troops to open fire at the crowd. Firing into the crowd continued uninterrupted for ten minutes. A cease-fire order was issued when most of the ammunition supplies had been exhausted. By that time, 1,650 rounds had been spent.


Despite efforts made by the British administration in India to suppress the massacre, news spread across India resulting in even moderates being outraged. News of the massacre finally reached Britain in December 1919.

The Hunter Commission appointed by the British government to investigate the massacre confirmed the death of 337 men, 41 boys, and a six-week-old baby with another 1,500 injured.

The Congress declared 1,500 causalities with approximately 1,000 dead.

Besides those killed by soldiers firing into the crown, other deaths took place in the ensuing stampede and due to the jumping into a nearby well to escape bullets. A plaque found even today states 120 bodies had been removed from the well on the following day. Some of the wounded died during the night as they could not be removed and taken to hospital due to a curfew imposed by Dyer.

Had the two armored cars gained access to the confined area, the death toll would have risen considerably as admitted by Dyer under cross-examination by a member of the Hunter Commission.


Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill called the episode "monstrous" in the House of Commons while privately stating Dyer’s action amounted to murder or at least manslaughter. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith called it "one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history."

Dyer, declining legal counsel, explained his conduct to the Hunter Commission, "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. He further stated 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." The Commission members failed to question him how those suffering from fatal gunshot wounds could go to hospital unassisted.

Heavily criticized both in Britain and India, he was relieved of his command, asked to resign his Commission and informed he would not be reemployed. He retired on July 17, 1920.

Nevertheless, the British in India saw Dyer as the savior of the Raj.

Shortly thereafter, suffering from Jaundice and arteriosclerosis, Dyer returned to Britain. The Morning Post, a conservative, pro-imperialist newspaper which later merged with the Daily Telegraph set up a fund which collected GBP 26,000 (GBP 1.15 mil in today’s money).The Morning Post had supported Dyer’s action on the grounds that the massacre was necessary to "Protect the honor of European Women." When he died in 1927, he was given an unofficial state funeral with his coffin draped in the Union Jack and born on a gun carriage through Admiralty Arch.

In contrast, dependents of those killed by the British Raj were given Indian Rs 500 (GBP 176 in today’s money).

Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab in April 1919 and had supported the Defense of India Act 1915 was murdered at Caxton Hall in London on March 13, 1940, by Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and had himself been wounded. He shot and killed O’Dwyer who he believed was the planner of Dyer’s action.

On July 31 1940, Singh was hanged for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It was a classic display of British sense of justice and fair play of one man ordering the firing into an unarmed crowd resulting in the death of over 1,000 men women and children walking free and another hung by his neck for assassinating the chief planner of the massacre of 1,000 men, women and children.

Inability to say ‘we are sorry’

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II became the first monarch to visit the massacre site. Despite signing the visitor’s book, no apology was made, making a mockery of Britain’s current policy of demanding Truth-Telling, Accountability and a proper closure in trouble spots elsewhere.

Her consort Prince Philip, seeing a memorial for 2,000 martyred Indians suggested Indians had manipulated the figures. He stated: "That’s wrong, I was in the navy with Dyer’s son."

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron visiting the site in 2013 to pay his respects said it was a "deeply shameful event" but felt he could not "reach back into history" to apologize.

Before and After

History is strewn with atrocities committed the world over by the British and other colonial powers such as the French, Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Belgians of incidents such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Atrocities committed by the British during the Uva Wellassa uprising 1817/18 in Sri Lanka, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya 1952/60 are but two such examples.

Only Germany and Japan, both losers in WWII have had the moral courage to apologize for their atrocities.



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