“Next, Jallianwala Bagh,” I announced, trying to hurry my son up. He pulled a face. He was demolishing a bowl of chilled phirni from an earthen bowl and had an eye on a kulfi vendor a little further on. From kulfi and phirni to the site of one of India’s most horrible tragedies – I couldn’t think of a way to make a smooth transition, and so I ended up ruining his kulfi by setting up the context. In retrospect, I think this is when I broke my son. This is advice to all parents who have obsessive interests. Its best to practice restraint. Do not ruin once in a life time Amritsari kulfi eating experiences with stories of British atrocities in the Punjab in the early 1900s. Teenage boys tend to hold it against you.
But, the thing is, Jallianwala Bagh without context does not really make sense. Today, if you walk into Jallianwala Bagh it looks like a tourist trap with touts and selfie sticks.
There is very little that helps you understand the world that Jallianwala Bagh was set in and why this one event changed the course of Indian history. Afterall, this wasn’t the first or only time that the British had used violence against local people. But something about the Jallianwala Bagh stirred a whole country and changed our goal from just swaraj to purna swaraj. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
A question I always had was why was Dyer so ready to fight – why did he go with those machine guns and with all these rifles? There must have been some reason for him to be so aggressive. I argue that the British were wary because Punjab had been revving up for a fight for years, and for good reason. To understand that reason, we need to look at Punjab in the early 20th century.
The Setting: Early 20th Century Punjab
Unlike Bengal, Madras and Bombay Presidencies that had been under British ruled councils for nearly a century, Punjab had been a recent addition. Until the middle of the 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had held the Punjab together and protected it from British rule. But on his death, the British were quick to pull these fertile lands into its fold. Instead of a Council, the Punjab was governed by a Lieutenant Governor.
As soon as the British came to power in 1849, they quickly got to work. First, they built roads and railways across Punjab (mainly to allow movement of troops to and from the North-Western frontier) and next they turned to re-organize the administration.
The tax laws changed and instead of giving half their produce to the government (as they did under Ranjit Singh), they now paid cash taxes that were calculated based on average collections from the past three years. Unfortunately, the last three years had had exceptional harvests. But the Indian monsoon is notoriously moody. Harvests fell short and the farmers found the taxes far too steep. Did the British make concessions? No… they insisted that the revenues should remain the same regardless of yield.
Next, they began to mess around with laws related to how farmland could be sold or inherited.
In 1900, the British passed an Act that created “agricultural tribes” and prevented farming land to be sold to anyone outside of that. This meant that burdened farmers could either sell to other burdened farmers, who could not afford to buy any way, or sell to the government (who had wanted to acquire the land cheaply anyway).
Six years later, the British said that if the farmer did not have a legal male heir, the land would lapse to the government (and if this sounds familiar, then you are thinking of Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse which Rani Laxmibai and other kings and queens were so angry with). So, already by the early 1900s, the Punjabi farmer did not feel particularly loyal towards the government. They knew they were being ripped off and the Punjab countryside began to boil. There was even an attempt to assassinate Lord Curzon.
Six years after that, General Michael O’Dwyer came on the scene and made life in Punjab so much worse. This hardcore colonialist had become Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at the end of 1912. He had a poor impression of the people over whom he reigned. I do not use the word “reign” casually. O’Dwyer did reign over the Punjab, like an authoritarian dictator. There was no Council to limit him and he had the power to veto anything he didn’t approve of.
With rising nationalism (thanks to the unfair laws I mentioned earlier) O’Dwyer instituted the Press Act of 1910 vigorously, warning the local government officials that the Government would deal with anyone breaking the law by employing all means at its disposal. I
Another year passed, and the world was thrown into a war. In 1915, the Defence of India Act was passed. It prevented any discussion of politics, any expression of discontent and any gathering that might appear threatening to the Government. Of course, people could be incarcerated and detained without trial and there were severe restrictions on free speech, writing and even movement.
Under this law, 46 people were executed and 64 life sentences were handed out in Punjab and Bengal. Across the country 705 Indians were under home arrest and nearly 1500 people were sent to jail. O’Dwyer recommended that they need not hold trials for those arrested. It was a waste of time in this time of war. He also gagged all vernacular press and didn’t allow nationalist papers from outside Punjab into the state. Were the Punjabis irritated? Sure! But all ways to express such discontent was constantly being stamped out.
O’Dwyer must have felt pretty pleased. Being an overachiever of the worst kind, O’Dwyer was now in imaginary competition with the other Presidencies. Using incredibly unethical means like threats, bribery and humiliation, O’Dwyer recruited 91,499 men in 1917, and 105, 876 in 1918. By the end of the war, he liked to say that Punjab alone had contributed 360,000 combatants – more than half the recruits in the Indian Empire during the war. In an investigation of O’Dwyer’s doings after Jallianwala Bagh (Hunter Committee) wrote of all the “abuses that occurred from time to time” during the recruitment effort.
So, Punjabi mothers had already lost their sons to a war that was not their own, but when the war ended, she found it difficult to feed the ones who were left behind. The price of wheat rose by 47%, sugar by 68%, cotton by 300%, and food grains by 100%. At the same time, wages hadn’t changed and taxes were raised by 30% in Lahore and 55% in Amritsar.
And then came the Rowlatt’s Act – that most textbooks tell us was the reason why thousands had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh on that Baisakhi morning in 1919.
Rowlatt Act or Black Bill
War was over but the British Government was worried about growing nationalism across India. So, they passed the Rowlatt Act to extend the emergency powers from War Time. It was named after this rather mild looking Englishman – Sidney Rowlatt, President of the Rowlatt Committee.
Rowlatt Act said:
- Anyone suspected of being a terrorist could be arrested for 2 years without trial
- If you were caught for a “forbidden act”, you could stand trial without a jury
- Police could detain people without stating reason
- Police could conduct searches without warrants
- Freedom of Press was restricted.
The whole nation, not just Punjab, erupted. Gandhi who had launched a satyagraha in response had to pause because of the violence across the country.
O’Dwyer was ready. He believed in the power of the sword and felt justified in the use of any amount of violence to quell this tide. He arrested Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal – two Amritsar based politicians who were highly regarded. Their arrests were underhanded and unprovoked. And expecting a violent response, Amritsar was placed under a Curfew in the days that followed.
Jallianwala Bagh Gathering
When O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor, or Brigadier General Dyer, the man who actually led the armed forces and ordered them to shoot at the people gathered that Baisakhi day in the large park, were later asked to justify their actions, both argued that it was an illegal gathering, it was in violation of the Curfew.
At around 4pm on 13 April 1919, officers in open cars accompanied by 99 armed soldiers carrying rifles and 2 armoured cars armed with machine guns were led to the Bagh’s entrance by 2 mounted policemen. Earlier, at around 2pm, Dyer had sent an aircraft over the Bagh to estimate the size of the crowd. There were between 20 to 25 thousand men, women and children there.
Many families had come to celebrate the spring festival of Baisakhi. They had walked through the narrow streets around the Golden Temple to get there; the same gullies that my family and I had explored on our visit – eating street food, and checking out phulwari dupattas. In the large Bagh, street food vendors had set up stalls. And then there was another crowd – a more politically aware set of men and women who had come to protest the arrest of Kitchelew and Satpal that was supposed to begin at 4pm. Could this crowd turn violent? There was no sign of that at all. It was a family event and Baisakhi was one of the region’s favourite festivals. This was not a rioting crowd.
What most of the 20,000 people in the crowd did not know was that earlier that day, Dyer had marched through Amritsar with a man on a drum and a notice: “It is hereby proclaimed to all persons it may concern that no person residing in the city is permitted or allowed to leave the city in his own private or hired conveyance or on foot, without a pass… Any person found in the streets after 8 pm is liable to be shot. No procession of any kind is permitted to parade the streets in the city or any part of the city or outside of it at any time. Any such procession or any gathering of four men will be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assembly and dispersed by force of arms if necessary.”
Dyer felt he had warned the lot.
The Bagh, a 6 to 7 acres large open ground, is at the end of a narrow lane. It was, and still is, enclosed by tall bare bricked walls over 10 feet high. Today, the walls on the sides of lane are covered with evocative art, which in my opinion ruins the place. I wish they had left it as it had been originally for the sake of authenticity. Jallianwala Bagh of 2023 feels like it overly caters to the tourist crowd – beautiful plants, a cheerfully tinny song playing on loop near the well that people had jumped in to escape bullets, and a large obelisk like memorial that people stood around taking selfies with.
That day, people who were still walking towards the Bagh to join the fun, turned and ran when they saw Dyer’s contingency approach the narrow lane. The tank with machine guns could not fit in luckily. Anyone walking out just as the armed men marched down the lane towards the Bagh was pushed back into it. That one single exit was completely blocked. There was no escape.
Most people didn’t know what they had done wrong because Dyer had not made those proclamations in the inner city of Amritsar, in the lanes around the Golden Temple, the old market and the Bagh. Why hadn’t he? He had intelligence reports that indicated that he knew that Jallianwala Bagh would have a fair like gathering and that there were political speakers coming later in the afternoon to talk about protesting the Rowlatt Act.
After Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the British Government sent the Hunter Committee to investigate. Unsurprisingly, they found Dyer’s actions “indefensible”. The Government of India agreed with the Committee that General Dyer
- should have warned the crowd before firing, and
- that while Dyer was right in feeling that he had too small a force to fight off 25,000 people, he should have first allowed innocent villagers and townsfolk who had come to celebrate Baisakhi as well as any others to disperse or move to safety before firing.
The Government of India agreed that “there was not such an emergency existing to render the precaution impossible” and his decision to fire into the crowd (until they were completely out of ammunition) even as it tried to disperse was “indefensible”.
Having said all of that, the report then took an unexpected u-turn, suddenly coming to Dyer’s defense. “We are convinced that General Dyer acted honestly in the belief that he was doing what was right and we think that in the result his action at the time checked the spread of disturbances to an extent which is now difficult now to estimate.”
People living in the multistorey houses around the Bagh heard the gunshots, screams and cries. They saw people scrambling over bodies or throwing their children over 10 feet tall walls, hoping for safety on the other side. When the armed forces had run out bullets they left. Word spread and mothers, uncles, cousins, friends, and good samaritans trickled into the Bagh to search for their loved ones. Those who survived looked for their families and friends among the heaps of bodies.
People helped each other but there was no sign of the government coming to anyone’s aid. The community pitched in but no one made an official count of how many had died and how many were severely injured. There were thousands.
In the immediate aftermath, the town threatened to bubble over with violence again.
On the 15th, crowds were gathering and moving through the streets of Gujranwala like a restless, powerful wave gathering momentum. The police fired into the crowd, killing people and wounding others.
At 3pm, as the crowds were settling down, military bombers swooped low over the city – so low that people on the ground could see the bombers in the seats of their planes. Bombs were dropped on random targets killing one washerboy and injuring others. The bombing was to have a “moral effect” on the people.
But in our minds the story stops at Jallianwala Bagh.. we don’t think about the bombing or the infamous crawling order (where ‘natives’ could only crawl while going down the lane – not walk).
It is stories like this that inspired Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh and hundreds of other Indians to take up a more violent route to independence. It also got even the fence-sitting Indians to finally choose a side. I was never really sympathetic of the radical freedom fighters who were comfortable with the use of violence to push out the British, but while at Jallianwala Bagh, as I looked at the bullet holes in wall at the corner, and imagining how trapped and afraid these people must have felt in those moments, I felt violently angry. I felt angry with the British for hurting these people but also for having Sikhs fire against their own countrymen. What kind of damage did it do to the men who were firing into the crowd that day?
Dyer himself died a broken man. Unlike his boss, O’Dwyer, who defended Dyer’s actions till Udham Singh assassinated him, Dyer seemed to be somewhat capable of reflection. He was forever torn by what he had done. The stress got to him and he soon became an invalid who supposedly said “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right…but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.“
I suppose colonialism had more victims than you’d expect – the colonial machinery was made up of men who were constantly at risk of losing their souls.
- Palat, R., & Palat, P. (2019). The case that shook the empire: One man’s fight for the truth about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Bloomsbury.
- Anand, A. (2019, June 25). The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence. Scribner.
- Podcast: Dalrymple, W., & Anand, A. (n.d.). Jallianwala Bagh Massacre episode on Empire (also available on Spotify)
- Report of Disorders Inquiry Committee (1919-1920) – The outcome of the Hunter Commission that investigated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre
P.S. Other online resources are hyperlinked in the article.