The Build-Up to Jallianwala Bagh

The Jallianwala Bagh memorial in December 2022 (Source: Saisudha Acharya)

“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.

Pran Nath Mago’s painting titled Farewell

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

News headlines on the passing of the Rowlatt Act from an Indian newspaper

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:

  1. Anyone suspected of being a terrorist could be arrested for 2 years without trial
  2. If you were caught for a “forbidden act”, you could stand trial without a jury
  3. Police could detain people without stating reason
  4. Police could conduct searches without warrants
  5. 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.

Jallianwala Bagh (1919) from The Guardian

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

  1. should have warned the crowd before firing, and
  2. 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.”

The Aftermath

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.

Resources:

  1. Palat, R., & Palat, P. (2019). The case that shook the empire: One man’s fight for the truth about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Bloomsbury.
  2. Anand, A. (2019, June 25). The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India‚Äôs Quest for Independence. Scribner.
  3. Podcast: Dalrymple, W., & Anand, A. (n.d.). Jallianwala Bagh Massacre episode on Empire (also available on Spotify)
  4. 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.

My Re-Introduction to Bhagat Singh: The Bombing of Central Legislative Assembly

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The picture above was taken by the police during Bhagat Singh’s first stint in jail in 1927. At the time of the picture he was only 19. His hands were bound in chains and he was in conversation with Gopal Singh Pannu, DSP, CID who was interrogating him on his role in the Lahore Dasehra Bombing Case. One year later, Rajguru and Bhagat Singh would kill Saunders, an Assistant Police Commissioner in Lahore. They had meant to kill Scott, the policeman who had beaten Lala Lajpat Rai brutally and that led to the legendary leader’s death. But when this picture was taken, Bhagat Singh had no idea that he was going to commit a political assassination. He did not know that two years later he would lob bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly Chamber and then wait patiently for the police to arrest him. Nor did he know that he and his comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, would be remembered in Indian history as martyrs and heroes.

My own introduction to Bhagat Singh had been through a paragraph, like the one below, in my history textbook. As a student, I could not understand Bhagat Singh’s place in the story of Indian Independence. In a struggle made famous for its non-violent approach, here was a man who seemed unafraid of violence. He killed a man, bombed the Legislative Assembly when it was in session, and was executed for his actions. How were his actions any different from that of a modern terrorist? Why do we include him in a textbook? Why do we still remember him?

Credit: Our Pasts III, NCERT Grade 8 Textbook

My husband did not like that I compared Bhagat Singh to a common terrorist. “Absolutely not,” he had said fiercely. “Bhagat Singh was an intellectual, not just a revolutionary.” His defense of Bhagat Singh spurred me to do my own reading on the subject. I started with Kuldip Nayar’s book Without Fear: The Life and Trial of Bhagat Singh, followed by Bhagat Singh’s own writings. In the process my own attitude towards Bhagat Singh changed. While I agree with my husband that Bhagat Singh was absolutely not a terrorist, I think what makes Bhagat Singh extraordinary is that his life was his message or, as Sukhdev called it, ‘propoganda by action’.

In the following blog posts, I will focus on two events that made me change my mind about Bhagat Singh. The first (and the focus of this blog) was his role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing. The second was his protest against the treatment of Indian political prisoners compared to Europeans (which I will cover in the next blog). I wish I had heard these stories when I was in school because it would have highlighted the various paths Indians took to achieve the same desired outcome of Independence and might have allowed us to reflect on how grey a lot of these approaches really were.

Bhagat Singh’s Role in the Central Legislative Assembly Bombing

Credit: India Today

Bhagat Singh belonged to a communist group called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). Although Bhagat Singh was not a founding member, he joined the party when he was still in his teens and became an active member. After Saunder’s assassination, the HSRA had been disappointed with the response. The mainstream leaders of the freedom struggle had clearly disavowed the actions of the young revolutionaries and the British seemed unfazed. The public had also seemed unimpressed. If they wanted to make any serious impact on the British and the public, this clearly had not been the way. HSRA also realised that “mobilising public opinion and making people believe in their ideology was the real necessity, not random bombs and killings.” (Nayar, Without Fear).

So, how do you create a splash? The HSRA decided to toss a few low intensity bombs into a crowded Legislative Assembly Chamber when it had assembled to discuss two bills that they were against – the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill. After throwing the bombs and propaganda fliers in an emptier part of the hall, to avoid killing anyone, the two chosen HSRA members were supposed to wait for the police to come and find them. The idea was to use their time in court to explain their philosophy, bring attention to the faults of the British and to inspire the Indian youth to join the freedom movement.

There had been some debate over who the two sacrificial lambs should be. Bhagat Singh desperately wanted to be one of them. He would have been a good option because they needed someone articulate and confident to highlight the problems with the British, defend the revolutionaries’ ideals and inspire the public. But, they did not originally select him because they all knew that if the British had Bhagat Singh they would not let him go alive. They would have to hang him for the killing of Saunders. He would have to be made an example of.

Yet, even with full knowledge of this inevitable end, Bhagat Singh pushed for his inclusion in the plan and finally won out. On the day of the bombing, as the smoke cleared, the police finally mustered up enough courage to confront the two men in the balcony above the Assembly who were shouting Inquilab Zindabad. Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt stood there waiting. Bhagat Singh handed the policeman the gun he had used to kill Saunders. And later, as the two had hoped, they used the court as a platform to get the common man in India to pay attention to the revolutionary agenda.

In court, their lawyer Asaf Ali read out a statement that Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt wrote together. They explained the intention behind their most recent act as follows:

It was necessary to awaken England from her dreams… We dropped the bomb on the floor of the Assembly Chamber to register our protests on behalf of those who had no other means left to give expression to their heartrending agony. Our sole purpose was to make the deaf hear and give the headless a timely warning.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

They also addressed their disagreement with the nonviolent approach to freedom head on. They said:

The elimination of force at all costs is Utopian, and the new movement which has arisen in the country, and of that dawn we have given a warning, is inspired by the ideals which guided Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, Kamal Pasha, Riza Khan, Washington, Garibaldi, Lafayette and Lenin.

“We are neither perpetrators nor lunatics: Full text of Bhagat Singh and BK Dutta’s argument in 1929 Assembly Bomb case”, DNA India

By tracing their movement’s lineage to such famous predecessors as Guru Govind Singh, Shivaji, etc, the revolutionaries were trying to point out that their ideas were neither new nor too radical since great heroes in history also resorted to the same methods. If you have a chance and sufficient interest, it is worth reading in its entirety. As I read it after having read Bhagat Singh’s other writing, I could see his hand in this as well. He is an emotive writer; it is hard to walk away from his work without some response. I did not always agree with him, and yet I did not walk away feeling that this was a rash and unthinking trigger-happy young man. He was, in fact, a person who was thinking and feeling deeply for his country and doing what he felt was right for her. He and his comrades felt so strongly about it that they were willing to suffer the torments of imprisonment (it was certainly torturous because they were frequently beaten brutally and suffered several humiliations and discomforts) and death for their ideals. Every time I read his words, I think back to the picture at the top of this article.

We are lucky that the photo of Bhagat Singh sitting on the charpoy in conversation with an investigator (that you can see at the top of this article) exists because that picture highlights two things – one is just how young Bhagat Singh was. At the time of his death he was only 23. The other is how confident Bhagat Singh appears. He looks comfortable in his shackles and relaxed in his conversation with the policeman. I could not find any sign of fear or apprehension in the collection of his personal correspondence and articles that I could find online. He seemed to overflow with conviction and dedication to his cause. Before, he died, he was visited by his grieving family. He was particularly affected by his younger brother who could not stop crying. He wrote him a particularly tender letter and included some couplets to console him. It ended as follows:

Meri hawa mein rahegi khayal ki khushboo,
Yeh musht-e-khak hai, fani rahe rahe na rahe.

(Our faith and ideas will fill the air.
What harm if this handful of dust is destroyed?)

Without Fear, Kuldip Nayar

Those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause must have to view themselves with tremendous humility in the face of their faith and ideals. Through many of Bhagat Singh’s letters to his friends and family, Bhagat Singh seems to repeatedly come back to this point of how he as an individual does not matter as much as the cause.

Bhagat Singh expresses this sentiment through word and action over and over again in his short life. This is why we remember him. Not for having killed Saunders or for having bombed the Legislative Assembly as the textbooks imply. We remember him as being one of many men and women who viewed themselves as a handful of dust in the wind. They dedicated themselves to their principles and ideals regardless of the cost. Whether they chose revolution or non-violence, the love, dedication and sacrifice for their nation was the same.