On the 96th anniversary of the infamous massacre at Jalianwala Bagh, historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama explores how the event unfolded and how it has forever tarnished British rule in India.
With the end of the First World War in 1918, came the end of the lives of more than sixty-thousand Indian soldiers who died for a country not theirs.
At the time, India’s enemy was Britain and not Germany and yet 1.5 million Indians came to the colours.
For showing loyalty to Britain during the war, India was convinced of a sympathetic hearing for its nationalist aspirations. Instead, in March 1919, to suppress agitations for India’s freedom, the infamous Rowlatt Act was introduced to control the press, make arrests without warrants and detain people without trials.
It was an insult to those who had made the supreme sacrifice for the King Emperor and the Empire.
In retaliation, the Indians decided to have a national Hartal (strike) which sadly was not a success.
Immediately after, the Government issued a proclamation against holding all public meetings. Many, mostly villagers unaware of the order, assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh (Garden) in Amritsar, on 13 April – to celebrate Baisakhi, the Spring festival.
Without taking steps to stop the gathering or giving notice to disperse, General Reginald Dyer gave orders to the troops to fire on the unarmed, unprepared and innocent men, women and children.
They continued firing until they ran out of ammunitions, killing 379 and wounding an estimated 1200.
As further punishment, the British Governor of the Punjab Michael O’Dwyer cut off water and electricity to the city and gave a flogging order.
Added to that, a humiliating “crawling order” was issued on the street where an English woman was attacked by an angry Indian crowd in revenge for the massacre.
General Dyer designated the spot where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted as “sacred” and ordered anyone wishing to proceed in the street between 6 am and 8 pm to crawl the 200 yards in front of the spot on all fours.
In London the Hunter Committee was set up to investigate the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh and instead of punishing General Dyer, they asked him to resign and return to England.
A debate in the House of Lords resulted in Dyer’s favour and the Morning Post newspaper launched a fund for ‘the man who saved India’.
The most unexpected and unforgivable donor to the fund was author Rudyard Kipling. The newly knighted Rabindranath Tagore returned the honour for the contempt he felt, saying “I wish to stand shorn for all special distinctions by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings”.
Another Indian, Udham Singh, a revolutionary, who had witnessed the massacre and was wounded himself, decided to take revenge on Governor O’Dwyer.
Taking the gun and the law in to his own hands, he came to London for the purpose of shooting the Governor. In March 1940, he went to the Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was speaking at a meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society.
Singh moved towards the platform and fired two shots that killed the Governor instantly.
Singh did not try to escape and was arrested. He was sentenced to death and hanged at Pentonville Prison in July.
In 1974 his remains were repatriated to India.
As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War and the contributions made by Indian soldiers, we must also remember the brutality of the British and the killings 96 years ago at Jallianwalla Bagh.
The heinous crime, committed only five months after the end of the war, has stained British rule in India forever.