Jallianwala Bagh: The massacre that shook the empire

  • While the Hunter Commission put the number of dead at 379, Congress leaders claimed 1,500 died in Jallianwala Bagh
  • The massacre shocked the conscience of many Indians who believed in the British idea of rule of law

The actual shooting is supposed to have lasted only about 10 minutes. Soldiers from the Baluchi, Gorkha and Rajput regiments fired a little over 1,650 rounds and killed at least 379 people by official count, wounding perhaps a thousand more. Few bullets seemed to have been wasted. For maximum impact, the soldiers shot at the densest parts of the crowd. As the famous sequence in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi suggests, when the British officer Gen. Reginald Dyer saw some men trying to flee the park by trying to scale a wall, he ordered his men to aim in that direction, killing more.

Should we warn them first? a subordinate had asked the general earlier.

They have been warned, Dyer said. Fire.

This was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, 100 years ago on Saturday (13 April). Britain was at the height of colonial arrogance then. The Great War (naively assumed to be the war to end all wars) had ended in 1918 after four years of bloodshed. Britain had emerged victorious. The Allies had imposed onerous terms, including reparations, on the defeated Germans, and British administrators were busy carving up territories around the world, drawing new maps and deciding the fate of millions.

Concerned about rebellious natives, the Rowlatt committee in India had recommended a new law in March 1919, called The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act. Popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, it empowered the state to detain individuals without trial, imposed stricter controls on the press, and permitted warrantless arrests and in-camera trials where the accused would not know the witnesses or the evidence used against them.

Mohandas Gandhi strongly criticized the Act and called a public strike on 6 April. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, then a Congress leader, also spoke out against the Act, saying that a government which passes such a law in times of peace “forfeits its claim to be called a civilized government". But the colonial government was taking no chances. It arrested two Congress leaders—Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew—which raised tensions in Punjab. On the day of the Punjabi new year of Baisakhi, a large crowd gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, in defiance of rules Dyer had announced prohibiting public gathering of more than four persons and banning public processions.

But the warning was not disseminated widely, nor taken seriously. The people at Jallianwala Bagh were in a festive mood. Seeing the gathering as an act of defiance, Dyer decided to act. He arrived at the park around 4 pm with about 90 soldiers, 50 of whom were armed with .303 Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. He had armoured vehicles with him, but those could not navigate the narrow path leading to the park. The exits were duly blocked, and Dyer ordered his men to fire.

The Hunter Commission, which inquired into the massacre, says 379 died; Congress leaders claimed 1,500 died. A plaque in the park says some 120 people fell in the well to protect themselves. Another sign at the park says “thousands" died. Dyer told the commission that he thought he 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 considered it his “duty to fire on them and to fire well". Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, a distinguished advocate who was part of the commission, asked Dyer: “Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?" Dyer said he probably would have.

Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement with determination and Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood, saying, “Such mass murderers aren’t worthy of giving any title to anyone." Winston Churchill called Dyer’s act “monstrous" in parliament, and the House of Commons reprimanded Dyer, although the House of Lords did not, and many conservative figures praised him. When Dyer died in 1927, Rudyard Kipling would say the general had only performed his duty as he saw fit.

Many in India and Britain have called upon the British to express a formal apology, but British political leadership remains reluctant. In 1997, the year of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, on a visit to India, Queen Elizabeth II called it “a difficult episode", but added that history cannot be rewritten. In 2013, David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit the site, where he laid a wreath and called it “a shameful event in British history".

The massacre shocked the conscience of many Indians who believed in the British idea of rule of law. Many stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle were lawyers trained in Britain; British imposition of a draconian law and the appalling cruelty of the massacre were enough for them to discard their illusions about the British tradition of fair play. It would still take another three decades before India would become free, but the path could now lead only in one direction.

Perhaps one thing that would unite most Indians today as the country heads towards a contentious election is a demand that modern Britain should account for the wrong—expressing a genuine apology for the massacre would be a good first step, but there are many other wrongs of colonization, including the Bengal famine of 1943. An apology can’t make up for the loss and injustice, but it shows remorse, if it is sincere.

Indian outrage over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is justified. What’s less understandable is why Indians don’t expect similar accountability from the Indian state, which continues to uphold and implement colonial-era laws that restrict civil liberties in India. There have been many instances of security forces using disproportionate force, sometimes against unarmed protesters. But compassion becomes selective, with survivors mourning their own, leaving them helpless in demanding justice. The path to justice has also been agonizingly slow.

From Partition onwards, India’s history is splattered with violence—often, it is violence between and within communities, where the state is not necessarily the instigator. But equally, there are many examples of state violence against the people, in particular civilians. Sometimes, the state becomes complicit, by doing nothing when one group attacks another—think of mobs massacring Bengali Muslims in Nellie in 1983; the pogrom of Sikhs in northern India in 1984 after prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination; and the mass killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, after the Godhra incident in which 59 Hindu kar sevaks died.

State violence against people is a distinctly heinous category of human rights abuse. Clear rules apply to state forces which must engage violent extremists or protesters, including how much force to deploy and what kind of weapons to use. But Indian state forces have often been trigger-happy, leading to severe human rights violations.

Some cases that stand out are the killing of Muslim residents at Turkman Gate during the Emergency in 1976; West Bengal police killing Bangladeshi refugees at Marichjhapi in 1979; the killing of Muslim stone-pelting protesters in Moradabad in 1980; the death of 16 kar sevaks in Ayodhya in 1990; and the many instances of killings in Kashmir, including in Sopore and Bijbehara in 1993.

One that we would do particularly well to remember is the Hashimpura massacre of 1987, and the tortuous path the journey for justice took. In May 1987, 644 Muslim men were arrested in Hashimpura in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, following communal riots. The Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) divided them into two groups, separating old men and young children from young men. More than 40 young men were taken away in a PAC truck which drove towards Delhi. After a while, it picked up more PAC personnel.

The truck stopped at a canal. One by one, the men were brought down, shot, and their bodies dumped in the canal. Seeing this, those still in the truck started shouting for help, at which point the PAC began firing indiscriminately. As other vehicles were approaching, the PAC stopped the shooting, drove further, and reached a culvert where more men were shot. Many bodies haven’t been found—11 were identified and 22 remained missing.

It took nine years for the PAC personnel to be charge-sheeted. And, in 2015, they were acquitted. Twenty-eight years had passed, and there was no justice. In February 2018, the Delhi high court heard new evidence from the National Human Rights Commission. Noting the disproportionate use of force and targeted killings, Justices S. Muralidhar and Vinod Goel found 16 PAC personnel guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The judges wrote: “We are conscious that for the families of those killed, this is perhaps too little, too late. They have had to wait for 31 years for justice. The monetary compensation they have received cannot make up for the lives lost. This case points to the systemic failure that results, not infrequently, in a miscarriage of justice."

The kind of sweeping powers India’s security forces have, the impunity with which they sometimes act, the immunity they end up enjoying, and the sheer number of incidents that have not reached closure, is profoundly embarrassing for a democracy.

In her poem Spring In Jallianwala Bagh, originally written in Hindi (whose last four lines I have attempted to translate here), Subhadrakumari Chauhan wrote:

The old lie writhing, bodies riddled with bullet-holes,

They are dying; go there, scatter some dry flowers

Do all that, you must; but don’t make any noise, stay silent

This is where you mourn; tread gently.

Tragically, 100 years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, there are many more such sites, all unmarked memorials, bearing witness to cruelty, waiting for justice.

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