Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: When India united in grief

Illustration: K.G. Rangarajan  

Hundred years is a long enough time for an event to be forgotten or become a casual reference in our history books. But not this one. ‘The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre’ — described as “the darkest stain on British rule in India” and as a “black day in the annals of British India” — continues to remain a painful reminder of the extent of British atrocities in India.

It was an act so monstrous and shocking that it sowed the seed for the end of British rule in India, reviving a greater sense of nationalism and demand for independence among the citizens of India.

When: April 13, 1919


Jallianwala Bagh, a seven-acre walled garden, in Amritsar, Punjab. It had five entrances, of which only two were being used.


The Rowlatt Act was passed by the British to curb citizens’ civil liberties. It allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries. It also permitted the imprisonment of suspects without trial. It created a climate of political unrest as people considered it to be unjust. There was also a threat of militant revolutionary movements gaining momentum across India, especially in Punjab and Bengal. All these led to Colonel Reginald Dyer passing a curfew in Amritsar.

Around 20,000 people had gathered at the garden peacefully to hear speeches condemning the Rowlatt Act and the recent arrests of two local leaders — Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. And with the day being Baisakhi — Sikh new year and a spring harvest festival — many of those gathered there were villagers who wereout to celebrate the festival, and were unaware of the curfew.


At around 4.30 p.m., General Dyer arrived along with 50 Indian and British riflemen, 40 Gurkhas, and two armoured cars. The armoured cars were left on the road outside the maidan, for, the entrance was too narrow to accommodate them. The soldiers were ordered to open fire at the gathering without any prior warning. Of the two narrow entrances to the garden, one was blocked by the troops, and the other was locked. With nowhere to run, many jumped into the well that was located inside.

According to witness reports, the firing lasted for about 20 minutes, with 1,650 rounds being fired. An official count estimated the death toll at 379, but experts say it could have been as high as 1,000, with 1,100 wounded.


The incident shocked the nation. Newspapers across the world condemned the act, which pressurised the British government to conduct an inquiry against General Dyer. Though the court of inquiry ruled against him, relieving him of his command and forcing him to resign, he was given a grand reception on his arrival in England, and was received like a war hero. He was even awarded £26,000 and a sword as a mark of honour for his “heroic deed”. This made many lose faith in the British government and question its intentions for India.

“I can no longer retain affection for a Government so evilly manned as it is nowadays,” wrote Gandhiji.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: When India united in grief

As a mark of protest, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood. In a letter addressed to the King, he wrote, “The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”

As a consequence of the event and the resulting reactions across the country, the Government repealed the Rowlatt Act, the Press Act, and 22 other laws in March 1922.

Lest we forget

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: When India united in grief

Today, in Jallianwala Bagh stands a memorial commemorating the massacre of a peaceful gathering of men, women, and children. While the memorial was established in 1951 by the Government of India, the garden continues to have reminders of its horrific past including the bullet marks on the walls and the well from which 120 bodies were recovered.

As a mark of the centenary, the Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to urge the central government to seek a formal apology from the British for the massacre.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 8:43:20 AM |

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