Gunshots in the garden

On April 13, 1919, people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to protest the arrest of two leaders. A peaceful gathering that turned bloody in a matter of minutes...

April 09, 2015 09:18 pm | Updated 09:18 pm IST

Illustration by Satwik Gade

Illustration by Satwik Gade

“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion…. It stopped only when … enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on it return journey. If more troops had been available, says this officer, the casualties would have been greater in proportion. If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, … after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away...”

Extract from Winston Churchill’s speech at the House of Commons (the U.K.) on July 8, 1920, describing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919.

“Bagh” means garden but this one turned out to be a garden of grief. The site of a massacre of innocent men, women and children, Jallianwala Bagh today, has become a must-visit spot in Amritsar. But what happened there? And why did it happen?

To look at that, we have to backtrack a bit and start with the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising, which changed the relationship between the British and the Indians. The excesses on either side were neither forgotten nor forgiven. Even as the Indian nationalist movement was moving towards home rule in the early 1900s, Bengal and Punjab were known for revolutionary outbreaks. When World War I broke out, India contributed men, money and material to the war effort in the hope that the British would consider home rule. But that did not happen, leading to a feeling of restlessness in the country.

There were other events contributing to this feeling. One was the failed mutiny in the army in 1915. Better known as the Ghadar Mutiny, it was a plan for a pan-India Mutiny between 1914 and 1917. It had the support of some Indian nationalists in India, the U.S. and Germany. However, the British intelligence infiltrated the Ghadar movement and arrested the key members. In 1918, a deadly influenza pandemic swept the world. Historians who have gone through British army reports now say that epidemic probably began in 1917 and swept through soldiers who had already been weakened by three years of war and privations. Across the globe, the toll was close to 100 million. In India alone, 17 million people died. A third factor was the inflation due to the war. The huge increase in defence expenditure led to increased taxes. Also with most crops being exported to the warfront, there was a rapid increase in food prices, which caused a lot of hardship for the common people. Many Indian soldiers were recruited to fight in distant lands leading to acute shortage of labour within the country. And a crop failure in 1918 made a bad situation much worse.

In March 1919, things came to a head with the Rowlatt Act, which allowed the government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism for up to two years without trial, being passed. This prompted major protests from Indian leaders. In Punjab, two Congress leaders Dr. Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested and taken to a secret location. On April 10, soldiers fired upon demonstrators demanding their release. As violent outbreaks increased, railway lines, telegraph posts and government buildings were destroyed and Europeans and Indians killed. By April 13, most of Punjab was under martial law and civil liberties, including freedom of assembly, were curtailed. This meant that gatherings of more than four people were banned.

Open fire

On April 13, the festive day of Baisakhi, a crowd had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh near the Harminder Sahib, Amritsar. Surrounded by houses and buildings and with very narrow entrances, little did people know that it would become a death trap by the end of the day.

That evening, Brigadier-General Dyer, the local commander, arrived with Gurkha and Balochi soldiers armed with rifles. Armoured cars that came with them could not enter because of the narrow passages. With the entrance blocked by his soldiers, Dyer gave the command to fire. For 10 minutes, the firing continued as people tried to escape by jumping into a well or stampeding through the entrances. Once the ammunition ran out, the soldiers left. But curfew was declared and the injured could not be moved.

Ratan Devi, who defied the curfew to search for her husband, offered an eye-witness account. “I passed my whole night there. Heaps of dead bodies lay there, some on their backs and some with their faces upturned. A number of them were poor innocent children. I was all alone the whole night… nothing but the barking of dogs, or the braying of donkeys was audible. I saw three men writhing in great pain and a boy of about 12. The boy asked me for water but there was no water in that place. At 2 am, a Jat who was lying entangled on the wall asked me to raise his leg. I went up to him and took hold of his clothes drenched in blood and raised him up. I shall never forget the sight. I spent the night crying and watching...”

Later, at the Hunter Commission hearing, Dyer explained his actions. “I think it quite possible that I 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 also believed that the crowd were “rebels who were trying to isolate my forces and cut me off from other supplies. Therefore, I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well.”

While the official figure of deaths given by the British was 379, the Indian National Congress’ inquiry put the figure at 1,000.

Though the government tried to suppress the news, it leaked out and reached Britain only in December. Initially, Dyer was feted as a hero who had saved the rule of British law in India but this attitude changed as details of the massacre became known. A recommendation for a CBE for his service in the Third Afghan War was cancelled.

In India, this gave a new impetus to the Indian national movement and also increased revolutionary fervour in Punjab. Much later in 1940, Uddham Singh, who had been wounded at the Bagh, killed Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab during that time. O’Dwyer had approved of Dyer’s action and imposed martial law in Punjab after the firing, thereby ensuring that the news did not get out.


March 21, 1919: Rowlatt Act is passed by the British government in India to control the activities of revolutionaries. The Act allowed the British to arrest or imprison suspects without trial.

April 6: Gandhiji and other Indian leaders called for a “hartal”. Indians suspended business and went on a fast to oppose the Act. This was known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha.

April 10: In Punjab, the protest was strong and two leaders, Dr. Satya Pal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, were arrested. Protests and rallies were organised. The British government placed Amritsar under the martial law and banned all public rallies and gatherings.

April 13: People gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. Among them were women and children as well. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer came to the place with 50 soldiers and ordered them to shoot at the crowd. The shooting went on for 10 minutes. Many were injured while others were killed.

1920: A Trust was formed by the Indian National Congress in 1920 to build a memorial for the victims.

1960: Rajendra Prasad inaugurated the memorial.

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