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Postscript to a massacre

Painful past: The Jallianwala Bagh site today houses a memorial commemorating the massacre.

Painful past: The Jallianwala Bagh site today houses a memorial commemorating the massacre.  

Remembering the Jallianwala Bagh outrage, as its centenary approaches

The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on April 13, 1919 was a watershed in the story of India’s freedom struggle. It exposed the truth that the golden age of the raj, when enlightened men like Sir Thomas Munroe and Sir Arthur Cotton were in charge, was long past. They had been replaced by arrogant racists such as General Dyer and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who looked upon India as a slave nation and Indians as a slave race to be ruled with an iron hand. The massacre added momentum to Gandhiji’s movement for swaraj.

Yet, a lot of ignorance about the massacre persists. It has been wrongly stated that the colonial government subsequently punished the military and civil British officials responsible for it. Many believe the nationalist Madan Lal Dhingra shot Gen. Dyer as an act of vengeance. Another wrong notion is that the Hunter Commission that inquired into the massacre, did a fair job of it.

Now, with the centenary of the massacre coming up, the facts concerning the aftermath of the massacre need to be reviewed.

The basic facts about the massacre are known. It was executed under the orders of Brigadier Reginald Dyer who was then the General Officer Commanding of the 45th Infantry Brigade at Jullundur (now Jalandhar). On his orders, a troop of 50 soldiers kneeled down and fired non-stop for 10 minutes with .303 rifles, at a dense crowd of about 15,000 men, women and children who had congregated at the Bagh as a part of Baisakhi celebrations. The soldiers fired from close range, with accuracy and deliberation. The firing ended only when the ammunition ran out. In 10 minutes, the soldiers had fired about 5,000 shots, and the casualty figures were estimated in the range of about 1,000 killed and 2,000 injured.

Martial Law

Martial Law was imposed on the Punjab on April 16 — and then back-dated to March 30. There was clampdown on all news going out of Punjab. Other atrocities followed, such as bombing from an aeroplane over the main bazaar and the villages surrounding the town of Gujranwala, the infamous ‘crawling order’ at Amritsar and public floggings in Lahore. Martial Law was in force in Amritsar up to June 9.

Under Martial Law, officers of the Crown had absolute powers that could be exercised by military force. They could exert any amount of physical force, extending to the destruction of life and property to any extent and in any manner. They were indemnified from legal action for any act of rights violation by them when Martial Law was in force. No legal action could be taken against military personnel for the atrocities.

Under public pressure, the British government appointed the Hunter Commission to inquire into the happenings. It was very partial, treated the testifying military and civil officers of the Crown with soft hands, condoned the arrogance of the officers in answering the questions, and found the imposition of Martial Law justified. No official was recommended for any punishment for any of the atrocities they had committed. Only Dyer had to answer inconvenient questions before the Commission. Based on the Commission’s report, Dyer was directed to resign as Brigade Commander. Dyer resigned and was retired on a handsome pension.

Among the civil servants and police officials also, none were punished for their incompetence, inefficiency and dereliction of duty. The then Lt. Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer had displayed total insensitivity to the mood of the public, had fully supported the massacre at Amritsar and had endorsed all the atrocities committed under Martial Law. Miles Irving, the Deputy Commissioner in charge of Amritsar district, due to his own incompetence and cowardice, handed over the responsibility for maintaining law and order in the town to the military, which led to the massacre.

Trial and punishment

But 1,799 Indians in Amritsar were summarily tried in camera in Martial Law courts, 181 sentenced to death, 264 to transportation for life and others to confiscation of property and terms of imprisonment. But under public pressure all were released on December 23, 1919, by a Royal Amnesty. There were, however, many punishments subsequently suffered by the high and mighty officers of the Crown.

Such is the true history of the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

visalam. rammohan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 10:54:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/postscript-to-a-massacre/article24122994.ece

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