|Entrance to the present-day Jallianwala Bagh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre), took place in the Jallianwala Bagh public garden in the northern Indian city of Amritsar on 13 April 1919. The shooting that took place was ordered by Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer.
On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Dyer was convinced of a major insurrection and thus he banned all meetings. On hearing that a meeting of 15,000 to 20,000 people including women, children and the elderly had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer went with fifty riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to shoot at the crowd. Dyer continued the firing for about ten minutes, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted; Dyer stated that 1,650 rounds had been fired, a number which seems to have been derived by counting empty cartridge cases picked up by the troops. OfficialBritish Indian sources gave a figure of 379 identified dead, with approximately 1,100 wounded. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with approximately 1,000 dead.
Dyer was removed from duty and forced to retire by the House of Commons. He became a celebrated hero in Britain among most of the people connected to the British Raj. for example, the House of Lords, but unpopular in the House of Commons, that voted against Dyer twice.The massacre caused a reevaluation of the army’s role, in which the new policy became “minimum force”, and the army was retrained and developed suitable tactics for crowd control. Some historians consider the episode as a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India, although others believe that greater self-government was inevitable as a result of India’s involvement in World War I.
Ever since the Rebellion of 1857 British officials in India lived in fear of native conspiracies and revolts; they warned each other that the natives were most suspicious when they seemed superficially innocent. Investigators at the time and historians since have found no conspiratorial links whatever to the events in Amritsar, but the British fears animated their responses—General Dyer believed a violent thrashing would dampen conspiracies—and afterwards he was hailed in Britain for having preempted a terrorist attack. The events that ensued from the passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919 were also influenced by activities associated with the Ghadar conspiracy. British Indian Army troops were returning from Europe and Mesopotamia to an economic depression in India.
The attempts at mutiny during 1915 and the Lahore conspiracy trials were still causing fear among the British. Rumours of young Mohajirs who fought on behalf of the Turkish Caliphate, and later, in the ranks of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, were circulated in army circles. The Russian Revolution had also begun to influence Indians. Ominously for the British, in 1919, the third Anglo-Afghan war began and in India, Gandhi’s call for protest against the Rowlatt Act achieved an unprecedented response of furious unrest and protests. The situation especially in Punjab was deteriorating rapidly, with disruptions of rail, telegraph and communication systems.
Revolt was in the air, many army officers believed, and they prepared for the worst. In Amritsar, more than 15,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. This situation deteriorated perceptibly during the next few days. Michael O’Dwyer is said to have believed that these were the early and ill-concealed signs of a conspiracy for a coordinated revolt around May, at a time when British troops would have withdrawn to the hills for the summer. The Amritsar massacre, as well as responses preceding and succeeding it, contrary to being an isolated incident, was the end result of a concerted plan of response from the Punjab administration to suppress such a conspiracy. James Houssemayne Du Boulay is said to have ascribed a direct relationship between the fear of a Ghadarite uprising in the midst of an increasingly tense situation in Punjab, and the British response that ended in the massacre.
On 10 April 1919, there was a protest at the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, a city in Punjab, a large province in the northwestern part of India. The demonstration was to demand the release of two popular leaders of the Indian Independence Movement, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, who had been earlier arrested by the government and moved to a secret location. Both were proponents of the Satyagraha movement led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. A military picket shot at the crowd, killing several protesters and setting off a series of violent events. Later the same day, several banks and other government buildings, including the Town Hall and the railway station, were attacked and set afire. The violence continued to escalate, culminating in the deaths of at least five Europeans, including government employees and civilians. There was retaliatory shooting at crowds from the military several times during the day, and between eight and twenty people were killed.
On the 11th April, Miss Marcella Sherwood, an English missionary, fearing for the safety of her pupils, was on her way to shut the schools and send the 600 or so Indian children home. While cycling through a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan, she was caught by a mob, pulled to the ground by her hair, beaten, kicked, and left for dead. She was rescued by some local Indians, including the father of one of her pupils, who hid her from the mob and then smuggled her to the safety of the fort.  Raj’s local commander, General Dyer, issued an order requiring every Indian man using that street to crawl its length on his hands and knees. General Dyer later explained to a British inspector: “Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too.” He also authorised the indiscriminate, public whipping of locals who came within lathi length of British policemen. Miss Marcella Sherwood later defended General Dyer, describing him “as the ‘saviour’ of the Punjab”.
For the next two days, the city of Amritsar was quiet, but violence continued in other parts of the Punjab. Railway lines were cut, telegraph posts destroyed, government buildings burnt, and three Europeans murdered. By 13 April, the British government had decided to put most of the Punjab under martial law. The legislation restricted a number of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly; gatherings of more than four people were banned.
On 13 April, the traditional festival of Vaisakhi, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh (garden) near the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. Victims of General Dyer’s crawling order spoke, as the crawling order was seen as an extreme response to the attack on one British missionary woman; the order was that every Indian male crawl, not just the men in the mob that attacked Miss Marcella Sherwood. The order to crawl insulted Indians in Amritsar because it was indiscriminant, and so the villagers of Amritsar gathered to protest, peacefully.
An hour after the meeting began as scheduled at 4:30 pm, Dyer arrived with a group of sixty-five Gurkha and twenty-five Baluchi soldiers into the Bagh. Fifty of them were armed with rifles. Dyer had also brought two armoured cars armed with machine guns; however, the vehicles were left outside, as they were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrance. The Jallianwala Bagh was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few narrow entrances. Most of them were kept permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wide, but was guarded by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles.
Dyer—without warning the crowd to disperse—blocked the main exits. He explained later that this act “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd. Firing continued for approximately ten minutes. Cease-fire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted, after approximately 1,650 rounds were spent.
Many people died in stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. A plaque in the monument at the site, set up after independence, says that 120 bodies were pulled out of the well. The wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew was declared, and many more died during the night.
The number of deaths caused by the shooting is disputed. While the official figure given by the British inquiry into the massacre is 379 deaths, the method used by the inquiry has been subject to criticism. In July 1919, three months after the massacre, officials were tasked with finding who had been killed by inviting inhabitants of the city to volunteer information about those who had died. This information was incomplete due to fear that those who participated would be identified as having been present at the meeting, and some of the dead may not have had close relations in the area. Additionally, a senior civil servant in the Punjab interviewed by the members of the committee admitted that the actual figure could be higher.
Since the official figures were probably flawed regarding the size of the crowd (15,000–20,000), the number of rounds shot and the period of shooting, the politically interested Indian National Congress instituted a separate inquiry of its own, with conclusions that differed considerably from the Government’s inquiry. The casualty number quoted by the Congress was more than 1,500, with approximately 1,000 being killed. The Government tried to suppress information of the massacre, but news spread in India and widespread outrage ensued. Yet, the details of the massacre did not become known in Britain until December 1919.
Rabindranath Tagore received the news of the massacre by 22 May 1919. He tried to arrange a protest meeting in Calcutta and finally decided to renounce his knighthood as “a symbolic act of protest”.
In the repudiation letter, dated 30 May 1919 and addressed to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, he wrote
|“||I … wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings||”|
Gupta describes the letter Tagore wrote as “historic”. He writes that Tagore “renounced his knighthood in protest against the inhuman cruelty of the British Government to the people of Punjab”, and he quotes Tagore’s letter to the Viceroy
|“||The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India … [T]he very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation…||”|
 English Writings Of Rabindranath Tagore Miscellaneous Writings Vol# 8 carries a facsimile of this hand written letter.
General Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”. In a telegram sent to Dyer, British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer wrote: “Your action is correct and the Lieutenant Governor approves.” O’Dwyer requested that martial law should be imposed upon Amritsar and other areas. This was granted by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, after the massacre.
In contrast, both Churchill and Asquith openly condemned the attack. Churchill referring to it as “Monstrous”, while Asquith called it “One of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”.
Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons debate of the 8th July 1920, said, “The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… 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 to 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.”
After Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons debate, MPs voted 247 to 37 against Dyer and in support of the Government.
Cloake reports that despite the official rebuke, many Britons “thought him a hero for saving the rule of British law in India.”
The Hunter Commission
On 14 October 1919, after orders issued by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, the Government of India announced the formation of a committee of inquiry into the events in Punjab. Referred to as the Disorders Inquiry Committee, it was later more widely known as the Hunter Commission. It was named after the name of chairman, Lord William Hunter, former Solicitor-General for Scotland and Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The stated purpose of the commission was to “investigate the recent disturbances in Bombay, Delhi and Punjab, about their causes, and the measures taken to cope with them”. The members of the commission were:
- Lord Hunter, Chairman of the Commission
- Mr. Justice George C. Rankin of Calcutta
- Sir Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad, Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University and advocate of the Bombay High Court
- Mr W.F. Rice, member of the Home Department
- Major-General Sir George Barrow, KCB, KCMG, GOC Peshawar Division
- Pandit Jagat Narayan, lawyer and Member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces
- Mr. Thomas Smith, Member of the Legislative Council of the United Provinces
- Sardar Sahibzada Sultan Ahmad Khan, lawyer from Gwalior State
- Mr H.C. Stokes, Secretary of the Commission and member of the Home Department
After meeting in New Delhi on 29 October, the Commission took statements from witnesses over the following weeks. Witnesses were called in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bombay and Lahore. Although the Commission as such was not a formally constituted court of law, meaning witnesses were not subject to questioning under oath, its members managed to elicit detailed accounts and statements from witnesses by rigorous cross-questioning. In general, it was felt the Commission had been very thorough in its enquiries. After reaching Lahore in November, the Commission wound up its initial inquiries by examining the principal witnesses to the events in Amritsar.
On 19 November, Dyer was called to appear before the Commission. Although his military superiors had suggested he be represented by legal counsel at the inquiry, Dyer refused this suggestion and appeared alone. Initially questioned by Lord Hunter, Dyer stated he had come to know about the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh at 12:40 hours that day but did not attempt to prevent it. He stated that he had gone to the Bagh with the deliberate intention of opening fire if he found a crowd assembled there. Patterson says Dyer explained his sense of honour to the Hunter Commission by saying, “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.” Dyer further reiterated his belief that the crowd in the Bagh was one of “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”.
After Mr. Justice Rankin had questioned Dyer, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad followed, asking Dyer if
“supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?“
“I think probably, yes.“
“In that case, the casualties would have been much higher?“
Dyer further stated that his intentions had been to strike terror throughout the Punjab and in doing so, reduce the moral stature of the “rebels”. He said he did not stop the shooting when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep shooting until the crowd dispersed, and that a little shooting would not do any good. In fact he continued the shooting until the ammunition was almost exhausted. He stated that he did not make any effort to tend to the wounded after the shooting: “Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there.”
Exhausted from the rigorous cross-examination questioning and ill, Dyer was then released. Over the next several months, while the Commission wrote its final report, the British press, as well as many MPs, turned hostile towards Dyer as the extent of the massacre and his statements at the inquiry became widely known. Lord Chelmsford refused to comment until the Commission had been wound up. In the meanwhile, Dyer, seriously ill with jaundice and arteriosclerosis, was hospitalised.
Although the members of the Commission had been divided by racial tensions following Dyer’s statement, and though the Indian members had written a separate, minority report, the final report, comprising six volumes of evidence and released on 8 March 1920, unanimously condemned Dyer’s actions. In “continuing firing as long as he did, it appears to us that General Dyer committed a grave error.” Dissenting members argued that the martial law regime’s use of force was wholly unjustified. “General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O’Dwyer was of the same view,” they wrote, “(but) there was no rebellion which required to be crushed.” The report concluded that:
- Lack of notice to disperse from the Bagh in the beginning was an error
- The length of firing showed a grave error
- Dyer’s motive of producing a sufficient moral effect was to be condemned
- Dyer had overstepped the bounds of his authority
- There had not been any conspiracy to overthrow British rule in the Punjab
The minority report of the Indian members further added that:
- Proclamations banning public meetings were insufficiently distributed
- There were innocent people in the crowd, and there had not been any violence in the Bagh beforehand
- Dyer should have either ordered his troops to help the wounded or instructed the civil authorities to do so
- Dyer’s actions had been “inhuman and un-British” and had greatly injured the image of British rule in India.
The Hunter Commission did not impose any penal or disciplinary action because Dyer’s actions were condoned by various superiors (later upheld by the Army Council). The Legal and Home Members on the Viceroy’s Council ultimately decided that, though Dyer had acted in a callous and brutal way, military or legal prosecution would not be possible due to political reasons. However, he was finally found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved of his command on 23 March. He had been recommended for a CBE as a result of his service in the Third Afghan War; this recommendation was cancelled on 29 March 1920.