Hundred years of Jallianwala Bagh

Virendra Wangnoo
A grateful India will pay homage to its valiant freedom fighters , massacred by British Army , on Centenary day 13th April,2019. A century ago, on Baisakhi day on 13th April,1919, British soldiers massacred 1500 unarmed Indian men women children , Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus in an indiscriminate firing incident without any warning and choking the escape routes culminating in a horrendous historical event which firmed the resolve of we the Indians to drive British out of our land and usher in a self rule. The people had gathered to celebrate festival of Baisakhi and the Sikh New year falling on the same day. In 1699 , Guru Govind Singh founded the Khalsa Panth and therefore people of Punjab attached a spiritual festive touch to this day . During that period people from other places in India would also visit Amritsar and join the celebrations in both community and religious gatherings.
Jallianwala Bagh was a garden house approximately 225×180 meters surrounded by residential houses on all sides leaving narrow pathways for movement in and out of the Bagh. The name Jallianwalla is derived from village Jalla in Fateh Garh Sahib district in Punjab wherefrom the owner of this dumping yard Sardar Himmat Singh belonged. This bagh is located in close viscinity of Darbar Sahib most revered gurudwara for both Hindus and Sikhs and temporal seat of sikhhism. The garden was an uneven and unoccupied irregular quadrilateral space being used as a dumping ground and occasional festival congregations.
During 1914-18 World War, Indian soldiers under British command had participated in various assaults losing about 50,000 of its men but brought laurels to their units and India. When the war ended, the Indian leaders had a fair expectation that the British would soon start redemption and raising institutions of self rule so that upon eventual departure, India would be greatly facilitated by the continual existence of these intuitions which could greatly facilitate future nation building. But the British did not undertake any institutional redemption process.
In Punjab, in the midst of Ghadar Party movement, the British had developed a suspicion that the Ghadar Party was an instrument of frustration for the British administration. Sikhs of Punjab, on the other hand , were also upset and hurt on account of British Governments activities and trials of Ghadar party activits, mostly Sikhs, had also annoyed the sikhs. Besides, the demolition of a boundary wall of Gurudwara Rakabganj in Delhi had angered Sikhs and hindus of Punjab. This resulted in hatred and suspicion both in British minds and Punjabis which was growing with every passing day.
During the same period two important leaders were emerging on political sprectrum of india. One was Mahatama Gandhi, who had recently returned to India in 1915 after a spell of struggle against the British in South Africa. Another leader, Mrs. Annie Beasant who was head of the Theosiphical Society of India, had set up Home Rule League demanding autonomy. Both these leaders were in close proximity over the national issues and had a wider national acceptance . The British, post world war, had dashed hopes of india’s political leadership to recognise political interests and aspirations of the people. Indians were keen to have a participation in administrative structures and development of self governing institutions for realising a responsible governance structure in India. They were disappointed at British ignoring their aspirations. Secretary of State for India, E.S.Montagu broadly agreed with the perception of the Indian leadership but Viceroy Lord Chelmsford was not favouring any such arrangement. To complicate the matters, the viceroy set up a sedition Committee to investigate the activities of Crimninal Conspiracies connected with the Indian revolutionary movement . English Judge Sydney Rowlatt was made the head of this Committee and it became famous as Rowlett Committee. The job of the Committee, inter-alia, was to understand and report suspected German and Bolshevic Connections of Indian militant Freedom Movement which was active in Punjab and Bengal. The Committee recommended the extension of anti people Defence of India Act,1915 which gave Viceroy extended powers to quell nationalist movements by silencing the press, detentions without trial and warrant of individuals suspected of treason. This act sparked wide spread anger among Indians. Probably the word “suspicion” had led to many avoidable showdowns and massacres the largest being the Jallianwala Bagh. Mahatma Gandhi who was emerging as a leader gave a call for protest against Rowlett Act and Indians responded with expected ferocity by holding protests.
Punjab especially, where militant freedom movement was very strong, too reacted and eventually there were strong protests leading to firing/ killing 6 and 12 people respectively in two worst incidents. Besides, an air of suspicion was being created over the murder of Britishers in Punjab. As a sequel to protests, strong mob of 5000 people gathered for a protest demonstration at the residence of Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar demanding release of two popular leaders of Indian freedom movement namely Satya Pal and Saif-ud-din Kitchlew who had been arrested earlier. British saw a link to Ghaddar Party uprising as a direct consequence they fired on peaceful protesters. Angry protesters damaged rail and communication links in retaliation. For next two days , Amritsar remained quiet but peripheral areas saw large protests. On April, the 13th , the British Government decided to impose martial law in most of the Punjab resulting in restriction of the Civil Liberties and gatherings were banned.
As noted above, the Punjabis and Indians from other parts used to celebrate 13th April as the day of Baisakhi and Sikh New Year collectively. Accordingly, thousands of people gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate the festival and the spiritual day in a historical manner. While people were enjoying festivities, at 4.30 PM , Brigadier General Reginald Dyer marched in with a group of 90 soldiers into the Bagh. Fifty of these soldiers were armed with rifles. Besides, two armoured vehicles were stationed outside as these could not enter the Bagh due to narrow entrances. Suddenly General Dyer ordered firing and troops began to fire on unarmed civilian crowd without any warning . The shooting was ordered in the dense pockets to maximise killings. The shooting continued for 10 minutes firing around 1650 rounds and stopped only when the soldiers ran out of ammunition. In the stampede people tried to escape by riding the large walls around the bagh. Some of them got crushed in the narrow exit. Some in the hope of escaping the fury of gun fire jumped in a dry well and around 350 dead bodies were evacuated from the well . This well is now part of the Bagh memorial. Some casualties could have been avoided by shifting the injured out for medical aid but due to strenuous curfew restrictions they could not get the medical aid and died. Unofficial reports of enquiry instituted by the Congress party estimated the dead over 1500. Humanity was butchered unawares and unwarranted on a mere suspicion of Gen. Dyer, the tyrant.
Instead of showing remorse and apologising the holocaust, the General Dyer sent a message to Governor Sir Micheal O’ Dwyer about the incident stating therein that he was attacked by a party of militant nationalists. Instead of realising that Dyer had infact inflicted a genocide on unarmed civilians the Governor appreciated Gen Dyer’s quick response as correct and approved it. Whole India was aghast and shocked so was the humanity. Perturbed with worsening situation with the increasing activities of freedom fighters, The British set up an enquiry commission to enquire into the causes of this massacre and to understand as to whether the massacre was necessary. In response to Hunter Commission, the shameless General Dyer confided that he could have achieved the purpose without firing indiscriminately but he could not make a fool of himself as the protester once dispersed could come back and laugh at me. The Commission did not like the stubbornness of Dyer the killer was divested of his command and sent into forced exit. He was found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty by the enquiry Commission.
This was followed by protests of angry Indians across india. The anger was so palpable that Rabindranath Tagore renunciated his British Knighthood. Meanwhile some Sikh officers of British Army resigned and formed an anti British freedom fighters group. An 19 year old sikh boy Udham Singh had himself seen the massacre and after 21 years he blasted off and killed Micheal O’Dwyer in Coxton Hall of London on 31st July,1940. Udham Singh, the great revolutionary having taken his revenge for killing of his fellow country men was later hanged and the nation pays a homage to Great Udham Singh.
The Jallianwala Bagh, a site of British inhumanity is now a national pilgrimage , inspiration and pride for every Indian. The nBagh was acquired in 1920 to raise a memorial for the dead and a spot of inspiration of Indian independence movement. Dr. Rajendra Prasad threw it open in 1961 to the Indians to keep the reminding of supreme sacrifices india made to nget out nof British clutches. It is now named Flame of Liberty having a towering statue standing in the midst of shallow tank built with 300 slabs with Ashok Chakra. The Congress party had initially made J.L.Nehru, Moulana Azad and Dr. Saif-ud-din as its life members. After their death , Congress President remained its head.BJP Govtr. Under Narendra Modi realising the importance of such an important memorial in 2018, changed its tustee ship with Prime Minister of India as President, Secretary Culture GOI, Chief Minister Punjab and Governor Punjab as members and it is committed to develop it as a national symbol.
The British took 100 years to realise the infamous massacre was a blot on the face of humanity. After a Century, Theresa May, the Prime Minister of United Kingdom described it as a shameful scar on British Indian history. Queen Elizabeth during her visit earlier had said it was a distressing example of our past history. With this, the Government of Britain joins Indians in commemorating the supreme sacrifices they made for making india free and now it is for Indians to enrich this independence and take nation to bigger heights.