Jallianwala Bagh massacre: What has changed after 100 years?

What you need to know about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, Reginald Edward Dyer who ordered the killing in cold blood to ‘strike terror’ and the political context

A scene of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Amritsar, 1919 (Hindustan Times)
A scene of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Amritsar, 1919 (Hindustan Times)

NH Web Desk

Several commentaries in recent weeks have reminded Indians that repressive colonial-era laws are still in use, police and armed forces remain as brutal, peaceful assemblies continue to be targeted and the attitude of rulers have not changed. The ‘master-servant’ relationship between the ruling elite and citizens have endured.

“Even the Rowlatt Act lives on as the Unlawful Activities (prevention) Act,” reminded a comment by Amrit Wilson in The Guardian.

Indeed, while ‘Brigadier’ Dyer is remembered in India with revulsion, immediately after the massacre he was felicitated at the Golden Temple and was offered ‘Saropas’ and honoured. On the day of the massacre he was invited to dinner by an influential citizen of Amritsar related to the Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal.

A section of the Sikhs wanted to honour Dyer as an ‘Honorary Sikh’ and when he set off to join the Anglo-Afghan war, influential Sikhs in Amritsar and Jalandhar offered to raise 10,000 Sikhs to fight alongside.

The Massacre

  • 1919 was when repressive policies were resorted to across India by the colonial rulers. The Rowlatt Act provided for arrest and imprisonment without trial or evidence.
  • In a recent book on the massacre Dr Kim Wagner records how at Ram Navami festival on April 9, Hindus and Muslims had shared water, milk and sherbet from the same vessel as a sign of unity. Slogans of Hindu-Musalman Zindabad were also raised.
  • The authorities, who deemed the joint Ram Navami celebrations as a political act, arrested Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, both popular leaders, and deported them from Punjab. This led to unrest and violence broke out in Amritsar.
  • On April 10, police opened fire at protestors, killing 20 people.
  • In the violence give Europeans were also killed. A lady, one Ms Sherwood was left on the street to die.
  • Brigadier Dyer, who was stationed at Jalandhar, moved to Amritsar on his own on April 12 and took control of the city. He imposed a curfew and put other restrictions on the movement of people.
  • On April 13, Baisakhi, people unaware of the restrictions and the curfew gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. All of them were unarmed. Some were there simply to have a good time or having a picnic.
  • But Dyer, who apprehended a repeat of the 1857 uprising, arrived at the narrow entrance at 5 pm with 90 soldiers and two armoured cars.
  • They fired 1,650 rounds, killing 379 people officially and wounded 1,500 more. Unofficial versions put the death toll at 1,000.

Post-Jallianwala Bagh

  • Brigadier Dyer had walked away from the site of the massacre and offered no help to the wounded.
  • He expressed no remorse and declared that he was unable to use the machine guns on the armoured cars because of the narrow alley and the entrance.
  • He also issued the infamous ‘Crawling order’ , which forced Indians to crawl on all fours on the stretch of the road where Ms Sherwood had been attacked.
  • He went back to England on sick leave as outrage grew.
  • He was later dismissed from service, had a stroke in 1921 and died in 1927.
  • A section of the British treated him as a hero and a newspaper raised 26 thousand Pounds from readers for him, after he was dismissed from service.

The Shimla and Solan Connection

  1. Dyer was born at Murree near present day Islamabad but grew up in Simla and studied at the Bishop Cotton School.
  2. His father set up a brewery at Solan, which was known as Dyer-Meakin Brewery.
  3. In 1960 India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to stop at Solan and visit the brewery on his way to Simla because of the association with Dyer.
  4. This led to the Indian owner Narendra Nath Mohan to change the name of the brewery to Mohan-Meakin, which produced the iconic ‘Old Monk’ Rum.

Historians believe British rulers were alarmed at the prospect of Hindu-Muslim unity and the massacre was the precursor of attempts to drive wedges between the two communities. The formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, they say, was no accident. “RSS had the blessings of the colonial rulers and remained pro-British throughout the struggle for freedom. It was the RSS leader Savarkar who first demanded the partition of India,” reminds one of them.

Britain has not yet tendered an apology for the massacre, though there is consensus that it is the right thing to do. UK’s Foreign Office minister Mark Field recently told a debate on “Jallianwala Bagh massacre” in the House of Commons complex that while it was important to draw a line under the past over the “shameful episode” in history, repeatedly issuing apologies for events related to the British Raj came with their own problems.

“I have slightly orthodox views on Britain’s colonial past. I feel little reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past,” the minister said.

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