The Amritsar Massacre

From the Encyclopedia Brittanica

"Politically, as well as economically, the postwar years proved depressing to India's high expectations. After the was British officials, who in the first flush of patriotism had abandoned their ICS posts to rush to the front, returned to oust the Indian subordinates acting in their stead and carried on their prewar jobs as though nothing had changed in British India. Indian soldiers also returned from battlefronts to find that back at home they were no longer treated as invaluable allies but reverted immediately to the status of "natives." Most of the soldiers recruited during the war had come from Punjab, which, with only 7 percent of India's population, had supplied over 50 percent of the combatant troops shipped abroad.

It is thus hardly surprising that the flash-point of postwar violence that shook India in the spring of 1919 was Punjab province. The actual issue that served to rally millions of Indians, arousing them to a new level of disaffection from British rule, was the government of India's hasty passage of the Rowlatt Acts early in 1919. These "black acts," as they came to be called, were peacetime extensions of the wartime emergency measures passed in 1915 and had been rammed through the Supreme Legislative Council over the unanimous opposition of its Indian members.

Indian leaders viewed the autocratic enactment of such legislation, following the victorious conclusion of a war in which India had so loyally supported Britain, as a confession of British treachery and duplicity and the abandonment of the promised policy of reform in favour of a new wave of repression. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Gujarati who had returned from South Africa shortly after the war started and was by then recognized throughout India as one of the most promising leaders of Congress, called upon his country to take sacred vows to disobey the Rowlatt Acts, launching a nationwide movement for the repeal of those repressive measures. Gandhi's appeal received the strongest popular response in the Punjab, where the nationalist leaders Kichloo and Satyapal addressed mass protest rallies from the provincial capital of Lahore to Amritsar, sacred capital of the Sikhs. Gandhi himself had taken a train to the Punjab early in April 1919 to address on of those rallies, but he was arrested at the border station and taken back to Bombay by orders of the tyrannical lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer.

On April 10, in Amritsar, Kichloo and Satyapal were arrested and deported from the district by deputy commisioner Miles Irving, and when their followers tried to march to Irving's bungalow in the camp to demand the release of their leaders they were fired upon by British troops. With several of their number killed and wounded, the enraged mob rioted through Amritsar's old city, burning British banks, murdering several Englishmen, and attacking two Englishwomen.

Gen. R.E.H. Dyer was sent with troops from Jullundur to restore order, and, though no further disturbances occurred in Amritsar until April 13, Dyer marched 50 armed soldiers into the Jallianwallah Bagh (Garden) that afternoon and ordered them to open fire on a protest meeting attended by some 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children without issuing a word of warning. It was a Sunday, and many neighboring peasants had come to Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu festival, gathering in the Bagh, which was a place for holding cattle fair and other festivities. Dyer kept his troops firing for about ten minutes, until they had shot 1650 rounds of ammunition into the terror-stricken crowd, which had no way of escaping the Bagh, since the soldiers spanned the only exit. About 400 civilians were killed and some 1200 wounded. They were left without medical attention by Dyer, who hastily removed his troops to the camp. Sir Michael O'Dwyer fully approved of and supported the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, and on April 15, 1919, issued a martial law decree for the entire Punjab:

The least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce . . . from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab.'

Dyer was relieved of his command, but he returned to England as a hero to many British admirers, who presented him with a collected purse of thousands of pounds and a jewelled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab."

The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre turned million of patient and moderate Indians from loyal supporters of the British raj into national revolutionaries who would never again trust to British "fair play" or cooperate with a government capable of defending such action. The following year, Mahatma Gandhi launched his first Indian satyagraha ("clinging to the truth") campaign, India's response to the massacre in Jallianwallah Bagh.

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV [Postimperial]

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002
Thanks to Ramon Kranzkuper for pointing out the source's misspelling of Gandhi's family name.