The forthcoming inauguration of the renovated Jallianwala Bagh Memorial at Amritsar by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 28th of August this year may raise the question of its enduring relevance to the nation after more than a century of the gruesome massacre by the British. India has seen just too many invasions resulting in the wanton killing of scores of thousands innocent people through the ages. Every time the life carried on with the attitude reflected in the popular Punjabi proverb Khadapeetalahe da, baaki Ahmad Shahe da (Consume whatever is available, the rest shall be plundered by Ahmad Shah Abdali) making light of the tragedy. This has not happened in the case of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which estimated one thousand innocent persons, gathered to celebrate the joyous festival of Baisakhi on 13th April 1919, were mercilessly gunned down by the British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. The episode has left an indelible mark on the memory of the wounded nation.
Volumes have been written to record the horrid experience as a narrative of history by numerous scholars. The events like the enactment of the Rowlatt Act in March 1919, promulgation of martial law in Punjab, the role of Michael O’Dwyer, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, the massacre by Reginald Dyer followed by setting up and proceedings of the Hunter Committee absolving the culprits of all charges are too well-known to deserve any repetition here. It was a well-planned deep rooted conspiracy of the British to crush Indians by letting loose a reign of terror through inhuman acts that by any standards would be unthinkably shameful for any civilized country. The psychology of the then British administration has to be understood to fathom the reasons behind their actions. That will clearly establish that it was not an isolated incident that accidently occurred due to the unthoughtful actions of a sick mind.
Ever since the rising of 1857, India’s first war of independence, the British were badly shaken. Any prospect of revolutionary activities against their rule deeply scared them of its recurrence. In the beginning of the 20th century leaders like LalaHardayal, LalaLajpat Rai and Ajit Singh were deported but it did little to assuage the British fears. Taking advantage of the comparatively soft attitude of some of the political leaders they thought that extreme coercive measures could easily suppress any rise of national feelings that will felicitate the continuation of their rule unhindered. They remained completely oblivious of the rising national opinion and totally ungrateful to the support of the Indian populace and bravery of its soldiers in the favour of the allies rendered during the First World-War (1914-1918). Smallest pretext, even a peaceful protest such as a hartal, was enough for them to plunge into action.
The sinister designs of the British were reflected in the actions of Michael O’Dwyer, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who left no stone unturned to suppress the rights of people. The educated class was heaped with insults, hundreds were put behind the bars and the press was gagged. Events started taking shape from the beginning of April 1919. The peaceful hartals in Lahore and Amritsar were forcibly broken and fire was opened at peaceful protesters. Most of the prominent local leaders were arrested and deported. Places like Kasur and Gujaranwala bore the brunt of atrocities along with Lahore and Amritsar. The British lost no opportunity to provoke peaceful people. The situation became tense when as a result of unprovoked firing five Europeans were done to death in Amritsar and a lady missionary named Sherwood was beaten up in a street, while going to teach some Indian students. This seems to have badly bruised the British pride as later on it led to the brutal flogging of innocent people by police even in villages and the crawling orders in KhuhKorianwaliGali (street with flogging well).
Brigadier General Reginald Dyer was shifted from Jalandhar to Amritsar just a day before the episode. On his arrival he promulgated restrictions on public gatherings which remained unknown to common people. A large number that mostly included peasants from nearby rural areas had already gathered in Amritsar to celebrate Baisakhi on the 13th April. Dyer reached the main entrance of Jallianwala Bagh with his soldiers, none of which was British, in the afternoon and ordered to open fire without warning. 1650 rounds were fired within minutes killing and wounding a large number of people who were desperately trying to disperse. The exact number has never become known there being a vast difference between the official and unofficial figures. To rub salt to wounds, Dyer imposed curfew with complete ban on movement so that the wounded could not be attended to and the dead could not be removed.
The replies given by Dyer to the Hunter Committee that was appointed to probe the massacre are not only a reflection of the perpetuator’s state of mind but that of the entire set up. He was happy to tell the Committee that his actions were a result of fully conscious and pre-planned strategy. Had the layout of the place not prevented him, he would have carried armoured vehicles with machine guns to shoot more people. The only action taken against Dyer by the then government was relieving him of his active duties, whereas Michael O’Dwyer and Chelmsford were completely absolved of all guilt.
Dyer was a hero in the eyes of Englishmen throughout who clamoured for his reinstatement but the Indian anguish remained high. The British failed to judge the mood of Indians and the far reaching consequences of the tragic episode. Young Indians were out to avenge these acts of brutality. The great revolutionary Udham Singh took the task upon him and shot dead Michael O’Dwyer on 13th march 1940 in London. The young patriotic revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad were direct result of Jallianwala Bagh and the events that followed. We owe our independence to their supreme sacrifices. The Memorial at Amritsar shall for ever remind an indebted nation, of the martyrs who laid down their lives for the motherland, a monument of national pride and an inspiration for the cause of freedom for all times to come.
(Author is the Whole time Member, National Monuments Authority)