Op-ed: Let’s not forget Jallianwala Bagh
Between 19-24 April, Dyer enforced the notorious “crawling order”, forcing all those using the street where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted to pass on all fours, their noses to the ground
On 24 October 2001, I finally got an opportunity to visit Jallianwala Bagh which is almost next door to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. I was surprised to find that Jallianwala Bagh is a small park with only one narrow entry. It was early in the morning and some people were in the Bagh for the morning exercise and walk. I could hear theth (pure) Punjabi all round. The place could have been Lahore’s Lawrence Garden where I used to go with my family and friends for a morning constitutional back in the 1950s and 1960s.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it must have been on 13 April 1919 when the place was turned into a slaughterhouse. The British and their Gurkha soldiers cut down in a hail of bullets hundreds of individuals in a peaceful assembly. It was impossible to control my emotions. I kept my eyes closed, pretending to be in a meditative stance but some tears did flow out. I felt I had purged myself of many sins by paying my respects to the most sacred place in the Punjab. I implore that the governments of West and East Punjab declare 13 April as a day of reconciliation.
The immediate background to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was the disappointment of Indians with the colonial government’s failure to introduce democratic reforms after World War I as had been expected. India’s contribution to the war effort had been enormous, providing more soldiers than the combined contribution of all other colonies. More than a million Indians served and fought in various theatres of war. Of these, 450,000 were from the Punjab. In spite of chronic poverty, India contributed £100,000,000 to Britain for the war effort. Additionally the princes and peoples of India contributed £2,100,000 to various charities and war funds. India ended up incurring a debt of £127,800,000 because of the war. The prices of essential commodities rose sharply and the soldiers returning from the war were badly treated by the British officials.
Radicalisation also took place because North American Punjabis known as the Ghadarites attempted to incite an abortive rebellion during 1914-15. The first Lahore Conspiracy trials resulted in severe punishments including hangings and deportations for life for many Ghadarites. The Khilafat Movement was also gaining momentum after the end of the War. Muslim ulema and the Congress leadership worked together, creating a popular Hindu-Muslim-Sikh bhai bhai (brotherly) sentiment.
The government responded by introducing the harsh 1919 Rowlatt Act which severely curtailed civil liberties. The Act granted special powers to the colonial government to suppress dissent, curtailing the right of appeal and enabling a committee not bound by rules of evidence to find individuals guilty of inciting offences against the state. It was in these circumstances that the Indian National Congress launched the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation. By 6 April, the anti-Rowlatt agitation was at its peak in Punjab. The agitations in Lahore were the largest.
On 10 April, two key Punjab Congress leaders, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and his colleague Dr Satyapal, were arrested in Amritsar and deported to Kangra Valley. News of Gandhi’s arrest the previous day soon reached Amritsar. Over 15,000 people gathered and demanded to know the whereabouts of Kitchlew and Satyapal. Lawyers Gurdial Salaria and Maqbool Mohammad tried to keep the crowd calm, but the British officials ordered the soldiers to begin shooting. Between 20 and 25 people were killed or injured. Armed with lathis, the enraged crowd turned on the British. Four British residents were killed and two were seriously injured; one, missionary Marcella Sherwood, was left for dead. Government property was also looted.
When Brigadier General Dyer arrived in Amritsar from Jalandhar at 9 pm the next day, his fellow British residents had convinced themselves that 1857 was about to be repeated. In Lahore, the uprising had yet to subside. The Danda Fauj (stick-army) of impoverished Muslim artisans armed with sticks and toy guns marched through the streets. They were led by Chanan Din. More dangerously, the 4,000 Indian railway employees in Lahore went on strike.
On the morning of 13 April, Dyer’s troops marched through Amritsar, proclaiming that all assemblies would be “dispersed by force of arms if necessary”. Shortly afterwards, two people walked through the city banging tin cans to announce a rally at 4:30 pm at Jallianwala Bagh. Come afternoon, a peaceful gathering of over 20,000 people was in place. A succession of speeches followed, condemning the Rowlatt Act and the recent incidents of arrests and firings. A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds were fired into the crowd. Many jumped onto the well on the left side of the maidan, only to be crushed by others who desperately dived on top of them. Official figures recorded 379 dead and 1200 wounded, but the real numbers were much higher.
News of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre spread like wild fire all over Punjab and the rest of India. Lahore, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Sialkot, Gujrat, Sangla Hill, and Chuharkhana were rocked by popular demonstrations. Hindu and Muslim speakers addressed angry crowds from the pulpit of Badshahi Mosque. All distinctions of religion were forgotten during those days. An aircraft from Lahore dropped three bombs on protesting crowds in Gujranwala on 14 and 15 April, following it up with machine-gun fire. A total of 334 people were reported killed in the uprising.
Between 19-24 April, Dyer enforced the notorious “crawling order”, forcing all those using the street where Marcella Sherwood was assaulted to pass on all fours, their noses to the ground. In Lahore, college students were ordered to walk up to 20 km in the sun four times a day for roll call before military administrators. At a school in Kasur, the six largest school students were whipped simply for their size. In all 1,229 people, largely urban artisans and youth were convicted of involvement in the uprising. Eighteen people were sentenced to death, 23 were transported for life and 58 were flogged on the orders of the Martial Law Commission.
Let us never forget Jallianwala Bagh.
The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se