Video Editors: Purnendu Pritam, Rahul Sanpui, Ashutosh Bhardwaj
Illustrations: Aroop Mishra
(This story was originally published on 13 April 2021. It is being reposted from The Quint's archives after Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, 28 August, virtually inaugurated the renovated complex of Jallianwala Bagh memorial.)
13 April 1919 – a peaceful protest in Punjab’s Amritsar turned into a bloodbath after British troops killed over 1,000 unarmed men, women and children, on the command of one man – Brigadier-General Dyer.
The unprovoked firing by the British troops went on for 10 minutes until they ran out of all their ammunition. Bloodshed, uncountable bullet holes, and silence – that’s what remained after the sheer massacre.
Here’s rewinding the clock to those 10 minutes when precisely 1,650 bullets rammed into the bodies of over 1,000 innocent lives, eventually changing the course of India's freedom struggle forever.
The Rowlatt Act
On 18 March 1919, roughly a month before the fateful day, the British government in pre-Independent India passed the draconian Rowlatt Act, which allowed them to jail India's freedom fighters for up to two years even without a trial.
The passing of the act led to widespread protests across India. Lakhs of Indians rose in anger and took to the streets, led by Mahatma Gandhi.
The people of Amritsar, like the rest of India, began openly defying the British. Freedom fighters Dr Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, inspired by Gandhi, led anti-government processions to protest against the Rowlatt Act.
A Draconian Act and Wrongful Detentions
A week before the massacre – on 30 March 1919, over 30,000 people gathered in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh. Dr Pal and Kitchlew addressed the crowd.
The hartal was a success. So naturally, the British struck back by banning the duo from speaking in public.
Defying the ban, half a lakh people gathered, demanding the ban on Pal and Kitchlew be revoked. The growing protests and the evident Hindu-Muslim unity angered Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving who conspired to create communal differences.
Just three days before the massacre – on 10 April 1919, Dr Pal and Kitchlew were invited to Irving’s residence. But when they arrived, they were handcuffed and taken to Dharamshala jail. As the word of their arrest spread, hundreds hit the streets, demanding their leaders be released immediately.
Another Bloodshed Before the Massacre
Marching towards Irving's residence, the crowd stopped near an overbridge at the sight of British troops. The troops soon opened fire, killing many. But that couldn't stop the protests.
Around noon, another angry crowd arrived and when they saw the bodies of their brothers and sisters, they turned violent. They threw stones at buildings, they set a bank on fire. They were angry.
When the situation went out of control, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was called in from Lahore to take charge of Amritsar. He immediately ordered for an aircraft to hover over Amritsar.
“Show of military strength should teach these Indians a lesson,” Dyer announced. On the fateful day of the massacre, he banned all meetings and gatherings of more than four people and ordered a shoot at sight for anyone seen in public after 8 pm.
People’s Defiance and Dyer’s Conspiracy
Defying Dyer, several protesters announced that a meeting would be held at Jallianwala Bagh at 4.30 pm on the fateful day. Hearing that, Dyer conspired to teach the protesters “a lesson”.
By 4.30 pm, as planned, thousands started gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed public garden with just one exit. And that turned fatal.
As the demand to free Pal and Kichlew grew louder, the aircraft hovered over the site, giving Dyer an idea of the size of the crowd.
Dyer ordered the troops to enter the Bagh and block the entrance and exit. Within minutes, the British troops got into their positions. The sound of the troops disrupted the meeting. Seconds later, came General Dyer’s infamous order:
The ‘Bloodiest’ Baisakhi & Its Aftermath
After 10-long minutes of sheer massacre, the festival of Baisakhi turned into a bloodbath. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre stared India in the face.
The horrific tragedy led to Rabindranath Tagore renouncing his British knighthood and Mahatma Gandhi returning his Kaiser-i-Hind medal. The massacre rekindled India’s freedom movement and the call for ‘purna swaraj’ (complete independence) grew louder than before.
Despite openly justifying his stance and multiple enquiries set up, Dyer was only asked to resign, never jailed. He later suffered strokes and partial paralysis and eight years after the massacre, died in 1927.
The British repealed the Rowlatt Act in 1922. More than 100 years later, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the martyrs of the bloodshed remain a symbol of inhumanity and barbarity.