If only there had been television and the social media of the present in the early 20th century, India would have become Independent at least a good 25 years earlier than it finally did in 1947. The Jallianwalabagh massacre on April 13, 1919 would have ensured that for sure given the magnitude of its brutality. Ravindranath Tagore came to know of that monstrosity only a month later on May 22 and renounced his knighthood in protest against the murder of innocents.
On this day, 100 years ago, the colonialists bared the evil at the core of their so called enlightened rule in a heartless and ruthless manner. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire at the innocent Indians who strayed into and gathered in the 200 x 200 yard Jallianwalabagh in Amritsar. The assembly in the park included those who came for Bisakhi celebration and those protesting against the arrest and deportation of two nationalist leaders Satya Pal and Dr.Saifuddin Kichlew.
The senseless firing with the main entry of the park closed and without even asking the crowd to disperse continued for ten minutes. It stopped only when the British troops ran out of ammunition. People ran everywhere to escape through the narrow outlets and even jumped into the well in the park. In the firing and the resulting melee, hundreds lost their lives including a six-month baby. The scars of firing are still seen on the walls of the park reminiscent of the brutality of the blood thirsty colonialists and their intentions.
The Jallianwalabagh massacre had a certain context. India supported the British in their World War 1 efforts by providing men and materials in different theatres of war in the hope of gaining partial autonomy. But anti-colonial militant activities continued in Bengal and Punjab, the frontline States in the struggle for freedom at that time. Defence of India Act was passed in 1915 to prevent disruption of war efforts by severely curbing the political and civil rights of Indians. Sedition Committee led by British Judge Sidney Rowlatt was set up to probe the links of Indian militants with German and Bolshevik revolutionaries. Even more repressive Rowlatt Act, 1919 was then forced on the subjugated. In an earlier escalation of protests, people of Amritsar were forced to crawl on their knees and even put in open cages. Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1917, the first political reform was found to be insufficient by the Indians and the leadership. Resentment was mounting across the country further compounded by the ill effects of the protracted war.
On the other hand, realizing that India can’t be ruled by sheer force, the Raj was seeking to gain legitimacy in the form of so called progressive laws and administrative reforms. Concerted efforts were made to feed Indians with the so called sense of justice, fairness and propriety of the Raj. Till Jallianwalabagh happened, moderate leadership was only seeking a larger share for Indians in the administration, leave alone even dominion status. But all of this changed with the naked demonstration of the brutality in the closed park in Amritsar.
The Jallianwalabagh massacre was a major turning point in our struggle for Independence and the most impactful since the first war of Independence in 1857. It shattered the faith that some people had in the British. In the eyes of the average Indian, the just, fair and liberal Englishman suddenly turned into a ruthless, blood thirsty tyrant who could not be trusted any more. Dyer ordered fire seeking to strike terror and awe in the minds and hearts of disobeying Indians and produce a ‘moral effect’ on the militant freedom fighters. All of it boomeranged and the Raj had lost all the legitimacy to rule. Any ruler needs legitimacy to rule and the British lost it in one stroke of senseless massacre that not only shook the Indians but also even some sections of the British and the world at large.
The then Secretary of State of War Winston Churchill, not known to be a friend of India termed it ‘monstrous’ and the then Prime Minister of Britain H.H.Asquith called it ‘the most shameful of our entire history’. During the debate in the House of Commons on 8 July, 1920, more than a year after Dyer’s indiscretion, Churchill gave a moving account of the massacre and said: “The crowd was unarmed. It was not attacking anybody or anything….When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.” The House of Commons then voted 247 to 37 against Dyer who was then removed from the service even though the House of Lords praised him.
Meanwhile, Gandhiji returned to India from South Africa in January, 1915 and started to give a mass orientation to the freedom struggle by introducing the concept of ‘Satyagraha’. Tagore thundered that murderers had no right to grant special distinctions. In his letter to Viceroy on May 30, 1919, he said: “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in an incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn of all distinctions, by the side of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings.” Gandhi ji who supported the British during the World War 1 then gave a clarion call for Non-cooperation with the Raj in 1920. He realised that India should accept nothing less than ‘Poorna Swaraj’, full independence and the rest is history.
A Punjabi youth Udham Singh was among those who witnessed the Jallianwalabagh massacre and was wounded himself. He kept up his anger and spirits for 21 long years and shot dead Michael O’Dwyer at Caxton Hall in London on March 13, 1940. Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab who supported Dyer. Udham Singh told the trial court: “I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland.”. He was hanged on July 31, 1940. Pandit Nehru who earlier called Uddham’s killing of Dwyer as ‘senseless’ even as it was courageous, later said in 1952 as the then Prime Minister: “I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”
Jallianwalabagh massacre stands among the most defining events that led to the exit of British like the 1857 revolt, Partition of Bengal in 1905, Civil disobedience movements, formation of Indian National Army and the Quit India movement. It was indeed a turning point. We will ever be indebted to those who gave up their lives this day 100 years ago so that we could breath free. The best tribute we can pay to them is to build a New India.