Jallianwala Bagh revisited

A look at the actual history of one of the most shocking events of the independence struggle.

Published : Nov 01, 1997 00:00 IST

Udham Singh (second from left) being led away after he killed Gen. Dwyer.-

Udham Singh (second from left) being led away after he killed Gen. Dwyer.-

He was the real culprit. He deserved it. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.”

- Shaheed Udham Singh, telling the trial court why he killed former Punjab Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer.

A CRUDE, weather-beaten statue is the sole memorial to Shaheed Udham Singh at Sunam, his home-town in Punjab. Udham Singh, who bore the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad then, was hanged in June 1940 for the murder of Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor who presided over the brutal British suppression of the 1919 uprising in Punjab. Udham Singh’s ashes were returned to India in 1974.

O’Dwyer’s killing marked the end of a chain of events that began, in a sense, at 4-30 p.m. on April 13, 1919, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on an unarmed gathering in Jallianwala Bagh. Udham Singh was a witness to that carnage. Through 21 years of revolutionary activity in the United Kingdom, the United States, Africa and India, Udham Singh saw avenging the massacre as his destiny. Jallianwala Bagh radicalised an entire generation and laid the foundation for Punjab’s vigorous secular political traditions. The traditions forged by Udham Singh and his peers are as relevant now as they were seven decades ago.

IN the spring of 1919, Punjab was at a crossroads of history. The First World War was over, and soldiers were returning to discover an India more impoverished and less free than it was when they left. News of that tumultuous event, the Russian Revolution, had fired the imagination of thousands of young people. Memories of the failed Punjab ghadar (revolt) of 1914-1915, led by Sikh emigrants to North America who returned to India embittered by racial discrimination, were fresh. The trial and martyrdom of the Ghadar Party leadership in the Lahore Conspiracy trial, and the internment of some 1,500 of the emigrants in India, proved an abiding symbol for a younger generation of radicals. News of young Muslim Mohajirs who had left to fight for the restoration of the Turkish Caliphate but ended up struggling in the ranks of the Red Army during the defence of Kirke, also trickled in. In Punjab, the doubling of prices of wheat, rice and bajra, and the tripling of salt prices fuelled discontent, particularly among artisans and peasants.

The Congress’ anti-Rowlatt Act agitation exploded on this landscape. The laws sought to grant 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. Pan-India reaction was furious, and the Congress’ call for non-violent protest was widely endorsed.

By April 6, the anti-Rowlatt satyagraha was at its peak in Punjab. “Practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets,” historian Hari Singh has recorded. “The immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000.” In Amritsar, over 5,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. By April 9, Ram Navami day, traditionally riot-prone, a new spirit seemed to be in the air. Hindu and Muslim protesters drank water from the same glass. British authority appeared to be collapsing. “The Khan Bahadurs and Rai Sahibs are dead,” Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving wrote, explaining his lack of control over events, “and are not fresh corpses at that.”

ON April 10, 1919, the Empire tried to hit back. Two key Punjab Congress leaders, the Cambridge-educated allopath Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and his homeopath colleague Dr. Satyapal, were deported to the Kangra Valley. News of Gandhiji’s arrest the previous day at Palwal soon reached Amritsar. The city exploded. Over 15,000 people gathered at the Carriage Bridge and demanded to know the whereabouts of Satyapal and Kitchlew. Although lawyers Gurdial Salaria and Maqbool Mohammad tried to move the crowd away towards the Telegraph House, Miles Irving ordered a firing. Maqbool Mohammad later deposed to an inquiry committee set up by the Congress that between 20 and 25 people were killed or injured. The enraged crowd, armed with lathis, turned on British officials. Four British residents were killed and two were seriously injured; one, missionary Marcella Sherwood, was left for dead. Government property was burned and looted, with persons from the Katra Kanhaiya red light area and members of the Pherna and Safeda communities (“criminal tribes”, in colonial nomenclature) joining the revolt.

When Brigadier General Dyer arrived in Amritsar from Jalandhar at 9 p.m. the next day, his fellow British residents had convinced themselves that the events of 1857 were about to repeat themselves. Irving had called Maqbool Mohammad and asked him to inform the city that it was under military occupation. In Lahore, the uprising had yet to subside. The Danda Fauj (stick-army) of impoverished Muslim artisans led by Chanan Din marched through the streets with sticks and toy guns, declaring their loyalty to the Amir of Afghanistan and the German Kaiser. Crowds of students proclaimed the death of King George, while rumours were spread that Indian troops had mutinied in the Lahore cantonment. More dangerously for the Raj, the 4,000 Indian railway employees in Lahore went on strike. Even in rural Kasur, which had earned the wrath of Amritsar and Lahore by failing to join the hartal of April 6, huge demonstrations were held. “This is our last chance,” local leader Nadir Ali Shah told the gathering. “We must remove the knife around our throat.”

On the morning of April 13, Baisakhi day, 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 p.m. at Jallianwala Bagh. By afternoon, a peace gathering of over 20,000 people was in place, hearing a succession of speeches condemning the Rowlatt Act and the recent arrests and firings. (Many of those who had gathered at the maidan, however, were villagers, who were on a visit to Amritsar on the occasion of the Baisakhi fair, and were probably unaware of the morning’s drama.)

No effort, Dyer later admitted, had been made to prevent the gathering from taking place, a fact which, coupled with rally organiser Hans Raj’s somewhat murky background, led some contemporary observers, including Madan Mohan Malaviya, to speculate that the dusty maidan had been deliberately chosen as a killing field. An aircraft briefly hovered overhead as five speeches were completed before Dyer arrived at Jallianwala Bagh, along with two young officers, Briggs and Anderson, 50 Indian and British riflemen, 40 Gurkhas, and two armoured cars. The armoured cars were left on the road outside the maidan, for the sole entrance was too narrow to accommodate them.

A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds were fired into the crowd. Congress leader Durga Das at first believed the shots were fired into the air, but soon realised bodies were falling all around him. No warning was given to disperse before Dyer opened fire. Many died when they jumped into the well at the left-hand side of the maidan, only to be crushed by others who desperately dived on top of them. The wounded cried for help, but there was no aid at hand. “I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed,” Dyer told the official Lord William Hunter Committee of Inquiry set up to probe the violence, “and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action.” “It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd,” he added, “but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

The following exchange took place at the Hunter Committee hearings:

Excuse my putting it that way, General, but was it not a resort to what has been called “frightfulness” for the benefit of the Punjab district (sic.) as a whole?

I don’t think so. I think it was a horrible duty for me to perform. It was a merciful act that I had given them the chance to disperse (that is, in the morning). The responsibility was very great. I had to make up my mind that if I fired, I must fire well and strong so that it would have its full effect.

And you did not open fire with the machine guns simply by the accident of the armoured cars not being able to get in?

I have answered you. I have said that if they had been there, the possibility is that I would have opened fire with them.

You had no information that even a single individual of the mob had a firearm?

No, they were going to do it with lathis. I know there were thousands of lathis in the railway station and they were going to be their arms.

TO this day, no one knows how many died. The Punjab Government first asserted that 291 people were killed, but this figure was promptly challenged by the Allahabad-based Sewa Samity, which produced a list of 500 verified deaths, based partly on its work in aiding the injured and cremating bodies. An enquiry by Amritsar Deputy Commissioner F.H. Burton later raised the official toll to 379, broadly accepting the Sewa Samiti list but deducting 44 unknown rural bodies cremated by the organisation, and some alleged inaccuracies. “It is interesting to note,” the Report of the Commissioners Appointed by the Punjab Sub-Committee of the Indian National Congress argued, “that by the Government’s own showing, they did not commence investigations before the 20th August, that is, four months after the tragedy”. “The exact figure”, the report concluded, “will never be known, but after careful investigation, we consider that Lala Girdhari Lal’s computation of 1,000 is by no means an exaggerated calculation.” It is not impossible that the figure could have been higher, given the turmoil and poor communications of the time.

Jallianwala Bagh was only the beginning of a prolonged phase of appalling brutality. In Gujranwala town, an attempt to provoke a communal riot on April 14 by hanging up the leg of a pig and a dead calf came to nothing: the police were held responsible, and fighting followed. News of the Jallianwala Bagh killings reached the town, leading students and migrant labourers from Kashmir to set ablaze the Kachi bridge, the tehsil headquarters, the dak bungalow, the local courts, and the railway station. Spontaneous protests broke out in rural tracts such as Sheikhpura, Sangla and Chuharkhana. The local authorities asked for military help, and since the bridges to the town were destroyed, airplanes were used to put down the rebellion. Aircraft from Lahore dropped three bombs on protesting crowds on April 14 and 15, following it up with machine-gun fire. Armoured trains were used to fire at demonstrators in Kasur. The official death toll, just 11 in the Gujranwala bombing and strafing, for example, appears laughable. A total of 334 people were reported killed in the uprising.

On April 18, an unhappy Gandhiji called off the satyagraha, alarmed by growing violence. Colonial reprisals began. From April 19 to 24, 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. Martial Law Order 7 even mandated that in the presence of Europeans Indians must dismount, and “salute with their right hand respectfully.”

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. In Gujranwala, those arrested for the disturbances were forced to work as punkha-pullers (to operate a hand-operated fanning device) for soldiers. At Kasur, the six largest school students were whipped simply for their size. Throughout Punjab, infringements of the salaam order were punished by whipping and beatings. 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.

The Hunter Committee split down the middle, with its three Indian members, Jagat Narayan, C.H. Setalvad and Sultan Ahmad, authoring a dissent. The majority condemned Dyer, arguing that in “continuing firing as long as he did, it appears to us that General Dyer committed a grave error,” but broadly endorsed other acts of violent repression, even failing to indict the pilots of the aircraft used at Gujranwala. The dissenting members, understandably, argued that the martial law regime’s use of force was wholly unjustified. “General Dyer thought he had crushed the rebellion and Sir Michael O’Dwyer was of the same view,” they wrote, “(but) there was no rebellion which required to be crushed.”

Dyer was relieved of active service as a consequence of the committee’s findings, but the House of Lords later approved his actions, passing a resolution deploring “the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer.” Colonial India rose to his support, collecting oe 263,174.10 for his retirement. The clergy of the Golden Temple, led by Arur Singh, honoured the massacring general by declaring him a Sikh, on condition that he renounce one cigarette a year.

In an objective sense, Dyer ensured the end of the Raj. “Think what this means,” an appalled Josiah Wedgwood told the House of Commons. “You will have a shrine erected there and every year there will be processions of Indians visiting the tombs of the martyrs and Englishmen will go there and stand bare headed before it.” Punjab’s politics of resistance was to be shaped by the events of 1919. The young Bhagat Singh, just 11 at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, visited the blood-soaked maidan, and his anger was to fuel his politics in years to come. For Bhagat Singh’s Bharat Naujawan Sabha, the massacre was to provide a symbol that would help negate the morass of apathy to which the end of the non-cooperation movement led.

A spectrum of Left groups, as well as radical elements in the Congress, were to lay claim to the heritage of the 1919 uprising. Today, as the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance seeks to appropriate the legacies of Shaheed Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh, reclaiming the real meaning of that struggle has never been more important.

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