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A shameful episode in British colonial history

STEVEN WALKER looks back 100 years to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

THE Peterloo Massacre was recently in the news 200 years after the Establishment used the police and army to attack a peaceful protest to demand workers’ representation in Parliament. 

The 15th Hussars were summoned by the magistrate, Mr Hulton, to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn and in the ensuing confusion 15 people were killed and 400-700 were injured. But another big anniversary this year is likely to receive less attention.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on April 13 1919 when troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired rifles into a crowd of Indians, who had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab. 

The civilians had assembled for a festival known as Baisakhi. Baisakhi marks the Sikh new year and commemorates the formation of Khalsapanth of warriors under Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. 

It is additionally a spring harvest festival for the Sikhs. It is also stated that it marks peaceful protest to condemn the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. 

Raja Ram has argued, however, that the proclamation was ineffective, the crowd formed in deliberate defiance and the event signals a beginning of Indian nationalism. 

On Sunday April 13 1919, Dyer was convinced of a major insurrection and he banned all meetings, however this notice was not widely disseminated. 

That was the day of Baisakhi, the main Sikh festival, and many villagers had gathered in the Bagh. On hearing that a meeting had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer went with Sikh, Gurkha, Baluchi, Rajput troops from 2nd-9th Gurkhas, who on Dyer’s orders fired on the crowd for about 10 minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted. 

Dyer stated that approximately 1,650 rounds had been fired, a number apparently derived by counting empty cartridge cases picked up by the troops. Official British Indian sources gave a figure of 379 identified dead, with approximately 1,100 wounded. 

This figure was given by Dyer himself in the letter he wrote to the British Parliament. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead. 

This “brutality stunned the entire nation,” resulting in a “wrenching loss of faith” of the general public in the intentions of Britain. 

The ineffective inquiry and the initial accolades for Dyer by the House of Lords fuelled widespread anger, later leading to the Non-co-operation Movement of 1920-22. 

Dyer was initially lauded by conservative forces in the empire, but in July 1920 he was censured and forced to retire by the House of Commons. 

He became a celebrated hero in Britain among most of the people connected to the British Raj, for example, the House of Lords, but unpopular in the House of Commons, which voted against Dyer as a colonel. 

He was disciplined by being removed from his appointment, was passed over for promotion and was prohibited from further employment in India. 

This incident shocked Rabindranath Tagore (the first Asian Nobel laureate) to such extent that he stated while refusing his knighthood that “such mass murderers aren’t worthy of giving any title to anyone.” 

Some historians have argued that the massacre caused a re-evaluation of the army’s role, in which the new policy became minimum force, however, later British actions during the Mau Mau insurgencies in Kenya, Bloody Sunday in Belfast and atrocities committed by the army in Iraq suggest otherwise. 

On March 13 1940, at Caxton Hall in London, Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist from Sunam who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and had himself been wounded, shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, who had approved Dyer’s action and was believed to have been the main planner. 

There are long-standing demands in India that Britain should apologise for the massacre. Winston Churchill, on July 8 1920, urged the House of Commons to punish Dyer. 

Churchill succeeded in persuading the House to forcibly retire Dyer, but Churchill would have preferred to have seen the colonel disciplined. 

In February 2013 David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit the site. He laid a wreath at the memorial, and described the Amritsar massacre as “a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous. We must never forget what happened here and we must ensure that the UK stands up for the right of peaceful protests.” 

Cameron did not deliver an official apology, which was criticised by some commentators. Writing in the Telegraph, Sankarshan Thakur wrote: “Over nearly a century now British protagonists have approached the 1919 massacre ground of Jallianwala Bagh thumbing the thesaurus for an appropriate word to pick. ‘Sorry’ has not been among them.”


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