April 13, 2019 marks the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, counted as one of the bloodiest acts of oppression ever committed by the British Empire. A 100 years is a long time to forget — new events happen, often painting a different colour on the memories of individuals, willing them to forget the past and focus on the present. But this did not happen with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
It is an event that is ingrained in the memory of every Indian since the day it happened. Almost exactly a hundred years ago, British troops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, opened fire on a crowd of at least 10,000 men, women and children, who had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh—a park almost completely enclosed with walls and only one exit. According to the British government, 379 people were killed and 1200 were wounded. However, the numbers are said to be much higher according to the locals and many organisations.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre shocked the entire nation and united the country in its grief and anger against the British Empire. It became a turning point and had a profound effect on the people of the country who started demanding nothing less than the full independence from the British rule.
What happened on 13 April 1919
During World War I, there were a number of repressive powers that were approved by the British government. When the war ended, there was growing unrest among the people of the country — wounded and dead soldiers, inflation and taxation. This led to the passing of “the Rowlatt Act”, which came into effect in March 1919 and legalised arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial and control of the press.
This led to an eruption of protests throughout the country, especially in Bengal and Punjab where prominent Congress leaders like Dr Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew were arrested. Widespread demonstrations were conducted in parts of Punjab that saw the disruption of telegraphs and communication system and deaths of civilians as well as government officials. Most of Punjab was placed under the Martial Law and public gatherings were prohibited.
On April 13, 1919, more than 10,000 people had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, to protest against the British Empire and to celebrate Baisakhi, one of the most important festivals of Sikhs. Gen. Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was alerted on the meeting, and he arrived there with armed troops and sealed off the exit. According to various accounts, the unannounced firing on the civilians continued for 10 minutes till the ammunition was exhausted. Many people jumped in a well inside the park to save themselves from the bullets.
After the firing ceased, the troops withdrew from the location immediately, and the wounded and the dead were left behind, who could not be taken to hospital because of the curfew. Though the official figures claim that 379 people were killed, many organizations, including the Indian National Congress and an independent fact-finding team led by Mahatma Gandhi himself, the total number of dead men, women and children crossed 1,000.
What happened after Jallianwala Bagh massacre
What happened at the Jallianwala Bagh on the Baisakhi say left the entire country shocked. The death toll made it the bloodiest attack on the Indian freedom struggle by the British Empire. All prominent Indian leaders began asking for “complete independence” and Mahatma Gandhi organised his first campaign, “the noncooperation movement”. Nobel laureate and renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood and wrote in his letter to Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India: “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.”
What happened to General Dyer after Jallianwala Bagh
An investigation was carried out and General Dyer was ordered to resign from the military. However, General Dyer was given a sword with the motto, “Saviour of the Punjab”.
Jallianwala Bagh: 100 years on
A hundred years have passed since the fateful day, but the scars remain fresh for India, especially for the people in Punjab. In February this year, the state passed a resolution to seek an apology from the Government of Britain for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to mark the centenary.
In 1997, Britain had for the first time acknowledged the massacre. Queen Elizabeth II, during her tour of India and Pakistan to mark 50 years of their Independence, visited Jallianwala Bagh to pay respects to the victims of the massacre.
In her address in Delhi a day before the visit, she had said, “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past —Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
The British Queen did not offer an apology.
Years later, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron too visited Jallianwala Bagh. He described the massacre as a “deeply shameful event in British history”. Cameron, too, did not apologise.
This year, the British Parliament saw debates on the issue and several of its members were of the view that it was high time Britain offered a formal apology. On 9 April, Conservative Party MP Bob Blackman tabled a fresh debate and the members at Westminster Hall of the Parliament complex debated the issue of a formal apology to mark centenary of the tragic incident.
“General Dyer was vigorously defended by – I say this with shame – the Conservative party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise,” Blackman said.
“As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April 1919, it is clear that there needs to be a formal apology from the United Kingdom government that accepts and acknowledges their part in the massacre,” said Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill, with fellow Labour MP adding: “This is the right time for the (British) Prime Minister to publicly apologise.”
On 10 April, British PM Theresa May issued a statement: “The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh of 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history. As Her Majesty the Queen (Elizabeth II) said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, it is a distressing example of our past history with India.”
She added: “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused. I am pleased that today the UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora make an enormous contribution to British society and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish.”
Britain once again stopped short of tendering a full apology.