Jalianwala Bagh Massacre - April 1919

According to Dr. R. C Majumdar, year 1919 was a momentous year in the history of India. It was remarkable for the four outstanding events -

1. Rowlatt Bill and its consequences, the reign of military terror in Punjab culminating in the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre that killed thousands of innocent Indians

2. Rise of Mohandas Gandhi as the supreme political leader in India, displacing Tilak

3. Montegu Chelmsford Reforms and consequent passage of Government of India Act

4. Rise of Pan Islamism in Indian politics and its open support by Gandhiji and Congress

Lord Chelmsford appointed a committee headed by Justice Rowlatt of UK, and consisted of four other members of which two were Indians. The recommendations were to replace the Defence of India Act in order to confront the revolutionary movements more sternly. The committee recommended to curb the freedom of people in a drastic manner. Two bills were prepared - 1) speedy trial of offenses by a Supreme Court, and the decision could not be appealed against 2) executive powers to search and arrest a suspected person without warrant and keep him in confinement in a manner to be decided by the Government.

The Bill was opposed by the Indians of all hue for natural reasons as it seriously curtailed the freedom and gave almost superhuman power to the people and Governments to carry out ruthless oppressions on flimsiest grounds.

The Rowlatt bill sought to curb the revolutionary activities using brute force and took away almost all legal rights from the ordinary citizen being prosecuted. This was opposed throughout the country. This act brought in its wake a new leader, Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned from South Africa and led the peasant movements in Kheda and Champaran districts in a new style which he called as Satyagraha. He was mentored by Gokhale whom he regarded as his political guru. Gandhi had opposed the idea of Home Rule during war time and had committed his support to the British Government in their war effort, in anticipation for some concession for India in the post world war scenario. He now declared satyagraha against the Rowlatt bill. Gandhi had proposed for a general hartal or cessation of work on April 6. His appeal had a great response all over India. It started in Delhi on March 30. Gandhi was invited to Lahore and Amritsar. Gandhi was prohibited from entering Punjab province and he was sent back by police escort on 10th April. In Delhi there were police firings and several people were killed. English doctors and nurses refused to treat the "rebels", according to the testimony of Swami Sraddhanand. Gurkha troops were firing indiscriminately at people and when Sraddhanand confronted them they had the insolence to threaten him of tearing him apart. Disturbances broke out in Bombay and Ahmedabad. In Bombay mounted police resorted to severe lathi charge on a crowd and badly mauled many people in Gandhi's presence. In Ahmedabad the mill workers had resorted to violent protest as there was rumour of Gandhi's arrest. Gandhi declared a three day fast. He saw the conditions in Nadiad and it dawned upon him that people were unfit for Satyagraha. He therefore suspended satyagraha on account of the violent acts of public and termed his action to launch a civil disobedience a "Himalayan Miscalculation".

Disturbances had broken out in Lahore where police fired on a crowd of students. Police also fired on a ten to fifteen thousand strong crowd in Lahari gate, killing several people. On 11th April a meeting of 30,000 people took place in Badshahi mosque and passed off peacefully until police resorted to firing that killed many including a student named Lala Khusiram. Troubles started in Gujranwala and Kasur.

 

In Punjab Lt. Governor Michael O'Dwyer, who had been ruthless throughout his tenure, gagging vernacular press, interning people without proper charges against them, collecting funds forcefully and recruiting people for the army, had caused much popular resentment. Agitation had broken out in Lahore over Gandhi's perceived arrest and one student was killed. In Amritsar, two popular leaders Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlu were arrested and faced deportation. A spontaneous hartal was observed as it was the Baisakhi day and peasants had come from far off places to take part in the celebrations. Police fired indiscriminately on a peaceful crowd in the Hall Gate Bridge who had mainly gathered for the Baisakhi festival. People burst into protests. Then some unruly elements created mayhem by murdering Europeans and attacking Government institutions. Brigadier General Dyer took charge on 11th April and a defacto Martial Law was imposed. He issued a proclamation prohibiting all meetings and gatherings. On 12th April a public meeting was to be held in Jaliwanwala Bagh. Dyer ordered his troops to fire on the unarmed crowd without warning. The troops fired on the crowd till their ammunition was exhausted. Thousands including many women and children were killed in one of the worst, deliberate massacres perpetrated by the British raj, though the official figures are much less at 379. At least one Britisher, C. F. Andrews, described Dyer’s act as “a cold and calculated massacre”, and “an unspeakable disgrace, indefensible, unpardonable, inexcusable." Dyer did not even bother about the wounded who were left to die. Dyer did not stop at that. His Martial Law would enable him to cut off water and electricity supply, would flog anybody and would order people to crawl on their belly. Dyer's purpose was to create terror in the heart of Punjab and he would have spilled more blood if only he could bring his machine guns, which he could not on account of the narrow alleys. According to the eye witnesses the firing was directed to the small gates through which people were running out. Many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowd. Even those who lay flat on the ground were shot. No arrangements were made by the authorities to look after the dead or the wounded. 

Writes Dr. R. C Majumdar, "The most significant aspect of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy was the very frank statement of Dyer. He not only admitted all the gruesome facts but almost boasted of his achievement and sought to justify it. "To him it was a merciful act to fire without warning on an inoffensive crowd because it might have made fun of him had he refrained from doing so." He admits that he could have dispersed it without firing but that would have been derogatory to his dignity as a defender of law and order.....It was none of his business, he tells us, to look after the dead or wounded."

The Government of India and a section of the British people, both in India and England, shamefully more British women than men, endorsed his action and rewarded him for it. 

Martial Law was enacted on 15th April in Amritsar and in several districts of Punjab. As per the report of the Hunter Commission, there was no justification for introducing Martial Law to control the situation. 

 

Dyer had his worthy colleague in Doveton of Kasur who committed almost the same atrocities on people. He forced people touch the ground with their foreheads, get whitewashed and lime washed and stand in sun, get don on four and draw lines with their noses and so on. More than hundred innocent people were put up in a cage without any roof and were exposed to blazing hot sun and were not allowed to move even for responding to their nature's call.  Students, esp. the schoolboys were whipped and lashed at will. Many villages were raided and arrests made at night. People were flogged in public after being stripped naked. 

 

Other military officers taking charges elsewhere like Lyallpur and Lahore, Col. O Brien and Col. Johnson followed the hallowed footsteps or went further ahead in their efforts to suppress rebellions. Students were asked to walk for more than nineteen miles in hot sun. People were forced to salute to the officers and were whipped and fined for disobeying. Col. O' Brien huddled together a large no. of people on trucks and forced them to march in blazing sun, half naked. Many were kept imprisoned in prisons and gaols without trials. They were even refused to respond to the calls of nature. Hindus and Muslims were chained together. When the Martial Law was about to lapse Col. O' Brian rushed through a large no of cases whom he convicted without any fair trial.  Bombs were dropped on the crowd from aeroplanes and 255 rounds of machine guns were fired in some places of Punjab like Gujranwala. Writes Dr. Majumdar, "Lt. Dodkins, R. A. F., machine-gunned twenty peaceful peasants working in the field. He dropped a bomb on another party in front of a house, simply because a man was addressing them. The mentality of these officers, who can only be regarded as degraded specimens of humanity of brutish nature, may be construed from the following report of Carberry’s evidence: ”Major Carberry, R. A. F., bombed a party of people because he thought they were rioters. The crowd was running away and he fired to disperse them. As the crowd dispersed, he fired machine gun into the village itself."

For eight months the Government of India tried hush up the horrible atrocities perpetrated in the Punjab. But the news of the terrible events slowly percolated to other parts of India and a wave of horror and indignation swept the country from one end to the other. The great poet Rabindranath Tagore relinquished his Knighthood as a measure of protest and wrote a strong but dignified letter to the Viceroy, “giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen surprised into a dumb anguish of terror.”

Lala Lajpat Rai in his address in the Indian National Congress in 1920 gave a vivid account of the outrages committed. They included, 1) how a blind man was made to crawl and was repeatedly kicked 2) How young boys were flogged in public till they lost consciousness and the flogging resumed after they were brought back to senses 3) How an invalid woman along with her children were forced to take shelter in servant's quarter as her husband was charged without any trial 4) How 25 people were all locked up in a small room without any permission to move out for nature's call, for several weeks 5) Women were treated with extreme indignity and abuses were showered at them 

The Government of India introduced a Bill of Indemnity for protecting the Civil and Military officials of Punjab from the consequences of their actions. Pandit Madan Mohan Malavya raised nine two questions. In response the Government constituted the Hunter Committee comprised of a body of British bootlicking Indians like Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, Sultan Ahmad, Pandit Jagat Narain, and a few Englishmen, who were representatives of the Indian military and civil services. Congress had also formed its own investigative committee with Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Chittaranjan Das, Fazlul Haq and Abbas Tayebji. Hunter Committee refused to accede to the requests made by Congress Committee. Congress Committee findings were that the 1) Mob excesses were wrong but were under the gravest provocation by O' Dwyer  2) There was no evidence of any organized revolution and so Martial Law was unjustified  3) Nearly twelve hundred lives were lost and the excesses committed under the Martial Law were inhuman 4) Jalianwalla Bagh massacre was a calculated piece of inhumanity and unparalleled for its ferocity

 

 The Hunter Committee report was predictably meant for whitewashing the crimes. The Indian bootlickers in their minority report towed their colonial masters' lines. They agreed that a) Satyagraha was mainly responsible for the outbreak of the violence b) The police and the military were justified in firing upon the mob. The Dyer's only fault was that he fired without warning , but his lapses were simply  "errors of judgement". He could not be blamed for leaving the wounded unattended c) Exonerated Government of India from all blames. The majority report of the British only differed from the minority report of the Indians on the question of imposition of Martial law and the punishments meted out under it.

A few other Englishmen condemned the atrocities in the strongest terms. Mr. Hyndman compared the atrocities to the excesses committed by Germany in Belgium and France. The Government of Britain only pronounced a minor censure on Dyer but absolved O' Dwyer and Chelmsford. Dyer was acclaimed as a Hero by the House of Lords and by British public in general and a subscription was raised for him. In India the Europeans regarded Dyer as the saviour of the British Empire. English ladies started a Dyer appreciation fund in Mussouri. Europeans in Lahore felicitated Col. Johnson and O' Dwer had approved Dyer's conduct at Jallianwalla Bagh. Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, by supporting this outrage, "the British had lost all moral claim and prestige to rule over India."