IN THE AFTERMATH OF WORLD WAR I, there was social unrest in India. Millions of Indian soldiers and labourers had served in the British army. High casualty rates, increasing inflation, heavy taxation and the disruption of trade escalated human suffering in India. There was an explosion of trade union militancy with strikes in urban centres. Fearing rebellion, the colonial authorities were on edge and prepared to use military force.
Having sacrificed much in the war effort, Indians had high expectation for self-rule. In 1918, the Montague- Chelmsford reforms introduced limited provincial self-government with a limited franchise. However these were accompanied by the Rowlatt Act, a draconian law enacted in March 1919, giving the police powers to search premises, arrest without warrant and detain individuals indefinitely without trial by jury, using convictions by special courts.
Widespread protests and strikes erupted across the country. In Amritsar, when the news broke on 10th April that two popular anti-colonial leaders, Dr Satya Paul and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, had been arrested and deported, a large crowd took to the streets and the troops opened fire killing several people. In reaction to this, an outraged crowd attacked British property killing five Britons. On 11th April, a female missionary teacher was badly beaten up by a mob while cycling through the narrow Kucha Kurrichhan street. She was rescued by the parents of her schoolchildren and taken safely to the British fort. Martial law was imposed across Punjab because of widescale disruption.
On 13th April, thousands of people, including families, visited the Golden Temple to celebrate Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year. By late afternoon, an estimated 20,000 people gathered in the Bagh and heard speeches denouncing the Rowlatt Act and demanding the release of the two leaders. As the meeting got under way, General Dyer entered the arena and lined up his 50 soldiers on the perimeter in firing positions and blocked the exit.
Without warning, he ordered the soldiers to fire into the gathering. Officials estimated that 329 people were killed, of whom 42 were children, and 1,200 injured. The Indian National Congress estimated that 1,000 died and 1,500 injured. The figures are still disputed. Many people died in stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well. The wounded were deliberately left uncared for without medical attention.
Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”, and he had “to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.” On 19th April, he sealed Kucha Kurrichhan street and imposed a 'crawling order' which required Indians to crawl on their bellies with bayonets at their back. He also instigated a regime of public flogging. He was unrepentant and showed no remorse.
Senior British officers applauded his massacre as the suppression of “another Indian Mutiny”. Overnight, Dyer became a hero to the British in India and back at home. The House of Lords exonerated him by passing a measure commending him. The Conservatives presented him with a jewelled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab". When Dyer was removed from his post in July 1920, the Morning Post appeal, under the title “The Man Who Saved India”, had raised a hefty sum on £26,000 (worth £1.3 million today) for him.
The Jallianwala massacre electrified Indian politics. The British reaction to the massacre hardened Indian attitudes. Gandhi soon decided to launch a campaign of non-co-operation. A whole generation of young revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh were radicalised. To avenge the massacre, Udham Singh, who had witnessed the carnage, shot dead the retired governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, at a meeting in Caxton Hall, London, on 13th March 1940. He was tried and hanged on 31st July 1940 at Pentonville prison. More than 20 years later, his bodily remains were taken back to India and interred at Jallianwala Bagh, which has been transformed into a memorial to the massacred.
There have been many calls that the British government must offer an official apology for the slaughter. Even if belated, such a move would assuage the bitterness felt by Indians for whom it is a recent memory. Regrettably most people in Britain have not heard about Jallianwala Bagh.
Churchill's assertion that this was an isolated and “monstrous” event still remains highly questionable. British authorities committed a multitude of massacres especially during the course of suppressing India’s 1857-1859 first War of Independence. Dyer was no 'rotten apple' in the barrel. British colonialism was based on white supremacy, institutionalised racism and pervasive violence.