The Immortal Martyrs of Jallianwal Bagh

April 13 is a dark day in India’s colonial history. This year, it marks the 100th anniversary of the brutal Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on thousands of unarmed Indians, who had peacefully congregated in the Bagh on Baisakhi day as a mark of peaceful protest against the recent arrests of Gandhi and other leaders.

And to show their resentment towards the repressive new laws the Government was enacting in India, which would allow arrests and convictions without warrants and trials

The remarkably well-researched book “Jallianwala Bagh 1919: The Real Story” by Kishwar Desai brings out shocking and heart rending findings. Her book has enough evidence to prove that the massacre and subsequent imposition of martial law in Punjab, with its harsh and sadistic punishments, were not just random acts of madness on the part of a tyrannical and whimsical army officer, General Dyer, but part of a larger programme to humiliate, crush and punish the citizens of Punjab for participating in Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement and agitating against the Rowlatt Acts.

The then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O Dwyer was determined to teach his citizens a ‘moral lesson’, and his administration was given a carte blanche to do as they pleased with the natives.

On the 10th of April 1919, Amritsar witnessed riots which resulted in the killing of five Europeans, a ‘blasphemous act’ in the eyes of the administration which clearly didn’t care that these unfortunate deaths were in retaliation to the 20 unarmed Indian protestors who had been killed in police firing the same morning, when the people of Amritsar had taken to the streets to protest against the arrests of Gandhi, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew.

What alarmed O Dwyer and his officials even more was the growing unity amongst Hindus and Muslims, who were now bound together by a common cause. In fact, for the first time both communities were gathering together in Mosques and Hindus were delivering speeches at these gatherings, such as at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.

What’s more, the Muslims were participating in Hindu festivals like Ram Naumi. The Punjab government felt extremely threatened by this and had to act fast.

The people of Punjab had to be put in their place. Lieutenant Governor O Dwyer was retiring soon and he couldn’t leave office on a weak note, where the natives had the upper hand.

Drastic measures were needed and the right man for the job was Brigadier General, Reginald Dyer who was brought in from Jalandhar, where he was commanding a division at the time. Dyer arrived in Amritsar on the night of the 11th and proceeded to unleash his reign of terror.

Dyer issued a proclamation forbidding public gatherings on the morning of the 13th of April. However, it is doubtful whether sufficient announcements were made in order to inform all sections of society about this order. Moreover, this proclamation wasn’t even posted at the entrance of Jallianwala Bagh, which was a popular venue for most public gatherings in Amritsar.

A meeting had been advertised for 4:30 pm that day and the authorities were well aware of it. However, nothing was done to stop this gathering. All this points to the fact that the rulers of Punjab wanted a large crowd to defy the proclamation and gather there so that they could be taught a cruel lesson.

Shortly after the meeting commenced at 4:30, Dyer, accompanied by 25 Gurkhas and 25 Baluchis, armed with rifles, made their way to Jallianwala Bagh through a narrow road, and without any warning opened fire on the 5000 strong, unarmed crowd who had gathered there to listen to a few prominent citizens of Amritsar voice their concerns about the growing repressiveness of the regime in Punjab, and to also celebrate the festival of Baisakhi.

There were very few exits and they were very narrow. People stumbled upon each other as they tried to make their way out but the bullets rained on them relentlessly. In fact the firing was aimed at the exits so as to cause maximum damage.

Even though the crowd began to disperse, the bullets didn’t stop for at least 10 minutes. People lying down were also fired upon. Many young boys who had accompanied their fathers to the meeting, and were busy playing on one side of the open ground were also killed.

What’s worse is that a curfew was imposed on Amritsar and people couldn’t leave home after 8 pm, which meant that relatives could not go and search for their near and dear at Jallianwala Bagh.

The dead bodies lay rotting and the wounded bled to death, with no one to give them even a sip of water through the night. Many who escaped died on their way home and several died over the next few days, as they had no access to medical help.

The Government put the toll at about 300, however the Indian National Congress estimated the casualties to be closer to 2000 dead and many more injured. Indian lives didn’t matter and the Punjab Government wasn’t interested in compiling a detailed list of victims.

Fast forward to a 100 years later. Yesterday, British PM Theresa May expressed “deep regret” for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. Why is it so hard for the British Government to offer us a sincere and straightforward apology? She referred to it as a “Shameful scar on British Indian history”. Hundreds of innocent people killed in cold blood is just a scar! Even Churchill had referred to it as a “monstrous event”, and Edwin Montague, the then secretary of State for India had said in the House of Commons during the hearing of Dyer’s case, “are you going to keep your hold on India by terrorism, racial humiliation, subordination and frightfulness?”

This is no surprise. Theresa May is the leader of the Conservative party, and back in 1920 it was the conservatives who praised Dyer’s actions in Amritsar and elevated him to the status of a hero.

The passage of 100 years does not diminish the monumental tragedy. A century later in India, we are on the threshold of a general election, and we don’t need the British to divide and rule us. In 1919, Ram Naumi was celebrated amidst great fanfare with Muslim participation. Now Lord Ram is invoked for political gains in a very different way.

As tragic as Jallianwala Bagh was, we can learn a lot from our Indian leaders of that era. May the victims of that massacre rest in peace. Their contribution to our freedom struggle should never be forgotten.

(The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and musician, MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science; Former correspondent with NDTV and Business India Magazine)