History, Travel

Jallianwala Bagh

It’s April 13, 1919. It is the festival of Baisakhi, a harvest festival in Punjab celebrated by people of all faiths. You are perhaps a Sikh farmer from the hinterlands of Punjab and you have come to Amritsar to visit the Harmandar Sahib. Your visit to the holy site completed, you eat at the Langar (community kitchen) and then plan to head back home.  You overhear pilgrims discussing a peaceful demonstration being planned nearby at Jallianwala Bagh and you decide to stop there on your way home. This piece of land is privately owned and is bare, save for a few trees.  It will be planted with crops in the rainy season but now it is dry and used for gatherings.  This is also the playground for the neighborhood children and young boys are at play.

You are joined by about 20,000 of your compatriots – Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. This is a peaceful gathering to protest the arrest of Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlu and Dr. Satyapal, two prominent leaders who have been arrested by the British authorities and are accused of fomenting a rebellion. You have been living under the boot of the English occupation. World War 1 has just ended. Perhaps your brother, cousin or friend is in the army and has fought with distinction for Britain in Mesopotamia, Gallipoli or the trenches in France. Yet as he returns home after enduring untold horrors in his fight for the freedom of Britain, you both are still subjugated by your British colonists.  The Rowlatt act passed earlier in February that year has given the government powers to arrest and detain people without a trial.  There has been unrest in the streets. 

A plane flies overhead and the crowd gets a little nervous but it settles down as it flies away.  You wait patiently for the speeches to start.  As you listen to the speeches, you hear the sound of vehicles. The park where you have assembled is sunken and surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. Besides the main entrance, there are 4 or 5 narrow openings. As you listen to the speech, troops march in and take position. Little do you know that the main entrance which is barely wide enough for a vehicle to pass through is in fact blocked by an armored car and another usually used as an exit is closed and locked. There is a buzz in the crowd and you turn around wondering what is happening.  General Reginald Dyer, the acting military commander of Amritsar has announced at 9 am that day that there is a ban on processions and gatherings of more than 4 persons at a time. A curfew has been ordered starting at 8 pm that night. The order has been read out in different parts of the city. There is no radio, cable news, social media or cell phones to pass on the message.  You are in violation of the commander’s orders and he has decided to punish you.

A painting depicting the horrific scenes of that day

On seeing the soldiers some people start running towards the entrance hoping to escape. You are still unsure as the soldiers kneel and raise their guns. And then you hear a short, sharp order above the murmur of the crowd and the hail of bullets start raining on you. The crowd around you panics and you run helter-skelter. Perhaps the locals know of the other exits and they run towards them and you follow. The direction of fire changes and is directed towards the densest section of the crowds. Panicked people then jump into an open well to escape the hail of bullets. You trip over the fallen bodies of your countrymen, you are in danger of being trampled if you lie down. You pick yourself and run blindly in terror. If your family was with you, you fear for them but in the melee, you cannot locate them.

Surrounding buildings prevented any means of escape

The 10 to 15-minute reign of terror seems like an eternity. If you were lucky, you survived. Perhaps you escaped death but were hurt grievously. People from neighboring houses have come over to help. But you have no succor or respite. The 8 pm curfew means that there is no medical help and you cannot go out. People have managed to leave the garden but the injured and the dead are still there and you spend a ghastly night in pain. The painful cries of the wounded and the wails of the survivors who have lost their loved ones die down as the night gets darker. You were a peaceful protester and your protest was met with the most violent response possible.

Every Indian knows about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It is taught in history textbooks. Even at a young age, while in school, we were keenly aware that among all the evils of colonial rule, this had to rank somewhere near the top.  On my recent trip to Amritsar, Jallianwala Bagh was our first stop. We entered through the narrow gateway and entered the garden. There were a fair number of visitors. The ground has been filled in and the level raised but the area is still the same. It is still hemmed in by buildings and tall walls.

The narrow entrance to the Bagh

A small museum houses paintings of the central characters involved with the massacre and a description of the events of that tragic day. It is a modest museum and it is heart-rending to read the accounts of that day. There is the story of Ratan Devi whose husband Chhaju Bhagat was killed in the massacre. She was not at the gathering but rushed there when she heard the shots being fired. She searched frantically till she found her husband who had been killed. She spent the night at his side, begging people for help to move his body to a dry place. The ground was wet with blood. She was able to move him to a wooden platform which was dry. She found a bamboo stick to keep away the dogs. A twelve-year-old boy who was shot begged her not to leave him alone. She spent the night at the side of her husband. She remembers the night as being silent save only for the sounds of the barking of dogs and braying of donkeys

Ratan Devi whose husband was killed in the firing

Today, Jallianwala Bagh has been preserved as a national monument.  A new sculpture in marble has been installed outside the complex.  A monolith, the various sculpted faces represent the victims and their names are carved into the pedestal.  Inside the complex, bullet holes that pockmark the walls are still preserved and highlighted.  Bullets are still probably lodged in the walls. The well where 120 bodies of drowned victims were recovered is now called the Martyr’s well and is enclosed. One can still peer down into the well which is now dry.

A view of the complex

Rabindranath Tagore, India’s poet laureate, renounced his knighthood and condemned the massacre in a letter to the viceroy. The text of his letter is displayed in the museum. A memorial in the shape of a flame and designed by the American architect Benjamin Polk was inaugurated by the first president of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad in 1961.  Another monument featuring an eternal flame (Amar Jyothi) was added later and it burns constantly in memory of the victims.

Bullet Holes


In keeping with the somber nature of the place, the visitors were quiet and spoke in hushed tones. Families sat around in circles talking softly to each other.  At the exit, there is another museum with period photographs and letters. These include pictures of the infamous “Crawling Order”. A British female missionary had been assaulted in the riots on 10th April and people who lived on the street or had to pass through it were forced to crawl on their stomachs for a period of a week starting on April 19th. Houses did not have rear entrances, so if you had to step out of your house, it had to be on your stomach. Armed policemen looked down disdainfully at you, daring you to try their patience. Again, on the orders of General Dyer.

A section of the wall pockmarked with bullets

It took over a couple of months to calculate the toll. The official toll according to the British authorities was 379 killed and about 1000 wounded. However, various sources put the death toll closer to 1000 killed and a higher number wounded. A six-week-old baby was the youngest victim. This despicable act was a turning point in India’s freedom struggle. Moderates who had thought that a power-sharing agreement with Britain was possible, changed their minds. It unified the country and Gandhi started his Non-Cooperation movement. Reactions in Britain were mixed. The House of Lords commended General Dyer and presented him with a sword with an inscription that read “Savior of the Punjab”. When he faced an inquiry, his supporters collected a substantial amount for him. He had an admirer in Rudyard Kipling who called him “the man who saved India”.

Udham Singh, a patriot

Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who had authorized the operation was assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940 in London.  Udham Singh was tried and executed the same year.  The man who took the lives of close to a 1000 people escaped with a discharge from the army and a tidy sum to retire.  Incidentally, a statue of Udham Singh was inaugurated earlier this month in Amritsar. The Hunter Commission constituted to investigate the tragedy concluded that General Dyer had overreacted though it stopped short of outright censure.  He was demoted to the rank of a Colonel and then asked to retire from the army. A CBE that was to be presented to him for earlier service was withheld. During his inquiry, Dyer acknowledged that if the armored cars with machine guns could have entered the grounds, he would have used them.  He was condemned in the House of Commons notably by Winston Churchill. Given Churchill’s general attitude towards Indians, I wonder if his condemnation was borne out of genuine horror at the act, or from the point of view of optics. A shrewd statesman, he would have foreseen the negative consequences and bad press.  

The martyrs well

On one of my visits to Boston, I had signed up for a walking tour along the Freedom Trail. The guide, dressed in period costume spoke of the Boston Massacre. My knowledge of American History being sparse, I asked him how many people had been killed. “Let me guess, you are originally from India, right?”, he asked. When I nodded affirmatively, he replied: “Not as many as the massacre in your country, five people were killed here”. However, he went on to mention how a canny Sam Adams was able to use this event to rouse the people into action. I wish there were guides at Jallianwala Bagh similar to the guides at National Parks here. Guides who could narrate the events of that day and bring to life some of the personal stories of the victims. If there were any, I did not see them on my visit. Granted, language is an issue since there is no common language in India.  At the minimum guides would have to be conversant in Punjabi and Hindi and perhaps in English.

A topiary in the shape of a kneeling soldier

A light and sound show which had supposedly recaptured the scenes of that day was no longer functional. The equipment apparently malfunctioned a couple of years ago and has not been fixed. The grounds are well kept and the monument is well preserved but It is a shame that a monument of such significance in India’s history cannot get the attention it deserves.

The spot from where the bullets were fired


I have always wondered what went through the minds of the troops who opened fire on their countrymen. As soldiers, they were trained to obey orders, but did it pass through any of their minds to refuse to fire?  It turns out that Dyer had chosen his troops carefully.  There were no British soldiers and his main force comprised of Gurkhas, Baluchis and Pathans.  Gurkhas from the independent kingdom of Nepal and Baluchis and Pathans who were not from the mainland.  Troops who would probably have less kinship with the victims.

And what of Dyer himself? He was born in India and had lived his life amongst Indians. A Sandhurst trained officer who chose to make an example of unarmed civilians. Was it hubris or was it a loathing for the subjects whom he ostensibly governed? The fog of war has been blamed for several atrocities but this was an instance of civil law enforcement. This was not a spur of the moment decision, it was later established that his decision was premeditated.  The plane that had flown earlier had given him an estimate of the size of the crowd.  There are reports though that the scene continued to haunt him and he could not sleep at night for months after the event.

And what of the Britons who still regarded him as a hero long after he was relieved of his command and returned to Britain? Did they really think that the cold-blooded murder of innocent people was justified in the preservation of the British Empire? Perhaps they believed it was their “God-given” burden to rule the brown man and that Dyer was the best they had to offer. After all, one of Kipling’s poems exhorting the US to wage war on the Philippines starts with the words:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;

The monument honoring the victims of the massacre

As a young boy, I was moved to tears as I watched the depiction of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the epic movie – Gandhi. I still tear up when I watch that scene now. Reginald Dyer was played by Edward Fox (who played the lead role in “The Day of the Jackal”) and he does a good job of coming across as a cold, stone-faced, ruthless enforcer. To me, he is the picture that comes to mind when I think of Reginald Dyer. That was the closest I had come to understanding or visualizing the tragedy. The visit to Amritsar brought it home to me. The freedom that I always take for granted is built on the sacrifices of several unnamed Indians who died in anonymity. The spark that was lit by the Indian Mutiny of 1857 culminated in freedom but was accompanied tragically with the inferno of partition in 1947. I don’t know if in the future there will be colonization by force of arms but I suspect, it will be through ideas and manipulation of facts and news. One can hope that incidents like these will never repeat, but If there is one thing that History has taught me, it is that we never really learn from History.


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