On the Centenary of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Sitaram Yechury

THE 22nd Congress of the CPI(M), April 2018, adopted a special resolution calling upon the country to observe the centenary of the Jallianwala  Bagh massacre throughout the year until April 13, 2019. This observation is currently on in India through a variety of events and programmes being organised all over the country. The CPI(M) specifically called for using this occasion “to revisit the lessons of the struggle and to understand the people’s resolve to free India from the colonial yoke.”

The massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh on the day of the Baisakhi, April 13, 1919 would rank as one of the worst political crimes of the 20th century.  The cruelty of British colonial rulers was exposed in its naked barbarity, bereft of any humanism.  While official estimates had placed the death at over 400 and injured over 2,000, independent enquiry commissions constituted by the national movement have produced documentary evidence showing the death of more than a thousand people and tens of thousands injured. Jallianwala Bagh is a ground enclosed on all sides with just one narrow entrance/exit. Over 20,000 people had collected in this garden to protest against the ongoing repression of the British in the province of the Punjab and in opposition to the Rowlatt Act, which was descried as a “Black Act”.  This British colonial repression was nothing else but a cold-blooded massacre.
BACKGROUND
On the day of the Baisakhi, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs jointly celebrate, drinking water from the same glass and sharing food from the same plates.  This multi-religious unity was something that the British were assiduously seeking to break through their insidious divide and rule policy. These efforts intensified after the 1857 first war of independence that saw people belonging to all religions act in unison against the British and declaring the then Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as free India’s Sovereign. The cementing of such unity was seen at Jallianwala  Bagh.  This was a cause for panic for the British.

The annual AICC session that convened in Delhi in 1918 decided that the next AICC would be held in the Punjab.  The British saw this as the signal of politicisation of the people in Punjab who were the largest reservoir of their recruits for the British imperial army. They never wanted this source to dry up with the growth of nationalist sentiments and the urge for freedom. So their effort was to stop this AICC session being held in the Punjab.  Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, a leading advocate in Amritsar, and Dr Satpal, a medical practitioner from Lahore, took the initiative in organising the AICC session. This was seen as a serious challenge by the British. 

But the spirit of freedom had already struck roots among the people in Punjab.  The influence of the Ghadar Party and movement launched in the west coast of the USA and Canada, mainly by immigrant Sikhs during 1913-14 and the inhuman repression unleashed against the Ghadarites by the British had inspired the Punjabi youth to join the freedom movement in a big way.

PROTESTS AGAINST THE ROWLATT ACT

Simultaneously, the British colonial government introduced Rowlatt Bills, which was a draconian legislation.  This gave power to a court of three judges to punish anyone allegedly involving in revolutionary activities without any right to appeal.  It also provided powers to detain a person suspected of involvement in the freedom movement. Local governments were given powers to arbitrarily arrest people whom they considered dangerous.  There was, of course, no right to appeal in any of these provisions.

Mahatma Gandhi called for a protest action through a disobedience movement to force the British to retract on March 30, 1919. On this day, police opened fire at Delhi during the hartal claiming five lives while injuring hundreds. In protest against this, demonstrations were held countrywide and there was unprecedented unity between the Hindus, Muslims and the Sikhs. 

Unnerved by these developments, the British, in order to scuttle the AICC session in Amritsar, arrested Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satpal on April 10 and took them away to some unknown place. This news was received with angry protests and a big crowd started moving towards the District Magistrate office in Amritsar demanding the leaders be freed.  The British police opened fire killing many people. The enraged protestors targeted British offices and officers. Unable to handle the growing protests, Amritsar and then the whole of Punjab were handed over to the military and a de facto Martial Law was in place. 

THE MASSACRE

It was in this background that a large public meeting was organised in Jallianwala  Bagh with prior publicity. When about 20,000 people, including women and children, who had come from nearby villages for the Baisakhi fairs in Amritsar had gathered and a peaceful meeting was proceeding, suddenly General  Dyer entered the Bagh, blocked the only lane from where the people could exit and started firing forthwith.  Firing continued for 1,600 rounds till the British troops ran out of ammunition. 

Following a public outcry, including in Britain, an enquiry commission was appointed by the British government which was known as the Hunter Committee. In the meanwhile, after the massacre, the British continued with its terrorising methods by cutting off water and electricity supply to Amritsar, publicly flogging people suspected of sympathising with the victims etc.  In his deposition before the Hunter Committee, General Dyer showed no remorse and, on the contrary, justified this massacre. He admitted that he started firing without any warning to the people to disperse.  He submitted the following report to the General Staff Division, on August 25, 1919: “I fired and continued to fire till the crowd dispersed, and I considered that this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the causalities would have been greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd but one producing a sufficient moral effect, who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

Brigadier-General Dyer had stated that his intention was “to strike terror into the whole of Punjab” and he went on to say, “I had made up my mind that I would do all men to death if they were going to continue the meeting.”

PEOPLE’S STRUGGLE: A TURNING POINT

This massacre became a turning point in the history of India’s freedom struggle.  Despite all their efforts, the British could not prevent the AICC session being held in Amritsar.  This session turned out to be significant where the call for the first civil disobedience movement was given by Gandhi. The unity of India’s people strengthened further. 

Such was the indignation that Rabindranath Tagore renounced the Knighthood conferred on him by the British Crown.  The following are excerpts from his letter to the Viceroy on May 31, 1919:  “The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments………The accounts of the insults and sufferings undergone by our brothers in the  Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers,—possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons…….. the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. 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….”

The renowned Punjabi litterateur, Nanak Singh, wrote a long poem titled, Khooni Baisakhi.  This, however, was proscribed by the British. But it nevertheless percolated far and wide in the country strengthening the urge and struggle for independence. 

21 years later, on March 13, 1940, Udham Singh, a 15-year old orphan who witnessed the massacre, giving his name upon arrest as Ram Muhammad Singh Azad shot dead Michael O’Dwyer, the Lt. Governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala  Bagh massacre, at Caxton Hall in London. Udham Singh was sentenced to death and executed on June 12, 1940. The following extract is from his statement:  “I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit, he wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy I have done the job. I am not scared of death – I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this. It was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”  General Dyer had died earlier in 1927.

Bhagat Singh was a 12-year old student at Lahore when this massacre took place. He visited Jallianwala Bagh and carried the blood-stained mud from there.  This is preserved today at the Bhagat Singh Memorial Museum. The massacre left a lasting impression on the minds of young revolutionaries. 

We recall what Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet said on the 79th anniversary of the massacre:  “We salute the people who gave the message of national unity for national freedom by jointly shedding their blood at that place.  We also do not forget that those people who were killed had aspirations of a real freedom - freedom from want, hunger and poverty.  Jallianwala continues to remain a source of inspiration for all those aspiring for a better and bright future for our countrymen. The sacrifices of these martyrs will be cherished forever.”

Newsletter category: