Today marks 100 years of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in which hundreds of unarmed citizens were brutally killed in open firing by the troops of British India army led by the Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer
The number of casualities is still unclear, with colonial-era records shows about 400 deaths while Indian figures shows that the number is close to 1,000.
In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, extending repressive measures in force during World War I (1914-18).
These included incarceration without trial, and caused widespread anger, specifically in the northern Punjab region, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for a nationwide general strike.
In Amritsar news that eminent Indian leaders had been arrested and extradited from that city ignited violent protests on April 10.
Bagh’s High Walls
General Dyer was tasked with ensuring order and force measures including a prohibition on public gatherings. On the afternoon on April 13th (also the day of Baisakhi), around 10,000 people who were angry specifically about the arrests of two local leaders assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh, a region in Amritsar surrounded by high walls with only one exit.
General Dyer is later known as “The Butcher of Amritsar” arrived at the spot with dozens of soldiers and sealed off the exit. Without any warning, Dyer ordered the soldiers to fire at the crowd. Many tried to escape through the walls but couldn’t as the wall were so high, some jumped into an open well at the region.
The event had the lowest point in Britain’s occupation of India, served to boost Indian nationalism and harden support for independence. Reactions in Britain varied, with Dyer receiving help in the House of Lords and not least from Rudyard Kipling, who called him “the man who saved India”.
Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, called the massacre “monstrous”. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith called it “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”. “The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… (P)inned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square,” Churchill added.
Demands for apologies for the massacre from Britain was requested by several past Indian leaders and politicians but it always falls on deaf ears. In 1997 the Queen laid a wreath at a site during a tour of India. But her husband Prince Philip stole the headlines by reportedly saying that the Indian estimates for the death count were “vastly exaggerated”.
In 2013 David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He described the happening as “deeply shameful” but stopped short of a public apology. “We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world,” PM Cameron wrote in the visitors’ book.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday told parliament that Britain “deeply regretted what happened and the suffering caused.” But she too didn’t say sorry.