By the time World War I entered its final phase in 1917-18, there was growing resentment over the massive use of India’s resources in a war that was being fought for furthering Britain’s imperial interests. Apart from money and supplies, India was compelled to contribute nearly fifteen lakh soldiers as part of its war ‘effort’. The soldiers fought in distant lands, in the killing fields of Europe, under the most appalling conditions, for an alien cause that would ultimately prolong the subjugation of the Indian people. About 75,000 Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting. The colonial authorities resorted to coercive measures to enlist Indian soldiers as cannon fodder. Informal conscription was introduced in major recruiting zones such as Punjab, where quotas for enlistment were imposed on villages. Recruitment was stepped up from mid-1917 onwards, and by April 1918 it was expected that the number of soldiers sent by the province would reach the figure of 200,000. Village and tehsil officials became hated recruiting agents. All this led to widespread disaffection that would become a significant factor in the popular anti-colonial post-war upsurge in Punjab and other parts of India. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was intended to teach malcontents a lesson they would not forget easily. If Punjab did not behave properly, this was the kind of punishment that would be meted out to its disloyal subjects. Kishwar Desai’s study of the massacre at Amritsar on Baisakhi in 1919 situates the actions of Reginald Dyer, ‘the butcher of Amritsar’, within the larger history of colonial repression in Punjab during and after the war; and this is a chilling story.
Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the province from 1913 to 1919, architect of the reign of terror, emerges as the real villain of the story. He seems to have been able to conceal the actual extent of the tyranny exercised by the provincial government from his superiors in New Delhi and London, or perhaps Governor-General Lord Chelmsford was not bothered about what was happening in Punjab as long as the recruitment of soldiers remained unimpeded. It is not without reason that Udham Singh’s anger was directed at O’Dwyer, whom he assassinated two decades later and was then executed. Jallianwala Bagh had a long after-life.
During the war, Ghadar revolutionaries had tried to mobilize people in Punjab against forced military recruitment, and had worked to overthrow British rule through a mutiny. The plan for the mutiny failed, as it was bound to, given the vast resources at the disposal of the colonial state. However, Ghadarite resistance was a major reason for imposing the draconian Defence of India Act of 1915. After the war, the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, better known as the Rowlatt Act, was brought in to check the rising tide of popular resistance and revolutionary mobilization. The provisions of this Act were even more stringent than those of the 1915 legislation. That is how Indians were rewarded for their outstanding, though mostly involuntary, contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War.
The anti-Rowlatt agitation, launched in March 1919, was the first large-scale mass movement led by Gandhiji after his return from South Africa. British officials were unnerved by the magnitude of popular participation. Although there were widespread protests in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Delhi, Punjab was the epicentre of the agitation. Amritsar, Lahore and Gujranwala witnessed massive participation in the hartal of 6 March against the Act. Events at Amritsar unfolded rapidly after this. Violence erupted on 10 April, but was quickly contained. Yet, it became the official justification for all the brutality that Amritsar and other parts of Punjab had to suffer for several months thereafter, including the killings at Jallianwala Bagh. Desai describes the repressive measures resorted to in other parts of Punjab, as for instance Gujranwala, where ordinary people were subjected to bombardment and firing by military aircraft. It may be mentioned that aerial bombardment was resorted to soon afterwards on a much bigger scale when British control over Iraq was threatened in 1920.
The arrest, through deception, of Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satya Pal, the two main leaders of the anti-Rowlatt Satyagraha in Amritsar, caused the initial disturbance of 10 April. As news of their detention spread in the city, people began to gather peacefully at the bridge separating the ‘native’ town from the civil lines. They were anxious about the fate of their leaders. Some of the prominent residents of Amritsar sent in a request to meet the Deputy Commissioner; the request was turned down. As the crowd grew bigger, appeals were made by a few influential figures in the gathering for dispersal. Before these appeals could have some effect, a contingent of armed troops fired on the crowd. The firing was unprovoked, and the gathering was completely unarmed. The shooting resulted in some Indian casualties. Desai observes that in official reports of such violence, Indian victims are rarely named and no precise figures are recorded. On the other hand, British casualties have names and exact numbers are given. The lives of native subjects of the Crown were of little value, and in death they could remain anonymous—as happened on a colossal scale at Jallianwala.
Angered by the unprovoked firing, so vividly described by Manto in his short story about the good-for-nothing Thaila Kanjar, martyred at the foot of the bridge, the protestors reassembled and set fire to several government buildings, banks and other establishments, and killed about five to six Europeans. Manto’s story, part fiction, part history, is included in the collection of prose and poetry on the theme of Amritsar-1919, strongly anti-colonial and nationalist in sentiment, put together by Rakhshanda Jalil. Jalil has also translated many of the writings selected by her for inclusion in the volume, from Urdu to English, and has provided a useful introduction to these literary responses expressing the rage of a subject people at what happened in those dark days and anguish over the inhuman treatment of fellow-Indians.
The city was placed under Martial Law on 11 April, even though it was formally declared four days later. A distinction between civil and military authority is spurious here, since this was not a democratically elected government answerable to the people. Curiously, ‘three commanding officers were simultaneously present in Amritsar on 11 April’ (p. 42). These included the infamous Dyer, who had relocated from Jullundur to Amritsar by 9 p.m. Desai has carefully examined the documentation pertaining to the appointment of Dyer as commanding officer, Amritsar, and has been unable to locate any order authorizing him to assume command. Her conclusion is that he ‘might have indeed come of his own volition’ (p. 43). The overall impression one gets is that O’Dwyer and the Lahore establishment tacitly approved of Dyer’s move. There can be little doubt that once he had taken charge, the Lieutenant-Governor gave him a free hand to punish Amritsar, leaving specific measures to him. This explains the brazen manner in which he went about imposing his will on the people of the city backed by a vicious armed force, which comprised Indian soldiers as well. He was fully confident of the support of the Punjab authorities who not only endorsed all his actions, but also made possible a systematic cover-up. The massacre of 13 April cannot be attributed merely to the deviant personal conduct of Dyer. Desai’s close scrutiny of the evidence brings out the complicity of the entire colonial machinery in the mass murder.
What has generally been ignored in historical accounts of the massacre is the unhappy fate of the wounded, those who were injured either in the firing or in the stampede or both. The book devotes considerable space to the utter callousness of the administration in leaving the wounded to die in the Bagh and the streets surrounding it. There was no one to tend to them, no succour, no ambulance, no medical help and no access of relatives or friends to the area due to curfew. Hundreds of wounded victims, including infants, lay groaning in pain, helpless, stupefied, crying out for water, throughout the long, dark night (electricity had already been cut off in Amritsar). A large proportion of the injured just perished, while those who were able to make it to their homes had to remain in hiding so that they were not apprehended as criminals. In the absence of medical assistance many of these victims lingered on in agony till their death. We are not even approximately close to a realistic estimate of the dead.
The hair-raising tale of Ratan Devi who went looking for her husband with a lantern and found his corpse lying in the darkness, was recorded in the report of the sub-committee set up by the Congress for investigating the ‘disorders’ at Amritsar (this is one of the major sources used by Desai). Ratan Devi could do nothing but sit by the body of her husband till daybreak: ‘I saw three men writhing in agony, a buffalo struggling in great pain; and a boy, about twelve years old, in agony entreated me not to leave the place. I told him that I could not go anywhere leaving the dead body … [H]e asked me for water, and water could not be procured in that place. I was all alone … in that solitary jungle … amidst hundreds of corpses’ (p. 89). The story figures in some of the literary writings on Jallianwala Bagh. Bhisham Sahni’s play Rang de Basanti Chola has Ratan Devi as one of the characters; and she appears in the Punjabi poem of Giani Hira Singh Dard, ‘Jallianwale Bagh di Vaisakhi’. The poem, and an extract from Sahni’s play, in English translation, is included in the Rakhshanda Jalil volume.
The total number of bullets, according to official figures, fired on the peaceful assembly at Jallianwala Bagh was 1650. Many of the victims were shot multiple times. For instance, the young nephew of Lala Gian Chand sustained nearly ten bullet wounds. In his evidence before the Congress committee he stated that his nephew’s ‘skull was broken. There was one shot under his nose on the upper lips, two on the left side, one on the left (side of the) neck, and three on the thigh and some two three on the head’ (p. 83). Such was the ferocity of the firing.
The most ‘delicious’ punishment, from the point of view of Dyer and European soldiers, was the crawling order. This was imposed on a lane in a densely populated part of the city. Anyone wanting to enter the lane, or go out, had to crawl on the road running through the lane. The crawl was to be on the belly, the way in which reptiles move. British troops stationed at the entrance would fire bullets at any raised head. Dyer himself invented this particular punishment. He decreed that crawling was to be revenge for the injury caused to an Englishwoman, a Miss Sherwood, who worked for one of the missionary schools in Amritsar. She had been attacked in this lane. This punishment, the humiliation it entailed apart from the physical and mental torment it caused, enraged nationalists all over the country. The anger of Indians was reflected in contemporary literature on the theme of Jallianwala Bagh. Some of the verses composed in protest, and representative prose writings are reproduced in English translation in Jalil’s selection: Zafar Ali Khan’s poem ‘The Tyrannies in the Punjab’, and Ghulam Abbas’s story ‘Those Who Crawled’. The latter uses satire and dark humour to critique colonial means of control and discipline—two young lads who mock at the soldiers by making a jest of the crawling order, engaging in a race to see who could crawl faster. It was through such writings that popular memory of the events of Amritsar remained alive, serving with each re-telling to deny legitimacy to a ruler who could be so cruel, a lesson therein for other heartless rulers who seek to replicate the methods of the colonial state.
Amar Farooqui is in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.