Exactly 96 years ago, on 13th April 1919, British Brigadier General Reginald E.H. Dyer ordered his troops to fire at will on a peaceful gathering at Jallian Wala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab, causing more than 1,500 casualties. Over 1,650 rounds were fired and men, women, and even children were brutally massacred, making the incident the most barbaric civilian massacre in modern history.
On April 13, the traditional festival of Baisakhi, thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims gathered at the Jallian Wala Bagh, a public garden near the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar. An hour after the meeting began as per schedule at 4:30 pm, Dyer arrived with a group of 65 Gurkha and 25 Baluchi soldiers. 50 of them were armed with rifles. Dyer had also brought two armoured cars with machine guns. The vehicles were left outside as they were unable to enter the garden through the narrow entrance. The garden was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few a narrow entrances, most of them permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wider but was guarded by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles.
Without warning the crowd to disperse, Dyer blocked the main exits. He explained later about this act: "…was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience." Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting towards the densest sections of the crowd (including women and children). Firing continued for about 10 minutes. Ceasefire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted, after 1,650 rounds were spent. The official (then) GoI sources estimated that the fatalities were 379, with 1,100 wounded. The number estimated by Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with approximately 1,000 getting killed.
And what happened to Dyer? He was removed from duty and forced to retire. But when he returned to Britain, he was presented with £26,000 raised on his behalf by the Morning Post newspaper, a women’s organization presented him with the 'Sword of Punjab', and a large number of influential Britishers, including Rudyard Kipling, thought he had done the right thing. He became a celebrated hero in Britain among people with connections to the British Raj.
In Dyer's own words:
- It is only to an enlightened people that free speech and a free press can be extended. The Indian people want no such enlightenment.
- There should be an eleventh commandment in India: "Thou shalt not agitate."
- The time will come to India when a strong hand will be exerted against malice and 'perversion' of good order.
- Gandhi will not lead India to capable self-government. The British Raj must continue, firm and unshaken in its administration of justice to all men.
The massacre caused a re-evaluation of the Army's role in which the new policy became minimum force and the Army was retrained and developed suitable tactics such as crowd control. Historians consider the episode as a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.