Gyan Prakash


The events at Jallianwala Bagh, in the Indian city of Amritsar, marked the beginning of the resistance against colonial governance.


On April 13, 1919, Gen. Reginald Dyer led a group of British soldiers to Jallianwala Bagh, a walled public garden in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. Several thousand unarmed civilians, including women and children, had gathered to celebrate the Sikh New Year.


Viewing the gathering as a violation of the prohibitory orders on public assembly, General Dyer ordered his troops to fire without warning. According to official figures, the 10 minutes of firing resulted in 379 dead and more than a thousand injured.


As news of the massacre became public, many British officials and public figures hailed General Dyer’s actions as necessary to keep an unruly subject population in order. For Indians, Jallianwala Bagh became a byword for colonial injustice and violence. The massacre triggered the beginning of the end of the colonial rule in India.


General Dyer’s very British determination to teach the colonized population a lesson was rooted in the memories of the Great Rebellion of 1857, when Indian rebels — sepoys of the British Indian Army, peasants, artisans and dispossessed landholders and rulers — revolted against the East India Company, killed several Europeans and brought the company to its knees in much of northern India. The British responded ferociously, decisively defeated the rebels, and carried out wanton retribution to teach the natives a lesson in imperial governance.


The fear and panic of 1857 was still alive among the colonial authorities in 1919. The East India Company had always portrayed its governance of India as the rule of law. But the company was in fact a conquering regime, and saw itself surrounded by the disaffection and sedition of its conquered subjects.


In 1859, the British Crown assumed direct control of the colony. Forever fearful of sedition and conspiracies, the colonial government used the opportunity offered by the First World War to introduce the Defense of India Act in 1915. The wartime legislation gave the government extraordinary powers of preventive detention, to lock up people without trial and to restrict speech, writing and movement.


The war’s end did not diminish the government’s anxiety. In March 1919, it introduced the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act, which extended its wartime emergency powers into peacetime.


Not long after the war began, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had returned to India after 21 years in South Africa fighting for the rights of Indian immigrants. Gandhi was loyal to the British Empire and supported Britain in the First World War. Upon his return to India, he spent the first few years leading nonviolent struggles on local grievances.


But when news of the impending Rowlatt legislation became public, Gandhi immediately expressed his opposition and called for a nationwide general strike on April 6, 1919. He asked people to engage in nonviolent struggle, or satyagraha: Observe a daylong fast and hold meetings to demand the repeal of the legislation.


Anger in the northern Indian province of Punjab was already heating up well before Gandhi called for the satyagraha. Across the state, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh nationalist leaders had been agitating against the Rowlatt Act; Gandhi’s call raised the popular fervor against the law to a boil.


The unrest was of particular concern to the British because Punjab was a vital economic and military asset. They had invested heavily in canal irrigation to turn the province into a food basket of the empire. The colonial army recruited heavily in the region, regarding the Sikhs as a “martial race.” By World War I, soldiers from Punjab constituted three-fifths of the British Indian Army, which was extensively deployed in the war. The combustible presence of the demobilized soldiers in the heat of the anticolonial agitation alarmed the British.


Tensions mounted as Gandhi announced his decision to travel to Punjab. On April 10, the colonial government stopped the train carrying Gandhi, arrested him and sent him back to Bombay. Protesters in Amritsar clashed with the authorities; the troops killed at least 10 people. The crowd attacked government property and set fire to two banks. Five Europeans were killed, but the event that angered the British the most was the assault of Marcella Sherwood, a European missionary, who was wounded and left for dead on the street.


Dispatched to Amritsar, General Dyer took control from the civil authorities on April 11. He issued a proclamation prohibiting public assembly and warning that such gatherings would be dispersed by force. Peace was restored, but the people were not cowed.


On April 13, several thousand gathered in Jallianwala Bagh in defiance of General Dyer’s orders. Incensed, he rode to the venue with his troops on two armored vehicles. Finding the lane leading up to the walled garden too narrow, they dismounted, marched to the ground and opened fire.


The massacre made headlines worldwide. Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and Nobel laureate, returned his knighthood in protest. Winston Churchill condemned the shooting as “monstrous.” The government was forced to institute an inquiry commission, where the unrepentant general acknowledged that his principal aim was not to disperse the crowd but to produce a “moral effect.” The colonial government of India determined that General Dyer’s actions were unwarranted and dismissed him from service.


The fear of insurgency, kept alive by the memories of “native treachery” in 1857, had made violence and laws of exception part of the colonial government’s arsenal of rule. General Dyer’s actions stemmed from this — a fact that the British could not officially acknowledge. Much of the colonial bureaucracy shared his views. The conservative press in London hailed him as a hero upon his return home.


For Indians, General Dyer became a symbol of British oppression. When they reacted violently to the news of the massacre, Gandhi withdrew the Rowlatt satyagraha, calling his belief in Indians’ readiness for his message of nonviolence a “Himalayan blunder.” But Jallianwallah Bagh also shook his faith in British justice.


A year later, Gandhi resumed the struggle against the British. He led India to independence less than three decades later, in 1947, setting into motion a process of decolonization that profoundly shaped the 20th century.


The Jallianwala Bagh massacre marked the beginning of the resistance against the exceptional laws of colonial governance. Ironically, the postcolonial Indian state retained several of these laws of exception, the very same ones that people in Amritsar had died fighting against.


Gyan Prakash is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of “Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point.”


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