Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: The Foundation For a Serious Secular Freedom Movement in India

by Dr. Sukhdev Singh

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the Amritsar massacre, a peaceful socio-political gathering of the native population dealt with a violent administrative response on 13th April, 1919 by the then British government killing above 1000 children, women and men firing 1650 gunshots, received a strong criticism and gave the Indian freedom movement a clear direction for complete freedom from the foreign rule. The incident underlined the secular and all inclusive character of the freedom movement. While in other parts of India, there were religious conflicts, in Amritsar the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had decided to celebrate their religious days (eid-ul-fitter on April 01, Ram Nowmi on April 08 and Baisakhi on April 13) together to communicate the message of united freedom struggle against the foreign rule. The dead bodies of those, including Hindus, killed by the police while they were protesting against the arrest and deportation of the two local leaders Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal to some unknown place, according to the local narratives, were kept in the Khairuddin mosque before their final funeral rites. Earlier on the occasion of Ram Nawmi on April 9, 1919, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims drank water using the same tumbler. These events caused fear among the British rulers.

In the background of what happened on April 13, 1919 was the rising unrest among the people caused by the post-world-war inflation, heavy taxes and other repressive policies of the British India government. While on the one hand, the government had to deal with 1918 flu pandemic, on the other, with the freedom movement gaining strength with the alliance between Indian National Congress and All India Muslim League. 

During the world-war between 1914 and 1917, though the British forces were supported by the British-India government and principalities, the Gadhries in Punjab had planned a mutiny by the Indian soldiers serving in the British Indian Army for February 1915 on the lines of 1857 mutiny, opposing the colonial government anti-people policies which due to weak planning could not succeed. Yet, in view of a strong ant- colonial-government atmosphere in Punjab and Bengal, in particular, and in India, in general, on ardent advocacy by the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, the British India government passed a ‘Defence of India Act 1915’ curtailing the civil and political liberties. 

In 1918, suspecting revolt with support from Russian Bolsheviks, the government appointed a committee headed by Sidney Rowlatt to assess the German and Bolshevik links to the militant movement in India, especially in Punjab and Bengal. On the committee’s recommendation, Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly called Rowlatt Act, was passed on 21st March1919 further limiting the civil liberties and granting special powers to the government enabling up to 2 year detention of purported political agitators without trial. 

Breaching their promise for post-war political reforms in exchange for India’s resources and support in the War, the government hurriedly passed the Act, ignoring opposition by the Indian members of the Imperial Legislative Council, who all resigned in protest. Muhammad Ali Jinnah wrote to the Viceroy: “I, therefore, as a protest against the passing of the Bill and the manner in which it was passed tender my resignation … a Government that passes or sanctions such a law in times of peace forfeits its claim to be called a civilised government”.

The Act, seen as a betrayal, enraged the Indian leaders and citizens. Mahatma Gandhi gave a call for Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act urging for a peaceful participation in Hartals (strikes), economic boycott and non-cooperation. The anti- Rowlatt Act sentiment was so strong in the whole country, especially in Punjab, that in response to the Satyagraha call on April 6 “practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets”. Mahatama Gandhi, on his way to Amritsar, was arrested at Palwal. 

Following the events on April 9 and detention of the local leaders Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal on April 10, 1919, a large crowd gathered to demand the release of Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Kitchlew. In the protest 20-25 Indian and the four British were killed while others injured. The atmosphere in Amritsar was so tense that on April 11, Marcella Sherwood, an elderly English missionary was attacked by an angry mob in the Kucha Kurrichhan.

 Although she was rescued by some residents in the same street, enraged at the assault, Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer, ordered every Indian passing through the street to crawl its  length on his hands and knees as a punishment. He also authorised the indiscriminate public whipping of locals. The local leaders of freedom movement, in a meeting held on April 12 at the Hindu College, planned a peaceful public protest gathering on April 13, the day of Baisakhi, in Jallian Wala Bagh spread over 6-7 acres of vacant land surrounded by residential buildings.  

By April 13, the most parts of Punjab under put under martial law. The civil liberties were curtailed and assembly of more than four people was banned. The orders of banning public meetings and gatherings not being widely and properly communicated, many people from nearby villages came to Hari Mandir Sahib (Golden Temple) on the day of Baisakhi. After paying obeisance at Harimandir Sahib and celebrating Baisakhi many of them relaxed in the Bagh, waiting to join the peaceful protest against the arrest and deportation of Dr. Satya Pal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew. Even the farmers, traders, and merchants attending the annual Baisakhi horse and cattle fair drifted into the Jallianwala Bagh in view of the forcible closure of the fair by 2 P.M. by the city Police. Brig. Neither Gen. Dyer and nor Irving, the then Deputy Commissioner, took any serious action to prevent the crowds from assembling, or to disperse them peacefully. 

As the meeting began at 5.30 P.M. the Brig. Gen. Dyer accompanied by 50 armed troops entered the Bagh through the only narrow passage leaving no passage for the civilians to  evict. The troops were ordered to fire with a purpose, later stated by Dyer, “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience”. This incident came to be known as the Amritsar or Jallian Wala Bagh massacre and to become the foundation for a serious secular freedom movement of India.

Dr. Sukhdev Singh

Retired Professor

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