Blood on that Baisakhi

On April 13, 1919, when General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd gathered to hear political speeches at Jallianwala Bagh, not only was his action the worst atrocity perpetrated by the British in the 20th century but it also proved the moral bankruptcy of the Empire. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre marked the turning point of India’s struggle for freedom from British rule and became a watershed experience, often cited as an example of the bestiality of the foreign rulers. It also became a rallying point for the common people who were already feeling thwarted by the oppression unleashed by the rulers.

The Butcher of Amritsar by Nigel Collett (Rupa) offers a definitive account of the massacre in this biography of Gen Dyer. Excerpts:

IT seemed to Dyer when he rose early on the 13th that he and his force were being steadily and deliberately cut off from the outside world; rail and wires had again been torn up overnight all around Amritsar, and more railway track was destroyed on the line to Lahore during the day, derailing a goods train and forcing communications with Lahore to be maintained by aeroplane.

It was Baisakhi, the Sikh New Year’s Day, and throughout it worshippers thronged into the Golden Temple. Before returning home in the cooler evening, some rested, as was customary, in the nearby open space of the Jallianwala Bagh. The Bagh was an open area of six to seven acres, dry ground at that time of the year, and surrounded with the high walls of local houses and compounds. It was about two hundred yards long, slightly less wide. It had five narrow entrances, some with locked gates, ‘five crevices or shabby lanes on different sides which for the purposes of ingress and egress to it, may be exalted to the dignity of doors (which) lead to small lanes that are anything but wide and moreover, full of sewer nalies’. In the centre of the open ground stood a small domed samadhi and a very large well, some twenty feet or more in diameter with water up to a level twenty feet below its parapet. Both were shaded by a few trees; otherwise, the Bagh was bare, waiting for the rains when it would be planted with crops, and so it got frequent use as a place for gatherings of many kinds. It was completely surrounded by walls at least ten feet high, either of gardens, or more frequently of the three-or four-storey houses backing onto it, many of which had balconies and flat roof tops looking out over the Bagh. There were windows and some doors opening into the Bagh, but all were barred and locked.

Outside the city, the annual Baisakhi fair continued until the police closed it at 2 p.m. and sent away all those they found there. The fair customarily attracted a large number of farmers from the local area, as well as from further afield. With the fair closed, some of these straggled into the Jallianwala Bagh during the afternoon. They found that local political activists had been busy there from early in the day, setting up a wooden platform for the speakers. There is no doubt that the political nature of the meeting to be held there must have been known, or quickly became so, to most of the twenty or twenty-five thousand or so people who were crowded into the Bagh by the late afternoon.

The orders which Dyer now gave, and the explanations he gave after the event, make it clear that he intended to deal with any crowd he met not, as he had the day before, by ordering it to disperse, but by dispersing it with force, and by punishing its members for defying his proclamation. It is clear that he believed he was going to strike a blow at a conspiracy which he imagined stretched across India and of which one of the principal centres seemed to be Amritsar. The casualties which the crowds in the city had suffered on earlier occasions had evidently been insufficient to do more than enrage the ‘mutineers’. He was now faced, he thought, with the need to do something more drastic, to raise the level of violence to a mark sufficient to put a stop to the conspiracy and to punish its supporters.

Entrance to Jallianwala Bagh through which Dyer marched his forces
Entrance to Jallianwala Bagh through which Dyer marched his forces

Almost immediately he had confirmation of the meeting, at about 4.15 p.m., Dyer’s column marched out of the Ram Bagh and moved at walking pace through the narrow streets of the city towards the Jallianwala Bagh, dropping off the picquets as it went. Dyer travelled by car with Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan, Briggs, his Brigade Major, and his two British bodyguards, Sergeants Anderson and Pizzey of the Londons. The troops marched to the front and rear of his car. In another car behind him were the two policemen, Rehill and Plomer. With the column were two armoured cars. As he drove up the Hall Bazaar, past the looted banks and the ruined town hall, Dyer mulled over what he was about to do: ‘My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car — if my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately. Dyer did not mean by this that he would fire if the crowd disobeyed any orders he gave it to disperse. He meant that he would fire if they had disobeyed his orders by gathering for the meeting. Before the Hunter Committee he made this crystal clear:

Question: And for the reasons you have explained to us, you had made up your mind to open fire at the crowd for having assembled at all?

Answer: Quite right.

The firing point inside  Jallianwala Bagh
The firing point inside Jallianwala Bagh

Guided by a policeman, the column ‘arrived at a small alley just about broad enough for two men walking abreast’. The armoured cars had to be left outside, as they were too wide to drive in; a small guard, including two mounted Muslim police officers, perhaps again Ashraf Khan and Obaidullah, was left with them and the motor cars. This prevented the use of their machine guns. Briggs describes what happened next: ‘The General Officer Commanding, Colonel Morgan, Mr Rehill and myself got out of the motor and advanced up the alley, the troops following us. Coming to the end of the alley we saw an immense crowd of men’.

As soon as Dyer saw the crowd, he made up his mind to fire; he later told J.P. Thompson, the Chief Secretary to the Punjab Government, that this took him no more than three seconds. He immediately ordered his troops into the Bagh, Gurkhas right, Frontier Force left. He asked Briggs how many people he thought there were there; Briggs replied he thought five thousand or so. The troops deployed on either side of Dyer’s small party, and took up standing firing positions on a low rise at the west end of the Bagh. The crowd was dense and was very close, most of it only a hundred yards away, and the closest people on its fringes were only eight or nine yards from the troops.

Men of the 25th Londons enforcing the crawling order
Men of the 25th Londons enforcing the crawling order

The people were listening in silence to a speaker on the platform, who was seen by the troops to be gesticulating with his hands. This was Pandit Durga Dass, editor of the Amritsar newspaper, Waqt, who was the eighth speaker and who had just taken the rostrum from Brij Gopinath, a clerk from one of the looted banks who had guided the mob to murder his manager, and who had just finished reciting his poem, Faryad, to the crowd. Dass was now moving the third resolution of the meeting against the Rowlatt Bills, condemning the actions of the authorities in Amritsar since the 10th. The platform on which he stood was only fifty or sixty yards from the position the troops took up. Seeing the soldiers, many in the crowd took right, but Dass, and one of the meeting’s organisers, Hans Raj, shouted out that the British would not fire, and that if they did the bullets would be blanks. This did not stop the panic, however, and people began to run. Without any warning to the crowd, Dyer gave the order to fire. The order was repeated by Captain Crampton, whistles rang out, and immediately the troops opened fire.

Havoc ensued. The crowd ran in terror in all directions but found few exits by which to escape. People crammed into the entrances to the narrow passageways, frantically seeking to force their way out.

The troops were directed to fire on these, killing many, and causing more to be trodden underfoot or crushed under the mounds of bodies that eventually built up ten or twelve deep. Many tried to climb the walls, and were picked off as they did so. Crowds huddled in the corners of the garden with no way out at all and were shot down where they stood. Retired soldiers in the crowd shouted out that people should lie on the ground to avoid the bullets, and many did so only to be shot as they lay. At times the crowd seemed to the troops to be gathering to rush forward at the firing line; Briggs drew Dyer’s attention to this perceived threat. ‘The men sometimes collected in knots instead of bolting and the thought they meditated attack.’ These knots of men were mown down.

The firing ceased occasionally, whilst the men reloaded and targets were adjusted, more whistles blew, and firing started again. Dyer ordered reloading after the men emptied their first magazines, then ordered ‘independent rapid fire’, personally directing fire at the densest parts of the crowd. By now the troops were kneeling or lying prone to get the best point of aim. .....

Girdhari Lal, who watched the scene with binoculars from a nearby house, saw that "There was not a corner left of the garden facing the firing line, where people did not die in large numbers. Many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds and thus lost their lives. Blood was pouring in profusion. Maulvi Gholam Jilani was caught in the firing: I ran towards a wall and fell on a mass of dead and wounded persons. Many others fell on me. Many of those who fell on me were hit and died. There was a heap of the dead and wounded over me, under and all around me. I felt suffocated. I thought I was going to die.

Among the children there, Madan Mohan, the thirteen-year-old son of the local Dr Mani Ram, who ‘along with his playmates used to visit this open square for play almost daily’ was shot in the head; the bullet fractured his skull, he bled profusely and died instantaneously.

The firing continued for between ten and fifteen minutes. The noise in the Bagh was a cacophony of rifle crack, bullets thumping into flesh and walls, ricochets screeching off the brickwork, the screams of 25,000 people in terror and the cries of the wounded. So loud was the noise that Dyer and Briggs were later to maintain that they had some difficulty in stopping the troops firing, though this was denied by Sergeant Anderson. The sight was one of horror. The vast crowd staggered aimlessly; the air filled with dust and blood; flesh flew every-where; men and children fell with limbs broken, eyes shot out, internal organs exposed. Rehill and Inspector Jowahar Lal, standing behind the troops, were unable to stand watching the massacre and went out of the Bagh whilst it was going on. Rehill was so badly affected that he later denied having seen anything at all. Plomer, built of stronger or more vindictive stuff, remarked to Dyer during a pause for reloading that ‘he had taught the crowd a lesson it would never forget’. Dyer did not appear to hear.

When Dyer finally decided to stop the firing, which was only when the troops had only enough ammunition left, according to his calculation, to enable them to defend themselves during the march back to base, much of the crowd was still up against the opposite wall, trying to scrabble its way out of the Bagh. Those Gurkhas who were armed only with Khukuris, which they now drew, were sent by Captain Crampton down to the hansli drain that crossed the Bagh to check on those hiding there. They were then ordered back. Dyer gave orders to withdraw, walked back to his car, then led his troops back to the Ram Bagh the way they had come. He neither inspected the destruction he had caused, nor made any arrangements to tend the wounded.