The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Following the introduction of the Rowlatt Act 1919, which gave British authorities the power to imprison Indians suspected of sedition without trial, Amritsar became a focal point for the Independence movement. After a series of hartals (strikes) in which many protesters and three British bank managers were killed, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer was called upon to return order to the city.

On 13 April 1919 (Baisakhi Day), more than 5000 Indians convened for a peaceful protest in Jallianwala Bagh, a public courtyard surrounded by high walls on all sides, with only a narrow lane on the northern side for entry and exit. Under orders to make an example of the protesters, Dyer arrived with 150 troops and ordered his soldiers to open fire. When the barrage of bullets ceased, nearly 400 protesters were dead, according to the British authorities, although Indian National Congress placed the figure at more than 1000, and around 1500 were wounded, including many women and children.

Dyer’s action was supported by the British establishment but described as ‘monstrous’ by Winston Churchill, and as ‘a savage and inappropriate folly’ by Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India. The Nobel Prize–winning poet Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood in protest against the massacre. The incident galvanised Indian nationalism – Gandhi responded with a program of civil disobedience, announcing that ‘cooperation in any shape or form with this satanic government is sinful’.

Reginald Dyer died in retirement in England in 1927. Michael O’Dwyer, governor of the Punjab at the time of the massacre, was assassinated by the Sikh revolutionary Udham Singh in London in 1940. Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed film Gandhi (1982) dramatically re-enacts the events at Jallianwala Bagh.