Amritsar Massacre

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The Amritsar Massacre

The Amritsar Massacre, also known as the Jalianwalla Bagh Massacre, was named after the place (Jalianwalla Bagh, in Amritsar), where, on April 13, 1919, British and Gurkha soldiers opened fire on an unarmed gathering, killing hundreds of civilians.

Contents

Background

1919 saw mass protests instigated by the Indian National Congress across the subcontinent. The main antagonising factors were the Rowlatt Act, Indian service in Mesopotamia in the First World War, and the arrest of nationalist leaders Sayfuddin Kichloo and Dr Satyapal. Whilst the educated middle class members of the Congress understood the peaceful methods espoused by Mohandas Gandhi, called satyagraha or 'soul force', many of those that protested did not. On the first day of marches, April 6, peaceful political demonstrations quickly descended into violence. The murder of numerous British administrators, arson attacks on British banks, government offices, and private property, and the loss of control in most of Amritsar caused the British governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, to declare martial law.

The gathering

On April 13, thousands of Indians were gathered in the Jalianwalla Bagh in the heart of Amritsar city, one of the major towns of Punjab state. The occasion was Baisakhi Day, the Sikh religious day when Guru Gobind Singh began the Khalsa Panth in 1699 and initiated baptism in the Sikh religion. On this day there would have been an especially high concentration of Sikhs in the Amritsar area. Baisakhi is also a traditional festival on which people celebrate the beginning of the harvesting season by congregating in community fairs. The gathering was in defiance of the prohibitory orders banning a gathering of five or more persons in the city, a term of martial law. The Bagh, or park, was bounded on all sides by brick walls and had a single narrow entrance/exit.

The massacre

The British and Gurkha troops marched to the park accompanied by an armored vehicle on which machine guns were mounted. The vehicle was unable to enter the park compound due to the narrow entrance. (As a consequence of this no machine guns were used in the shootings, contrary to the artist's impression (above) and the wishes of the commanding officer.)

The troops were commanded by General Reginald Dyer who, after a couple of warnings to the crowds, ordered his men to open fire. Since there was no other exit but the one already manned by the troops, people desperately tried to exit the park by trying to climb the walls of the park. Some people also jumped into a well to escape the bullets.

When the firing was over, hundreds of people had been killed and thousands had been injured. Official estimates were 379 killed and 1200 injured, though the actual figure was almost certainly much higher. Debate about the actual figures continues to this day.

Reaction

The event was condemned worldwide and General Dyer was summoned to London to appear before the Hunter Commission in 1920, which found him guilty. Winston Churchill spoke out against Dyer. However, the British Parliament later cleared his name and even praised his ruthlessness. Some upper-class British people raised a fund in his honour, whilst to others on the left he became a hate figure.

In India, the massacre evoked feelings of deep anguish and anger. It catalysed the freedom movement in Punjab against British rule and paved the way for Mohandas Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement against the British in 1920. The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the King-Emperor in protest. The massacre, in short, became a major catalyst for the Indian independence movement.

On 13 March 1940 a Sikh named Udham Singh, who had witnessed the events in Amritsar, assassinated Sir Michael O'Dwyer (not General Dyer, the perpetrator of the massacre), who was the governor of the Punjab when the Massacre had taken place. Singh told the court at his trial: "He was the real culprit. He deserved it. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I crush[ed] him."

Monument and legacy

When India gained independence, a monument to the dead in the form of a flame was constructed in the Bagh. Even to this day, the markings of the bullets fired by the British troops can be seen on the park walls.

The massacre is depicted in Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi, with the role of General Dyer portrayed by Edward Fox.

Recently, the Duke of Edinburgh drew sharp criticism with an observation at an already-controversial British visit to the Amritsar monument. Having observed a plaque claiming 2,000 casualties, Prince Philip observed, "That's not right. The number is less."de:Amritsar-Massaker fr:Massacre d'Amritsar it:Massacro di Amritsar

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