13 April 2019

13th of April marks 100 years of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, north India. 

In 1980, Tara's production - INKALAAB 1919 - presented the story of this massacre in a garden. As its principal character, General Dyer, commented: "Our integrity is at stake here - the whole foundation of what we mean by duty to Empire rests on what we do now."

A hundred years on from the Massacre which fuelled India's relentless drive towards independence, and whose memories remain raw in the Indian psyche, it is heartening that contemporary writers and journalists are examining this pivotal moment in Anglo-Indian relations. Novelist Sathnam Sanghera wrote a brilliant article in The Times and is presenting a documentary on Channel 4 broadcasting at 9pm on the 13th, and veteran journalists Amrit Wilson and Mihir Bose have penned typically incisive articles in The Guardian

An often over-looked part of the massacre's aftermath was the effect on individuals. One such was Uddam Singh - the subject of Tara's play in 1988, Vengeance and now journalist Anita Anand's remarkable new book, The Patient Assassin (available on Amazon). On 13 March 1940 at Caxton Hall in London, Uddam Singh assassinated Sir Michael O'Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab at the time of the massacre. An attempt by one individual, 21 years later, to make peace with the massacre.

So what are the bare bones of the Jallianwala Bagh story?

At around 5.30 on the evening of 13th April 1919, Colonel Reginald Dyer, the acting military commander for Amritsar District, arrived at Jallianwala Bagh (a public garden of 6 to 7 acres, walled on all sides, with five entrances) with a group of ninety Sikh, Gurkha, Baluchi and Rajput soldiers. 

Fifty of them were armed with .303 Lee–Enfield bolt-action rifles. He had also brought two armored cars armed with machine guns, but these were left outside, as they were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrances. 

Without warning the crowd to disperse, Dyer blocked the main exits and ordered his soldiers to open fire on the crowd assembled in the Bagh, some of whom were listening to speeches by local activists in support of Indian independence, though the majority were gathered to celebrate the annual Baisakhi (Spring) festival. As Dyer later explained, this act "was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience." Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd. Firing continued for approximately ten minutes. Cease-fire was ordered after approximately 1,650 rounds were spent and ammunition supplies were almost exhausted.

The Jallianwala Bagh was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few narrow entrances. Most of them were kept permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wide, but was guarded heavily by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles. 

Official British Indian sources gave a figure of 379 identified dead (337 men, 41 boys and a six-week old baby), with approximately 1,100 wounded. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead.
Apart from the many deaths directly from the shooting, a number of people died in stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. 

A plaque, placed at the site after independence states that 120 bodies were removed from the well. The wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew was declared, and many more died during the night.

In his testimony to the official Hunter Commission enquiry into the massacre, Dyer stated that his intentions had been to strike terror throughout the Punjab and in doing so, reduce the moral stature of the "rebels". He said he did not stop the shooting when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep shooting until the crowd dispersed, and that a little shooting would not do any good. He stated that he did not make any effort to tend to the wounded after the shooting: "Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there."

Colonel Dyer was found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved of his command on 23 March 2020. In July 1920 he was censured and forced to retire by the House of Commons and was prohibited from further employment in India. 

But Dyer also became a celebrated hero in the UK. A public subscription led to him being presented with a gold sword inscribed with the words "To a brave soldier and a gallant Englishman", and a total of £26,317 (over £822,000 today). 


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