The Amritsar Massacre – 13th April 1919

By Dr Rajagopal Soondron

By imposing a curfew Colonel Dyer prevented other people to attend to the dying and injured. He even declared at the Hunter’s enquiry that if the people were really in need of medical help they could have gone to the public hospitals! That was a century ago

Having contributed men, fortune and goods to the victory of the Allyin the First world War in 1918, the Indians in the British Empire were confident that the British would, as a token for loyalty, grant them more political autonomy after that Great War. That was not to be.

The Montague-Chelmsford Reform Commission of 1917, which were meant to rectify that long-standing injustice, failed to remedy the situation. Consequently many Indian political and social organizations started to press vehemently for more political freedom. The British, sensing massive protests and unrest in the subcontinent, had the Rowlatt’s Act (The Black Act) passed in March 1918 to limit political and civilian freedom. It was in fact an extension of the Defence of India Act of 1915. Reacting to that Act the whole of India went into further turmoil. Mahatma Gandhi intensified his non-violent, non-cooperative disobedience movement, while Mohamed Ali Jinnah resigned from his Bombay legislative post.

In Amritsar, Punjab, two Congress followers, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal, were arrested and imprisoned after addressing a crowd on non-violent action. Soon the Punjabi population, already very militant and suspected during the Great War by the British of pro-Afghan and Russian sympathies flocked to protest against their imprisonment. The police reacted by firing on the crowd, killing 10 persons. The mob became more unruly and molested an English woman (who was saved by an Indian) and killed five other Englishmen on 10thApril 1919. Strikes were organized on the 30th March and on 6th April 1919.

That was the state of affairs exactly one century ago, leading finally to the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy in Amritsar.

The Massacre – 1919

Colonel Reginald Dyer was dispatched to control the impending political unrest in Amritsar; on 13th of that April he had the news spread in town in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English that there would be curfew imposition and no more than 4 people could gather around. But that Sunday happened to be the Baisakhi spring harvest festival – and the Sikh new year. People from near and far had gathered in the city for celebrations at the Bagh and at the same time to respond to the present political call for more concerted action against the British. The Bagh was a 6-acre plot of land with a walled-off garden of 200 square yards; there were 5 gates leading to that place – with a Samadhi in the centre and a 20-feet diameter well further away.

On that Sunday Colonel Dyer had sent a plane for intelligence gathering, which reported that some 6000 people had assembled in the Bagh. Some had come from the nearby cattle marketplace which was closed at 1400 hours because of later curfew, and others had dropped in on the way back after prayers at the Golden Temple. In those days of poor communications, and on a festival day most of the people would not have taken cognizance of the official order emitted by Colonel Dyer on that very morning.

That was how a non-violent crowd of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims had gathered for NewYear celebrations in the Garden, and at the same time to respond to the infamous Rowlatt’s Act.

Dyer reacting to that mass movement, and piqued to the extreme by the fate of the woman molested three days earlier, decided that his authority had been transgressed. So he set out with his 2-9th Gurkha, 54th Sikh and the 58th Sind Rifles troops of 60 men in armoured vehicles to set matters straight. He barricaded the main entrances of the garden and ordered his troops to open fire on the peaceful crowd of men, women and children. He never fired in the air to disperse the crowd; they ran, stampeded, and sought shelter at the periphery near the walls where Dyer had them cornered by his troops to carry on with the butchery cold-bloodedly. Within 10 minutes he had exhausted 1650 rounds of munitions and his official figures said that some 379 people died and 1500 wounded. 120 people jumped in the well, hoping to escape death in vain.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Reaction

That massacre shook Indian opinion further, and set throughout the subcontinent a vast movement for more political freedom. Many moderates who had perhaps seen in the British a race of men willing to bring about new changes in their country were disillusioned by the ardour of Dyer’s unprovoked action, epitomized by his cruel, calculated, planned killing.

The British authorities wanted to downplay that massacre; but after the protests of leaders like J. Nehru and the rising Indian National Congress the Hunter Commission was finally set up six months later.

Dyer’s character would come to light when the commission of enquiry got the confirmation from the Brigadier’s very mouth that he never intended to fire in the air to frighten the people. Had he done so, he pointed out, the people would have ran away and would later come back to laugh at him in his face.

So that was why he had his soldiers mow down the people with bullets; they constituted “an easy target” Dyer said! He never regretted his action against those defenceless people, which even included a baby of six weeks.

In 1920, even the much cynical anti-Indian Winston Churchill condemned Dyer’s action in the House of Commons, which finally voted for him to be demoted. But that was to reckon without the elite of the British aristocracy which, through the House of Lords, forgave Brigadier Dyer and pensioned him off handsomely. Meanwhile his colleagues in India had collected some 27000 pound sterling to honour their colleague in arms with a gem-studded sword of honour. This elite British reaction and sympathy for Dyer added more fuel to the already embittered political and civilian revolt gathering momentum in the subcontinent around 1920-22. And it set the ball rolling for the intensification of the ‘Quit India’ campaign.

In his book “The Inglorious Empire” Shashi Tharoor used that massacre to illustrate, for British apologists, the failure of the British to prove that they really had the interest of India at heart. Further he mentioned how Nobel Prize winner Ruyard Kipling even saw in Dyer the “Man who saved India”, to tell us how tribal the British elites and colonialists were after all. For Kipling, Colonel Dyer “did his duty as he saw it”!

Within one month after that Amritsar event, Rabindranath Tagore, refusing the knighthood which the British empire conferred upon him, uttered “Such mass murderers are not worthy of giving any title to anyone.” Jawaharlal Nehru and his friends set up an independent enquiry into that massacre. It was found that more than 379 people had in fact been killed, and some two thousand more were injured.

The Hunter Commission had also come to the conclusion that there were about 10,000 people, not 6000 as Dyer had assumed, at the Garden; and that Dyer, after his punitive action, refused medical help to the injured; by imposing a curfew he prevented other people to attend to the dying and injured. He even declared at the Hunter’s enquiry that if the people were really in need of medical help they could have gone to the public hospitals! That was a century ago.


The British royal family members who visited the site at Jallianwala Bagh in late 20th century never apologized for that massacre; and it was even reported that when Prince Philip was at the Bagh he said that he doubted that so many people were really murdered there. It seemed that he was buddy to the cousin of Colonel Dyer when in the navy. That was in the 1990s! And that was the elite of the ex-British Empire.

Unfortunately, it’s the lingering colonialist mindset. Diego Garcia is a sad reminder of it – even in the 21st century. Though the modest British subjects are different.

* Published in print edition on 12 April 2019

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