By Subir Ghosh
In just about a week’s time, the country should observe the 96th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. On the afternoon of April 13, 1919, some 10,000 or more unarmed men, women, and children gathered, along with Baishakhi pilgrims,in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab to protest against the arrest of two leaders. An hour after the meeting began, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, the military commander of Amritsar, arrived with a group of sixty-five Gurkha and twenty-five Balochi soldiers into the Bagh. Fifty of them were armed with .303 Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. Dyer had also brought two armored cars armed with machine guns; however, the vehicles were left outside, as they were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrance.
The Jallianwala Bagh was surrounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had a few narrow entrances. Most of them were kept permanently locked. The main entrance was guarded heavily by the troops backed by the armoured vehicles. Dyer—without warning the crowd to disperse—blocked the main exits. On his orders, the army fired on the crowd for ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to run out. Dyer ordered his troops to begin shooting toward the densest sections of the crowd. Firing continued for nearly ten minutes. Cease-fire was ordered only when ammunition supplies were almost exhausted, after approximately 1,650 rounds were spent. Many 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.
Dyer explained later that this act “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
Official sources gave a figure of 379 identified dead, with approximately 1,100 wounded. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with approximately 1,000 dead. Dyer was initially lauded by conservative forces in the empire, but in July 1920 he was censured and forced to retire by the House of Commons. He became a celebrated hero in Britain among most of the people connected to the British Raj, for example, the House of Lords. The poet Rabindranath Tagore, as a mark of protest, renounced his knighthood (the title Sir) that the British Government had conferred on him a few years back. Let us forgive but not forget.
True, Dyer met his nememsis in Udham Singh, the great martyr and revolutionary, in a London street in 1940.
(The writer is a Principal at Bharatiya Vidya Bhaban, Asutosh College of Communication and Management in Kolkata)