Should India Wait Beyond 100 Years for UK Apology for Jalianwalla Bagh massacre?
- By John B. Monteiro

April 9, 2019

“I hate imperialism. I detest colonialism. And I fear the consequences of their last bitter struggle for life. We are determined that our nation, and the world as a whole, shall not be the plaything of one small corner of the world.” – Sukarno (1901-1970), Indonesian President from 1945 to 1967 – leader of the country’s struggle for Independence from Netherlands.

Sukarno’s quote on imperialism and colonialism applies to Indians as they brace to mark the centenary, on April 13, 2019, of the infamous Jalianwalla Bagh massacre, also called Amritsar Massacre. For the historic recall of that event that took place hundred years ago, let us fall back on records of the event nearly down a century.

Jalianwala Bagh Massacre, popularly known as the Amritsar Massacre, took place on April 13, 1919, at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab. It marks one of the major heinous political crimes committed by the Britishers during the twentieth century. It is named after the famous Jallianwala Bagh, which is a public garden stretched over an area of seven acres, with walls covering all of its sides.

Since the beginning of the World War I, there had been an increasing resentment and civil unrest throughout India due to the terrible repercussions of the war, like inflation, heavy taxation, a huge number of dead and wounded soldiers that contributed immensely in uniting India against the British rule. The worsening civil unrest led to the formation of Rowlatt Committee in 1919. The Rowlatt Act allowed certain political cases to be tried without the presence of a jury and permitted internment of suspects without any trial. This is the time when Mahatma Gandhi came on the scene as a revolutionary. The Act resulted in furious protests throughout India. The unrest became worst especially in Punjab..

There were demonstrations held at the residence of Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar to demand the release of two popular leaders of the Indian Independence Movement - Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. There were violent protests that resulted in the burning of the Town Hall and Railway station, disruption of telegraphs and communication system. It resulted in many deaths including a few deaths of the European government officials as well as civilians.

Due to all these activities, the city of Amritsar witnessed a few days of calm while other parts of Punjab suffered. The British Government decided to place most of Punjab under Martial Law. Restrictions were placed on the civil liberties that banned public gatherings and prohibited assembly of four or more people.

On April 13, 1919, thousands of people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab. This day marked the beginning of New Year for the Sikhs and is also celebrated as Baisakhi festival all over Punjab. People travelled days to reach Punjab on this auspicious day to celebrate Baisakhi with their family and loved ones. On the morning of Baisakhi, Colonel Reginald Dyer had announced the implementation of a curfew throughout Amritsar and a ban on all processions that even prohibited a group of four or more people to meet together publicly. At about 12:40 PM, Dyer received confidential information about the meeting taking place at Jallianwala Bagh that may result in riots and protests. By midday, thousands of people had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh including the devotees at Harmandir Sahib. Jallianwala Bagh was enclosed on all sides by walls reaching up to 10 feet. It had narrow entrances, most of which were locked. The place was choked with devotees, traders, farmers and merchants who visited Amritsar to enjoy the festival and witness the Baisakhi horse and cattle fair. Sensing the number of people present there and the supposed secret meeting that was going to take place at 4:30 PM, General Dyer arrived there with armed troops.

The main entrance was guarded by the armed troops. There were armoured cars accompanying the troops that were supposedly carrying machine guns and explosives. On Dyer's orders, there was ruthless firing done on the civilian crowd. There were about 25,000 people present there at the time of firing. Some tried to escape while some chose to jump into the well built on the premises of Jallianwala Bagh. The troops were ordered to start shooting on the most densely crowded spot to harm the maximum number of people. This heinous act of violence resulted in extensive mass killing. The firing continued for about 10 minutes, and it only ceased when the ammunition supplies were almost exhausted. The scattered dead bodies could not even be moved due to the curfew. Colonel Dyer reportedly carried out this firing not just to disperse the meeting, but to punish the Indians for disobeying his orders. In a telegram sent by British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Colonel Dyer's actions were supposed to be correct and approved by him. Further, the British Lieutenant even asked the Viceroy to implement martial law in Punjab.

The number of deaths caused due to the firing had been a disputed issue. While the official enquiry by the British informed about 379 deaths, the death toll was quoted to be around 1,000 by Congress. There were about 120 dead bodies recovered from the well itself.

Keeping in mind the significance of this place in the history of India, a trust was founded in 1920 to build a memorial site at Jallianwala Bagh. American architect, Benjamin Polk, built the memorial on the site which was inaugurated by the then President of India, Rajendra Prasad, on April 13, 1961. The monument and the adjoining buildings exhibit the bullet marks on their walls and depict the excruciating pain that the people suffered that day. The well that rescued numerous people from the bullets fired by the troops is also preserved in the compound of the park. This historical monument is visited by many tourists throughout the year to recollect the struggles faced by Indians to free India from the shackles of slavery. It is located near the renowned Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar.

A box alongside focuses on the villain of this treacherous colonial misadventure that killed hundreds and maimed many times more.

“The deed is done; what to do with the dagger?” is a familiar English expression. Obviously we cannot bring back the dead to life and even the maimed would have been dead long ago. But India, as also UK, believe in the soul of the dead and sentiments of generations of their successors. That brings us to the Biblical passage on forgiving. In Matthew, Jesus says that church members should forgive each other “seventy times seven times” (18:22), a number that symbolizes boundlessness.

This has not remained a biblical text ideal. Over the last several decades there has been a record of nations and public officials apologising for harm done to nations, communities and individuals. In Australia, for instance, on May 26, 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament. The date May 26 carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. An older indigenous protest day is the Day of Mourning, which originated in 1938, focusing on land loss and mistreatment.

The 1997 Bringing Them Home report recommended that the Prime Minister apologise to the Stolen Generation. Prime Minister John Howard refused to do so, stating that he "did not subscribe to the black armband view of history". On August 29, 1999, Prime Minister John Howard moved a Motion of Reconciliation, which included an expression of "deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices" The opposition leader, Kim Beazley, moved to replace John Howard's motion of regret with an unreserved apology which was not successful. In response, a popular movement evolved to celebrate "sorry day" in the absence of formal political recognition from the conservative government.

On February13, 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd moved a motion of Apology to the Indigenous Australian "Stolen Generation". The apology was the new parliament's first order of business; Rudd became the first Australian Prime Minister to publicly apologise to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian federal government.

Great Brit ain is no stranger to offering apology. The then British Prime minister, David Cameron offered an apology before the House of Commons, on June 15, 2010 for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killing of 14 unarmed protesters in Northern Ireland.

David Cameron was the first British Prime Minister to visit the memorial at Jaliawala Bagh on February 20, 2013. For many who had hoped for a full and formal apology for the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, UK Prime Minister’s floral tributes at the martyrs’ memorial and his comments in the visitors’ book did not go far enough. Staying close to the position that Winston Churchill took, Mr. Cameron said that Jallianwala Bagh was a “deeply shameful event in British history”. Mr. Churchill, the then (1919) Secretary for War, had called the incident an “outrage”. Mr. Cameron later said that the incident had happened 40 years before he was born and it will not be “the right thing to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for”.

The present British Prime Minister, Theresa May, swamped by Brexit problems may not find the time and inclination to wade into this issue which is less than a week away – on April 13. Sometimes people rise to great heights in the midst of crisis. May PM May rise to the occasion!


Reginald Dyer 

Reginald Edward Harry Dyer ( born October 9, 1864,at Murree, India (now in Pakistan)—died July 23, 1927 in England), British general remembered for his role in the Massacre of Amritsar in India, in 1919.

Dyer was commissioned in the West Surrey Regiment in 1885 and subsequently transferred to the Indian Army. He campaigned in Burma in 1886–87 and took part in a blockade of Waziristan (now in Pakistan) in 1901–02. During World War I (1914–18) he had charge of the Eastern Persian cordon, the purpose of which was to prevent German crossings into Afghanistan.

Dyer was brigade commander at Jalandhar, southeast of Amritsar, in early 1919. Following the outbreak of rioting and violence in Amritsar in April—which included the killing of four Europeans and the beating of a woman missionary—he moved his troops to that city to restore order there; one of the stipulations was a ban on public gatherings. On April 13 Dyer’s troops confronted a gathering of thousands of Indians in an enclosed area in the city, Jalianwala Bagh, and he ordered them to open fire. According to an official report, his troops killed 379 unarmed Indian men, women, and children and wounded some 1,200. As a result, Dyer was removed from command into enforced retirement. The matter received international attention, and Indian nationalists turned the site into a martyrs’ memorial.


About author:

John B. Monteiro (Veteran Journalist and Author)

John B. Monteiro, 81-year-old Indian author, started his career as a lecturer at St. Aloysius and later drifted into journalism and corporate communications (with Larsen & Toubro).

After forty years in Bombay, he now lives a retired life in Mangalore since 2000. He has written three books – Corruption - Control of Maladministration, some current Issues for Debate and Corruption- India’s Painful Crawl to Lokpal. He has written extensively for newspapers, magazines and websites.


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Title : Should India Wait Beyond 100 Years for UK Apology for Jalianwalla Bagh massacre?

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  • Rahda V, Preston UK
    Tue, Apr 9 2019

    Informative read. I do not know if youngster in Britian know about the British past, i am happy that my children growing up have seen the multicultural acceptance of Britian today and not the shamefull British empire 100 years ago. Good learning for youngsters about History both Indian and British

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