A century ago, on April 13, 1919, British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters in India, an act of savagery for which London has belligerently refused to apologize.
The number of casualties in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, known in the West as the Amritsar massacre, is unclear. Colonial-era records show 379 deaths while Indian figures put the number at closer to 1,000.
In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, expanding draconian measures imposed during World War I (1914-18).
These included incarceration without trial, and sparked widespread anger, particularly in the northern Punjab region, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for a nationwide general strike.
In Amritsar news that prominent Indian leaders had been arrested and banished from that city sparked violent demonstrations on April 10.
These saw soldiers fire upon civilians, buildings looted and burned, while angry mobs killed several foreign citizens and attacked a Christian missionary.
Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was tasked with restoring order and imposed measures including a ban on public assembly.
On the afternoon of April 13, some 10,000 people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, an area in Amritsar enclosed by high walls with only one way out.
It was also Baisakhi, a harvest festival in northern India.
The crowd included men, women, children and pilgrims who were visiting the nearby Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism. Some estimates put the crowd at 20,000.
‘The Butcher of Amritsar’
Dyer, later dubbed “The Butcher of Amritsar,” reached the spot with dozens of soldiers and sealed off the exit.
Suddenly, he ordered the soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowd. Many tried unsuccessfully to escape by climbing the walls. Others jumped into an open well.
Reportedly the troops fired until they ran out of ammunition, letting off hundreds of rounds into the crowd before withdrawing.
The Indian Express newspaper earlier this week shared eyewitness accounts compiled by two historians. They included Mani Ram, whose 13-year-old son Madan Mohan used to play in the square with his friends.
“I, with eight or nine others, had to search for about half an hour till I could pick up his corpse as it was mixed up with hundreds of dead bodies lying in heaps there,” Ram said.
Dyer said later that the firing was “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
The event marked a nadir in Britain’s occupation of India and served to boost Indian nationalism and harden support for independence.
Reaction in Britain varied, with Dyer receiving support in the House of Lords and not least from Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have called him “the man who saved India.”
Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, called the massacre “monstrous.” Former prime minister Herbert Asquith called it “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… [P]inned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square,” said Churchill.
Dyer was removed from command and died in 1927.
Demands by several past Indian leaders and politicians for Britain to apologize for the massacre have been ignored.
In 1997 the Queen laid a wreath at a site during a tour of India. But her notoriously gaffe-prone husband Prince Philip sparked outrage when he declared that the Indian estimates for the death count were “vastly exaggerated.”
In 2013 David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He described the episode as “deeply shameful” but stopped short of a public apology.
“We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world,” Cameron wrote in the visitors’ book.
He later defended his decision not to say sorry, explaining that the massacre happened 40 years before he was born and saying: “I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for.”
Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday told parliament that Britain “deeply regretted what happened and the suffering caused.” But she too refused to apologize.
Britain’s colonial brutality at the time was not restricted to the subcontinent. The year after the massacre in India, Britain committed a similar atrocity against unarmed civilians in Ireland’s capital. While there were far fewer casualties, it had a comparable impact on the national psyche, hardening opposition to British rule and inspiring many to take up arms for the cause of independence. On November 21, 1920, paramilitaries opened fire on spectators at a Gaelic football match in Dublin’s Croke Park, killing 14 civilians and wounding at least 60 others.
The attack, which was carried out in retaliation for an IRA operation targeting British intelligence agents, is known as “Bloody Sunday.” However, the appellation has become more commonly associated with an attack on unarmed civilians by British troops decades later in Derry, Northern Ireland. On January 30, 1972, paratroopers shot 28 Catholics during a protest march against internment. Fourteen people died.
– with reporting by AFP