On April 13, 1919, in the walled gardens of Jallianwala Bagh (a public garden) in the northwestern city of Amritsar, India, British soldiers brutally ended the lives of around 1,000 peaceful Indian protesters.
Last Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of this unjustified massacre of innocent citizens in this city, a mere 15 miles from the Pakistan border.
India had been under British colonial rule since the mid-18th century (read our earlier article here). In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Rowlatt Act which extended their wartime emergency powers (enacted during World War 1) into times of peace as well, which meant people could be jailed without trial.
When this news, along with the arrest and banishment of prominent Indian leaders, reached the public, widespread anger erupted. On April 10th, violent protests led to severe punishment from British soldiers. On April 11, officials prohibited public assembly and warned that they would disperse any organized gatherings.
But on April 13, the violence reached a mortifying height. Around 20,000 Indian citizens peacefully protested in Jallianwala Bagh, although some were pilgrims simply visiting the nearby Golden Temple. Brig. Gen. Reginald Harry Dyer, a British officer tasked with keeping order, met the protesters with lethal force. His soldiers fired for ten long minutes, leading to the deaths of at least 379 men, women, and children alike, as well as over 1,000 injuries (although the Indian Government estimated 1,000 casualties and 1,500 injuries).
Since it was a walled-park with only one exit, people were trapped with no way to escape. At the time, the general–dubbed “The Butcher of Amritsar” by Indians–claimed it had been a necessary measure and the British public praised him for his quick actions.
Yet to Indians, “Jallianwala Bagh” stood for the unjustified violence that took place. To many, this tragedy sparked the beginning of the movement to end unwanted British colonial rule over India.
Apology Not Accepted
India freed itself from British rule in 1947. However, demands for a formal apology from the British government for this inhumane incident still fall on deaf ears.
In 2013, David Cameron, the first British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh while in office, described the event as “deeply shameful,” but fell short of formally apologizing. He later stated, “I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for.” Past UK leaders have shared this sentiment. Nevertheless, the urge for a proper apology persists.
On April 10, 2019, British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a short statement in the House of Commons (UK’s lower house of Parliament): “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.” Needless to say, not all Indians were fully satisfied by this brief statement and also criticized the tone of her remarks. However, Lord Meghnad Desai, one of the British lawmakers who pushed for a proper apology, admitted he feared that when Britain atoned one past national crime, calls to do so for countless other events might follow.
Today Jallianwala Bagh remains both a beloved public garden and a sad memorial. The Government of India erected the grand memorial statue in 1951 to honor the victims of the historic massacre. Hopefully, someday, a formal state recognition of the lives lost will finally settle the dust.
Sources: NYTimes, AFP, Britannica