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Jallianwala Bagh at 100: myth versus reality

The narrow entrance to Jallianwala Bagh has little to scare the visitor today. It leads conveniently into an open garden where tourists sit by flowering bushes and a red-stone monument. A pillared corridor leads one to a small museum. Neat pathways branch off to the other sites in the park. Though there is little solemnity and awe at the Bagh itself today, the massacre that took place here 100 years ago lives on in our national consciousness as an extreme expression of racialised colonial violence. The firing without warning on an unarmed and innocent crowd by Brigadier-General Dyer has become a byword for brutality. The crawling order, under which Indians were made to crawl on their bellies in the nearby lane in which an Englishwoman was attacked, has become the very embodiment of national shame. And the shooting of Sir Michael O’Dwyer by his relentless pursuer, Udham Singh, is remembered as the final act of revenge.

But symbolic memory, however convenient, is not sufficient; facts are the bones of history and it is the historian’s duty to ensure that they remain firm and ungarbled. Else we become easy targets of revisionist historians who find ready material to accuse us of nationalist myth-making. The counterpoint is also true: if some questionable facts are too readily accepted or open questions allowed to be hastily closed, then the generations to come will never know better.

For the present purpose, let us take three issues and ensure that they are clarified.

First, the number of people who were killed on 13 April 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh. Most articles appearing on the occasion of the centenary put this at 379. If the nuance around this figure is not pointed out, then in the years to come, this will be taken as incontrovertible. The first report on the shooting, drafted by Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner, Miles Irving, and sent to Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor, Michael O’Dwyer, in Lahore that night, put the crowd at some 5,000 and the figure of those killed at “about 200.” In his diary on April 14, the Chief Secretary of Punjab, JP Thompson, noted: “200—300 killed in a garden.” Dyer himself, in his first report on 14 April, estimated the crowd at about 5,000, of which between 200 and 300 were killed. In the first reports in London’s media, this figure had come down to 200 and the British Government in London knew no better as the officials in India made no effort to correct this impression. The truth is that Dyer’s strike force of 50 rifles fired 1,650 rounds in 10 to 15 minutes. The quick casualty figures were based on wartime experience and pointed to one man killed for every six bullets fired. But the situation in Amritsar was very different: the shooting was at point-blank range in an enclosed space and at a densely packed crowd, not in an open landscape at distant targets.

Eyewitness accounts quickly showed these figures to be a gross underestimate. The crowd was estimated by various sources to be anything between 10,000 and 30,000 and the number killed put variously at 800 to 1,000 and even more. The Principal of Amritsar’s Khalsa College, Gerard Wathen, put the figure at 1,042; Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya estimated 1,000 dead and Gandhi asserted that this figure would be no less than 1,500. A charitable organisation, the Sewa Samiti, did a house-to-house survey and traced 530 killed. However, all of this was information collected in an atmosphere of fear in which people, worried about government reprisals, were unwilling to talk openly about the event. The Deputy Commissioner issued a proclamation in August for people to come forward with names of dead relatives and ended up with a list of 291. Subsequently, this list was reconciled by the authorities with the Sewa Samiti estimate and brought to 379. While this figure is obviously too low—even British officers admitted the scope for error—the Sewa Samiti figures were nearer reality, and with no evidence emerging for the higher figures quoted, form a plausible estimate of those killed to be at least 500—600, if not more. Those wounded would be about three times that number and the total crowd placed somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000. The figure of 379 must not be allowed to become the truth.

A second ‘fact’ often loosely mentioned, and shown in some illustrations, is that Dyer used a machine gun to mow down the crowd. The reality is that Dyer took two armoured cars (shown in photographs in the archives of the 25th London Regiment) with him to Jallianwala Bagh, which had Vickers machine guns mounted on them, but the narrow alley that led to the Bagh necessitated that these armoured cars were left outside. It is important to note that when questioned later by Sir Chimanlal Setalvad in the Hunter Committee whether he would have used the machine guns had he been able to bring them into the Bagh, Dyer replied: “I think, probably, yes.” The weapon used by the sepoys was the short magazine Lee-Enfield firing a .303 Mark VI bullet. This had a muzzle velocity of 2,000ft per second, was deadly accurate to 500 yards, with a range of 3,000 yards. The projectile was designed to fragment easily if it encountered bone or organ, and caused lethal damage. Although the rifle was designed for rapid fire, the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh was deliberate and targeted. The machine gun theory needs to be debunked lest it gives an impression of lazy exaggeration.

Front page of the Daily Herald in 1940, reporting the assassination of Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Photo: John Frost Newspapers / Alamy Stock Photo

A third loose statement one hears is that Udham Singh ‘shot the wrong Dyer’. He did not: first, he knew fully well that the man he was pursuing was not the man who had ordered fire at the Bagh, but the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, who was as much to blame, if not more, for the atrocities carried out. These are detailed in a separate chapter of the Punjab Inquiry Report led by the Indian National Congress: arbitrary arrests under the Defence of India Act during the War, the defence of the indefensible Rowlatt Act, the gagging of the press, coercive contributions and recruitment for the War, the vicious crackdown on the Ghadar conspirators and the reign of terror launched under martial law after the Amritsar massacre marked him out as a tyrant in the eyes of the Punjab citizenry. He talked up a non-existent threat of widespread conspiracy, anarchy and open rebellion—in fact another 1857—and used that as a justification for his crackdowns. The Punjab Inquiry report concluded that Sir Michael O’Dwyer was “determined to crush all political consciousness by any means he could think of.” Perhaps most incriminating, in the minds of many, was the fact that O’Dwyer approved ex post facto Dyer’s action at Jallianwala Bagh and vigorously defended Dyer afterwards.

Let the centenary then be an occasion not only to commemorate but to recall—to recall soberly, correctly and with respect. The history of Jallianwala Bagh needs no over-writing. It is shocking enough in its starkness.


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