The European imperial powers committed many atrocities during their period of world domination. However, the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in northern India, also known as the Jallianwala Massacre, surely ranks as one of the most senseless and egregious.
For more than sixty years, British officials in the Raj had viewed the people of India with mistrust, having been caught off-guard by the Indian Revolt of 1857. During World War I (1914-18), the majority of Indians supported the British in their war effort against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, more than 1.3 million Indians served as soldiers or support staff during the war, and more than 43,000 died fighting for Britain.
The British knew, however, that not all Indians were willing to support their colonial rulers. In 1915, some of the most radical Indian nationalists took part in a plan called the Ghadar Mutiny, which called for soldiers in the British Indian Army to revolt in the midst of the Great War. The Ghadar Mutiny never happened, as the organization planning the revolt was infiltrated by British agents and the ring-leaders arrested. Nevertheless, it increased hostility and distrust among British officers toward the people of India.
On March 10, 1919, the British passed a law called the Rowlatt Act, which only increased disaffection in India. The Rowlatt Act authorized the government to imprison suspected revolutionaries for up to two years without a trial. People could be arrested without a warrant, had no right to confront their accusers or see the evidence against them, and lost the right to a jury trial. It also placed strict controls on the press. The British immediately arrested two prominent political leaders in Amritsar who were affiliated with Mohandas Gandhi; the men disappeared into the prison system.
Over the following month, violent street scuffles broke out between Europeans and Indians in the streets of Amritsar. The local military commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, issued orders that Indian men had to crawl on hands and knees along the public street, and could be publicly lashed for approaching British police officers. On April 13, the British government banned gatherings of more than four people.
Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh
On the very afternoon that freedom of assembly was retracted, April 13, thousands of Indians gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh gardens in Amritsar. Sources say that as many as 15,000 to 20,000 people packed into the small space. General Dyer, certain that the Indians were beginning an insurrection, led a group of sixty-five Gurkhas and twenty-five Baluchi soldiers from Iran through the narrow passages of the public garden. Fortunately, the two armored cars with machine guns mounted on top were too wide to fit through the passageway and remained outside.
The soldiers blocked all of the exits. Without issuing any warning, they opened fire, aiming for the most crowded parts of the throng. People screamed and ran for the exits, trampling one another in their terror, only to find each way blocked by soldiers. Dozens jumped into a deep well in the garden to escape the gunfire, and drowned or were crushed instead. The authorities imposed a curfew on the city, preventing families from aiding the wounded or finding their dead all night. As a result, many of the injured likely bled to death in the garden.
The shooting went on for ten minutes; more than 1,600 shell casings were recovered. Dyer only ordered a ceasefire when the troops ran out of ammunition. Officially, the British reported that 379 people were killed; it's likely that the actual toll was closer to 1,000.
The colonial government tried to suppress news of the massacre both within India and in Britain. Slowly, however, word of the horror got out. Within India, ordinary people became politicized, and nationalists lost all hope that the British government would deal with them in good faith, despite India's massive contribution to the recent war efforts.
In Britain, the general public and the House of Commons reacted with outrage and disgust to news of the massacre. General Dyer was called to give testimony about the incident. He testified that he surrounded the protestors and did not give any warning before giving the order to fire because he did not seek to disperse the crowd, but to punish the people of India generally. He also stated that he would have used the machine guns to kill many more people, had he been able to get them into the garden. Even Winston Churchill, no great fan of the Indian people, decried this monstrous event. He called it "an extraordinary event, a monstrous event."
General Dyer was relieved of his command on grounds of mistaking his duty, but he was never prosecuted for the murders. The British government has yet to formally apologize for the incident.
Some historians, such as Alfred Draper, believe that the Amritsar Massacre was key in bringing down the British Raj in India. Most believe that Indian independence was inevitable by that point, but that the callous brutality of the massacre made the struggle that much more bitter.
Sources Collett, Nigel. The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer, London: Continuum, 2006.
Lloyd, Nick. The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.
Sayer, Derek. "British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919-1920," Past & Present, No. 131 (May 1991), pp. 130-164.