A Hundred Years of Amnesia

What we chose not to remember on the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh

01 June 2019
The Indian mainstream ignores certain historical debates on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre as they indicate partial involvement of Indian natives in the incident.
vibhu bahl / alamy
The Indian mainstream ignores certain historical debates on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre as they indicate partial involvement of Indian natives in the incident.
vibhu bahl / alamy

About a hundred years ago, over the month of April 1919, the city of Amritsar was a site of massive unrest. During the First World War, Punjab was a hub of anti-colonial activity. The passage of the Rowlatt Act—a colonial law meant to curb sedition—was seen as an attack on Indian civil liberties and Mohandas Gandhi’s call to protest the law led to a vigorous response in Amritsar. On 10 April, there were violent clashes between the British Indian military and protestors.

On the evening of 12 April, Hans Raj, a 23-year-old aide of the freedom-movement leader Saifuddin Kitchlew, attended a meeting of nationalists at the Hindu College in Amritsar. Hans Raj informed the attendees about another meeting that had been planned for the next day at the Jallianwala Bagh, to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi and to peacefully protest the arrest and deportation of two nationalist leaders, Satya Pal and Kitchlew.

Hans Raj had been crucial in the organisation of the meeting, and had helped build a platform in the middle of the bagh, from where the crowd could be addressed. By mid afternoon on 13 April, thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had gathered in the bagh, most of whom were peasants, domestic workers, craftsmen and artisans from nearby villages.

At around 5 pm, troops of the British Indian Army, led by the brigadier general Reginald Dyer, arrived at the bagh in two military vehicles. Upon seeing the troops, the crowd began to panic, but Hans Raj assured the crowd that the soldiers would not open fire. This was a lie.

According to the Hunter commission, set up by the colonial government to investigate the incident, 1,650 rounds were fired and 379 people were killed (the count was higher in most other estimates). Witnesses have testified that Hans Raj escaped and went missing for days after what came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Almost a week later, Hans Raj emerged as a British approver in the Amritsar Conspiracy trials, and helped the British authorities convict Kitchlew and Pal, among other leaders. According to the historian VN Datta, the British authorities helped Hans Raj move to West Asia, while a crowd burnt down his house in Amritsar.

Manik Sharma writes on arts, culture, books and film.

Keywords: history Jallianwala Bagh colonial rule Atrocities nationalism
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