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Hidden Histories: Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre

As part of our Hidden Histories series, this post focuses on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and its 100th anniversary on April 13th. It will discuss what happened during this episode in British imperial history, and offer practical ways to stimulate discussion with students to encourage a critical examination of the nature of the British empire in India.


As part of a true anti-racist education, the ways in which we look at history and how it is taught has to be a central concern for educators. Part of what has led me to this conclusion has come as a result of reflecting upon my own history education. Things which stick out in my mind include Churchill saving us from Nazism, how the USA vanquished racism with MLK and “I Have a Dream”, and how we ended slavery.


What all these ostensibly disconnected bits of the past highlighted was the inherent goodness of current intellectual and political hierarchies: while there may have been errors along the way, society follows, and always will follow, a path to greater freedom, awareness, tolerance. Britain’s presence in India was often a topic for conversation, and it largely went that the British were in India for a long time, brought back tea for us to drink, built the railroads, and gave the Indians democracy and all the best features of British liberalism. It was largely a good thing, but had to end.


Were the British just tired? This is one of the arguments for why the colonial period came to an end: World War II happened and there was simply little capacity to keep up a colony of a few hundred million people. It had done lots of good, but now was time to come back home and give the Indians a chance at home rule. We could marvel at the hundreds of kilometres of rail, majestic Raj architecture, and scores of British people who “found themselves” while serving for the imperial administration, but attention now had to be paid to a ravaged British Isles and its rebuilding.


What this conveniently leaves out is any sense of contestation or complexity, akin to much else that we are given in history teaching. As many authors have shown, the Raj was a bloody enterprise largely focused on the extraction of resources to the benefit of the British, and aided by the violence of the state and curtailing of a whole manner of civil liberties presumed to be synonymous with Britishness. One episode which shows this clearly is the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, of which today is its 100th anniversary.



Officers pay respects on the 100th anniversary of the massacre

On April 13th, 1919, Colonel Dyer and his soldiers opened fire on a group of peaceful protestors and pilgrims at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The protest at a recent curtailing of civil liberties like freedom of assembly and the press was interpreted by the colonial administration as an unjustifiable act of sedition and duly acted upon as such with force and bullets. The massacre served as a rallying call to many around India and back in Britain to condemn the mundane and extreme cruelty of the Raj, spurring on such figures as Gandhi and Nehru to more forcefully denounce the British and set the stage for more campaigns aimed at expelling the colonists.

Marked-out bullet holes from the massacre

This is a critical episode for students to look at and consider the alternative to many accounts of British imperialism: maybe it wasn’t a good thing. Quite possibly the whole enterprise was founded upon the labour and death of Indian, non-white subjects whose fate, still to this day, has yet to be apologised for (let alone any soul-searching over the British empire as a whole). It also emphasises the context of civil disobedience and active resistance against British rule, and how much fear it gave to people like Colonel Dyer.

Above is the ‘why’ for teaching about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The ‘how’ is necessarily going to be different for different teaching in working in a whole range of schools, but here are a few suggestions of topics it could be taught in:


· World War I (many Indian soldiers who fought for the British were part of the civil disobedience after the war ended in 1918)

· PSHE and teaching about racism

· RMPS: teaching about tolerance and injustice

· The Commonwealth


Generally such topics would be taught in the upper stages of primary, and throughout secondary stages. Jallianwala Bagh can also be taught as a stand-alone lesson, depending on how much knowledge your students have of the British Empire. Below is a timeline to aid your own understanding of the massacre and the events that preceded and followed. After is a series of discussion points to pose to students.


Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre timeline


1915: Defence of India Act

· Piece of legislation brought in to limit civil and political liberties in the wake of a series of quashed mutinies in Bengal and Punjab. Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, a strong proponent of the Act


1917: First round of political reform in India. Deemed insufficient by the leadership. Gandhi unsatisfied.


1919: Rowlatt Act passed

· Designed to further limit civil liberties; extension of Defence of India Act. In response to Ghadar conspiracy, still-active revolutionary movement in Punjab and Bengal. Sedition Committee evaluate links to Germany and Bolshevism

o Indefinite detention

o Incarceration without trial

o Strict control of the press

o Accused denied right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial

· Muhammad Ali Jinnah resigns from Bombay set in opposition

· Gandhi calls for protests

· Situation in Punjab deteriorate; 5,000 converge on Amritsa

· O’Dwyer sees it as the start of a revolt like the 1857 mutiny


10th April 1919: protest at residence of Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar to demand release of Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew (proponents of the Satyagraha movement of Gandhi)

· Military shoots and kills protestors; retaliatory attacks on British unit


11th April: Marcella Sherwood, English missionary, kicked and beaten and left for dead


13th April: Most of Punjab put under martial law in response to civil unrest


12th April: Hans Raj, aide to Kitchlew, announces public protest to be held at JB in response to Rowlatt Act


13th April: Protest day

· Pass system implemented in Amritsar to control movement in and out of the city

· Mid-afternoon: thousands of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims gather at JB. Other people there for the annual Vaisakhi horse and cattle fair

· Dyer brings several groups of soldiers to surround JB; armed with heavy weapons. Unarmed protestors

· Main entrance guarded by troops; few other narrow entrances

· Dyer orders troops to shoot without warning; ten minutes of continuous firing

· Deaths from bullets, stampedes at narrow exits, people jumping into central well

· The injuries not allowed to be moved; no aid permitted

· Congress casualty numbers: 1000 killed, 500 injured


19th April: Colonel Reginald Dyer orders Indians using a central street to crawl its length on hands and knees in response to assault on Marcella Sherwood

· Dyer: “Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too”

· Also authorises public whipping of Indians


Reaction

· House of Commons votes against Dyer; Churchill calls it “monstrous”; others supportive for “saving the rule of British law in India”

· Rabindranath Tagore renounces British knighthood. Writing to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, “I… wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings

· Also, “… the time has come when badges of honour make our shame flaring in the incongruous context of humiliation”


14th October 1919: Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, orders Hunter Commission into events

· Dyer questioned, saying he intended to fire upon an assembled crowd

o “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself”

o He said the crowd were “rebels… trying to isolate my forces and cut me off from other supplies. Therefore, I considered it my duty to fire on them and fire well”.

o His intention was to strike terror throughout the Punjab

o When asked why he did not tend to the wounded: “It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there”


Findings of the Commission

· Lack of notice to disperse from the JB in the beginning was an error

· The length of firing showed a grave error

· Dyer’s motive of producing a sufficient moral effect was to be condemned

· Dyer had overstepped the bounds of his authority

· There had been no conspiracy to overthrow British rule in the Punjab

· Dyer’s actions had been ‘inhuman and un-British’ and had greatly injured the image of British rule in India


No prosecution due to “political reasons”. Recommended for CBE for service during Third Afghan War


13th March 1940: Udham Singh assassinates Michael O’Dwyer at Caxton Hall, London

· Many in support; called a freedom fighter. Times newspaper calls him “an expression of the pent-up fury of the down-trodden Indian people”

· Singh at the court:

o “I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.

o “I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country”

· Named a Shaheed (official title of martyr) by Indian government


These days…

13th Oct 1997: Queen makes some kind of a recognition of JB calling it a “difficult episode”

· Prince Philip comments that death toll on plaque must be “too high”

February 2013: David Cameron visits and calls Jallianwala Bagh massacre “deeply shameful” but does not deliver an official apology

2016: Kate and William skip Jallianwala Bagh on their India itinerary


Discussion points

Examine the wording of the commission’s findings. What did they conclude were Dyer’s biggest failings? What did the commission not condemn?


What might have been the different motivations of Indians to protest against the Rowlatt Act?


How do the other decisions made by O’Dwyer and Dyer help us understand better the motivations behind the massacre?


Why were the British so threatened by this group of protestors and others like it throughout India?


What were the differing reactions in the UK to the massacre? What might have been the motivations behind people in favour of Dyer’s actions, and those against?


How critical was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Britain eventually leaving India?