Wellington, November 13, 2019
Ekta New Zealand will host Amritsar’s Partition Museum Exhibition: ‘Punjab Under Siege: The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre’ in Wellington from November 21 to November 29, 2019. In this second and concluding part, the Organisation examines the events leading up to the Massacre and why the story is being told once again a hundred years later.
The East India Company
The British formed the East India Company (EIC), on December 31, 1600, and started little forays into India from 1602.
By 1612, it had got Jehangir’s consent to a Commercial Treaty, granting exclusive rights to the Company to establish businesses in areas of Western and Southern India.
Over time, the trade expanded to encompass all India. And from a few guards that the Company initially employed to protect its businesses, the number grew to a few thousand troops by mid-18th century.
Along with it began acquisition of India, starting with Arcot in 1751 and Bengal in 1757 after Palashi (Plassey). Then on, the EIC shifted from operating ‘factories’ to acquiring sovereignty over India and by 1774, the first Governor General of India was appointed.
By 1818, the Company’s supremacy over India was complete.
The ‘Company Raj’ continued till the rebellion of 1857.
Following the failure of the rebellion, power was transferred to the Crown and the Mughal Emperor banished.
India was now British India, British Raj
The decades following the 1857 revolution, political thought was taking root in the Indian psyche partly fuelled by the education that was being received through the British system. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was established and over the next 15 to 20 years, other parties came into being.
Anti-colonial sentiments were brewing and by the eve of World War 1, there were calls for self-rule. The Ghadar Party, set-up in 1913 demanded Independence.
Punjab and Bengal (which the British had divided along faith lines in 1905) in particular, witnessed growing anti-colonial sentiment as the Ghadarites found strong following in the two states.
World War I and After
British India sent over 1.3 million troops to the war fronts for World War I.
Many, especially from the North and the East, volunteered in the belief that after the War, the country will be granted self-rule as these was what the nationalistic parties had demanded of the British.
More than 74,000 Indians were killed in the war.
During the War (1915), the Defence of India Act was introduced.
The Act curtailed many civil and political activities. 1915 also saw the entry of Mahatma Gandhi and the Satyagraha Movement. Although the Act was masqueraded as a war time need, the main reason was to suppress the anti-colonial activity occurring, particularly in the North and the East. One of the strongest proponents of the Act was General Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab.
The Rowlatt Act
The War brought new realisations that the hegemony could be challenged and when the British decided in March 1919 to continue with the draconian laws introduced during the War in the form Rowlatt Act, the scales tipped.
Political leaders openly defied the British as Mohammed Ali Jinnah said …” a Government that passes or sanctions such a law in times of peace forfeits its claim to be called a civilised government.”
Indian leaders calls for boycotts, hartals and bandhs (closures) were met with an unprecedent and furious response across the country especially in Punjab where protests picked up a frenzied pitch.
Additional 20,000 troops were called into Punjab as O’Dwyer feared another 1857 type rebellion. Several leaders of the protest movements were picked up including two senior figures of the Satyagraha movement.
On April 10, 1919, when protestors gathered to demand the release of the two leaders, they were shot at and several were killed, leading to retaliation in which several Britishers were killed.
Peaceful Rally at Jallianwala Bagh
On April 12, 1919, the protest leaders decided to hold a peaceful public rally at the Jallianwala Bagh on the following day (April 13, 2019) at 430 pm.
The evening time was chosen to accommodate thousands of pilgrims coming from villages surrounding Amritsar to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple to mark the Holy Day of Baisakhi and to participate in the annual Horse and Cattle Fair that took place on that day.
In the morning, the Acting Military Commander of Amritsar, Colonel Reginal Dyer, restricted entry/exit to and from the City with immediate effect, and knowing about the planned meeting at the Bagh (Garden), he closed the Horse and Cattle Fair.
By mid afternoon over 10 to 20,000 people had gathered at the Bagh. At 4.30 once the meeting had started, Dyer entered the city with 90 troops 50 of whom were armed with Rifles and 2 armoured cars mounted with machine guns. The armoured cars were not able to get into the Bagh area because of the narrow alley ways.
Without warning and after blocking of all the main exists, Dyer ordered his troops to fire and that too into the densest part of the crowd. Firing continued until the troops ran out of bullets.
All in 379 men, women and children were killed and over 1500 injured.
In his testimony, Dyer said without that he would have also used the machine guns if the armoured cars could have been able to get in as his purpose “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
The British government tried to suppress the information until December of 1919 but could not hold it off, when forced by the outrage from the Indian media and the people.
Dyer did not face any legal nor military prosecution. He was however removed of his appointment and disallowed from serving in India any further.
He retired in July 1920 retaining the rank of Colonel.
The above article was sent to us by Ekta New Zealand Coordinator Sunita Kaur Musa