The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh saw more than 500 unarmed Indian men, women and children killed by British army riflemen. One hundred years on, families say the wounds still have not healed. Adam Withnallreports from Amritsar
The walled garden at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar is unrecognisable today from the spring of 1919, when it became the scene of the single bloodiest act of violent oppression in Britain’s colonial occupation. On 13 April India will mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children by British soldiers who had been sent to quash what was believed to be a mounting rebellion.
Many myths and misconceptions now surround the events that unfolded in April 1919, but the sheer scale of the brutality involved has seen the Jallianwala Bagh massacre become infamous in India as an essential landmark on the country’s path to independence.
Pressure has mounted in recent months on the current British government to take the centenary as an opportunity to issue an historic apology. For the families of those killed, who say they have been suffering the consequences of the massacre for 100 years, it could finally offer some closure. It is impossible to say precisely how many people were killed in the garden on 13 April 1919. The official British toll from the time was 379, but a new, definitive count by Amritsar’s Partition Museum has come up with 501 named victims, plus an indeterminate number whose names may never be known.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people had gathered in the park to attend a political meeting staged by local leaders, angry at a recent crackdown on dissent by British officials, for whom Amritsar was a key administrative centre. Three days earlier, on 10 April, riots had broken out across the city during which five Europeans were killed and an influential British schoolteacher was assaulted in the street. Control of the city was handed over to the army and General Reginald Dyer was tasked with enforcing a ban on public assembly.
When the meeting in Jallianwala Bagh was called the night before, organisers knew they might face trouble, and some told their wives to stay at home.
Nonetheless, at 4pm on 13 April the crowd included “a lot of people who didn’t know exactly what the meeting was, so weren’t necessarily politically involved”, says Dr Kim Wagner, a senior lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary University London and author of Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre. “There were also children playing in the picnic area and there were pilgrims who happened to be in that space, which is right next to the Golden Temple,” he adds, referring to Amritsar’s most famous landmark for Sikh devotees.