On this day 96 years ago, one of the most horrific massacres of Indians was carried out by soldiers of the British Raj led by General Reginald Dyer, who opened fire on a gathering of unarmed men, women and children at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar.
More than 10,000 people had gathered at the Bagh that day –coincidentally, the day of Baisakhi, the main Sikh festival — to protest British rule and seek freedom for India.
Dyer positioned his men at the sole, narrow passageway of the Bagh and without issuing any warning to the gathering, ordered 50 British-Indian troops to fire. The soldiers fired for 10 to 15 minutes till their ammunition was exhausted. As the terrified crowd tried to escape, they fell to the 1,650 bullets that were fired.
According to official records, around 400 civilians were killed and another 1,200 wounded. Unofficial records, however, put the tally much higher.
Dyer was removed from his command by the British government after the incident.
Dyer died in 1927 after suffering a series of strokes.
Hunter commission and Dyer’s shocking revelations
In 1919, an inquiry committee was formed under the chairmanship of Lord William Hunter, the former Solicitor-General of Scotland and Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The panel came to be popularly known as the Hunter Commission.
Dyer was called to appear before the commission on November 19 that year and what he had to say will leave most people dumbfounded. The commission’s interactions with Dyer have been documented in Nigel Collett’s book The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer published in 2006.
1. Dyer said he had indeed not issued a warning before the shooting and that he felt an obligation to continue firing till the crowd dispersed. “At that time it did not occur to me. I merely felt that my orders had not been obeyed, that martial law was flouted, and that it was my duty to immediately disperse it by rifle fire…If my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately. If I had fired a little, the effect would not be sufficient. If I had fired a little, I should be wrong in firing at all.”
2. Dyer told the commission that the gathered people were rebels who were trying to isolate his forces and cut them off from supplies. “Therefore, I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well."
The clincher came next: “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.”
3. When confronted with the fact that he did not provide any medical attention to the wounded, Dyer replied the military situation did not allow that. He further defended his refusal to help the wounded by saying, “It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there.”
4. An instance of another remorseless response from Dyer was when the commission asked him about the probable use of machine guns.
Commission member: Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?
Dyer: I think probably, yes.
Commission member: In that case, the casualties would have been much higher?
5. Another angle which Dyer insisted on during the interrogation was that he wanted to create an impression on “the rest of Punjab” and therefore the order to open fire.
Dyer: They had come out to fight if they defied me, and I was going to give them a lesson.
Commission member: I take it that your idea in taking that action was to strike terror?
Dyer: Call it what you like. I was going to punish them.
Punished, indeed, the innocent people were, but not Dyer.
The Hunter Commission did not impose any penal or disciplinary action on Dyer because of politico-legal limitations and several senior officials condoning his act.
To avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, revolutionary Udham Singh killed Sir Michael Francis O'Dwyer, who was Lieutenant Governor of Punjab at that time, in London in 1940. O'Dwyer had called the massacre a "correct action".
(The writer can be reached at @saha_abhi1990)