*The End of Empire: The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

I:  The “Event” and its Political Backdrop

(in multiple parts)

It has often been said that Britain lost its empire the day when, one hundred years ago, 55-year old Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to admit two armoured cars with mounted machine guns that Dyer had brought with him; perhaps, to compensate for that shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest.  Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”:  women, men, and children were all legitimate targets, and at Dyer’s directions the troops deliberately aimed at those desperately seeking to clamber over the walls to safety.  Some people doubtless jumped into a deep well, and thus to their death, located at the northern end of the Bagh, on the other side of the Bazar Lakar Mandi. The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men:  “Good shooting.”  The Sunday picnic was over, and the men could take pride in their training:  “We have done a jolly good thing.”


Colonel Reginald Dyer (acting Brigadier-General), a veteran of Frontier warfare.


Spring was in the air:  April 13 was Baisakhi, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  The end of World War I, to which ironically subjugated Indians had contributed with their own blood, brought forth not intimations of greater freedom but repression.  A Declaration by Secretary of State Edwin Montagu in August 1917 had provided more than a ray of hope to those Indians were still inclined to believe in the goodwill of the British.  It promised, in its most famous line, “Increasing association of Indians in every branch of administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.”  Montagu had just assumed office, and the British were still in need of India’s men and material wealth in support of the war.  Some might thus attribute the seemingly generous statement of intent on the part of the British to make Indians capable of self-government as resulting in equal parts from the naivety of a British politician who did not sufficiently appreciate the British resolve to hold India and from a stratagem to keep India involved in a war not at all of its making and in which it had no stakes as such.  The Montagu Declaration would be followed, in mid-1918, by the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” which led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils.  Though British conservatives predictably railed against these concessions, the so-called liberal element in Indian politics grumbled that the reforms amounted to very little.  One might say that, as soon as the war was over, the British lion bared its fangs.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.”


A rendering of the massacre by the German artist Eduard Thony from the German magazine Simplicissimus, January 21, 1920 issue (p. 615). From the Heidelberg Digital Library.

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.”  In the Punjab, however, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer did not take kindly to the slightest expression of defiance of colonial authority and saw the “spectacle” as anything but “wonderful”.  He fancied himself a great upholder of the ‘Punjab tradition’, or the idea that ordinary Punjabis were simple folk without any interest in politics who had reposed their trust in the government and therefore deserved protection from corrupt urban-based nationalist Indians.  The iron hand of the colonial state had saved the Punjab from the “mutiny” of 1857-58 and its corrosive effects and the peasantry of this state, according the adherents of the ‘Punjab tradition’, expected the government to preserve “law and order.”  At a meeting of the Legislative Council in Lahore, O’Dwyer ridiculed the “recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts”, describing them as indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.”  The agitators, he ominously warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”


Amritsar, April 1913.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving betrayed the fact that truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.”  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, ‘untouchable’ to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might think otherwise.


“The spot where Miss Sherwood was assaulted”, reads the caption on a photograph from that time. The photographer remains unidentified.

(to be continued)

11 thoughts on “*The End of Empire: The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

  1. The incident of the crawling order and the whipping posts demonstrates clearly the colonial attempt to totally destroy any notion of self-respect in the Indians and to subject them to humiliation. It demonstrates, in my view, the fact that colonialism was an inherently violent process as also exemplified in your discussion of the Rowlatt subjugation of civil liberties. I therefore, after Fanon, believe that anti-colonialism must also be violent. The necessity of violence in any successful decolonial movements was often placed in opposition to the pacifying quality of religion in Frantz Fanon’s work: “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence. The colonialist bourgeoisie is aided and abetted in the pacification of the colonized by the inescapable powers of religion. All the saints who turned the other cheek, who forgave those who trespassed against them, who, without flinching, were spat upon and insulted, are championed and shown as an example.” Gandhi, too, when he spoke of non-violence, or ahimsa, couched it in spiritual terms. But religion in India is not a monolithic entity. The epic literature of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and the puranas are full of calls to righteous violence. There is room in Indian spirituality for Hussein and the courage instructed by the Sikh gurus. There is room in it for the goddess Kali who wears the skulls of her oppressors around her neck. Your discussion of the atrocities committed by the British is welcome, especially as they are rarely, if ever, taught in schools in Britain, the United States, or even India itself.


  2. Pingback: *Frightfulness in Late Colonial India: Dyerism & the Aftermath of an Atrocity | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  3. Pingback: *The “Crawling Lane”:  A Colonial Atrocity and Extreme Humiliation | Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  4. Indians conspiring with the Germans to overthrow the British Raj during WWI showed the overall deterioration of British political control over South Asia. Indian were beginning to hope that their rights could be extended due to their participation in WWI for Empire, but because of this collaboration conspiracy with the Germans, the British were wary and began to take away the basic rights of the Indians. The British way of handling the situation was in my opinion too aggressive since this plan was only hatched by an minority, not the majority of the Indian population. This aggressive and violent stance by the British Raj ultimately led to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre during a peaceful protest during the Baisakhi Festival where hundreds were killed, and those injured numbering in the thousands. Although this incident was condemned by leaders across the world, firing into the crowd indiscriminately with no remorse showed the British Empire’s inability to recognize the Indian struggle and looked down upon the 300 million people who contributed to the Empire’s global economic prestige and dominance for the last half century. British superficialness to the Indian people during colonial rule also shows the neglect experienced by the masses who would rather self rule and become independent. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre also brought the Indian people together from different ethnicities, religion, and political affiliations in a united front to disobey the policies of the British Raj led by prominent leaders like Gandhi.


  5. You can bet that Colonel Reginald Dyer would have ordered his troops to fire those machine guns had those armored cars fit through the entrance to the Bagh. A lot more people would have died, and this is just another historical example of military leaders wanting to use their “toys” on a crowd of unarmed people (Dyer took no actions to prevent the crowd assembling, or to peacefully disperse the crowds). This post inspired me to look into the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (called “utterly monstrous” by Churchill) to see what negative repercussions there were for Dyer, if any. While Dyer was widely denounced and censured by the House of Commons, he could not be tried for murder because he was a soldier acting on orders. His only real punishment was that he was banned from India. Though the British Army was subsequently retrained and minimal force tactics adopted, this would obviously have no effect on a demonstration at Gujranwala that occurred two days later (12 dead, 27 injured). The type of political and military hegemony exercised by the British in India remains one of the great mysteries of the world.


  6. I have always found interesting the almost sacred quality with which many white women are imbued in ethnic territories, India especially. The story of Marcia Sherwood shares some obvious similarities to that of Emmett Till, and reaffirms the overtly hierarchical race relationship in the period regardless of what some scholars and philosophers would say. I have no doubt in my mind that had an Indian woman been killed, one in service to the British regime perhaps, there would be no equal reaction in the government’s eyes.


  7. The point of the unification of the Muslims and the Hindus uniting as anxiety inducing is important as it reminds us that the same occurred during the 1857 Rebellion. Since then however, we have seen a rise in a sense of nationalism which you state Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer saw as incongruent with the Punjabi’s. Perhaps the demonstrations in reaction to the expulsion of both Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew showed the Lieutenant-Governor otherwise? Would he truly assume that the reactions to these expulsions were just people taking advantage of the situation or did the Lieutenant-Governor see this as a mark of a rising national identity? This may be unknown, certainly the massacre acted as a deterrent for the for others to be ‘misled’ as well as a preservation of the sanctity of the white woman.


    • Hi Javier, We do in fact know from archival records and the testimony of various officials that the unity exhibited by Hindus and Muslims came across as something of a surprise to the British in 1919 and that they felt considerably uneasy. It may be cliched to speak of ‘divide and rule’ as an imperial policy but it is not any less true and it was unquestionably in the interest of the British to fracture Indian nationalist opinion, most of all along religious lines.


  8. Dear professor,
    In point of my view, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is the starting point of the end of the British colony in India. The start of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which shows Britain’s exclusive institution without fail, takes place after the end of World War I, supporting Britain for the purpose of obtaining autonomous rights. However, after the war, Britain neglected Indians’ rights despite Indian sacrifices, and further enacted the Rowlatt Act, which allows arrest, detention, and trial without a warrant, indicating that the British colonial system is never an inclusive institution. Yet this brutal exclusive institution of Britain can be the beginning of the collapse of the British India. The British genocide against civilians appears to have led to a nationwide anti-war struggle. Mahatma Gandhi, led by various ethnic groups and religions, contributes to the nonviolent resistance movement. From my point of view, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a tragic event reminiscent of the Holocaust during World War II, but I wonder what is the ultimate reason why it is not an international issue at all now. The British government has so far made no official apology for the Indian colonial rule. The construction of the Gandhi statue in Parliament Square in London appears to be an indirect expression of remorse for colonial rule.


  9. The incident of the Crawling Lane represents the utter humiliation and loss of dignity that Indians were subjected to under colonial rule. In stripping away the dignity of Indians, the British had normalized and become so desensitized to Indian subjugation that asking for basic rights and freedoms seemed like an audacious attack on British rule and character rather than an appropriate request in response to oppression. It is interesting to note that Hindu-Muslim unity prior to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is what instigated this intensely excessive attack on innocent citizens. When transcendentalism – the most important justification and legitimization of British rule, in their perspective – is threatened, the stakes for extinguishing sparks of conflict become higher than ever.


  10. As explained in your article, I think its important to note that colonization was never about “civilizing barbaric societies” as it is the popular narrative pushed by the British. It was a violent process as described in this article. However, I do disagree with Fanon in that just because the construction of colonization was violent, its deconstruction has to be violent too. I think Gandhiji’s work exemplifies this. Indians were resorted to humiliation and inferior status, but to regain that self-respect the reversal of positions is not the solution.


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