101 years since Jallianwala Bagh: Hard earned Democracy

As we pay tribute to the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh, it is important to remember the series of events that culminated in this tragedy, and the chain reaction that was set off as a result afterwards, leading India steadily on the path of freedom and democracy.

HistoryImage Courtesy:jagranjosh.com

The 101-year-old Jallianwala Bagh tragedy is familiar to every Indian. To some, it is just a page in our History books, to other, it is a deep scar remaining not just in the physical form of bullet holes on the Bagh’s walls, but also as an emotionally charged memory. The story of Jallianwala Bagh is also about fighting for democracy and the right to protest. In many ways, it was the precursor to the inclusion of rights of dissent and protest ensconced in the Indian Constitution. 

During World War I (1914–18) the Britishers implemented a series of repressive emergency powers to keep Indians in check while they focused on their military efforts in the war. This led to widespread discontent among the populace. Funds were collected from unwilling Indians for the war. There were forced recruitments to the British Army with Punjab contributing over 3,55,000 combatants, who were sent back to India after the Armistice of November 11, 1918 which ended World War I in Europe.

The soldiers upon returning were plunged into unemployment and instead of easing the war time restrictions, the British intended to extend the repressive measures in the form of the Rowlatt Acts in early 1919, even though the British Parliament had recommended implementing limited local self-Government in India in 1918.The discontent among the people of Punjab was further complicated by a crop failure that year which led to food shortages and spike in prices of essential goods.

India’s freedom fighters called for nationwide protests against the Rowlatt Act which would continue the practice of trying Political cases in court without juries and detaining of suspects without trial. Mahatma Gandhi called for a national strike, which led to a complete Hartal (general strike) in Punjab on March 30, 1919 and then again on April 6, 1919. The Hindu-Muslim-Sikh solidarity stunned the British administration as people came out in large numbers on the occasion of Ram Navmi on April 9, 1919.

The British were rattled. Brigadier General Reginald Dyer was sent to Amritsarand asked to take a tough stand. He banned public gatheringsand assembly of more than 4 people. According to British Historian Kim Wagner, “…as the British were panicking and feeling overrun. He (General Dyer) was not a crazy guy who did things on his own. There was concern about unrest. Indian nationalists were protesting British policies and were seen as seditious, so two leaders were arrested.”The two leaders in question were Saifuddin Kitchlew and SatyaPal, who were arrested on April 10, 1919. Mahatma Gandhi was banned from entering Punjab.

A large number of people (estimated5000-20000) gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, on the day of Baisakhi, April 13, 1919 answering the call for protest against the Rowlatt Act and against the arrest of Kitchlew and SatyaPal. Many people had also arrived in Amritsar from surrounding villages for the festival of Baisakhi and were unaware of the ban on public gatherings. There was only one narrow route to enter and exit the Bagh. As the Jallianwala Bagh meeting was in progress, the exit of the Bagh was blocked by General Dyer and his 50 soldiers armed with rifles, knives and khukris. Without warning, his team fired 1,650 rounds in about 10 minutes, stopping only when they ran out of ammunition. He made no effort to provide medical aid to the wounded, saying it was not his duty and left the scene of devastation.

While the official British documents reported the number of lives lost as 1,526, the actual figures were much higher. There were heart-breaking reports of over 2000 people dead and 1000-11000 injured (by various estimates), including the ones who jumped into the solitary well at the centre of the Bagh to avoid being shot.

The initial praise that Dyer received from House of Lords in Britain angered many Indians including Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who denounced his Knighthood, writing a scathing letter to the British Viceroy, “The accounts of insults and sufferings undergone by our brothers in the Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers,-possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons….the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when the badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part 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 a degradation not fit for human beings….”.

The widespread anger from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre prompted Mahatma Gandhi to launch his Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22. The Jallianwala Bagh incident and its aftermath became a turning point in India’s fight for independence. It is said that a 12 year old Bhagat Singh entered Jallianwala Bagh, mere hours after the massacre, and vowed to avenge the bloodshed. This was the catalyst to his journey of becoming one of the most revered freedom fighters of India- “Shaheed Bhagat Singh”.

On the 100th anniversary of the massacre in 2019, while addressing the British Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May said, “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused”, even as the opposition leaders insisted on a better “full, clear and unequivocal apology”. The apology never came, and may never come.

There are numerous parallels that can be drawn between the events that are conspiring in contemporary India and the story of Jallianwala Bagh. British historians’ records anointed Mahatma Gandhi, Saifuddin Kitchlew, and SatyaPal, and other freedom fighters as seditious elements, while we know them as our greatest patriots. Yet, we retain the same draconian law that was utilized to arrest these leaders, passed down to us from our colonisers in the form of the Sedition Law (IPC Section 124A). Dissent and protest are valuable rights our freedom fighters have sacrificed their lives to earn. This freedom, this democracy, can never be taken for granted.

Today, we fight an unprecedented battle with a virus that renders all our weapons and missiles futile, a virus that makes us realize that all the worries about climate change are real and that our health systems need to be our biggest priority. All protests on ground against CAA/NRC have had to be suspended in the interest of public health. Edward Snowden is warning the world that, “Governments may use Coronavirus to build ‘The Architecture of Oppression’.” We are grappling with a physical as well as mental health emergency while economically disadvantaged citizens are bearing the brunt of the double whammy of poverty and risk of illness.

Dissent, and questioning the powers that be, can never be locked down. We have worked too hard and sacrificed too much to ensure these rights as Indians. We have earned the right to protest peacefully without the fear of lathis, bullets, and tear gas, of lynching and unlawful arrest. These rights have been infringed upon countless times in the last 6 months. When we emerge from the siege of COVID-19 pandemic, the battle for our rights will rage on. Meanwhile, we pay tribute to those martyred on the day of Baisakhi April 13, 1919 in Jallianwala Bagh, while practicing social distancing. We pray from home, we protest from home, we keep hope and freedom alive from home. Jai Hind.

Related articles:

Bloodbath on Baisakhi: The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, April 13, 1919
Memories of Colonial Brutality: Irfan Habib on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
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