Sun, Apr 14, 2019 - Page 5 News List

UK’s shame, and still not sorry: Amritsar massacre


Police officers pay tribute to the victims of the Amritsar massacre on the eve of its centennial in Amritsar, India, on Friday.

Photo: AFP

The Amritsar massacre, 100 years ago yesterday in which British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, remains one of the darkest hours of British colonial rule in India.

Known in India as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it is still an emotive subject, with many demanding a British apology — which so far has been unforthcoming.

The number of casualties on April 13, 1919, is unclear, with colonial-era records showing 379 deaths, while Indian figures put the number at closer to 1,000.

In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, extending repressive measures in force during World War I.

These included incarceration without trial and caused widespread anger, particularly in the northern Punjab region, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for a nationwide general strike.

In Amritsar, news that prominent Indian leaders had been arrested and banished from the city sparked violent protests on April 10.

These saw soldiers fire upon civilians and buildings looted and burned, while angry mobs killed several foreign nationals and attacked a Christian missionary.

British brigadier g eneral Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was tasked with ensuring order and he imposed measures including a ban on public gatherings.

On the afternoon of April 13, about 10,000 people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, an area in Amritsar surrounded by high walls with only one exit.

It was also Baisakhi, a harvest festival in northern India.

The crowd included men, women, children and pilgrims who were visiting the nearby Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism. Some estimates put the crowd at 20,000.

Dyer, later dubbed “The Butcher of Amritsar,” reached the spot with dozens of soldiers and sealed off the exit.

Without warning, he ordered the soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowd. Many tried unsuccessfully to escape by scaling the walls. Others jumped into an open well at the site.

The troops reportedly fired until they ran out of ammunition, letting off hundreds of rounds into the crowd before withdrawing.

The Indian Express newspaper earlier this week shared eyewitness accounts compiled by two historians. They included Mani Ram, whose 13-year-old son Madan Mohan used to play in the square with his friends.

“I, with eight or nine others, had to search for about half an hour till I could pick up his corpse as it was mixed up with hundreds of dead bodies lying in heaps there,” Ram said.

Dyer later said that the firing was “not to disperse the meeting, but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”

The event marked a nadir in Britain’s occupation of India, and served to boost Indian nationalism and harden support for independence.

Reaction in the UK varied, with Dyer receiving support in the British House of Lords and not least from Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have called him “the man who saved India.”

Then-British secretary of state for war Winston Churchill called the massacre “monstrous.”

Former British prime minister Herbert Asquith called it “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”

“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything... Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square,” Churchill said.

Dyer was removed from command forced into retirement. He died in 1927.

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