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Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: An Act of Shame

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, as it is known in India, saw British troops, under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, fire on thousands of unarmed men, women and children holding a pro-Independence demonstration in Amritsar on Baisakhi in April 1919. It is one of the darkest chapters of India’s freedom struggle against the British occupation. April 13, 1919, Baisakhi Day, 50 soldiers, led by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed men, women and children at a garden in Amritsar. They fired for 10 minutes, discharging 1,650 bullets at the peaceful protesters in Jallianwala Bagh, who stood less than 150 feet away from their .303 rifles.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: Martial Law

Colonial-era records show about 400 people died in the massacre, but Indian figures put the toll at closer to 1,000.  The shooting was followed by the proclamation of martial law in the Punjab that included public floggings and other humiliations. Indian outrage grew as news of the shooting and subsequent British actions spread throughout the subcontinent. The Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood that he had received in 1915. Gandhi was initially hesitant to act, but he soon began organizing his first large-scale and sustained nonviolent protest (satyagraha) campaign, the noncooperation movement (1920–22), which thrust him to prominence in the Indian nationalist struggle.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: Hunter Commission

The government of India ordered an investigation of the incident (the Hunter Commission), which in 1920 censured Dyer for his actions and ordered him to resign from the military. Reaction in Britain to the massacre was mixed, however. Many condemned Dyer’s actions—including Sir Winston Churchill, then secretary of war, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1920—but the House of Lords praised Dyer and gave him a sword inscribed with the motto “Saviour of the Punjab.” In addition, a large fund was raised by Dyer’s sympathizers and presented to him. The Jallianwala Bagh site in Amritsar is now a national monument.

Today India marks the 103rd anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, one of the worst atrocities of British colonial rule for which London has yet to apologise. The British envoy to India called it a “shameful act in British-Indian history”. Hundreds of people paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the massacre.

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