The Jallianwala Bagh massacre (also known as the Amritsar massacre) took place in 1919 in the city of Amritsar in Punjab, in the Northern part of India. In an enclosed area with only one exit, soldiers under British command opened fire on a crowd of thousands of unarmed, peaceful, Indian men, women, and children, killing at least a few hundred and wounding well over 1000.

Events leading up to the massacre

Amritsar is not only Punjab's most important city from an economic and cultural standpoint, but it is the holiest city for practitioners of Sikhism, a religion that originated and retains its largest number of adherents in Punjab. Amritsar is also the location of the Golden Temple (Harimandir), the most important pilgrimage site for the religion.

WWI and nationalism
Many Indians loyally served under the British flag during World War I—some 138,000—many of whom were Sikhs who distinguished themselves for their service. In fact, many Punjabi Indians were fairly pro-British—a state which had 7% of the population and contributed 50% of the soldiers from India. On the other hand, something the war did (which continued and expanded during and following World War II) was help feed the desire to escape from under the colonial control of the British Empire and work toward self-determination.

This would eventually lead to Mohandas Gandhi's satyagraha ("truth-force"—in simple terms, his method of passive resistance, though more developed philosophically than the term implies) and hartal ("lock-out," similar to a general strike, including peaceful protest) and feelings of nationalism and voices against the treatment under the British grew. It also led to a number of people who chose less peaceful methods of speeding things along.

Some people, seeing the war as an opening to start a rebellion to oust the British, attempted to stir up "actions" and uprisings. From the word Ghadr ("Mutiny"), they became known as Ghadrites and were committed to the overthrow of the colonial masters. There was a newspaper and support from Indians that lived outside the country. Though some robberies and murders were eventually committed, most of the plans fell through or were discovered and compromised by the British. By 1916, most of the members of the movement had been captured (a few thousand) and tried. Forty-six were hanged and two hundred were expelled or put in jail. Despite the name, there was only one mutiny that took place. A number of Sikhs and Muslims rebelled in Singapore, resulting in 37 of them going before a firing squad.

Repressive legislation
Fear of the Ghadrites and other "terrorists" (some from Bengal, for instance) was understandable, as any colonial power spends a good deal of time concerned over losing the "possession." There was also a fear of a pan-Muslim uprising. All this made any popular nationalistic movement dangerous and any with even had the taint of violence, intolerable. Again, the war came in handy—this time, for the Raj. In 1915, the Defence of India Act was passed, under the pretense of wartime security. It allowed the government to arrest, detain, and put before military tribunals anyone who was suspected of sedition or espionage (no appeals were allowed).

This, of course, was easily expanded to anyone causing an uprising or threatening rebellion—though perhaps more to the point: anyone suspected or suspected of maybe doing it at some point in the future. By the end of the war, there were 800 detainees being held. As an act directly related to the war, it was supposed to expire six months following the end of the conflict. Sensing a good thing, the government enacted the Rowlatt Acts (sometimes called the "Black Acts," they were named after the chairman of the committee that devised them), which functioned to codify the earlier act as permanent law, expanded to political suspects. It went into force in February 1919.

Coming during a time when nationalism had been awakened in a significant way and Britain was beginning to work on reforms with the eye toward more self-representation for India (though limited), the passage of the acts outraged many and seemed to suggest that the talk of reforms and freedom was a lie. There was a call for a nationwide hartal on 6 April.

The results of the hartal were mixed. It had originally been planned for 30 March before being postponed to the later date. In Delhi it still took place on the thirtieth (in other places the day was used for fasting and prayer). In Bombay (Mumbai), it was successful in bringing the city to a halt. Things were peaceful in Amritsar. This would not matter to the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, who saw this as a warning of things to come.

Taking action
On 9 April, he decided to take action. He had Gandhi detained and barred him from entering Punjab (rumors were circulating that he had been arrested). The next day, he had two popular leaders (Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saif ud-Din Kitchlew; spellings differ) who had spoken during the protests arrested for incitement and deported from the state the following day. All this brought out strong protests and a general strike. Crowds estimated around 50,000 gathered. The army was called out and a crowd of about 15,000 were stopped by a railway foot bridge when soldiers opened fire on them. They had been demanding where the two had been taken.

The official estimates were twelve killed and 20 to 30 wounded. A later Congress Inquiry Committee upped the deceased to 20 to 30 (the wounded presumably also increased). This set off the crowds. Angered and outraged, they began rioting, looting, vandalizing, wrecking, and setting fire to government offices and banks. More soldiers were brought in and the situation was diffused—but not before five Europeans were killed. The one that upset the British most was that of a woman, Miss Marcella Sherwood, who had been manager at the local mission school and had lived and worked in Amritsar for 15 years. The mob attacked her and she became a symbol of the need for harsh measures and further repression, something which O'Dwyer had no trouble enacting.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, the angry crowds were still protesting and 4,000 railway employees went on strike. On the morning of 11 April, Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer (not to be confused with O'Dwyer) arrived with almost 1,200 troops at his disposal (a little over 700 were Indian). Dyer, who interestingly had been born and raised in Punjab, immediately instituted martial law (this was with O'Dwyer's consent), positioned troops, and banned meetings and demonstrations. The people were not informed of being under martial law (it wasn't "official" until two days after the massacre).

The day of 13 April, soldiers went through the streets announcing that any group meetings would be "dispersed by force of arms if necessary" ( Shortly after, people began organizing a large meeting for 4:30 PM in order to discuss and protest the Rowlatt Acts and other measures robbing them of their freedoms (or in some cases, denying them from getting those freedoms in the first place). To complicate things, it was the festival of Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi), a harvest festival of particular importance to Sikhs because on that day in 1699, their tenth Guru instituted the Panth Khalsa (Order of the Pure Ones). For that reason, the numbers would be swollen with many who had come to Amritsar from the surrounding area to celebrate.


The Jallianwala Bagh, once a part of an estate of a family of nobles in the court of a Maharaja, had once been a garden ("bagh" being garden). At the time of the massacre, it was a large public square of sorts, surrounded by houses and walls with only a single entrance/exit. Sometimes even used for dumping, it was approximately 225 x 180 meters.

At the time the meeting (which was attended by families and others—estimates range from almost 10,000 to over 20,000 people) was beginning, Dyer was on the way there with 50 riflemen (mostly Indian and Gurkha troops) and two armored cars. There was no attempt made to disperse the meeting by other means or warn the participants who were busy (peacefully) announcing resolutions to demand the repeal of the Rowlatt Acts and condemning the shooting into the crowd on 10 April. The sole entrance being too narrow to allow the cars to pass through, they had to be left outside. The soldiers marched in. It was 5:15 PM.

Dyer positioned the men near the entrance and told them to open fire on the crowd—"immediately," in his own words. In fact, he didn't "imagine it took me more than 30 seconds to make up my mind as to what my duty was." The men continued firing (even being redirected to aim at areas where the crowd was "thickest") for about twenty minutes, when most of the ammunition was used up. During that time, people tried to flee as best they could, many being trampled in the process. Mothers (and others) jumped into a well—some with children in their arms—attempting to escape the rain of bullets.

When they were finished shooting into the crowd, the soldiers turned and left. Dead, dying, and wounded were left where they had fallen or crawled.

No one knows the exact number of casualties in the massacre. It was determined that 1,650 rounds had plowed into the crowd (Dyer dispassionately admitted that had the armored cars been able to enter, it would have been higher). Dyer guessed about one person was killed per six bullets. The official count was set at 379, with 1,200 wounded. Another fairly reliable count put it at 530. A later count put it at around 1,000. No one can be sure and no real official count was made after the attack. Dyer had done his duty and simply left.

Dyer: in his own words
Dyer spoke of the incident in terms that seemed almost like pride for having done a good job and fulfilled his obligations to his country. He even attempted to make it sound like he had kept the mass murder from getting out of hand:

I fired and continued to fire till the crowd dispersed, and I considered that this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect, it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity...
(report to the General Staff Division on 25 August 1919)

As part of the Disorder Inquiry Committee investigation, when asked if he had felt a "striking act would be desirable to make people not only in Amritsar but elsewhere to consider their position more correctly," he replied that he felt he had to do "something strong." he said he had "made up his mind" to begin firing "in order to save the military situation," even claiming that any delay would have brought a court-martial upon him (that it wasn't a "military situation" is apparently left without comment).

When asked if the "idea" of the massacre (obviously that term was not used) was "to strike terror" in both Amritsar and the rest of Punjab, he answered "Call it what you like. I was going to punish them. My idea from the military point of view was to make a wide impression" and "Yes, throughout the Punjab. I wanted to reduce their morale, the morale of the rebels." He called it a "horrible duty for me to perform" and that the "responsibility was great," but still claimed that "It was a merciful act that I had given them the chance to disperse (that is, in the morning)." He also admitted there was no evidence they would be armed with firearms but asserted that they had lathis (a rattan staff).


In India
The resulting protests were great, many Indians coming to the conclusion that no existence under the British Empire was tenable. Protest broke out almost immediately. In some of the rural cities of the region, local authorities asked for military assistance. Since the bridges had been destroyed, O'Dwyer allowed planes to drop bombs and fire machine guns to disperse the crowds. Elsewhere, armored trains fired at rioters. In putting down the uprising, over three hundred more were killed.

On 15 April, official martial law was declared (not only in Amritsar) and shortly after the expected harsh repressive measures began. Mass arrests were made, prisoners beaten, Indians were forced to crawl on all fours if they passed the spot where Sherwood had been attacked. Over 1,200 people were arrested, 23 were sent away for life, 58 were flogged, and 18 sentenced to death. In protest, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore renounced his knighthood, saying in a letter that

The time has come when 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 degradations not fit for human beings.

Many Indians who had previously been more moderate on the question of self-determination or independence became galvanized by the actions that took place in Punjab. As a result, Motilal Nehru (father of Jawaharlal) gave up his formerly pro-British stance, going so far as to strip his house of Western furniture and to burn all non-Indian clothes and accessories in a bonfire. He also threw his support behind his son's work toward independence.

For Dyer
Following the Disorder Inquiry, Dyer was relieved of his command and made to retire early. There was no formal punishment or strong condemnation. He had only made a "grave error" (the violent means of ending the rioting and protests that resulted were not commented on) and later the House of Lords passed a resolution that said "the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer" ( Back in England, many saw him as a hero for putting the people in their place and maintaining order. Or as Jawaharlal Nehru said he overheard some soldiers discussing how the actions taken were a good thing because they would "teach the bloody browns a lesson" ( A newspaper raised £26,000 for this "Saviour of the Punjab." He was designated a "Defender of the Empire" and given a gilt sword.

It is worth noting that there was also a great deal of outrage over the massacre. Of interest was the reaction of the Daily Herald which described it with "no blacker or fouler story has ever been told" and finishing with a bitter

According to his reported evidence, he admits that, with incredible indifference to human suffering, the British authorities left the wounded unattended in the streets. This, we presume, was done in order to teach men and women, of a different civilization and a different religion, what a beautiful and merciful thing Christianity is, and how sacred we British hold the law of Him who said that we were to love our enemies.

Udham Singh and O'Dwyer
One of the people who was at the massacre was a young Sikh named Udham Singh. The event was one of the main reasons that he chose revolution as his course in life (his life deserves its own piece). On 13 March 1940, at a meeting of the East India Association in London, he avenged the deaths of Amritsar by emptying his pistol at O'Dwyer. The man who told Dyer that "your action is correct. The Lieutenant Governor approves" ( was hit twice and died. Singh made no attempt to escape.

In his statement explaining his action, Singh said

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit, he wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy I have done the job. I am not scared of death—I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this. It was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

After an appeal over the death sentence was dismissed, he was hanged on 31 July 1940.


Like many places where great injustice has taken place, Jallianwala Bagh became a place of pilgrimage, reflection, and a symbol of what the victims stood for (or against). On 13 April 1961—the 42nd anniversary of the massacre—it was inaugurated as a memorial with a 30 foot four-sided pylon called the "Flame of Liberty." Upon each face is inscribed "In memory of the martyrs, 13 April 1919" in four languages: English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu.

(Sources: John Keay India: a history 2000,,,,, Dyer quotes from,,

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