The worst political crime of 20th century occurred on April 13, 1919, which was the day of Baisakhi.
Since the beginning of World War I, resentment was growing in Punjab as the British government forcibly recruited Indian soldiers and forced them to contribute towards the war fund.
Indian soldiers were sent to distant lands and as many as 60,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives during the war.
On December 10, 1917, Viceroy Lord Chelmsford appointed a Sedition Committee under the chairmanship of Justice Rowlatt to suggest measures to deal with the revolutionary movements in India.
This further enraged Indians who thought that since the British were fighting the war to defend democracy and the right of self-determination, they will allow self-governing institutions to function in India.
The report by Sedition Committee was submitted in April 1918 and it was after the report that the government passed two Bills in the Central Assembly known as the Rowlatt Bills. They were called Black Bills by Indians.
After the passage of these Bills, he wrote a letter to the Viceroy to withdraw these Bills.
To protest against the Black Bills, Gandhiji called for a nation-wide strike on March 30 and then again on April 6. The whole nation responded enthusiastically. Hindus and Muslims joined the protest. This panicked British administration.
Two popular Amritsar leaders Dr Saifuddin and Dr Satya Pal were arrested and Gandhiji's entry in Punjab was banned. Places like Lahore, Kasur, Gujranwala and Amritsar saw mass demonstrations due to these provocations.
Amritsar was handed over to Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, as the police firing on demonstrators provoked violence. General Dyer's regime saw indiscriminate arrests and bans on meetings and it was on the order of General Dyer that the Amritsar massacre took place.
A meeting was called on the day of the Baisakhi festival at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. It was a ground enclosed by all sides and thousands of people gathered there from surrounding villages who had come to Baisakhi fair. They were unaware of the ban on meetings.
General Dyer arrived with his troop and without any forewarning ordered firing on the defenceless people. The firing continued for 10 minutes till the troop ran out of ammunition. killing more than thousand innocent men, women, and children. This cold-blooded carnage was carried out to strike terror not only in Amritsar but throughout Punjab.
This horrific act of General Dyer made him a hero in the eyes of the British Empire. However, the House of Commons criticised this deadly massacre and he was forced to retire in July 1920.
It was the Amritsar massacre that forced the British to re-evaluate army's role. A "minimum force" policy was formed wherein the army was trained to handle big crowd.
On April 10, Indian leaders protested before the residence of Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar during which they demanded release of two popular leaders who were arrested by the British government.
Both the leaders, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were to be moved to some secret location as they had supported Gandhiji's Satyagraha movement. On April 11, 1919, Miss Marcella Sherwood, an English missionary teacher, was beaten by a mob. She was saved by some local people. Railway lines were cut, buildings were torched, telegraph and post offices were destroyed. Finally, British government put Punjab under martial law. The British government restricted gathering of more than four people at one place.
April 13 is celebrated as Baisakhi, which is the harvest festival. A large crowd of Sikhs, Hindu and Muslim had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, a garden near Harminder Sahib in Amritsar. The big crowd included Baisakhi pilgrims who had come to celebrate the festival and the non-violent protestors who had come to protest against the arrest of the two Amritsar leaders.
The meeting was about to start when General Dyer reached Jallianwala Bagh with his group of Gurkhas. They were armed with 303 Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and machine guns. They surrounded the garden from all sides and without any warning started firing. The firing created panic amongst the people and they started running but could not find any place or way to escape, as the garden was surrounded from all sides by the British force. In order to save themselves from the bullets, several people jumped into a nearby well. Later, 120 bodies were recovered from the well.
General Dyer's act was reported to his superior officers and it was through a telegram that Lieutenant-Governor Michael O'Dwyer appreciated the cold-blooded massacre.
The telegram read, "Your action is correct and the Lieutenant Governor approves." The continuation of martial law in Amritsar and nearby areas was requested by O'Dwyer and was granted by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill criticised this act and it was on July 8, 1920, that he debated it in the House of Commons. He said, "The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything… when fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for eight to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion."
It was after Winston Churchill's long debate in the House of Commons that the Dyer's action was criticised.
Udham Singh, a Sikh teenager from the Khalsa orphanage was the witness of Jallianwala Bagh killings. It was Udham Singh who killed the Lieutenant-Governor Michael O'Dwyer at Caxton Hall of London taking revenge for the killings of more 1,300 of his countrymen. Udham Singh was hanged at Pentoville jail of London on July 31, 1940, for killing O'Dwyer.
On October 14, 1919, an inquiry committee was set up by the government of India for inquiring about the Jallainwala Bagh massacre.The commission was formed to investigate the cases of revolt in Bombay, Punjab and Delhi.
The chairman of the commission was Lord William Hunter. The Hunter commission failed to take disciplinary action against General Dyer as his superiors had approved the action taken by Dyer. After several efforts, General Dyer was found to be guilty of the Jallainwala Bagh tragedy and forced to retire from the army.
The massacre stunned people all over the country and it became a turning point in India's struggle for independence. Rabindranath Tagore voiced his displeasure by writing a strong letter to the Viceroy in which he renounced his Knighthood.
The letter dated May 31, 1919, stated, "The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments…. 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."
Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya also raised his voice against the deadly killings of Jallianwala Bagh in the Central Legislative Council.
In December 1919, Indian National Congress held an annual session at Amritsar and asked the British government to "take early steps to establish a fully responsible government in India in accordance with the principle of self-determination."
The people of Sikh religion formed a representative body for the political actions under the name of 'The All India Sikh League'. Through the Gurudwara Reform movement, they demanded to repair Sikh shrines. Many Sikh servicemen resigned from the army and adopted non-violence. Babar Akalis, an anti-British terrorist group, was constituted by the Akali movement leaders.
After the deadly Amritsar massacre, Jallianwala Bagh has become a national place of pilgrimage.
On August 1, 1920, Jallianwala Bagh land was procured by the Indian government for a sum of Rs 5,60,472 in order to build a memorial. However, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial was constructed only after the independence of India at a cost of Rs. 9,25,000. The memorial is named "Flame of Liberty" and was inaugurated by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of independent India, on April 13, 1961.
The memorial has 300 slabs with Ashoka Chakra on it. A children's swimming pool marks the position of General Dyer's soldiers that is very close to the main entrance of Jallianwala Bagh. The memorial has a 30-feet high pylon that is surrounded by four-sided red stone tapering stature in a shallow tank.
There's a stone lantern at each corner. All the four sides of pylon carry an inscription, "In memory of martyrs, 13 April, 1919." It is written in Hindi, English, Urdu and Punjabi.