As we mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, we take you to Amritsar and its famous Partition Museum, which is showcasing a special exhibition on the tragedy titled ‘Punjab Under Siege’. Here’s a visual narrative of those turbulent times:
The province of Punjab was an important region of the British Empire in the early 20th century. By the end of World War I, India had provided the Empire’s forces 1.5 million soldiers, of which a quarter came from Punjab. Meanwhile, the outbreak of Spanish Influenza had caused the deaths of 14 million people in India. During this turbulent time, the British Government passed the Rowlatt Act, which extended emergency measures that had been imposed in India during the war. Under this law, protestors could be imprisoned without trial, tried without a jury and denied the right to appeal.
Mahatma Gandhi called for the Rowlatt Act to be opposed and launched a Satyagraha movement in March 1919. People across India joined nation-wide hartals (strikes) and, by early April, the situation had escalated as violence had broken out in Delhi and Amritsar. In Amritsar, the military took control of the city on 10 April 1919.
In 1919, Jallianwala Bagh was a desolate piece of irregularly shaped land surrounded by houses on all sides, with two to three narrow entrances. It is believed that it was originally laid out as a garden in the 19th century by one Pandit Jalla, who lent his name to the ground. By the end of March 1919, political meetings in Amritsar were held at the bagh as it could hold large numbers of people.
13 April was Baisakhi, a day of special significance and celebration for Punjabis. In the morning, General Reginald Dyer and the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, Miles Irving, marched through the streets of the walled city, making announcements prohibiting gatherings and threatening to use force to disperse any meetings. Although the proclamation had been read out in 19 places in the city, there were no announcements made in the vicinity of Jallianwala Bagh.
By afternoon, British officials, including Dyer, were aware of the gathering planned at Jallianwala Bagh for that evening but no attempt was made to stop it. A little after 5 pm on 13th April, Dyer entered the bagh with 50 soldiers and gave the order to fire into the crowd –1,650 rounds were fired in 15 minutes. An immediate curfew was imposed after the firing, which forced many families to abandon their injured family members as well as the bodies of those who had died in the bagh that night.
Tragically, despite the events at the bagh, Dyer’s unrestrained rule over Amritsar continued. Two days after the massacre, on 15 April 1919, martial law was imposed in the districts of Lahore and Amritsar and remained in effect until early June. Subsequently, martial law was also imposed in three other districts of Punjab – Gujranwala, Gujrat and Lyallpur. This law allowed military tribunals to take over the administration of justice, giving individual officers extraordinary powers.
To add insult to injury, many violent and degrading punishments were meted out under martial law in Punjab. In Amritsar, in a lane known as Kucha Kaurianwala, where a British school teacher had been attacked during the violence of April 10, General Dyer forced Indians to pass through by crawling on all fours, from the 19th to the 25th of April. Furthermore, doctors and suppliers weren’t allowed inside the street.
Throughout Punjab, people were imprisoned, tortured, flogged and sentenced to death by military tribunals.
The Town Hall in Amritsar, which now houses the world’s first Partition Museum, served as the kotwali or city police station, in 1919 and many Indians were imprisoned within its walls.
Jallianwala Bagh is an important moment in India’s history. Even though colonial violence was a routine feature of British rule, the scale of the massacre at the bagh was particularly shocking and gripped popular imagination. The bagh soon became a memorial park and continues to be a space for reflection and remembrance.
With inputs from: Partition Museum
About the Exhibition: Punjab Under Siege: Commemorative Exhibition on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Centenary (1919-2019) has been mounted by the Partition Museum and is currently open to the public. It is the world’s first museum dedicated to the Partition of 1947. It is a people’s museum that aims to tell the stories of the millions impacted, through oral histories, refugee artefacts, archival photographs, original documents and artworks. The museum is housed in the historic Town Hall building in Amritsar and is a five-minute walk from the Jallianwala Bagh and Golden Temple.