Memorial to the Massacred
May 27, 2000
I am careening through the streets of Amritsar on a bicycle rickshaw at nighttime, on my way from the bus stop to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where I will spend the night. On my left, I pass a giant sign reading "Jallianwalla Bagh Memorial," so the next day, I decide to go and explore.
From the outside, this memorial looks like any other building. On the inside, however, lies a prominent part of India's struggle for independence from Britain. In order to enter or exit this place, one must travel down a narrow alleyway which two people can barely fit through side-by-side. A plaque on the wall commemorates this narrow passage as the place where General Dyer, along with an army contingent, opened fire on a crowd of pilgrims who had gathered in the small, enclosed courtyard. This tragic event took place on Sunday, 13 April 1919. The pilgrims who gathered were celebrating Baisakhi, the Sikh New Year, as well as the anniversary of the forming of the khalsa, or brotherhood, of Sikhism.
Due to unrest over Britain's rule of India at the time, hartals, or strikes, had become a common form of public demonstration. In order to discourage the Indians from gathering or striking together, British orders included the banning of all such meetings. On this particular Sunday, people gathered in celebration and families and friends came together to enjoy the special day.
Imagine the scene: thousands of people gathering, picnicking and sitting peacefully. Then, General Dyer led troops to Jallianwalla Bagh and without warning, ordered his men to open fire on the crowd. People started to scream and flee, but the alleyway was so narrow that few could escape. Many jumped into the well found in the middle of the courtyard and later, hundreds of bodies were fished out of this well. Bullets rained on the people who were trapped in the courtyard. After watching a re-enactment of this violent event in the film "Gandhi," I realize today that the space in the courtyard is much smaller than I had imagined. Only 40-50 people share this open-air memorial with me right now and still, it feels a little cramped. That tragic Sunday must have been a scene of chaos and terror. Later, official counts estimated 379 dead and 1200 wounded.
As I walk around today, children run through the grass and families are sitting on low benches, taking refuge from the sun's heat. I can see bullet holes in one part of the wall. Colorful signs and plaques hang everywhere, written in Hindi, English, and Punjabi, in order to honor and commemorate the martyrs who died in this place less than a hundred years ago. The signs encourage people to treat this as a special site and admonish the playing of cricket, vending, and making loud noises.
What did the deaths and injuries of these Indians mean to history? After my visit to the memorial, I did some further research and discovered that the British government in London learned of General Dyer's actions six months after the fact. The assault had been hushed up. The aggressive act of an unprovoked British troop firing upon an unarmed Indian crowd was a volatile situation, especially when leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi were calling for Britain to leave India. In England, the Hunter Committee investigated the tragic event and eventually, asked Dyer to resign. He did so; however, popular opinion seemed to stand by him. The House of Lords voted 126 to 86 in his favor and the "Morning Post" raised 26,000 pounds for Dyer, who they celebrated as "the Man who Saved India."
In response to the massacre, Gandhi called for a hartal across all of India as part of the passive resistance, or "satyagraha" policy. This action marked the start of the "non co-operation movement," which was to be a major influence in India's struggle for independence and Britain's eventual departure. As for General Dyer, he was attending a meeting at Caxton Hall, in London, when a survivor of Jallianwala Bagh, who was selling water to the crowd at the time of the massacre, shot him to death.
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