Some pains are unforgettable. Some pains are poignant. Some pains are dreadful. It is one among them which is indelible too. Though it was a black day in India’s freedom struggle, it is recalled as a milestone in our journey towards getting freedom from horrendous British rule. No doubt it will be remembered as the act of atrocity, brutality and barbarism of British’s rule against us.
In 1919, the British government passed the Rowlatt Act which endorsed the government to imprison or detain any person without trial and conviction. That added wretchedness to the already terrifying law and order imposed by the British on colonized Indians. As a result, there was uproar everywhere. Against this pitiless and brazen act, Gandhiji started the “Satyagarh Movement” which was meant as a countrywide passive resistance against British rule.
On 10th of April, 1919 two prominent leaders- Saifuddin Kichlew and Satya Pal – were arrested in Punjab. In protest people gathered at the residence of the commissioner of police of Amritsar. Instead of listening and understanding their voice, the police shot at the crowd to turn them back. As a result people became out of patience, several government buildings and properties were set on fire which resulted in the deaths of five Europeans, government employees and others. The police again resorted to the same means- shooting at the crowd.
On 11th of April 1919, an English missionary named Marcella Sherwood, being scared of violence, was on undertaking to save her pupils mostly Indian from the unrests. While cycling she was caught by a mob in a street called Kucha Kurrichhan. She had to face the brunt of the aggressive retaliating mob. She was dragged to the ground by her hair, beaten, lashed and stripped. Some Indians, a few of them happened to be fathers of her pupils, saved her by hiding her from the mob and sneaked her into a safe place- Gobindgarh fort. Seeing Miss Sherwood, Colonel Dyer issued an order which compelled every Indian going through the street to crawl on his hands and knees. Furthermore he reiterated, “Some Indians crawl with face downwards before their Gods. An English woman is as sacred as a Hindu God so they have to crawl in front of her too.” In return, Miss Sherwood admired the Colonel as “Saviour of Punjab”.
On 13th April, people gathered in a small garden in Amritsar which was called Jallianwala Bagh, to protest peacefully against the apprehensions of those two leaders. The park was walled on all sides with only a few narrow gates to enter and exit. Most of those gates were blocked save the main gate which was a little wider. In the centre of the Bagh, was a Samadhi (cremation-site) and a single large well. There were thousands of people including women and children assembled to have peaceful and non-violent discussion as well as joy and celebration of the festive day but the English Brigadier-General named Reginald Dyer who was given control of Amritsar by Lt. Governor of Punjab Michael O’Dwyer found this an opportunity to instil fear in our freedom fighters by setting an exemplary vicious misdeed.
Unable to bring his machine gun-loaded cars through the narrow gate, he entered the park afoot with his soldiers and closed the only gate from behind thwarting anyone to escape the place and commanded his soldiers to take position. He declared the meeting illegal and without giving any warning he ordered his soldiers to fire at the crowd. They ruthlessly fired around 1650 rounds of bullets until all the ammunition was exhausted. When people tried to flee through the gate the General ordered his troops to point their guns towards the gate. The firing lasted for ten minutes. The number of rounds fired was reckoned by counting the numbers of empty cartridges cases lying in the park. In order to evade the unrelenting bullets many jumped into the solidarity well. The mayhem at the narrow gate caused many deaths. Many lay on the ground to save themselves. But the estimation of the actual number of people who died was flawed by the British inquiry. Even the news of such a tragic incident was being suppressed. Finding the inquiry untrustworthy, the Indian National Congress instituted their own committee to find the actual number of deaths which concluded it was around 1000 as compared to 379 and nearly 1500 people wounded as compared to 1300 by the British inquiry.
Before the inquiry Dyer vouched, “I have done my duty. I have no regret over it.” When a commission called the Hunter Commission was set up to inquire into the massacre, he replied “I think probably, yes” to the question, “If the passage was sized enough to allow your armoured vehicles to enter the garden, would you have opened fire with the machine guns too?” He was neither rebuked nor apprehended by British authority. Some even lauded him that he had saved Punjab from “anarchy”.
It was a day of Baishakhi. The people thought of Baishakhi, a holy day and famous festival for Shikhs, for making protest efficacious and that was the only option for them to dissent against the cruel law. The city had already a sizeable mass of pilgrims, merchants, farmers and traders attending the annual Baishakhi horse and cattle fair. The garden was a stone’s throw from the holy golden temple so people returning home after celebrating Baishakhi found the assembly convenient to join. Moreover the city police closed the fair at 2 pm itself that day which led more people to drift to the park. So there were around twenty thousand people inside the garden. It became a political and religious congregation. They gathered to celebrate Baishakhi but who knew it would turn from a gala day in to one of the saddest days of the epoch within those ten minutes.
The brutal act infuriated people all around. There were protests countrywide. It was condemned by nationalist leaders across the world. Winston Churchill called it a “monstrous” act. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore renounced the “Knighthood” conferred on him by the British, in protest against the Punjab calamity.
On 13th March 1940, Sardar Udham Singh who, witnessed the massacre and was wounded himself, killed Michael O’Dyer at Caxton Hall in London. He said before the judge in trial:
“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 that I have done my 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 a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”
Udham Singh was hanged on 31th July 1940 in London. In 1974, his remains were brought to India and cremated in his birthplace at Sunam village in Punjab and his ashes were scattered in the Sutlej River.
In 1952, the then Prime minister, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, honoured Udham Singh saying:
“I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free”.