Prof JS Grewal & Prof Indu Banga
The First World War had just ended. There was a lot of disillusionment, a lot of disenchantment. The prices were rising. Disbanded soldiers were acutely unhappy and felt cheated. People were protesting all over. They had wanted concessions, but what the British gave them was the Rowlatt Act. Mahatma Gandhi had already started acting against it and was mobilising people. Massive protests were being organised across Punjab too. Amid all this happened the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
It was Baisakhi day and Sikhs from nearby villages were visiting the Golden Temple. Some of them with families were resting in the Bagh. Col Reginald Dyer, a British officer, arrived with the troops and ordered them to open fire at the people in Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds died on the spot, several hundreds were injured, making it a watershed moment in the history of the national movement. However, what make the incident important were the events that led to it.
The early 20th century saw the mobilisation of masses through various causes. The Swadeshi movement and Ghadar movement had taken place, along with the revolutionary activity in Bengal and Maharashtra. There was a lot of discontent among Michael O’Dwyer’s forced recruitment for the war. He was actually an arch imperialist, who played an active role in various imperialist organisations in the UK after his retirement. All this had already angered people. The Indians who had fought in the war had returned with the idea of political concessions. They had thought there would be equality. There was considerable discontent in Punjab. Prof Ravinder Kumar, a historian of modern India, has written on this in detail in Urban Society and Urban Politics: Lahore in 1919.
The people’s restlessness made the British worried and they were afraid of a repeat of 1857. The Ghadar leaders had openly talked about 1857 as the First War of Independence and they tried to bring about an uprising of the British Indian army. There was an exaggerated fear among the British that there could be a possibility of this kind of situation. They were paranoid and had been actually expecting something in 1907, the 50th anniversary year of 1857, when Ajit Singh and Lala Lajpat Rai were deported to Burma. This is what Dyer had also claimed and O’Dwyer was his biggest defender.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Rabindranath Tagore relinquished his knighthood in May 1919 and Gandhi gave up his medal of Kaiser-e-Hind in August 1920. The SGPC had resolved to support non-cooperation in 1921.That was the least they could have done to protest. What made the Jallianwala Bagh massacre more important was the context in which it happened, the times that were. It fitted into the scenario. In 1919, people were protesting against the Rowlatt Act; in 1920, the Khilafat Movement and the Non-Cooperation Movement had started and continued for another year until it was dropped in 1922. These three years are very important in the history of modern India. The Jallianwala Bagh incident is important in the sense that it created a possibility for Gandhi and some other leaders to come together and use this and the other movements against the British. This, like the return of titles and awards, became a feature of the non-cooperation movement. The effort was to bring together all anti-British forces together. And he succeeded in it to a large extent and emerged as the most important Indian leader after these three years.
To say that the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy made him big would be too simplistic a statement. He made his own inquiry into the incident. He seized upon the opportunity, which was in continuation of the agitation against the Rowlatt Act and used it for unprecedented political mobilisation under non-cooperation.
It may be added that Udham Singh avenged the incident by murdering O’Dwyer in March 1940. The event is said to have left a deep mark on Bhagat Singh, who is believed to have carried home soil from the Bagh. It turned Akali leader Kartar Singh Jhabbar, a pacifist interested in social and educational reforms, into an extremist political activist.
This period remains a watershed in the Indian freedom movement, and the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy was an important one in a chain of events.