Jallianwala Bagh: Lifting the Veil

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    Brij Gopinath Baikal, a 23-year-old clerk at the National Bank in Amritsar recited the revolutionary poem Fariyad moments before the first shots rang out at Jallianwala Bagh, on 13th April 1919. This chilling photograph – never seen before – is of the young revolutionary just before General Dyer ordered the killings that fateful day.

    This photo is from the collection of Amritsar-based writer Aashish Kochhar’s father and historian, Surinder Kochhar, who has spent decades collecting rare pictures and eyewitness accounts of the events of the time.

    The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was the climax of a chain of events, the final one being a formidable demonstration of Hindu-Muslim unity that terrified the British. This peaceful show of strength took place on 9th April 1919, the Ram Navami Day, five days before the massacre. Here is the story –

    This year marks the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Punjab, one of the most tragic chapters in Indian history. However, what most people don’t realise is that the massacre was not an isolated incident; it was triggered by the events of Ram Navami Day, when Hindus and Muslims in Amritsar displayed an unprecedented show of unity, which alarmed the British establishment like never before.

    Resentment against the British was building for some time. Historian Sumit Sarkar, in his book Modern India 1886-1947 (2014), writes about how the Punjab province was in turmoil in 1919.

    This was just after the First World War, during which thousands of youngsters from Punjab had fought and died in the war as part of the British army.

    The war was followed by heavy taxation, matched in ruthlessness by a repressive administration under Governor Michael O’Dwyer. Between 1917 and 1919, the price of food grains had doubled.

    This was accompanied by a wave of discontent triggered by the implementation of the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, better known as the Rowlatt Act, by the Imperial Legislative Assembly in Delhi. The Act extended wartime measures and took away from Indians the right to a plea, appeal and hire a lawyer from the general public.

    Due to all these events, Punjab, and Amritsar in particular was gradually developing as a centre for revolutionary activities. The decision to implement the Rowlatt Act was the last straw, prompting the city’s businessmen to call for two strikes, on March 30 and April 6, 1919.

    Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, Congress leaders from Amritsar, were at the forefront of the protests. They believed that the oppressive government could be thrown out by a united front of Hindus and Muslims. To unite the two communities, it was decided to mark the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, which fell on 9th April 1919, as Rashtriya Ekta Diwas, or National Unity Day.

    The unrest in Punjab was deep and widespread, and Sarkar notes that what frightened the British most was the remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity, which they feared would lead to a repeat of the Revolt of 1857. This sentiment was most obvious on Ram Navami Day.

    To make this occasion a success, preparations had started two months in advance. Dr Kitchlew had met with other leaders of the city’s Muslim community, on February 13, 1919, when he underlined the need to come together and maintain communal harmony. After a week, Dr Satyapal too held similar meetings with various Hindu organisations in the city. On February 22-23, he gave a similar speech during the annual function of an Islamic organization called Anjuman-i-Taraqqi. The response to the call for unity was massive and it resonated in the hearts of every Indian.

    Historian V N Datta in his book Amritsar: Past and Present (1967) mentions that since Miles Irving, then Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, had on April 5 already prohibited leaders Dr Kitchlew, Dr Satyapal and Pandit Kotumal from taking part in any public event, Dr Hafiz Muhammad Bashir, a doctor who was the Secretary of Satyagraha Sabha, an organization founded by Mahatma Gandhi, was chosen as the president of the function.

    Dr Bashir provided an account of the Ram Navami procession in a letter published by The Bombay Chronicle newspaper on July 17, 1920. In his letter, he describes how he himself was leading the procession, riding horseback, whereas Chowdhri Bugga Mal, another Congress leader, was leading the procession of pedestrians just behind him. According to him, some of the youths were on bicycles and around a large number of peaceful volunteers were on foot.

    They held banners with slogans that read ‘Gandhi Maharaj ki jai’ (Long live Gandhi), ‘Kitchlew ji ki jai’ (Long live Kitchlew) and ‘Satyapal ji ki jai’ (Long live Satyapal) in Urdu and Gurmukhi. Everyone in the crowd was chanting ‘Hindu-Muslim ki hakoomat’ (self-rule of Hindu and Muslim). None of the slogans alluded to violence, nor were they anti-government.

    Historian Satish Chandra in his book Freedom Movement in Punjab (1905-29) writes that Mahasha Rattan Chand, a prominent Marwari leader, and Imam Gulam Jilani of the Khairuddin mosque had installed chabeel (free water stalls organised on holy festivals) in the Katra Ahluwalia neighborhood and outside the Khairuddin mosque (located at Hall Gate) respectively, where Hindus and Muslims drank the chabeel water from each-other’s hands. On one hand, Hindus were putting tikkas on the foreheads of Muslims, while the Muslims placed the topi (Islamic cap) on the heads of Hindus.

    The Ram Navami procession in Amritsar was later described in the Hunter Commission report (on the massacre) as ‘very largely participated by Muhammedans... a striking demonstration in furtherance of Hindu-Muslim unity – people of different creeds drinking out of same cups publicly’.

    According to the Congress’s Punjab enquiry – a report commissioned by the Indian National Congress on the party’s activities in 1919-1920 – on 9th April, the youths (students) motivated by Dr Hafiz Muhammad Bashir, were moving through the bazaar of the interior city, where Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving was standing near Allahabad Bank. Although he was smoldering with anger, the situation was beyond his control.

    Within a few hours, a complete report was sent to the Lt Governor, Michael Francis O'Dwyer, in Lahore. He, in turn, issued orders to Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving to detain Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal. Irving thus summoned both leaders to his office the next morning, on April 10, and both of them were secretly sent to the cantonment in Kangra.

    Despite the fact that the arrests were kept confidential, locals soon became aware of the ‘detention’ and were enraged. According to The Massacre at Amritsar (1963), a book by British author and researcher Rupert Furneaux, the public gathered in large numbers to head towards the Deputy Commissioner’s residence located in British Lines (now Civil Lines), bareheaded, to show their grief and oppose the detention.

    Irving and Captain Maisie, the jail in charge at Civil Lines, arrived there and ordered the police to open fire on the crowd, first near Hall Bridge (later called Podiyanwala Bridge) and then at the railway overbridge (now Bhagwan Mahavir Bridge). The firing resulted in 24 deaths and left many wounded. This atrocious act enraged the peaceful public.

    The bodies were brought to the Khairuddin mosque and the wounded were taken to the hospital of a local doctor Kedarnath in the Dhab Khatikan locality. It is said that in hospital, an English nurse called Isabel Mary Easdon laughed, saying that the English had ‘taught the Indians the right lesson’. The crowd had run out of patience and attempted to kill the nurse, who was rescued by another Englishwoman.

    Marcella Sherwood, manager of City Mission School who also worked for the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, was also attacked by the crowd on her way back home. She was beaten till she was believed to be dead and was rescued by a local Indian doctor.

    By evening, many Englishmen, including railway guard Robins, electrician Sergeant Ronald, and bank manager Stuart and his accountant Stark were killed, and Station Superintendent Bent was gravely wounded. Besides, two dozen government buildings were badly damaged by the locals to avenge the morning’s killings. Next morning, the funeral rites of both Hindus and Muslims were organised in the Khairuddin mosque.

    It was at this time that General Dyer appeared on the scene. On Deputy Commissioner Irving’s request, 200 Gurkha sepoys from the nearby cantonment and 300 regular infantry personnel were summoned from Lahore under their Commander MacDonald. By evening, Jallandhar Brigade’s Commander Reginald Dyer was promoted to the rank of ‘General’ and was immediately deployed to Amritsar.

    On reaching here, he first changed the army headquarters and his residence from the railway station to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s summer palace in Ram Bagh (known as Company Bagh). By this time, some accounts suggest that the British administration was seriously contemplating bombing Amritsar, which was formally acknowledged by General Dyer himself, the very next day of the massacre on April 14 during the meeting with the city’s Municipal Commissioner and businessmen which was in order to persuade people to take back strike which they had begun as the opposition of the massacre. This meeting, in which AJW Kitchen, the Commissioner of the Lahore Division was also present; Dyer menaced people that his bombs were ready and if the strike wasn’t taken back in a day, he would have raised the city to ground by bombing.

    But on 13th April 1919, one of the most tragic events in Indian history – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre – would take place. General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on hundreds of unarmed Indians who had assembled in Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi. In the crowd were a group of nationalists who had gathered to protest the repressive policies of the British – among them a 23-year-old clerk of National Bank, Amritsar named Brij Gopinath Baikal. He had just finished reciting the first couplet of his poem ‘Fariyad’, when the killings began. While Baikal survived the massacre, hundreds of others lost their lives.

    Two days after the massacre, martial law or army rule was imposed. Both Hindu and Muslim leaders who had participated in Ram Navami Day had to bear the consequences. The punishment was severe. Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal were ‘transportated for life’ to the Andamans and Dr Hafiz Mohammad Bashir was ordered to be executed.

    On April 16, Gulam Jilani, the Imam of the Khairuddin mosque, who had played a major role in the Ram Navami function and in the installation of chabeel, was arrested while he was reading namaz in the mosque. According to an eyewitness, he was so severely tortured that he died during the interrogation process.

    Another witness, Shams-ud-din, had recorded similar information in his police statement. According to him, Imam Jilani had been tortured because he was reluctant to testify against Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal. He also had mentioned that the police had threatened him with a similar death if he didn’t give a statement against the leaders.

    The massacres of 10th and 13th April in Amritsar were a turning point in the Indian freedom struggle. It all started when Indian’s across faiths, stood together as one.

    Images courtesy: Aashish Kochhar


    Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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