NEW DELHI – India was gearing up on Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre in which imperial British troops opened fire against a large crowd of protesters in the northwestern city, a monumental event that changed the course of colonial history in the subcontinent.
Mahesh Behal’s grandfather was one of the outraged civilians who went to the Jallianwala Bagh public gardens on April 13, 1919, to protest against the arrest and deportation of two Indian nationalist leaders. He returned home with two bullets lodged in his body, fired from one or two of the standard-issue Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles used by the British Indian Army.
Behal told EFE how his grandfather, Hari Ram Behal, joined the crowd of thousands of people – 6,000, according to the British authorities’ estimate at the time, many more according to contemporary Indian historians – who gathered at the public park despite a curfew imposed by the colonial power.
Colonel Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to shoot at the unarmed protesters, a command that ended with at least 400 people killed and over 1,000 injured.
“The ‘Butcher’ Dyer fired so many rounds that hundreds of people died,” Behal said.
Dyer himself said during the subsequent inquiry into the mass slaughter that nearly 1,650 bullets had been fired.
His soldiers had barricaded the main gate to the park, while several secondary exits remained locked, which led to many additional deaths from the human stampedes that ensued once the shooting began.
Some even thrust themselves down into what is now known as the Martyrs’ Well to flee the hellfire.
Hari Ram Behal was brought home while he was still alive, his grandchild explained, but “as soon as he was given water, he succumbed to his injuries in a few minutes.”
That fateful day a century ago, Dyer was out for blood, Kishwar Desai – the author of a recently-published book about the massacre and curator of a museum focused on the Partition of India – told EFE.
He never intended to disperse or control the crowd and never even bothered to give the protesters any prior warning, Desai stressed.
Three days before the massacre, on April 10, there was a violent confrontation between British soldiers and protesters amid the wider unrest that erupted in the Punjab region, in part incited by the Indian independence movement’s greatest icon, Mahatma Gandhi.
“On that day, around 20 to 25 Indians were shot dead by the British,” Desai explained.
“Then the crowd, which was quite large, became angry and they started to burn British property and also killed five Europeans. One British woman was assaulted and another British woman was threatened with assault.”
The British wanted to exact revenge, so they decided to “give Punjabis a lesson,” according to the author, which led directly to the massacre.
The exact number of mortal victims in Jallianwala Bagh remains uncertain, as it varies depending on the source.
The first report that was written up by the British claimed that around 200 people died, while a report by an Indian organization pegged the death toll at 379.
Desai said that two years of her team’s own research, in which they poured over countless documents and testimonies, has produced an estimate of 502 killed.
According to the author, the massacre was a turning point for the Indian nationalist movement, and it ultimately turned Gandhi – who had studied law in London – completely against the British.
“He used to be quite a fan of the British, he used to believe that they had a good sense of justice,” Desai said. “He was not very antagonistic toward the British, but after this, he changed his opinion.”
The planned memorials and tributes for the massacre’s centennial have been limited by the ongoing general elections in the country – which started Thursday and are set to continue over the next six weeks – as the electoral conduct code bans the participation of high-ranking government officials in any public events of this nature.
A candlelit march was scheduled for Friday, while Saturday should see a formal commemoration in which India’s vice president, Venkaiah Naidu, is expected to take part.
The United Kingdom’s then-prime minister, David Cameron, visited Jallianwala Bagh and its monument to the fallen in 2013 and described the massacre as “profoundly shameful.”
Current Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday expressed her regret for the suffering that was caused.
But at this point – despite a public request by the British Labour Party – India has yet to receive a formal apology from its erstwhile oppressor.