Jallianwala Bagh and the Indomitable Spirit of Amritsar

Photo of prominent  Ghadars  taken in 1936 after their release from prison

Photo of prominent Ghadars taken in 1936 after their release from prison

Every year since 1699, Sikhs have assembled in Amritsar on the 13th of April to celebrate Vaisakhi, a day marking the establishment of the Khalsa. Vaisakhi also marks the annual ripening of harvest across Panjab, with farmers from all backgrounds flocking to Amritsar to mark the festival in celebratory style. On this day in 1919, Amritsar, and the grounds within the immediate vicinity of Sri Darbar Sahib, would have been overflowing with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people from across the country.

This was the day chosen by the British Indian forces, led by General Reginald Dyer, to open fire and kill the indigenous populace that had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, which is situated approximately 500 meters from Sri Darbar Sahib.

“Dyer was remorseless. He directed the men to fire at those trying to escape as well as aiming where the crowd was thickest. The shooting was as calm, deliberate and cruelly aimed as target practice at the butts, with every bullet made to count. It took him fifteen minutes in all to accomplish his task, for which his men fired 1650 rounds.”[1]

The build up

In order to understand the Amritsar massacre which occurred at Jallianwala Bagh, one must understand the roots of British terror in Panjab, which stem from the annexation of the Sikh Homeland in 1849. Jallianwala Bagh needs to be examined within the wider context of colonial occupation of Panjab, which set about a chain of events that saw British forces exert their influence in typically oppressive fashion. The systematic occupation of Panjab fostered an environment in which the empire subjugated the people and extracted the country’s natural resources. This not only had a crippling effect upon the economic and political stability of Panjab, but it helped fund the monopoly of British hegemony, a feat that continues to pay dividends today.

Furthermore, the destruction of indigenous schools of excellence; the Abrahamic distortion of Sikh writings by virtue of disseminating Christian missionaries; the infiltration and occupation of Sikh institutions; and the criminalisation of Sikh dissent, which was enforced with repressive legislation, are all examples of the systematic suppression in Panjab. Under colonial occupation, such was the severity of oppression that thousands fled the country, in the hope of starting a new life. At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Panjab’s Sikh populace left for Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and America.

Some sections of the Panjabi community, those who had served in the British Army, expected equal welcome and rights from the British and Commonwealth governments, as extended to hundreds of thousands of white migrants who were being scattered across the colonies at the same time. However, colonial governments opted not to offer them the same courtesy but decided instead to curb this influx of Panjabi immigration with a series of legislative measures aimed at limiting their rights. It was at this moment that a group of Sikhs started to awaken to the reality that they needed to reestablish their own sovereignty to live as free Sikhs.

 They started to mobilise and organise themselves to form a movement which went onto become the revolutionary vanguard of activism in Panjab; the Ghadar Movement. Beginning in 1914, printing anti-colonial literature, their sole aim was to remove the British and liberate their homeland; “The time will soon come when rifles and blood will take the place of pen and ink” -Ghadar.

When one reads the original writings of the Ghadars, such as the works by Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, it becomes clear that the Ghadar Movement was inspired by Sikh principles of fighting oppressive systems of governance and doing so for the liberation of all peoples. This is why the British deemed them so dangerous and a genuine threat to their occupation of Panjab, and the adjoining lands. However, many Indian revisionists, especially after the creation of the Indian state in 1947, erroneously portrayed the Ghadars as communists, secularists and Indian nationalists. Two of the leading experts on the subject matter, Rajwinder Singh Rahi, and renowned Sikh author Ajmer Singh, have corrected the narrative by providing a comprehensive history of the Ghadar Movement, using primary source material written by the Ghadars themselves.

Furthermore, Bengali-Hindu revolutionary Sachindra Nath Sanyal, leader of an armed resistance against the British from Bengal, speaks about the sheer number of Sikhs that returned to Panjab to fight the British. He had regular contact with prominent Ghadar, Kartar Singh Sarabha, and was a mentor for other anti-colonialists such as Chandra Shekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh.  According to Sanyal’s book ‘Bandi Jeevan’ (1930), written whilst he was in prison, 7-8000 (thousand) Panjabis returned home during the era of the Ghadar Movement, of which 99% were Sikhs!

Sanyal recognised the distinct contribution of Sikh revolutionaries in Panjab; that their inspiration was derived from their unwavering commitment to liberate people from the clutches of oppressive regimes, which they did because that is what Sikh philosophy and Sikh tradition demands. When Sikh resistance is understood from this explicitly Sikh worldview, it comes as no surprise that during the struggle against colonial forces, 93 of the 121 freedom fighters that were sent to the gallows were Sikh. They also made up 2147 of the 2626 that were sentenced to imprisonment.[2] The Sikhs gave an immense sacrifice and thus spearheaded the movement to remove the colonisers from their lands, despite only making up 1.8% of the entire population in British controlled India.

Moreover, when we consider the writings of the Ghadars , such as the works of Sohan Singh Bhakna, and analyse their photos, we discover they were initiated Sikhs; Nitnemi Rehitvaan Gursikhs who adorned the Guru’s insignia and sought inspiration for their revolutionary action from Guru Nanak Dev ji’s teachings. The Ghadar Movement itself was over 95% Sikh[3]. Therefore, with most of the armed resistance in Panjab coming from Sikh forces, it was by no means a coincidence that British forces unleashed a reign of terror upon Amritsar, and as we shall see, they did so to violently crush Sikh resistance.

At around the same time as the mobilisation of the Ghadars, the Komagata Maru ship incident occurred, which highlights the discriminatory and unfair treatment of Panjabis by white settler colonialists. The ship (renamed by Baba Gurdit Singh to Guru Nanak Jahaj) carrying 376 refugees[4], of which 90% were Sikhs from Panjab, was refused the right to disembark in Vancouver. It was forced to return to the port of Calcutta.

Upon arrival, the Sikhs insisted upon going to Bengal, but they were refused entry and fired upon by the British Indian authorities. Consequently, many people were injured and killed. “Troops came running and were given the order to fire on passengers. The passengers hid in ditches, behind a hut, and in a shop. Darkness came quickly and those who were still alive slipped away. Eighteen passengers died from the gunshots. The authorities organised a roundup of the passengers in the surrounding area, and ultimately more than 200 were arrested and jailed”.[5] This incident only served to heighten Sikh discontent towards the colonial regime, and it boosted the Ghadars’ cause.

Massacre on 13th April 1919

So, whilst in 1919 the British unleashed an onslaught of bullets to disperse crowds that had gathered in protest of the repressive Rowlatt legislation, this was part of a larger strategy to suppress those who had opposed British occupation of Panjab since the 1850s. The proposed Rowlatt Act sought to allow the British Indian authorities to arrest, detain and imprison anyone, for any or no reason, without due legal process. It was being implemented with the sole aim of crushing any resistance to British occupation of the land.

There was public outrage, with riots and strikes across Amritsar. On April 13, in keeping with Sikh tradition, several thousand people assembled in Jallianwala Bagh to express their opposition. As the crowds gathered to protest the repressive policies of British rule, the authorities responded with extreme violence. The city was brought under martial law for three months, during which time people were arbitrarily picked up, tied to frames, and publicly whipped. Other humiliating punishments such as forcing all people to crawl when passing through the street, became the order of the day.

There were major protests to the Rowlatt Bills not just in Amritsar but also in neighbouring Lahore and Gujranwala. On 14th April 1919, a day after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, colonial forces unleashed more bullets upon the Panjabi populace in Gujranwala. Over 100 people were killed when British RAF officers rained down bombs on civilians and fired machine guns.[6]

Later that year, General Dyer testified that he had planned to fire in advance of arrival at Jallianwala Bagh, not just for the purposes of dispersing the crowds but to strike a blow of terror towards all of Panjab, to “reduce the morale of the rebels”. He went on to state that he left the wounded unattended and if possible, he would’ve used machine guns and armoured vehicles. In other words, if his means had been greater the casualties would’ve been greater. The perpetrator; the Committee set up to investigate; and officials back in London, all condoned the actions on 13th April 1919.

Sikh response to oppression

“He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him”.[7]

Shaheed Udham Singh, whom, having joined the revolutionary Ghadar Movement in 1924, eventually travelled several thousand miles to deliver justice. He recognised General Dyer wasn’t the sole perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but rather he was one cog in a much larger machine that was steam rolling across his homeland. He assassinated Lieut. Governor Michael O’Dwyer on 13 March 1940 and wounded then Governor of Bengal, Lawrence John Lumley Dundas and Charles Cochrane-Bailie, a colonial administrator. Unlike the colonial punitive actions, Shaheed Udham Singh’s pistol was aimed solely at the perpetrators of the Amritsar massacre, and his action galvanised the anti-colonial movement.

As mentioned earlier, Sikh resistance to colonial occupation can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Resistance offered by the likes of Bhai Maharaj Singh’s rebellion (1856) and the Kuka Movement (1857), delivered effective blows to the colonial regime in Panjab. The Kuka Movement’s opposition to British rule was quite remarkable. The rejection of government service, English education and English law courts, is what ultimately aggravated widespread arrest and extra-judicial killings. The British response to the Kukas came from the Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana when he ordered 66 Kukas to be executed. “On 17 January 1872 fifty of them were blown apart in his presence by canons lined up on the Malerkotla parade ground for a crime allegedly committed two days earlier”.[8] The other sixteen were executed two days later.

The logic that underpinned the violence of Jallianwala Bagh was undistinguishable to the colonial executions during the Komagata Maru incident and the Kuka Movement in 1872, as well as other anti-colonial resistance. The massacre in Amritsar was designed to strike terror’ as much as were the mass public execution of the Kukas in 1872. The colonial exertion of force, used to quell indigenous resistance movements in Panjab and indeed the world, has always been both punitive and performative, the latter being a defining aspect of colonialism.

British official Sir John Lawrence once said, “Our object is to make an example to terrify others. I think this object would be effectually gained by destroying from a quarter to a third of them”. He went on to add, “All these should be shot or blown away from the guns, as may be most expedient. The rest I would divide into batches: some to be imprisoned for ten years, some seven some five, some three. I think that a sufficient example will then be made, and that these distinctions will do good, and not harm”.[9]  Some sixty years later, this was the same rationale General Dyer provided in his testimony.  This was the same approach used by Indian forces following the military attack on Sri Darbar Sahib in 1984.

Ever-present spirit of Sikh resistance

Historically speaking Amritsar has always been at the heart of Sikh opposition to repressive imperial governance. The establishment of Sikh institutions around the city, none more prominent than the Akal Takht which stands approximately 500 metres from the Jallianwala Bagh, is testament to the resolute spirit of Sikh resistance. Whilst the events of 13 April 1919 illustrate the barbarity of colonial rule in Panjab, they also show the defiance of Sikh resistance that has endured for centuries.

For a Sikh the heavy-handed response from British forces resonates with the violent persecution under Mughal India and the repressive policies of the Indian state in the post-colonial era; such as the indiscriminate firing of Indian police upon Sikh protesters, who had gathered in Amritsar on 13th April 1978 to oppose state supported anti-Sikh forces. Or the post-1984 period, during which time the state utilised all its machinery to eliminate political dissent, paying no heed to human, let alone civil, liberties. In fact, the Indian establishment enacted legislation that gave authorities the same overarching powers as Rowlatt had done during British occupation of Panjab.

The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act 1985 (TADA) granted Indian law enforcers very wide powers of detention, including imprisonment without trial, restriction of writing, speech, and of movement in which the accused could be detained for years without a formal charge.  Confessions made to police officers, usually under duress, were admissible as evidence in a court of law. The burden of proof was placed upon the accused to prove his or her innocence. Exclusive court rooms were set up to hear the cases and the identities of “witnesses” were kept secret, a violation of international standards of right to a fair trial.

The act was repealed only to be replaced by the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA) 2002 which contained provisions like those found in TADA.  This pattern of introducing repressive laws, designed to suppress political dissent, has been a convenient tool for oppressive and exploitative regimes across Panjab since 1849. Indian legislature such as TADA and POTA reinforced colonial logic, which the executive authorities insidiously used to quell Sikh resistance for decades.

This April the world commemorates 100 years since the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but as a Sikh I’m conscious of other British and Indian atrocities committed on the soil of Panjab. Some want an apology from the establishment for their crimes, others want to bring about reform in the national curriculum, to better educate people about colonial rule in Panjab. Whilst those suggestions may come with the best intentions, I find greater solace in the actions of those beloved Sikh who, having recognised the Sikh principles of standing against oppression and injustice, gave a befitting and direct response to the violently suppressive ways of imperialist regimes.

Seeking an apology from the establishment that overtly terrorised Panjab for almost a century is absurd, especially when that establishment continues to reap the benefits of its exploitative and oppressive past.  This absurdity is perhaps best illustrated when we consider the Sikh response to countless acts of terror inflicted by the Mughal regime. The mere thought of Sikhs such as Banda Singh Bahadur, Sardar Baghel Singh, Jassa Singh Ramgharia or Hari Singh Nalwa, to name just a few, of even contemplating such a proposition is utterly ridiculous. We celebrate their resilience and their Gurmat inspired movement to continuously resist oppression and establish Sikh sovereignty.

In the same manner we hail revolutionary Sikhs who resisted and drove the British out of Panjab. We celebrate the actions of Shaheed Udham Singh alongside the actions of Bhai Maharaj Singh, the Kukas, Ghadars and Babbar Akalis before him. We celebrate the Sant Jarnail Singhs, Shaheed Beant Singhs and Shaheed Satwant Singhs, whose weapons were also aimed solely at the perpetrators of other Amritsar massacres. It is within this reality that the indomitable spirit of Amritsar has, and shall endure forever.


[1] P. Singh, The Sikhs, (Rupa Publishers, 2002), p192

[2] Santosh Bhartiya, Dalit and Minority Empowerment, (2008) p356

[3] Ajmer Singh, Gadhri Babeh Kaun San, (2013), p23

[4] https://digital.lib.sfu.ca/kmpassenger-collection/komagata-maru-passenger-list

[5] Pamela Hickman and Gola Taraschi-Carr, Righting Canada’s Wrongs; The Komagata Maru, (2014), p63

[6] T. S. Nahal, Ghadar Movement: Its Origin and Impact on Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and Indian Freedom Movement, (2012)

[7] Shaheed Udham Singh, 4th June 1940 at the Old Bailey, London

[8] P. Singh, The Sikhs, (Rupa Publishers 2002), p183

[9] Sir. J. Kaye and Colonel. G. Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny (1890), p367-368