The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, also known as the Amritsar massacre, took place on 13 April 1919 when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab, killing at least 400, including 41 children, one only six weeks old. Over 1,000 were injured.
The Jallianwalla Bagh is a public garden of 6 7 acres (2.8 ha), walled on all sides, with only five narrow entrances. Dyer blocked the main exits, and the troops continue to fire into the fleeing civilians until their ammunition was almost exhausted. He later declared his purpose was not to dispel the rally, but to “punish the Indians”. He did not stay to count the dead, much less offer aid, and his curfew condemned many of the wounded to die overnight where they lay.
On Sunday, 13 April 1919, Dyer, convinced a major insurrection could take place, banned all meetings. This notice was not widely disseminated, and many villagers gathered in the Bagh to celebrate the important Sikh festival of Baisakhi, and peacefully protest the arrest and deportation of two national leaders, Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. Dyer and his troops entered the garden, blocking the main entrance behind them, took up position on a raised bank, and with no warning opened fire on the crowd for about ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted. The following day Dyer stated in a report that “I hear that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds”.
The Hunter Commission report published the following year by the Government of India criticised both Dyer and the Government of the Punjab for failing to compile a casualty count, and quoted a figure offered by the Sewa Samati (a Social Services Society) of 379 identified dead, and approximately 1,100 wounded, of which 192 were seriously injured.The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead.
Dyer was initially lauded for his actions in Britain and became a hero among many who were directly benefiting from the British Raj, such as members of the House of Lords. He was, however, widely criticised in the House of Commons, whose July 1920 committee of investigation censured him. Because he was a soldier acting on orders, he could not be tried for murder. The military chose not to bring him before a court martial, and he was only removed from his current appointment, turned down for a proposed promotion, and barred from further employment in India. Dyer retired from the army and he returned to England, where he died unrepentant in 1927.
Responses polarized both the British and Indian people. Eminent author Rudyard Kipling declared at the time that Dyer “did his duty as he saw it”. This incident shocked Rabindranath Tagore (the first Asian Nobel laureate) to such extent that he stated that “such mass murderers aren’t worthy of giving any title to anyone”.
The massacre caused a re-evaluation by the British Army of its military role against civilians to minimal force whenever possible, although later British actions during the Mau Mau insurgencies in Kenya have led historian Huw Bennett to note that the new policy was not always carried out. The army was retrained and developed less violent tactics for crowd control.
The level of casual brutality, and lack of accountability “stunned the entire nation”, resulting in a “wrenching loss of faith” of the general Indian public in the intentions of the UK. The ineffective inquiry, together with the initial accolades for Dyer, fuelled great widespread anger against the British among the Indian populace, leading to the Non-cooperation Movement of 1920–22. Some historians consider the episode a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.