The History Behind The Book: The Armritsar Massacre

Let’s face it.  If it didn’t happen to your group, massacres don’t appear in your version of history, the Westernized one you were fed during your school years.  So as I read Midnight’s Children whose opening pages describe Aadam Aziz’s unintended presence at a massacre in Armritsar just after World War I– he’s saved by a sneeze and left permanently bruised by the clasp of his medical bag as British troops open fire for minutes on end–I wasn’t sure if the description was magical realism or history.

One million Indians fought in WWI on behalf of the British.  Tens of thousands died. After the war, Indian cries for independence from the Raj accelerated.  As a result of the political unrest, Britain passed the Rowlatt Act,  which continued wartime suppression of the civil liberties of suspected revolutionaries. The Rowlatt Act precipitated new protests.  In Armritsar, acts of violence occurred on both sides, but after a British female missionary was injured by an unruly mob of protesters, the British commander Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer responded with particular heavy handedness.  He ordered every Indian man using the street where the woman had been attacked to crawl. The British declared martial law over most of the Punjab fearing an Indian revolt.  On the morning of April 13, 1919, Dyer ordered a curfew and banned meetings of more than four people.  Nonetheless, tens of thousands had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh, a walled square.  Some were returning from observing the the festival of Baisahki, the Sikh new year, at the local temple.  Others were merchants returning from the horse and cattle fair that authorities had just closed. And some were actual protesters.  By the afternoon, about  20,000 had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh.  Without first ordering the unarmed crowd to disperse, Dyer commanded his 90 armed soldiers to fire on the crowd, while ordering the exits blocked.  Bullets flew for 10 minutes. Around 1650 rounds were spent.  Dyer refused to allow help to the wounded, who lay on the ground overnight.  British estimated 379 deaths.  Indians estimated 1000 deaths and 500 wounded.

Parliamentary leaders condemned Dyer.  Needless to say,  this horrendous event helped pry the jewel from the crown.


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