TODAY marks the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that took place on the eve of Baisakhi festival in Amritsar. No one exactly knows the total number of people who perished on the evening of April 13, 1919, as bullets flew ceaselessly like water gushing from a water gun. Official British records place the dead a little over hundred; the unofficial ones talk in thousands.

The lead up to the massacre goes back to the draconian Rowlatt Act passed by the British Government to strangle any nationalist activity.

With the end of the First World War a year earlier, weary Punjabi soldiers returned from the battlefields of Europe and Mesopotamia. They were disillusioned by the government’s broken promises, and many were lured by the anti-colonial revolutionary movements like the 1857 ‘mutiny’. To counter this, the British Indian government passed the Rowlatt Act. Reactions against it were loud and clear. Pakistan’s founder, Jinnah, resigned from his Bombay seat, Tagore renounced his knighthood, and Gandhi initiated countrywide protests.

Amritsar a century ago was renowned for its unique carpets, a fusion between European and Indian motifs, perfected by its growing Kashmiri community. A young Manto lived in Kucha Vakilaan of Amritsar as did another Amritsari Kashmiri by the name of Dr Saifuddin Kitchloo, who initiated protests against the despotic Rowlatt Act. To counter the British ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, the Hindus and Muslims of Amritsar marched together on April 9 during a procession celebrating the birthday of Hindu god Rama.

Orders came from Lahore the next day as the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab ordered the arrest of Dr Kitchloo and Dr Satyapal. It was for the protest against these arrests that many people had gathered in that wasteland, otherwise called the ‘gardens of the family of village Jallan’.

A majority of the people came from the surrounding villages to attend the Baisakhi cattle fair or to pay respects to the nearby Golden Temple. Clueless as they were about the whole protest, they came to know what it was when Gen Reginald Dyer blocked the only entry and ordered ceaseless firing for ten whole minutes.

As I gulp down a bottle of ‘Big Lychee’ made by Murree Brewery, I cannot fathom the idea of a ‘pukkah sahib’ from Murree and an heir to Punjab’s oldest brewery, ending up as the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’!

Harleen Singh Sandhu

Toronto

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2019

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