Jallianwala Bagh: The turning point

Incident at Jallianwala Bagh affected course of world history, but it is people who actually affected and led change.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash February 11, 2014
The writer is the Chairperson of the Department of History, Forman Christian College, and tweets at @BangashYK.

A few days ago, while returning from Delhi, I stopped over in Amritsar to see Jallianwala Bagh. The April 13, 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre remains the turning point in the history of India, and especially its nationalist movement. As most of you should know, that day, British troops led by Major General Dyer opened fire on thousands of people who had gathered at the park to celebrate the Punjabi new year. The reason for this incident was that legally, the people were disobeying government orders against any kind of gathering under the infamous Rowlatt Act. The over 1,650 rounds fired — some of the bullet holes are still visible — officially killed 379 people and injured thousands more, though it is likely that the real number of casualties was much higher. This incident simply shook the nation. Gone were the days when people remarked of the even-handedness, the sense of justice, propriety and fair play of the British; now the brutal and vicious face of the Raj was uncovered. This incident so shocked India’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, that he wrote to the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, that “I ... wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.” He then returned his knighthood to the government in protest.

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At that time, the British thought that this was simply a passing incident. With time, people would forget about it and move on. However, this incident turned out to be a turning point. Beginning from the noncooperation movement and the Khilafat Movement, Indian nationalists began to demand the withdrawal of the British from India. Whereas an earlier breed of politicians wanted some share in government, equal rights and opportunities, after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, leaders demanded Purna Swaraj — complete independence. What followed, as they say, is history.

As I walked through the Bagh on a crisp winter morning, I kept thinking of the impact of such a small place — it is just about six acres — on the national psyche of India. How and why did people, in say, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta — all very distant cities — get charged by the happenings of this place? After all, most Indians were not related or even knew those who had died, and nor did a great number of them have any affinity or even first-hand knowledge of the people of Punjab or the Sikhs. But somehow, this one incident — and obviously, its magnitude — united the people in their struggle, and in less than 30 years, the greatest empire the world had ever seen came to an end.

While walking around, I also thought about the current state in Pakistan and how we view dramatic incidents. I remember that when the heinous massacres of the Hazaras took place last year, we said ‘enough’; when hundreds were killed in the Peshawar church attack, we said ‘enough’; but yet, somehow, things remained the same. We protested, wore black armbands, and even held a discussion or two, but then, all these incidents faded in the background. No such incident shook the nation to the extent that a discernable change in direction became patent. The nation is still confused, uninspired, and — dare I say — unwilling, to react and take charge. Maybe it is fatigue, apprehension or a simple lack of resolve, but it seems clear that we are not on one page — or perhaps, even chapter — as one country.

The incident at Jallianwala Bagh affected the course of world history, but it is the people who actually affected and led the change. The people, in fact, as Gandhi famously said, became the change they wanted to see in the world. I wonder when this will happen in Pakistan?

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th,  2014.

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BruteForce | 10 years ago | Reply

@Rex Minor:

"This is what the scriptures say and I can assure they did not come to the world in URDU language."

Clearly the Religion of whose scriptures you talk about has failed. There are 57 countries which declare themselves Muslim.

Considering they were written 1400 years ago in the tribal lands and culture of Arabia, its not hard to imagine why.

You believe its a holy word, but theories of Genetic Science and Evolution, have already proved it is not so. Like all Religions its a work of fiction. You wanted to talk reality, is this good enough for you?

If you want to talk philosophy, sure go ahead. For a Nation-State, India has all the ingredients to be one and that is why it has continued to be one for more than 67 years. The glue of Islam has failed, so has the idea.

Rex Minor | 10 years ago | Reply


Politics is not my line, but sophy is and how the world of homo sapiens evolves is not foreign for me. What we observe may not be real but what we think and conceive are very real. This is what the scriptures say and I can assure they did not come to the world in URDU language.

Neither India nor Pakistan are Nations per say, but are made up of several Nations who speak different lnguages and have different cultures. The same applies to the so called arab speaking countries. What we observe the unrest and violence is on account of cultural conflicts and have very little to do with the religion. Perhaps you should read what Ibn Batuta said about the people whom he saw during his travels practicing the religion of Islam. Finaly, a muslim is simply the one who PROMISES to be muslim.

Rex Minor

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