On April 13th 1919 protesters had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India. Several thousand people in all packed the public gardens. The British Army officer in charge of the city, Colonel Reginald Dyer, assembled a unit of 90 Gurka soldiers under British command and proceeded to the gardens. He ensured that the exits were blocked and ordered his troops, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, to open fire. They continued to fire for ten minutes until their ammunition was expended.
The official death toll, according to the British, was 379 dead and over a thousand wounded. The report issued by the Indian National Congress claimed that more than a thousand had been killed. The alleyways leading to the garden were too narrow for Dyer’s armoured cars and so he had to leave them behind. At the inquiry he testified that he would have used them, and their machine guns, if he had been able to.
I visited Amritsar on my way from India to Pakistan in 2009, ninety years after the atrocity. I vividly recall visiting the Jallianwala Bagh and walking around the memorial site which felt very much like sacred ground for the Indian independence movement. Bullet holes in the walls were still visible. The well, down which many people threw themselves to avoid the bullets, is still visible. 120 bodies were later removed from its depths.
Yet the impression which is seared most powerfully onto my memory is the reception I received from Indians visiting the site. I wanted to hide away, to go incognito, to avoid being connected with the massacre. I am British, after all, and although even my grandparents were not born in 1919 I nevertheless feel a sense of regret and grief at what happened. While not personally responsible for it I am nevertheless connected, by dint of my passport if nothing else. I tried to avoid people, to avoid getting into conversations, and yet Indian people are so welcoming that this was impossible.
A group of Indian students came over to say hello. I explained what I was doing and told them about my impressions of India and of Amritsar. Eventually I couldn’t hold it in any more, and I blurted out:
“I’m so sorry for what happened here”.
The students smiled. Oh please, do not worry. It was a long time ago. These things are in the past. You should not worry about it. You are welcome. You are most welcome.
“You are most welcome in India”.
We shook hands and departed, and as I walked back to my hotel in the searing May heat my footsteps were oddly light.