The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh was a moment in history, a turning point in India’s struggle for Independence. It was a crime that stunned the nation by the scale of its brutality; it showed the true face of the Raj to those who still had faith in the ‘mai-baap’ government. Gandhi called off the satyagraha against the Rowlatt Acts, but a year later, came back with the biggest mass movement yet seen against the government. The die was cast, and the National Movement moved into a different trajectory thereon, acquiring with time an unstoppable momentum.
Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in January 1915, and spent the next year travelling around the country. He did not join the Home Rule Movement (1916-1918) of Lokmanya Tilak and Annie Besant, nor was he convinced of the efficacy of the methods of the Congress Moderates. Based on his work in South Africa and his experience in India, he was convinced that non-violent satyagraha was the only viable and sustainable form of resistance.
In 1917 and 1918, Gandhi led movements in Champaran, Ahmedabad and Kheda related to economic demands of peasants and industrial workers in those specific areas. The success of these movements earned him significant goodwill and a valuable knowledge of Indian situations and, in February 1919, he felt confident enough to call for a nationwide agitation against the Rowlatt Bills, which aimed to severely curtail the civil liberties of Indians. One of the Acts was pushed through the Legislative Council ignoring objections of elected Indian representatives, wrecking hopes of post-War constitutional concessions, and angering Indians everywhere.
Editorial | Sorry, not sorry
Gandhi formed a Satyagraha Sabha, and called for a nationwide hartal, fasting and prayers, accompanied by civil disobedience from April 6, 1919. But the movement did not go as planned, and at several places there was street violence. Punjab, which was already restive due to war-time repression and forcible recruitments, reacted strongly, and Amritsar and Lahore faced an extremely tense situation. On April 10, crowds attacked the town hall and post office in Amritsar after two local leaders were arrested. The administration, fearing a fullscale mutiny, called in the army and handed over the city to a Colonel named Reginald Edward Harry Dyer.
On April 13, which was Baisakhi, a large crowd of people from Amritsar and neighbouring areas gathered at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting in defiance of orders banning public assemblies. A furious General Dyer, as he has come to be called, ordered his troops to fire into the innocent, unarmed crowd, without even issuing a warning. The ground was surrounded on all sides by high walls that made escape impossible, and as the soldiers kept shooting for some 10 minutes, the bodies kept piling up.
The official count was 379 dead, even though the real numbers were probably much more. Following the massacre, the government cracked down even harder, the whole of Punjab was put under martial law, and the people of Amritsar were humiliated by forcing them to crawl on their bellies in front of whites.
On April 18, Gandhi, fearing even bigger massacres, called off the satyagraha. But neither he nor the people had given up or been cowed into submission. On August 1, 1920, as the nation mourned the passing of the Lokmanya, the Mahatma launched the Non-Cooperation Movement, having already informed the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, that it was a right of the subject recognised “from time immemorial… to refuse to assist a ruler who misrules”.