The Rowlatt Act came into effect on 21 March 1919. Gandhi’s call for protest against the Rowlatt Act achieved an unprecedented response of furious unrest and protests.
In Punjab the protest movement was very strong, the situation was deteriorating rapidly, with disruptions of rail, telegraph, and communication systems. The movement was at its peak before the end of the first week of April, with some records stating that “practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets.”
Many officers in the Indian army believed revolt was possible, and they prepared for the worst. The British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, is said to have believed that these were the early and ill-concealed signs of a conspiracy for a coordinated revolt planned around May, on the lines of the 1857 revolt.
On 11 April, Marcella Sherwood, an elderly English missionary, fearing for the safety of the approximately 600 Indian children under her care, was on her way to shut the schools and send the children home.
While travelling through a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan, she was caught by a mob who violently attacked her. She was rescued by some local Indians, including the father of one of her pupils, who hid her from the mob and then smuggled her to the safety of Gobindgarh Fort.
After visiting Sherwood, the Raj’s local commander, Colonel Dyer, enraged at the assault, issued an order requiring every Indian man using that street to crawl its length on his hands and knees as a punishment.
Colonel Dyer later explained to a British inspector: “Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too.”
By 13 April, the British government had decided to put most of Punjab under martial law. The legislation restricted a number of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly; gatherings of more than four people were banned. Brigadier-general Dyer, convinced that a major insurrection could take place, banned all meetings.
This notice was not widely disseminated, and many villagers gathered in the Bagh to celebrate the important Indian festival of Baisakhi, and peacefully protest the arrest and deportation Dr. Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew.
The Bagh was an open area of six to seven acres, roughly 200 yards by 200 yards in size, and surrounded on all sides by walls roughly 10 feet in height, five narrow entrances opened onto it, several with lockable gates.
In the center of the Bagh was a samadhi and a large well partly filled with water which measured about 20 feet in diameter.
Dyer and his troops entered the garden, blocking the main entrance behind them, took up position on a raised bank, and with no warning opened fire on the crowd for about ten minutes, directing their bullets largely towards the few open gates through which people were trying to flee, until the ammunition supply was almost exhausted.
Apart from the many deaths directly from the shooting, a number of people died of crushing in the stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. A plaque, placed at the site after independence, states that 120 bodies were removed from the well.
The following day Dyer stated in a report that “I have heard that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds”.
The Hunter Commission report on the incident, published the following year by the Government of India, criticised both Dyer, and the Government of the Punjab for failing to compile a casualty count, and quoted a figure offered by Sewa Samati of 379 identified dead, comprising 337 men, 41 boys and a six-week old baby, with approximately 1,100 wounded, of which 192 were seriously injured
Dr Smith, a British civil surgeon at Amritsar, estimated that there were over 1,800 casualties.
Two days later, on 15 April, demonstrations occurred in Gujranwala protesting against the killings at Amritsar. Police and aircraft were used against the demonstrators, resulting in 12 deaths and 27 injuries.
The massacre was worth calling genocide and it stunned the entire country. Whole of Punjab was placed under martial law and within a week on April 18. 1919,
On April 18, 1919, Gandhi withdrew the movement and called it a “Himalayan blunder“ and tagore decided to renounce his British knighthood as “a symbolic act of protest”.
The 7 member Hunter Committee which was set up to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy was also known as Disorders Inquiry Committee.
The Indian Members were in this committee included Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, Pandit Jagat Narayan and Sardar Sultan Ahmed Khan. The secretary of this committee was H G Stokes, secretary to the government of Madras.
On 19 November, Dyer was ordered to appear before the Commission. Dyer explained his sense of honour to the Hunter Commission by saying, “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.”
He further stated that he did not make any effort to tend to the wounded after the shooting: “Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there.”
Dyer was removed from the job and sent to London, but he was never charged of any offence.
This event caused many moderate Indians to abandon their previous loyalty to the British and become nationalists distrustful of British rule. Gandhi declared that the British have lost the moral right to rule this country.
A trust was founded in 1920 to build a memorial at the site after a resolution was passed by the Indian National Congress.
In 1923, the trust purchased land for the project. A memorial, designed by American architect Benjamin Polk, was built on the site and inaugurated by President of India Rajendra Prasad on 13 April 1961.