“I passed my whole night there. It is impossible for me to describe what I felt. Heaps of dead bodies lay there, some on their backs and some with their faces upturned. A number of them were poor innocent children. I was all alone the whole night… nothing but the barking of dogs, or the braying of donkeys was audible. Amidst hundreds of corpses, I passed my night, crying and watching. I cannot say more. What I experienced that night is known only to me and to God”
– Eye witness account of Ratan Devi after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar
Images of what Ratan Devi experienced are etched in my memory. Like most Indians, I have read and heard accounts of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh a number of time but still being in that garden somehow transported me to that time of April 1919.
Until yesterday, I had known that that 20000 people were trapped in the garden, but never truly understood it. I always thought of gardens as open spaces, so men, women, children being trapped could only men to be that they were trapped by soldiers. It was only when I saw the garden that I really understood how they were trapped. The garden is in an enclosure between buildings with only a narrow lane as entrance. A lane where no more than two people can walk side by side.
1918, World War I had come to an end. Hundreds and thousands of Indians had laid there lives on foreign soils fighting a war for the British Government for a promise that the British made to Indians – a responsible government for India and Indians under British rule. After winning the war, the British government went back on their word. February 1919, Rowlatt Bills were introduced, which essentially gave the British the right to imprison any Indian, without trial. Gandhiji launched the Satyagraha campaign. People of Amritsar responded to Gandhiji’s call, holding rallies and procession to show their unity and support. General Dyer had put Punjab under intense Marshall Law, making any kind of gathering illegal and giving British soldiers the right to shoot at sight at any gathering. This rule was not really communicated to the locals.
On the black day of 13th April, 1919, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs gathered in Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Baisakhi, the harvest festival in Punjab. General Dyer came to know of this gathering and he approached the Bagh with 150 soldiers. Closing the only entrance there was, the soldiers opened fire on innocent people without any prior warning. 20000 men, women and children faced 150 soldiers with rifles.
Reading all this, I was suddenly thirsty, I had a lump in my throat. I could feel the commotion and stampede that must have happened that day in this small garden. A celebration had turned into a screaming massacre. Men hit would fall down, to be buried under many more who met the same fate.
I had goose bumps on seeing the bullet marks and more so when I read the eye witness account of Ratan Devi, who had rushed to the garden as soon as she heard the gunshots. Her husband had gone to the gathering. She frantically searched for her husband in the heaps of dead bodies lying everywhere. When she finally found her husband’s dead body, there was curfew outside and she couldn’t take him with her to her home. She stayed all night in that garden among st the dead, with a stick to scare away the dogs who were approaching the dead bodies. I still can’t get her eye-witness account out of my mind! Images of what she experienced keep coming back as I write this account …