Trip to Amritsar Part 2: A History of Violence in Punjab

Leaving the Golden Temple

Following our meal at the langar in the Golden Temple, the Roopra family offered to show me several other historical sites in Amritsar. The temple street was lined with souvenir shops, sweet stalls and lassi bars. Well, in the hot, humid afternoon cold banana-lassi was heaven.

After our refreshments we visited the garden monument Jallianwala Bagh, only a five minute walk from the Golden Temple. I had no idea what we were walking into, but as we made our way through the entrance I was astonished at the historic background of the place.

On Sunday April 13, 1919, which happened to be 'Baisakhi', one of Punjab's largest religious festivals, fifty British Indian Army soldiers, commanded by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, began shooting at a peaceful, unarmed, pro-independence gathering of men, women, and children without warning. Dyer marched his fifty riflemen to a raised bank and ordered them to kneel and fire. Dyer ordered soldiers to reload their rifles several times and they were ordered to shoot to kill. Official British Raj sources estimated the fatalities at 379, and with 1,100 wounded. However, the casualty number quoted by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500, with roughly 1,000 killed.

Jallianwala Bagh Entrance Notice

The Jallianwala Bagh was bounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few narrow entrances, most of which were kept permanently locked. The main entrance was relatively wider, but was guarded by the troops backed by two heavily armoured vehicles. General Dyer ordered troops to begin shooting without warning or any order to disperse, and to direct shooting towards the densest sections of the crowd. He continued the shooting, approximately 1,650 rounds in all, until ammunition was almost exhausted.

Apart from the many deaths directly from the shooting, a number of people died in stampedes at the narrow gates or by jumping into the solitary well on the compound to escape the shooting. A plaque in the monument at the site, set up after independence, says that 120 bodies were pulled out of the well.

The garden still has the walls with bullet marks and the well in which people chose to drown in to escape from the bullets. It is a landmark in India's struggle for freedom.

Artist's Rendition of the Massacre

Martyr's Well

 

The Bullet Marks Still Remain in the Walls

Amritsar also happens to be next to the Pakistan border, so before heading back to Nakodar, we went to view the border and learn more about it's history.

In 1947 the immensely controversial ‘Radcliffe Line’ was drawn between India and Pakistan as the result of India’s independence from British control. The border sliced through densely populated areas instead of being drawn between them, leading to an unfortunate series of bloody border conflicts. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the Chairman of Border Commissions responsible for the divide at the time, justified the division with the belief that regardless of his action, it was inevitable people would suffer as a result.

One of the most affected areas was Wagah, a largely populated village now divided into two, and in some extreme cases, even homes were split by the border. Mass departures occurred during the partition of the border, resulting in conflict and significant bloodshed. Today the eastern half of the village remains in the India while the western half belongs to Pakistan and every evening a symbolic border closing ceremony, known as the Wagah Border Ceremony, takes place at the gates between the two states on Grand Trunk Road, which was once the only link between the two countries.

The Wagah Border Ceremony commences every day at sunset and lasts for nearly forty-five minutes. Starting with an impressive, albeit aggressive, display of athleticism, the guards on both sides parade down the street with high kicks, foot stamps and an incredible exhibition of speed marching. Such a spectacle can only be described as one of the most unique, quirky and somewhat ominous displays of nationalism to be found in both India and Pakistan.

During Border Ceremony -- Photo credit to BBC News

Here's an interesting fact: Delhi had only recently been transformed into a largely Punjabi city by the influx of more than 400,000 Hindu and Sikh refugees. All of them haunted by bitter memories of the violence of Partition that forced more than ten million people from their homes on both sides of the border and may have cost a million lives.

This information may be a lot for you to take in, at least it was for me. So I have created a separate blog post about my reflections on my trip to Amritsar. Stay tuned!

 

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1 Response to Trip to Amritsar Part 2: A History of Violence in Punjab

  1. Keegan Smith says:

    Excellent retelling of the history, brother. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was one of the great tragedies in the history of the Commonwealth, not only for the deed itself, but for the fact that it occurred just after the end of the First World War, while the planet was still reeling from the devastation of the war and the Influenza epidemic that followed it. I can only imagine what it must have been like to stand there, to see the place and feel the energy there. If there is some kernel of good in the whole thing, it is that this event was likely the death knell of British Imperialism in the subcontinent…

    Thank you for sharing the breadth of your experience from your adventure!

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