Jallianwala Bagh at 102: Debunking myths about the historic massacre

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It was estimated that over 1,000 people lost their lives and another 1,500 people were injured in the firing at Jallianwala Bagh. Let's look at a few unknown facts about the dreadful day that changed the face of history.

The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that occurred 102 years ago is still capable of sending shivers down the spine of every Indian. Not just those who have heard the story of how it transpired, but every else starting from the kin of the martyrs to people who just heard about that dreadful day. Violent and gory pictures of the experience have been shared over the years by survivors of one of history’s biggest violation and abrogation of human rights. So, we are here debunking a few myths about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that impacted the innocent lives of thousands of people.

As history narrates, under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, soldiers opened fire on a large number of innocent, unarmed people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to pray on this day in 1919. It was estimated that over 1,000 people lost their lives and another 1,500 people were injured in the firing at Jallianwala Bagh. Let’s get into the myths about the deadliest day that changed the face of history and get some facts in place.

Debunking myths about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre:

First, the correct number of people who were killed on April 13, 1919, in Jallianwala Bagh. Most articles appearing on the media put this at 379. But this might not be the correct number and it shouldn’t become the usual number on reports. The first report on the shooting, drafted by Amritsar’s Deputy Commissioner, Miles Irving, and sent to Punjab’s Lieutenant Governor, Michael O’Dwyer, in Lahore that night, stated the crowd number   at some 5,000 and the figure of those killed at “about 200.” In his diary on April 14, the Chief Secretary of Punjab, JP Thompson, noted: “200—300 killed in a garden” speaking about the same. Dyer himself, in his first report on April 14, estimated the crowd at about 5,000, of which he had mentioned between 200 and 300 were killed. In the first reports in London’s media, this figure had come down to 200 and unfortunately, the officers in India did not dispute the numbers. The fact is that Dyer’s strike force of 50 rifles fired 1,650 rounds in 10 to 15 minutes. The quick casualty figures were based on wartime experience and pointed to one man killed for every six bullets fired. But the situation in Jallianwala Bagh was very different: the shooting was at point-blank range in an enclosed space and at a densely packed crowd, not in an open landscape at distant targets. The crowd was estimated by various sources to be anything between 10,000 and 30,000 and the number killed put variously at 800 to 1,000 and even more.

“One of the myths associated with the massacre is that some 120 bodies were recovered from the well but there weren’t any bodies recovered,” said Kim Wagner, senior lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary University of London. According to certain historic sources, when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer had opened fire in the Jallianwala Bagh, some innocent civilians apparently jumped into the well in a panic to save themselves from the firing. This well, located inside the premises of the Jallianwala Bagh, stands testimony to 120 dead bodies that were later recovered from the well, is what the myth says. Some eyewitnesses, however, had described one or two people falling in the well. But what affirmative evidence does Wagner rely upon to contradict history as is written? “It was quite a high number of bodies which I had never heard about when I was gathering my primary sources. But when Motilal Nehru and Madan Mohan Malaviya went to inspect the site after the martial law was lifted, they think that they saw something in the well but it was some clay and cloth,” Wagner had said.

Another ‘fact’ often mentioned in reports and shown in a lot of illustrations, is that Dyer used a machine gun to mow down the crowd. The reality, however, is that Dyer took two armoured cars (shown in photographs in the archives of the 25th London Regiment) with him to Jallianwala Bagh, which had Vickers machine guns mounted on them, but the narrow alley that led to the place ensured that these cars couldn’t get in and were thus left outside. It is important to note that when questioned later by Sir Chimanlal Setalvad in the Hunter Committee whether he would have used the machine guns had he been able to bring them into the Bagh, Dyer replied: “I think, probably, yes.” The weapon used by the sepoys was the short magazine Lee-Enfield firing a .303 Mark VI bullet, which had a muzzle velocity of 2,000ft per second, was deadly accurate to 500 yards, with a range of 3,000 yards. The gun’s projectile had been designed to fragment easily if it encountered bone or organ and caused lethal damage. Although the rifle had been designed for rapid-fire, the shooting at Jallianwala Bagh was deliberate and targeted, as we already know. Thus, the machine gun theory does not fall into place in history.

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