IT was 100 years ago today that the infamous Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar Massacre took place in India. Hundreds were killed and wounded when troops of the British Indian Army under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer opened fire on a large crowd of unarmed civilians in the middle of Amritsar.

The massacre has become a by-word for the cruel excesses practised by the British Empire, not least because members of the House of Lords refused to condemn Dyer while his legions of supporters in Britain raised the equivalent of £1 million in today’s money for him when he was cashiered.

Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Secretary of State for War, called the massacre “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation... the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.”

The killings massively backfired as they gave the cause of Indian independence a huge boost.

THERE had been growing trouble in India and particularly the Punjab as Mahatma Gandhi and his pro-independence movement grew apace in the post-war era.

The Raj brought in the Rowlatt Act which severely limited civil liberties, and protests against the repression escalated with an unruly mob gathering in Amritsar where an English teacher, Marcella Sherwood, was beaten up on April 11. Dyer later forced all Indians to crawl along the lane where she was attacked.

With tensions growing, a further protest against the Rowlatt Act was planned for April 13 in the city’s unofficial meeting place, the Jallianwala Bagh. The Raj authorities had banned all such meetings and in effect declared martial law, but with many visiting people in the city for a religious festival, it is unlikely that most knew of this ban.

The site was once a garden, but by 1919 had become an uneven and unoccupied space, an irregular quadrangle approximately 225m by 180m which was used more as a dumping ground though it did host political and community meetings. It had one main entrance and exit gate and four narrow entrances.

In mid-afternoon a crowd of possibly 5000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had gathered to start their protests but Col Dyer arrived with a company of Indian and Gurkha troops and immediately blocked the exits.

Without warning, Dyer ordered his troops to fire into the crowd. At close range the powerful Lee-Enfield .303 rifles did horrendous damage, some bullets going through two or three people. In 10 minutes of ceaseless remorseless firing, hundreds of men, women and children were killed or wounded while others were crushed in the panic as they tried to flee through the blocked entrance, and others drowned in wells around the site.

THE official figure was 349, but that was undoubtedly an underestimate. Indian sources put the number of dead at more than 1000 with 1600 wounded. Dyer himself accepted an official count of more than 1600 empty cartridge cases and the soldiers were firing into the thickest part of the crowd at Dyer’s express instructions.

Not in the actual events of that horrible day, but in the aftermath a Scottish judge played a considerable part. A committee of inquiry was set up and it was chaired by Lord William Hunter, the former Solicitor-General of Scotland and Senator of the College of Justice. He proved to be a most diligent and effective chairman of a committee that some expected to exonerate Dyer but certainly did not do so.

Dyer told Lord Hunter: “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.”

Not surprisingly, Lord Hunter’s Committee unanimously blamed Dyer for “grave errors” and Churchill forced a vote in the Commons to dismiss him.

To date, no UK Government has ever formally apologised for the massacre.