Ominously, in 1919, the third Anglo-Afghan war began in the wake of Amir Habibullah Khan's assassination and institution of Amanullah Khan in a system blatantly influenced by the Kabul mission. In addition, in India, Gandhi's call for protest against the Rowlatt act achieved an unprecedented response of furious unrest and protests. The situation especially in Punjab 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 recording that "practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets, the immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000."
In Amritsar, over 5,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. This situation deteriorated perceptibly over the next few days. Michael O'Dwyer is said to have been of the firm belief that these were the early and ill-concealed signs of a conspiracy for a coordinated uprising around May, on the lines of the 1857 revolt, at a time when British troops would have withdrawn to the hills for the summer. The Amritsar massacre, as well as responses preceding and succeeding it, contrary to being an isolated incident, was the end result of a concerted plan of response from the Punjab administration to suppress such a conspiracy. James Houssemayne Du Boulay is said to have ascribed a direct relationship between the fear of a Ghadarite uprising in the midst of an increasingly tensed situation in Punjab, and the British response that ended in the massacre.
On April 10, 1919, a protest was held at the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, a city in Punjab, a large province in the northwestern part of the then unpartitioned India. The demonstration was held to demand the release of two popular leaders of the Indian Independence Movement, Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, who had been earlier arrested on account of their protests. The crowd was fired on by a military picket. The firing set off a chain of violence. Later in the day, several banks and other government buildings, including the Town Hall and the railway station were attacked and set on fire. The violence continued to escalate, culminating in the deaths of at least 5 Europeans, including government employees and civilians. There was retaliatory firing on the crowd from the military several times during the day, and between 8 and 20 people were killed.
For the next two days, the city of Amritsar was quiet, but violence continued in other parts of the Punjab. Railway lines were cut, telegraph posts destroyed, government buildings burnt, and three Europeans were killed. By April 13, the British government had decided to place most of the Punjab under martial law. The legislation placed restrictions on a number of civil liberties, including freedom of assembly, banning gatherings of more than four people
A group of 90 Indian Army soldiers mostly comprised of Gurkha and Beluchi infantry regiment, marched to the park accompanied by two armoured cars. The vehicles were unable to enter the Bagh through the narrow entrance.
The Jallianwala Bagh was bounded on all sides by houses and buildings and had few narrow entrances, most of which were kept permanently locked. Since there was only one open exit, except for the one already blocked by the troops of Gurkha and Beluchi infantry regiment, people desperately tried to climb the walls of the park. Many jumped into a well inside the compound to escape from the bullets. A plaque in the monument says that 120 bodies were plucked out of the well.
As a result of the firing, hundreds of people were killed and thousands were injured. Official records put the figures at 379 killed (337 men, 41 boys and a six-week-old baby) and 200 injured, though the actual figure is hotly disputed to this day. The wounded could not be moved from where they had fallen, as a curfew had been declared.
Back in his headquarters, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been "confronted by a revolutionary army," and had been obliged "to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab."
Dyer was called to appear before the Hunter Commission, a commission of inquiry into the massacre that was ordered to convene by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, in late 1919. Dyer admitted before the commission that he came to know about the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh at 12:40 hours that day but took no steps to prevent it. He stated that he had gone to the Bagh with the deliberate intention of opening fire if he found a crowd assembled there.
Dyer said he would have used his machine guns if he could have got them into the enclosure, but these were mounted on armoured cars. He said he did not stop firing when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep firing until the crowd dispersed, and that a little firing would do no good.
He confessed that he did not take any steps to tend to the wounded after the firing. "Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there," was his response.
Some senior British officers applauded his suppression of "another Indian Mutiny". The House of Lords passed a measure commending him. The House of Commons, however, censured him; in the debate, Winston Churchill claimed: "The incident in Jallian Wala Bagh was an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation". Dyer's action was condemned worldwide. He was officially censured by the British Government and resigned in 1920.
However, many Englishmen in India and Britain, as well as the British press, defended Dyer as the man who had saved British pride and honour, some labelling him the "Saviour of the Punjab". The Morning Post started a sympathy fund for Dyer and received over £26,000. An American woman donated 100 pounds, adding "I fear for the British women there now that Dyer has been dismissed." Dyer was presented with a memorial book inscribed with the names of well-wishers. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography, said he overheard, from his curtained sleeping booth on a night train from Amritsar to Delhi, a military officer in loud voice to another "pointing out how he had the whole town at his mercy and he had felt like reducing the rebellious city to a heap of ashes, but he took pity on it and refrained." It turned out to be Dyer on his way to Delhi after the Hunter Committee meeting. In Delhi, Dyer descended from the train in pyjamas with bright pink stripes and a dressing gown. Nehru also remarked he heard soldiers discussing how the actions taken were a good thing because they would "teach the bloody browns a lesson."
In India, the massacre evoked feelings of deep anguish and anger. It catalysed the freedom movement in the Punjab against British rule and paved the way for Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Cooperation Movement against the British in 1920. It was also motivation for a number of other revolutionaries, including Bhagat Singh. The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood to the King-Emperor in protest. The massacre ultimately became an important catalyst of the Indian independence movement.
A trust was formed in 1920 to build a memorial at the site following a resolution 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 the then-President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad on 13 April 1961 in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders. A flame was later added to the site.
The bullet holes can be seen on the walls and adjoining buildings to this day. The well into which many people jumped and drowned attempting to save themselves from the hail of bullets is also a protected monument inside the park.
The massacre is depicted in Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi with the role of Brigadier Dyer played by Edward Fox. It is also depicted in Indian films Rang De Basanti and The Legend of Bhagat Singh.
In 1997, the Duke of Edinburgh, participating in an already controversial British visit to the Monument, provoked outrage in India and in the UK with an offhand comment. Having observed a plaque claiming "This place is saturated with the blood of about two thousand Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were martyred in a non-violent struggle.", Prince Philip observed, "That's a bit exaggerated, it must include the wounded". When asked how he had come to this conclusion, Philip said "I was told about the killings by General Dyer's son. I'd met him while I was in the Navy."
On 13 March 1940, an Indian revolutionary from Sunam, named Udham Singh, who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and was himself wounded, shot dead Sir Michael O'Dwyer, believed to be the chief planner of the massacre (Dyer having died years earlier in 1927) at Caxton Hall in London.
The action of Singh was generally condemned, but some, like Amrit Bazar Patrika, had different views. The common people and revolutionary circles glorified the action of Udham Singh. Most of the press worldwide recalled the story of Jallianwala Bagh and held Sir Michael O'Dwyer responsible for the tragedy and commended Singh's action. Singh was called a "fighter for freedom" and his action was referred to in the Times newspaper as "an expression of the pent-up fury of the down-trodden Indian People". In Fascist countries, the incident was used for anti-British propaganda: Bergeret, published in large scale from Rome at that time, while commenting upon the Caxton Hall outrage, ascribed the greatest significance to the circumstance and praised the courageous action of Udham Singh. The Berliner Börsen Zeitung called the event "The torch of Indian freedom". German radio reportedly broadcast: "The cry of tormented people spoke with shots."
At a public meeting in Kanpur, a spokesman had stated that "at last an insult and humiliation of the nation had been avenged". Similar sentiments were expressed in numerous other places countrywide. Fortnightly reports of the political situation in Bihar mentioned: "It is true that we had no love lost for Sir Michael. The indignities he heaped upon our countrymen in Punjab have not been forgotten." In its March 18, 1940 issue, Amrit Bazar Patrika wrote: "O'Dwyer's name is connected with Punjab incidents which India will never forget." The New Statesman observed: "British conservativism has not discovered how to deal with Ireland after two centuries of rule. Similar comment may be made on British rule in India. Will the historians of the future have to record that it was not the Nazis but the British ruling class which destroyed the British Empire?"
Singh had told the court at his trial:
Singh was hanged for the murder on July 31, 1940. At that time, many, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, condemned the action of Udham as senseless. However, later in 1952, Nehru applauded Udham Singh with the following statement which had appeared in the daily Partap: "I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free." Having said this, Udham Singh received the title of Shaheed, a name given to someone who has attained martyrdom or done something heroic in the name of their country or religion.