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Amritsar: Day of Shame

A century ago, hundreds of innocent civilians were massacred on the orders of a brutal British general. Nige Tassell looks at a watershed moment in Indian history
The 1982 film Gandhi dramatised the moment the British opened fire. The incident cemented the Indian activist’s belief that British rule in India had to end

When of from on population Amritsar 14 the its April Punjabi fitful 1919, remained woke sleep city its frozen by the twin emotions of disbelief and horror. Less than 12 hours earlier, one of the 20th century’s most brutal peacetime atrocities had taken place within its city limits.

Thousands were trapped in the narrow exits of Jallianwala Bagh as they tried to escape the slaughter
ALAMY X1, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1

In a small, walled-in area of open ground known as Jallianwala Bagh, a 20,000-strong crowd had gathered for both a public meeting and to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Instead they were exposed to ten long minutes of indiscriminate Indian Army gunfire which, directed by an English brigadier-general, took the lives of hundreds of unarmed citizens. As the bullets rained down on those frantically trying to flee the scene through the park’s narrow exits, the bodies fell where they were hit, piling on top of each other, sometimes 12 corpses high. Among the dead were dozens of boys: one was as young as six weeks old.

As the Sun rose to signal another blisteringly hot day in the state of Punjab, the full horror of the previous evening made itself known. With a curfew in place the previous evening, those who had avoided the bloodbath were unable to recover the bodies of their loved ones. The majority had died instantly; those who were injured and unable to move at the time were likely to have perished overnight. The dead were subjected to the indignity of having stray dogs feast on their flesh. “The Bagh was like a battlefield,” described Lala Karam Chand, a survivor of the prolonged shooting, who searched for his brother among the carnage. “There were corpses scattered everywhere in heaps.”

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About BBC History Revealed

William Shakespeare had humble beginnings – how did he transform into England’s greatest playwright? We explore how the ‘upstart crow’ became so widely celebrated. Plus: The mysterious assassins of the medieval Muslim world are explored, we dig into the diaries of Samuel Pepys and take a look at the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.