Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Rowlatt Act, and Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms – 1919

Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution. Painted by twins Rabindra and Amrit Singh.

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Rowlatt Act, and Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms – 1919

On Sunday 13th April 1919, on the traditional Sikh festival of Baisakhi, thousands of Indians gathered in Jallianwala Bagh – a seven-acre garden surrounded by walls roughly ten feet high with five narrow entrances located a stone’s throw away from the Golden Temple (the holiest site in Sikhism). Following recent political upheaval, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer[1] imposed an 8 p.m. curfew to prevent any potential protests.

Regardless, by mid-afternoon, the bagh was beginning to fill up in the thousands with protestors as well as casual visitors. Most of the people were pilgrims passing through the bagh on their way home from the Golden Temple. In addition, many farmers, traders, and merchants had also been attending the annual Baisakhi horse and cattle fair.

By late-evening, Dyer arrived at Jallianwala Bagh with a group of ninety British Indian soldiers and two armoured cars fitted with machine guns. The troops started by blocking the narrow exits. Then, without warning the civilians to disperse, Dyer ordered his troops to fire into the crowd. The troops didn’t cease-fire until their ammunition was exhausted.

A total of 1,650 rounds were fired, killing approximately 1,000 men, women, and children, and injuring more than 1,500 others in the ensuing chaos. Those that survived the initial onslaught of bullets would be crushed by others frantically trying to escape. Many would try their luck by jumping into the solitary well located in the centre of the bagh. The youngest victim was a six-week-old baby; the oldest was in his eighties.

The event would come to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre or Amritsar Massacre. It came amid large scale political unrest following the passing of the controversial Rowlatt Act on the 18th March 1919. The Rowlatt Act, officially known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act 1919, was an indefinite extension of the emergency measures first introduced in the Defence of India Act 1915.

In short, the Act allowed for the censorship of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless trials for anyone engaged in acts of revolutionary nationalism. The Rowlatt Act was subsequently invoked to imprison members of the INC and other political leaders. The aim was to curb the growing nationalist sentiment amongst the masses; the effect was the contrary.

Immediately following the introduction of the Rowlatt Act, protests erupted across India, especially in Punjab. By the end of the first week of April, rioting had reached its peak with the disruption of rail, telegraph, and communication systems. It is said that “practically the whole of Lahore was on the streets, the immense crowd that passed through Anarkali was estimated to be around 20,000”[2]. Events over the next few days would also contribute to the heightened tension between British and Indian that led to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

On the 10th April, several protesters were shot and killed outside the residence of Miles Irving, the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. In retaliation, rioters carried out arson attacks on British banks, killed several British people and assaulted two British women.

On the 11th April, Marcella Sherwood was violently attacked by a mob on a narrow street called Kucha Kurrichhan but managed to escape thanks to some local Indians. When Dyer met with Sherwood after the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on the 19th April, he issued an order requiring every Indian man using Kucha Kurrichhan to crawl its length on his hands and knees as a punishment. He also authorised the indiscriminate, public whipping of locals that came within lathi length of a British policeman. Dyer would later state:

“Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too”[3].

On the 12th April, Indian leaders announced that a protest would take place at Jallianwala Bagh the next day, demanding an end to the Rowlatt Act and the release of Congress members Satyapal and Kitchlew. This announcement was believed to have prompted Dyer’s decision to implement an 8 p.m. curfew the following day.

Following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, many Indian moderates would abandon their previous loyalties to the British becoming nationalists in strong opposition to British rule. The event would also see the radicalisation of Indian freedom fighters such as Udham Singh[4] and Bhagat Singh[5].

Famous Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore renounced his British knighthood writing in a letter to Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India at the time:

“The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments […] The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings”[6].

The massacre caused a tremendous increase in anti-British sentiments across the Subcontinent. However, to fully understand the impact of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and the Rowlatt Act on the Indian Independence Movement as a whole, one requires a brief history of India during World War One.

After the British Empire joined the war on the 4th August 1914, there was division amongst Indians over what India’s response to being dragged into a global conflict should be. Indian revolutionaries were in strong opposition to the war, whereas moderates and liberals backed it in the hopes that their loyalty would be rewarded with more autonomy. Indian Muslims were particularly ambivalent towards the war, considering that the British were fighting against the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan was considered the Caliph of Islam.

Despite this, both the AIML and INC were supportive of the war effort. The following quote from Gandhi during his WWI recruitment drive illustrates the rationale behind the decision to support the British government during the war:

“If we could but crowd the battlefield of France with an indomitable army of home rulers fighting for the victory of the cause of the Allies, it will also be a fight for our own cause. We should then have made out an unanswerable case for the granting of Home Rule not in any distant or near future but immediately”[7].

The Indian political leadership believed that if they could prove India’s loyalty to the Crown, then Indians would inevitably be given self-governing dominion status within the British Empire. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa had become dominions in 1867, 1901, 1907, and 1910 respectively. If other colonies could do it, why not India?

Despite his own gripes with the British, Jinnah was of the same mind. In response to Muslim dissatisfaction with the war, he would implore his co-religionists to remain loyal to the British government:

“Whatever our grievance, whatever reforms we desire. Everything must wait for a more seasonable occasion. Even if the government were to concede to us all that we ever desired or dreamt we would humbly tell the government this is no time for it and we must for the present decline such concessions with thanks. Concessions are asked for and accepted in peace. We are no Russian Poles. We need no bribes”[8].

So, what did India get in return for her loyalty? Draconian Laws.

During the first year of the war, the British introduced the Defence of India Act 1915. The law’s objective was to prevent Indians from engaging in activities that would hinder the war effort. The Act was mainly aimed against members of the Ghadar Party, a group of Indian ex-pats seeking to overthrow British rule, and the Bengali Anushilan Samiti. In practice, the law could be used against anyone the British considered a nuisance because it bypassed the right to a trial by jury.

During the war, 1,470 Indians were imprisoned under the Act, with another 310 facing minor restrictions[9]. The Defence of India Act 1915 was only to remain valid for the duration of the war and six months thereafter. Therefore, on the whole, it was merely accepted as a reality of war with very little resistance.

However, when it was extended indefinitely under the Rowlatt Act in 1919, it is no wonder that Indians were so outraged. Jinnah subsequently resigned from the Imperial Legislative Council, stating that “a government that passes or sanctions such a law in times of peace forfeits its claim to be called a civilised government”[10].

The Rowlatt Act would also push Gandhi to launch his famous Non-cooperation Movement on the 5th September the following year. It would take another three years of agitation before the British repealed it in March 1922.

As the war progressed, it became clear that the geopolitical shifts brought about by the clash of empires would mean that things would never be the same again. To capitalise on this, India’s political leadership went about securing what little ground they could, resulting in an impressive period of Hindu-Muslim unity for the remaining duration of the war. This was primarily due to the efforts of Jinnah, who established the Lucknow Pact in 1916.

In the latter half of the war, leaders from across the political spectrum formed an alliance kickstarting the Indian Home Rule Movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak[11], leader of the Congress’ estranged extremist faction, founded the first Home Rule League in Belgaum, which would operate in Maharashtra (except Bombay), Karnataka, Berar, and the Central Provinces. Annie Besant[12], an Irish socialist, founded the second in Madras which would operate throughout the rest of India.

Both leagues worked closely together to campaign for dominion status to be given to India. The Home Rule Leagues consisted of India’s educated upper class with members from both the AIML and INC (both Moderate and Extremist factions), including Jinnah. The leagues organised demonstrations which caused quite a stir leading to Besant’s arrest in June 1917, resulting in nation-wide protests. Besant’s subsequent release in September was shortly followed by a major announcement.

The August Declaration took place on the 20th August 1917 at British parliament and was carried out by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

“The policy of His Majesty’s government […] is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire”[13].

The declaration was an implicit acceptance, by the British, of the right to Indian self-rule and promised future reforms. Demands for greater autonomy would no longer be considered seditious, opening the door for future negotiations between the British and Indian leadership. Things were looking up for the oppressed people of India.

By the end of the war, a total of 1.3 million Indians would volunteer their service on behalf of the British Empire, and over 74,000 would lose their lives[14]. Many Indian men would go abroad to fight and carry out extreme feats of bravery, such as Khudadad Khan[15], the first Indian to receive the Victoria Cross. The Indian Maharajas and Nawabs also supplied ammunition, men and even their own service, like in the case of 74-year-old Pratap Singh[16].

Following the tragic events of the 13th April 1919, the much-awaited Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms would be put into effect on the 23rd December as the basis of the Government of India Act 1919[17]. Under the new legislation, the following was introduced amongst others:

  1. Diarchy at the provincial level. This meant that the executive branches of the provincial governments would consist of two groups:  The councillors (those appointed by the Viceroy) and the ministers (elected Indians). The councillors would oversee the courts, the police, land revenue, and irrigation. Meanwhile, the ministers would manage education, public health, public works, and agriculture.
  2. The Imperial Legislative Council was now to consist of two houses. The lower house was the Central Legislative Assembly with 145 members, of which 29 had to be Muslim, serving three-year terms. The upper house was the Council of State with 60 members, of which 10 had to be Muslim, serving five-year terms.
  3. Separate electorates for Sikhs, Europeans, and Anglo-Indians.
  4. The budget would be divided into two categories, votable (1/3 of expenditure) and non-votable (2/3 of expenditure).
  5. Those who had property, taxable income, and land revenue of Rs. 3,000 would be entitled to vote.
  6. A statutory commission would be set up in 10 years to assess the new system of government. This would come to be known as the Simon Commission, which I will cover in a later post.

King-Emperor George V summaries the evolution of parliamentary legislation for India up until this point, here:

“The Acts of 1773 and 1784 were designed to establish a regular system of administration and justice under the Honourable East India Company. The Act of 1833 opened the door for Indians to public office and employment. The Act of 1858 transferred the administration from the Company to the Crown and laid the foundations of public life which exist in India today. The Act of 1861 sowed the seed of representative institutions, and the seed was quickened into life by the Act of 1909. The Act which has now become law entrusts the elected representative of the people with a definite share in the government and points the way to full responsible Government hereafter”[18].

While it may seem as though the Government of India Act 1919 was a major victory for the Indian independence movement, it is worth analysing how it fits into the overall British strategy.

The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms were portrayed as being the first step towards Indian self-rule. However, critics, including myself, would argue that it is was instead a ploy by the British to concentrate power in the centre. The implementation of diarchy simply relegated Indians to the less important areas of government. The real power was still with the British.

Furthermore, seats were distributed based on a province’s perceived importance rather than its population, with franchise only being extended to the Indian gentry. Thereby creating an electorate with pro-British inclinations. By granting concessions to the provinces, Britain wasn’t preparing India for self-government but instead sowing the seeds for federalism which would pose a huge obstacle to achieving Jinnah’s dream.

Following the August Declaration, the Home Rule Movement went into decline. Besant’s hunger for self-rule was sated with the promise of future reforms, and Tilak was off in England pursuing a libel case. With a lack of effective leadership and a now seemingly redundant raison d’etre, many of the movement’s members would go on to join Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement – which I will be covering in the next post. Thus, putting an end to the golden age of Hindu-Muslim unity. From this point on, relations would begin to sour. The Home Rule League formally merged with the INC, under Gandhi’s leadership, the following year.

All in all, 1919 represented a watershed moment in the Indian Independence Movement. It laid out new rules for India’s political leadership to play by and awakened her slumbering masses. In a world ravaged by war, India’s future hung in the balance.


This essay is part of a larger series on the history of the Pakistan Movement called Jinnah’s Pakistan: Revisiting the Pakistan Movement


[1] Collett, N., 2005. The Butcher Of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer. Hambledon Continuum.

[2] Swami, P., 1997. Jallianwala Bagh Revisited. The Hindu.

[3] Talbott, S., 2004. Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, And The Bomb. Brookings Institution Press.

[4] Anand, A., 2019. The Patient Assassin: A True Tale Of Massacre, Revenge And The Raj. Simon & Schuster LTD.

[5] Singh, B., 2007. The Jail Notebook And Other Writings. LeftWord Books.

[6] Tagore, R., 1997. Selected Letters Of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge University Press.

[7] Begum, I., 2019. The Muslims of India and the First World War 1914-1918. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Research, Vol. 5.

[8] Qureshi, I., 1967. A Short History Of Pakistan. University of Karachi Press.

[9] Hansard.parliament.uk. n.d. Persons Interned – Hansard. [online] Available at: <https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/1919-10-22/debates/098022cf-ef4d-4195-bdee-46a4997416a8/PersonsInterned?highlight=defence%20india%20act#contribution-e0355608-739a-43bb-ab66-e0579b5747c7> [Accessed 9 November 2020].

[10] Wolpert, S., 1984. Jinnah Of Pakistan. Oxford University Press.

[11] Bhagwat, A. and Pradhan, G., 2008. Lokmanya Tilak. Jaico Pub. House.

[12] Taylor, A., 1992. Annie Besant: A Biography. Oxford University Press.

[13] Danzig, R., 1968. The Announcement of August 20th, 1917. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 28.

[14] Tharoor, S., 2015. Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten. BBC News, [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33317368> [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[15] National Army Museum, London. 2020. Khudadad Khan | National Army Museum, London. [online] Available at: <https://ww1.nam.ac.uk/learning/khudadad-khan/#.X6R45qsYCUk> [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[16] Morton-Jack, G., 2018. World War One: Six extraordinary Indian stories. BBC News, [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-46148207> [Accessed 7 November 2020].

[17] Constitutionofindia.net. n.d. Government of India Act, 1919. [online] Available at: <https://www.constitutionofindia.net/historical_constitutions/government_of_india_act__1919_1st%20January%201919> [Accessed 5 November 2020].

[18] Ilbert, C., 1922. The Government Of India. The Clarendon Press.

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