Partition of India and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
What was the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre?
One hundred years ago, on April 13, 1919, in a small town called Amritsar in Punjab, India, General Dyer led ninety British army soldiers and opened fire on a peaceful gathering of about 5000 unarmed men, women, and children in a public park called the Jallianwala Bagh. Walls of adjoining houses surrounded the park, and there was only one narrow passageway to enter or exit from the park (Jallianwallan Bagh 1919).
The troops blocked this gate and fired till they ran out of ammunition. They gave no warnings to the people or opportunity to disperse. There was a well on the grounds of Jallianwallan Bagh, and several people jumped into the well to escape Gen. Dyer's bullets and drowned.
Civil Surgeon Dr. Smith indicated more than 2000 casualties, including 150 bodies recovered from the well. Though it was a footnote in world history, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, as it came to be called, was the catalyst that launched India's Independence movement (Wagner 2019).
Impact of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on India's freedom struggle
The brazen imperial brutality of the British radicalized India's freedom struggle. Up until then, Gandhi's non-violent movement only asked for "dominion status" for India. After the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh, the entire country was up in arms against the British.
The peaceful gathering in Jallianwala Bagh was held to discuss the "Rowlatt Acts" or "Black Acts" enacted by the British. Similar to the Homeland Security Act of the US, some of the provisions of the Rowlatt Act could put people in jail for seditious acts on mere suspicion, without due process. The environment in Punjab was already simmering with political resentment and the British had enacted a curfew which made the gathering illegal, even though it was a peaceful event.
The brutal massacre was the proverbial tinder match that set fire to the India's Independence movement. Revolutionaries like Udham Singh, Bhagat Singh and the Ghadar Party decided to take up arms against the British to gain full independence, and rejected Gandhi's non-violent and in their view, "timid" demands for dominion status. The revolutionary freedom struggle gained significant ground over the next decade and Gandhi had to change his stance to demanding complete independence or "Poorna Swaraj" from the British.
Did the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre lead to the Partition of India?
This finally led to the watershed declaration of full independence on January 26, 1930. Notably, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress had made this declaration together in a gesture of solidarity against the British. However, due to the internal politics between the parties and deeply internalized Hindu biases against Muslims in the Indian National Congress, the Muslim leaders realized that with the Britishers completely out of the picture if Poorna Swaraj became a reality, the Muslims in India would not have the protections that the British had built for minorities through their "divide-and-rule" communalized policies.
These realizations widened the rift between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, to the point, a mere 10. years later, in 1940, the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan Resolution, which then led to the Partition of India in 1947, into India, and East and West Pakistan. So, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre set in motion a domino effect, a chain of events, that ultimately precipitated the 1947 Partition of India.
An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-up
This anti-memorial examines the various traumatic geopolitical events that occurred in the year 1919 around the world, while conceptually centering the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in India. It was the year after the first world war, and many significant events happened around the world - the Treaty of Versailles was finalized in 1919, other treaties of 1919 created the countries of the Middle East as we know it today, and Ireland’s war of independence from the British empire began in 1919, to name just a few, (Wilmer 1919).
In researching 1919, I found that the Irish had declared their war of independence from the British in January 1919. Undoubtedly, this had rattled the British with fears of losing colonial power and control over their colonies. This insecurity no doubt played a role in the British perpetrating the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, with the presumed goal of teaching the colonies a lesson and setting a precedent for creating fear in other colonies to dissuade brewing rebellions. Additionally, there had emerged an Indo-Irish Freedom League which was helping each other with resources, strategies, safe houses and even ammunition.
When I started investigating 1919 and for this project in 2010, I didn’t have published materials about these transnational connections between different countries. But since then, a book titled “1919: A Turning Point in World History” has come out in in 2014 which the authors, Alan Sharp and TG Fraser, are thinking on the same lines.
Interconnections between events of 1919
The authors write, "1919 was a pivotal year. While the Paris Peace Conference dominated the headlines, events elsewhere in the world would significantly impact the twentieth century and beyond. In Ireland, Egypt, India, China, and the Middle East, Britain, France, and Japan faced gathering resistance to their rule. Nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Saad Zaghlul, and Ho Chi Minh rose to prominence, while the leaders of the Irish rebellion against Britain enjoyed immediate success. In 1919 the world was poised between triumphant imperialism and emerging nationalism," (Sharp and Fraser 2014).
The authors continue, "1919 also witnessed fear of communism on a global scale, fuelled by Bolshevik success in Russia, a short-lived revolutionary government in Munich, and Bela Kun's seizure of power in Hungary. In Italy and Germany, Fascism and National Socialism emerged as alternatives to both Communism and the bourgeois status quo, while in the United States Attorney General Mitchell Palmer's attempts to quell radicalism and enforce Prohibition launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover," (Sharp and Fraser 2014).
By looking beyond Europe and the first six months of 1919, including the Third Afghan War, this book gives a global perspective of the events and upheavals of that year, 1919.” (Sharp and Fraser 2014)
Jallianwalan Bagh Memorial
In 1951, the American architect, Benjamin Polk, was commissioned to build a memorial on the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the memorial was built, local residents decided to preserve the bullet holes in the walls, which serve as evocative traces of the massacre’s violence. This memorial is what Pierre Nora describes as a lieux de memoire, which exhibits: “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned: no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded” (Nora 1989).
I visited Jallianwallan Bagh in 2008 and became very intrigued by this site. A phallic structure has been built in the center of the site surrounded by beautiful gardens. The well is covered up and is now called the Martyrs’ Well. The bullet holes in the wall had a visceral impact on me, and the access to the site is still through the same narrow gate, and hall, which made me a bit claustrophobic.
Bloody Sunday in Ireland
April 13, 1919, was a Sunday and is referred to as the Bloody Sunday of Amritsar. A similar incident in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence began in 1919 and lasted till 1922. On November 21, 1920, IRA operatives went to many addresses and killed or fatally wounded 15 men of the British Army. Later that day, British forces raided a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, and without warning opened fire on the players and the spectators, killing or fatally wounding 14 civilians and wounding at least sixty others, (Bloody Sunday 1920).
Counter-Memories of 1919
Working from a hunch that events of this scale and brutality do not happen in isolation, I started researching the year 1919. I found that the British empire was under siege everywhere, especially in Ireland, and one could argue that the British probably wanted to make an example with the Jallianwallan Bagh massacre. Not surprisingly, I found that there were
political and military turmoils going on in Germany, China, Russia, and the Middle East, and America.
The counter-memories embedded in these events create a rich archive from a transnational perspective. Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the
narratives that have been subjugated, (Foucault 1977).
When a memorry is unbearrablle, how do you memorrialize it? Traditional rituals and forms of memorialization would not have worked to memorialize these grim events. What is needed is an anti-memorial that will not let people forget the year 1919. So, I decided to make an anti-memorial that would serve as an archive of the year 1919, (Young Fall 1997).
The 1919 anti-memorial is comprised of three component parts. The first component is a series of fourteen brass spittoons. The second component is a recreation of the Martyrs' Well of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial. And the third component is a video montage that is projected on the wall.
Spittoons: Containers of Counter-Memory
Each of the fourteen spittoons is etched with the name of an event and a map that locates the city and building in which the event occurred. The work thus functions as an archive of the year 1919 in which the spittoons are containers of memory. The name of the event and a map that locates the city and building in which the event occurred has been enameled and etched on brass spittoons.
Spittoons were popular in the early 1900s and their use declined from 1920s onwards with the advent of mass-produced cigarettes. I acquired spittoons from the early 1900s to 1920s from antique shops and as such, they are cultural and material artifacts of that time. Now they are
considered antique and decorative items are no longer in use. People expectorated spit, phlegm, chewing tobacco, etc., in spittoons.
This discarded bodily waste (spit) is made to function as a metaphor for the events that a nation or a people forget as if history itself were a cultural waste and was being discarded. The work thus serves as a record of the year 1919 in which the spittoons function as containers of memory.
Fourteen events of 1919 are etched and enameled on to brass spittoons in this project - the May Fourth Revolution, in Tiananmen Square, China; the Turkish War of Independence, in Istanbul, Turkey; the Russian Civil War, in Kiev; creation of the Weimar Republic, in Germany; the Race Riots of Chicago, in America; the Great Iraqi Revolution, in Baghdad; the Third Anglo-Afghan War, in Peshawar; the Red Flag Riots, in Brisbane, Australia; the Egyptian Revolution, in Cairo; the Third Battle of Juarez, in El Paso; the Irish Declaration of Independence, in Dublin; and the Middle East as we know it was being created.
The Martyrs' Well as a container of counter-memory
The second component is a well-like structure in the center of the gallery space using old bricks sourced locally. This well references the Martyrs' Well in Jallianwalla Bagh, but thus displaced, it becomes a precarious container of counter-memory. The well is created to look like a broken-down, crumbling well that is no longer in active use.
The spittoons representing the two central events of this anti-memorial, the Jallianwallan Bagh and the Treaty of Versailles, are placed on the well, to create visual and historical focus.
Video montage of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial
I created a video montage from my visit to the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial. The video montage shows this narrow entrance, evoking the visceral and claustrophobic atmosphere of the memorial. A few frames showing the reconstructed Martyrs’ Well from the movies, “Gandhi” (Attenborough 1982) and “Rang De Basanti” (Mehra 2006). As these images flicker on the walls, the video montage collapses the past and the present.
The work thus serves as a record of the year 1919 in which the spittoons function as containers of memory. Spittoons were popular in the early 1900s and their use declined from 1920s onwards with the advent of massproduced cigarettes. I have acquired spittoons from the early 1900s to 1920s from antique shops and as such, they are cultural and material artifacts of that time.
I often mine literary sources to articulate and cite specific theses in my work. Intertextuality is a literary device that creates an 'interrelationship between texts' and generates related understanding in separate works. In this case, I am creating an interrelationship between a visual work and two separate works of historical fiction, (Intertextuality n.d.). There are two intertextual references in this work.
Spittoons in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children
So, why spittoons, you might ask. As I was researching this project, I began to make some unexpected connections with Salman Rushdie’s book, The Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s protagonist has a special relationship with a spittoon, an inherited family heirloom. Literary scholars have argued that in Rushdie’s novel the spittoon as a vessel becomes the holder of individual and national memories. Midnight's Children also has an entire chapter based on
the Jallianwallan Bagh Massacre, titled Mercurochrome, (Rushdie 1981).
1919: a Turning Point in World History
Arguably, creative works function as non-hegemonic and at times, oppositional archives of history. The "An Archive of 1919: The Year of the Crack-Up" anti-memorial functions as a visual and experiential archive of the year 1919, and as an anti-memorial that suggests possible connections between historical events across time and space. The events referenced in this project are listed below. Each event is memorialized by an individual spittoon that is
etched with its name, and a map that locates the event geographically in the city and country where it happened.
In 1919: a Turning Point in World History, Alan Sharp and TG Fraser explain the significance of 1919 as a historical moment:
"In Ireland, Egypt, India, China, and the Middle East, Britain, France, and Japan faced gathering resistance to their rule. Nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Saad Zaghlul, and Ho Chi Minh rose to prominence, while the leaders of the Irish rebellion against Britain enjoyed immediate success. In 1919 the world was poised between triumphant imperialism and emerging nationalism," (Sharp and Fraser 2014).
Events of 1919 - a visual archive
The events referenced in this project are listed below. Each event is memorialized by an individual spittoon that is etched with its name, and a map that locates the event geographically in the city and country where it happened.
Middle Eastern Theater of World War I
29 October 1914 and 30 October 1918
The Middle Eastern Theatre of World War I created the Middle East as we know it today. Allied and Central Powers fought numerous battles—Britain and India defeated Turkey, and Turkey fought Russia amongst other forces. Four years of fighting, conflict, and bloodshed came to an end with a peace treaty, signed on August 10, 1920. The Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916, which divided the Middle East into four zones of influence, was ratified in the Treaty of Versailles.
The Irish Declaration of Independence
21 January 1919
The Irish Declaration of Independence on 21 January 1919, conclusively marked the island as a sovereign state, independent from British rule. Notably, the declaration was preceded by ‘The Proclamation of the Republic’, a formal document asserting Ireland’s independence. The 1919 Declaration ratified the 1916 proclamation of the Easter Rising. The 1919 Irish Declaration of Independence honors the Easter Rising revolutionaries and concretely marks Irish freedom.
The First Egyptian Revolution
8 March 1919 – 25 July 1919
The first Egyptian Revolution occurred from 8 March 1919 to 25 July 1919. Saad Zaghlul was a nationalist politician who fought for Egyptian self-determination. In 1918, the British rejected his demands to travel to Paris for the Peace Conference. Zaghlul and his political party were arrested and exiled, sparking the beginning of the revolution in 1919, where strikes and riots pervaded the city of Cairo.
Brisbane’s Red Flag Riots 24 March 1919
Brisbane’s Red Flag Riots were born out of a combination of patriotism, xenophobia, and post-war trauma. The riots started on 24 March 1919 and lasted three days, during which around 8,000 Anglo-Australians turned against Russian communities in Brisbane and neighboring towns. On March 24 at the Russian Hall in South Brisbane, police surrounded the Hall on horseback and foot, carrying bayonets and rifles. Despite being armed, rioters outnumbered law enforcement resulting in the injury of officers and their horses. Riots, looting, and destruction ensued, wrecking the Russian Hall and surrounding homes and shops. The Russians who were held responsible for the riots.
Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre 13 April 1919
Central to Tamas is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which occurred on 13 April 1919. Ninety British soldiers opened fire on a group of five thousand unarmed civilians. Walls standing ten to sixteen feet high surrounded men, women, and children. The soldiers directed their bullets at the crowds swarming the gate—the only means of escape. There were at least fifteen hundred deaths and over a thousand casualties. Included were those who had jumped into a well in desperation and subsequently drowned. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre became a rallying cry for India's Independence Movement.
May Fourth Movement 4 May 1919
Extreme patriotism and a passion for societal reform came to a head in China on 4th May 1919 at Tiananmen Square. The so-called May Fourth Movement saw over 3,000 students from colleges around Beijing uniting against the Versailles Peace Conference. The students burned the Ministry of Communications, assaulted China’s minister to Japan, and instigated strikes and boycotts against Japanese imports. After two months of demonstrations, the Chinese government yielded to the growing public opinion, officials resigned and China declined to sign the German peace treaty.
Third Anglo-Afghan War 6 May 1919 - 8 August 1919
In February 1919, Amanullah Khan revoked the Treaty of Gandamak and announced full Afghan independence. Three months later, Afghan troops invaded British India on 6 May 1919. Realizing his flawed ambitions, Amanullah ordered a ceasefire on 3rd July 1919, and the Third Anglo-Afghan War ended with an armistice on 8 August 1919. Despite this supposed failure, Amanulla was successful in achieving his main goal—Afghan independence. The war ended with an armistice in the form of the Treaty of Rawalpindi which handed Afghanistan full rights over their foreign affairs.
The Turkish War of Independence
19 May 1919 – 24 July 1923
The Turkish War of Independence lasted from 19 May 1919 – 24 July 1923 and stood as a critical moment in modern Turkish history. Unrest stirred by the Greek occupation of Izmir – to which Mustafa Kemal retaliated by organizing a resistance. A series of military campaigns ensued against Greece, Armenia, France, Britain, and Italy. Meanwhile, Turkish nationalists turned on native Christian communities, resulting in massacres and riots, extending World War I’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations. The Treaty of Lausanne was finally passed in 1923, concluding World War I, signed by Turkey and Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
The Third Battle of Juarez June 15–16, 1919
The Third Battle of Juarez occurred on June 15 and 16, 1919. The battle marked the end of the first period of the Mexican Revolution and the last involving rebel leader Pancho Villa. Villa and fellow rebel leader Pascual Orozco led forces against the dictator Porfiro Diaz by launching an attack on federal troops at Ciudad Juárez. The attack incited an intervention by the US army, thus making the battle the largest of the Mexican Revolution to involve American troops. Villa and his men retreated, only to attempt and fail in a further attack on Durango. After the bloodshed of The Third Battle of Juarez, Villa withdrew from the front and was granted a full pardon.
Treaty of Versailles 28 June 1919
On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed into effect, and it is widely considered one of history’s most controversial armistice treaties. The contentious ‘guilt clause’ blamed Germany for the First World War, leading to economic vulnerability and the opportunity for the rise of the Nazi’s. The treaty is thought to be a catalyst for the horror that ensued with Hitler’s reign over Germany.
Weimar Republic 11 August 1919
The grueling years of World War I left Germany economically and socially unstable. There was great resentment amongst the Germans towards those who had contributed to the Treaty of Versailles and its demonization of Germany – including their own government. The Weimar Republic earned its name from the assembly that adopted its constitution met at Weimar from 6 February 1919 to 11 August 1919. The Republic's first Reichspräsident ("Reich President"), Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, signed the new German constitution into law on 11 August 1919. From 1919 to 1933, the Weimar Republic governed Germany.
The Race Riots July 27 to August 3, 1919
The Race Riots of 1919 were initiated by white Americans in Chicago in America. Also called the Red Summer, it was part of a string of over 20 riots occurring directly after World War. On July 27, a white man stoned a Black youth to death who had accidentally floated into an area in the Michigan lake ‘reserved’ for whites. The police refused to arrest the man responsible, triggering an uproar amongst the Black community in the Chigaco South Side. Across 13 lawless days, 38 people died (23 Black and 15 white). Over a thousand Black families became homeless in an already overcrowded city.
The Russian Civil War October - November, 1919
The Russian Civil War was an arduous battle for control of the country initiated after the October Revolution and was fought by various political groups with differing agendas and ideals. The two most significant fronts were the Bolsheviks and the Red Army. Because of the disparity between groups, the Russian Civil War was far-reaching and permeated all classes, political orientations, and the military. Britain, France, and America all sent troops in an attempt to quash the Bolsheviks. By 1919, sparked by the end of World War I, foreign troops began to withdraw from Russia. The Bolsheviks came out victorious, partly due to their highly successful and pervasive propaganda campaigns.
Great Iraqi Revolution October 1920
In October of 1920, there were mass demonstrations against the British occupation in Iraq—known as the Great Iraqi Revolution. The announcement of new land ownership and burial taxes spurred the revolution and antagonized the tribal Shia regions. The revolution was a success in gaining greater autonomy for Iraq. Even though this event occurred in 1920, it was directly caused by the political events of 1919 in Iraq and surrounding areas, and it is relevant to understand the contemporary nation of Iraq.
Bloody Sunday in Ireland 21 November 1920
Ireland faced violent attacks from the British during the Irish War of Independence. On November 21, 1920, IRA (Irish Republic Army) operatives visited homes and killed or fatally wounded 15 men in the British Army. Later that day, British forces raided a Gaelic football match in Croke Park and opened fire on the players and the spectators, killing or fatally wounding 14 civilians and wounding at least sixty others. Like the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, this event came to be known as Bloody Sunday (1920).
Sharp, Alan and Fraser, TG. 2014. 1919: a Turning Point in World History, Haus Publishing.
1982. Gandhi. Directed by Richard Attenborough. Foucault, Michel. 1977. "Nietzche, Genealogy, History." In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press. 2006. Rang De Basanti. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” 1989. Rushdie, Salman. 1981. Midnight's Children. Widmer, Ted. 2019. "1919: The Year of the Crack-Up." The New York Times, January 1. Accessed November 21, 2021. https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/education/1919. Young, James E. Fall 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, Counter-Memory, and the End of the Monument." The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.