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Jallianwala Bagh massacre: ‘Amidst hundreds of corpses, I passed my night, crying and watching’

As the bodies and crowds blocked the exits, bullets would ricochet off the surrounding walls, or fragment, and injure more people.

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As the troops withdrew from the Bagh, the survivors slowly began to stir, and the cries of the wounded rent the still evening air. There were bodies everywhere and people’s belongings, clothes, shoes and pagris (turbans) were scattered all over the ground. One man, who had been shot twice in the leg, dragged himself to an upright position:

After the soldiers had left, I looked round [. . .] There must have been more than a thousand corpses there. The whole place was strewn with them. At some places, 7 or 8 corpses were piled, one over another. In addition to the dead, there must have been about a thousand wounded persons lying there. Close by where I was lying, I saw a young boy, aged about 12 years, lying dead with a child of about 3 years clasped in his arms, also dead.

Those who could tried to tend to the wounded and Sardar Partap Singh, a bookseller, went to get water for a dying man from the Hansli drain: ‘When I tried to take water from the pit, I saw many dead bodies floating in it. Some living men had also hid themselves in it, and they asked me, “Are they (i.e. soldiers) gone?” When I told them that they had gone, they came out . . .’ One of these men was Lala Karam Chand, who had almost been suffocating while hiding in the drain. As he crawled out, drenched but alive, Chand looked at the scene around him: ‘I saw the Bagh was like a battlefield.’

The wounds inflicted by the .303 ammunition had been devastating – at a distance of less than 600 feet, and what was at first practically point-blank range, bullets passed right through the body and could wound several people. Not only had people been unable to escape from the Bagh, as the bodies and crush of the crowd blocked the exits, but bullets would ricochet off the surrounding walls, or fragment, and injure yet more people. Shooting fish in a barrel was sadly a fitting analogy. One eyewitness noted how ‘most of the persons were hit at various places on the back of the body’, and many of the dead and wounded had multiple wounds. Some of the survivors also suffered horrific injuries: Wazir Ali, a teacher, had his right eye shot out, the bullet exiting through his temple, and was also shot through the chest, but miraculously survived.

The effect of the firing had furthermore not been contained within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh, which were pock-marked with bullet-holes, even at the upper levels of the surrounding houses. Local residents were wounded by ricochets while watching from their balconies, and stray shots killed at least one woman outside Sultanwind Gate and also wounded a nearby villager outside the city.48 One 5-year-old boy had witnessed the shooting from a nearby roof, believing it to be fireworks, and it was later found that the ‘walls round about him were riddled with bullets’

. . .

For a few frantic hours, in the semi-darkness of dusk, the Bagh became busy with anguished people searching for their friends and relatives among the piles of dead. One man, who lived next to the Bagh, had to go searching for his brother, who had not returned from the meeting:

All the exits were blocked by a very large number of the dead and the wounded. I searched for my brother, and had to turn over every dead person, till at last I found him lying dead, under three or four dead bodies, near the foot of the raised ground. He was 25 years of age. There were about 200 dead bodies at this spot alone. I believe that 1500 were killed in the Jallianwala Bagh. Lots of kites were hovering very low over the dead and the wounded, so much so, that it was with great difficulty that one could keep his turban on his head.

Lal Gian Chand, who had himself just escaped the Bagh, came back to look for his nephew, who was reported to be among the dead:

On reaching the garden, I found my nephew’s body riddled with bullets. His skull was broken. There was one shot under his nose on the upper lip, two on the left side, one on the left neck, and three on the thigh and some two or three on the head. Ram Labhaya had just passed the 8th class from the Baij Nath High School. His age was 17 years.

Inside the house next to the Bagh, Girdhari was meanwhile busy clearing it of all the people who had taken refuge there. Afterwards, he too went into the Bagh to look for his friend, Hakim Singh, whom was missing:

There were heaps of them at different places, and people were turning over dead bodies to recognise their relations or friends. The dead bodies were of grown up people and young boys also. At or near the gates the number was very large, and bodies were scattered in large numbers all over the garden. Some had their heads cut open, others had eyes shot, and nose, chest, arms or legs shattered. It was a fearful and ghastly sight. I noticed one or two buffaloes also killed on the ground. I think there must have been over one thousand dead bodies in the garden then.

It later turned out that his friend was fine but Girdhari Lal had to return once more to look for some boys who were thought to be in the Bagh. By that time, however, it was getting late: ‘I saw people were hurrying up, and many had to leave their dead and wounded, because they were afraid of being fired upon again after 8 pm. Many amongst the wounded, who managed to run away from the garden, succumbed on their way to the injuries received, and lay dead in the streets.’

The boys were later found, alive and well, but all across the city people were scurrying indoors before the curfew came into force at 8pm. If Dyer’s proclamation had previously failed to make much of an impression, the shooting had brutally disabused the population of Amritsar of any lingering doubts that the British were prepared to enforce their orders. The dead and the dying were thus simply abandoned. ‘I heard the wounded in the Bagh moaning and crying for water and help,’ a man living next to the Bagh recalled. ‘I dared not leave my house to render any help.’ By this point the sun had set and, in the poet Manto’s words, ‘the evening haze began to settle over Jallianwala Bagh and lights came on here and there in nearby houses.’

. . .

While the British authorities in Amritsar and Lahore had been busy throughout the night, the dead remained abandoned and exposed inside Jallianwala Bagh. One woman, however, had refused to leave her husband’s corpse despite the curfew. Like so many others, Ratan Devi had rushed to the Bagh to look for a relative but, by the time she found her husband, in a heap of bodies on the blood-soaked ground, there was no-one to help her carry him away. Alone in the dark, Ratan Devi pleaded with people in the surrounding houses but no-one came to her aid. And so she spent the night by the side of her husband’s corpse in what had become a garden of the dead:

I found a bamboo stick which I kept in my hand to keep off dogs. I saw three men writhing in agony, a buffalo struggling in great pain; and a boy, about 12 years old, in agony entreated me not to leave the place. I told him that I could not go anywhere leaving the dead body of my husband. I asked him if he wanted any wrap, and if he was feeling cold, I could spread it over him. He asked for water, but water could not be procured at that place.

Finally, as the sun rose early next morning, Ratan Devi’s friends came and helped carry her husband’s body home. She finished her mournful story:

I saw other people at the Bagh in search of their relatives. I passed my whole night there. It is impossible for me to describe what I felt. Heaps of dead bodies lay there, some on their backs and some with their faces upturned. A number of them were poor innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I was all alone the whole night in that solitary jungle. Nothing but the barking of dogs, or the braying of donkeys was audible. Amidst hundreds of corpses, I passed my night, crying and watching. I cannot say more. What I experienced that night is known to me and to God.

In the early hours of 14 April, the acrid smell of funeral pyres once again greeted the inhabitants of Amritsar. This morning, however, the dead could be counted in the hundreds. Lal Gian Chand was among the hundreds of grieving families who were cremating their relatives at the Hindu Durgiana temple just outside the Lohgarh Gate: ‘There was nobody present there, to register the number of the dead persons. Within one hour of our arrival in Durgiana, about 70 more dead bodies came for cremation, and others were following.’ At the Sultanwind Gate, a local villager observed the constant stream of corpses being taken to the Muslim burial ground outside the city for an hour and a half. By nightfall, bodies were still being removed from Jallianwala Bagh. ‘It was thus,’ Girdhari Lal noted laconically, ‘that the people of Amritsar held their Baisakhi fair.’

This excerpt was taken with permission from the book ‘Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre’ by Kim A. Wagner. It was published by Penguin Random House.

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