The Amritsar massacre, 100 years ago this Saturday in which British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protestors, remains one of the darkest hours of British colonial rule in India.
Known in India as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it is still an emotive subject with many demanding a British apology -- which so far has been unforthcoming.
The number of casualties on April 13, 1919 is unclear, with colonial-era records showing 379 deaths while Indian figures put the number at closer to 1,000.
In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, extending repressive measures in force during World War I (1914-18). These included incarceration without trial, and caused widespread anger, particularly in the northern Punjab region, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for a nationwide general strike.
In Amritsar news that prominent Indian leaders had been arrested and banished from that city sparked violent protests on April 10. These saw soldiers fire upon civilians, buildings looted and burned, while angry mobs killed several foreign nationals and attacked a Christian missionary.
Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was tasked with ensuring order, and imposed measures including a ban on public gatherings.
On the afternoon of April 13 some 10,000 people, including women and children, gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, an area in Amritsar surrounded by high walls with only one exit.
It was also Baisakhi, a harvest festival in northern India.
Dyer, later dubbed “The Butcher of Amritsar”, reached the spot with dozens of soldiers and sealed off the exit. Without warning, he ordered the soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowd. Reportedly the troops fired until they ran out of ammunition, letting off hundreds of rounds into the crowd before withdrawing.
Dyer said later that the firing was “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” The event served to boost Indian nationalism and harden support for independence.
Reaction in Britain varied, with Dyer receiving support in the House of Lords. Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, called the massacre “monstrous”.
In 1997 the Queen laid a wreath at a site during a tour of India. In 2013 David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He described the episode as “deeply shameful” but stopped short of a public apology.
He later defended his decision not to say sorry, explaining that the massacre happened 40 years before he was born and saying: “I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for”.