Since April 13 was a Sunday, many of the shops were closed in any case and the hartal was still on. With the constant presence of the army on the streets, few people would have been out in the morning. However, at 9.30 am, Dyer decided to make two proclamations – neither of which was likely to have been heard. The Naib Tehsildar who was making the proclamations said he had halted at around 19 places where anywhere between 100 to 500 people had gathered. Most of them, he said, were jeering, and it was doubtful if anyone grasped the importance of his words. He also mentioned that there were announcements of the Jallianwala Bagh meeting taking place simultaneously, or at least discussions about it.

There are also reports of people staying indoors when Dyer’s entourage passed by. In any case, the terms of the proclamations were unclear, perhaps deliberately so. They were read out to the beat of a drum by the Naib Tehsildar.

The first proclamation said:

The inhabitants of Amritsar are hereby warned that if any property is destroyed or other outrages committed in the vicinity of Amritsar it will be taken that incitement to perform these acts originates from Amritsar City, and such measures will be taken by me to punish the inhabitants of Amritsar according to Military law.

All meetings and gatherings are hereby prohibited and I mean to take action in accordance with Military Laws to forthwith disperse all such assemblies.

It was signed “RE Dyer, Brigadier General, Commanding Jullundur Brigade”.

This was a printed proclamation, as was the first part of the second one. But the final and most crucial part of the second proclamation, which spoke of dispersal by “force of arms”, was only read out.

The first part said:

It is hereby proclaimed to all whom it may concern, that no person residing in the city is permitted or allowed to leave the city in his own private or hired conveyance, or on foot without a pass from one of the following officers:

The Deputy Commissioner
The Superintendent of Police – Mr Rehill
The Deputy Superintendent of Police – Mr Plomer
The Assistant Commissioner – Mr Beckett
Mr Connor, Magistrate
Mr Seymour, Magistrate
Ara Muhammad Hussain, Magistrate
The Police Officer-in-charge of the City Kotwali
This will be a special form and pass

The next part of the proclamation, which was only read out, said:

No person residing in the Amritsar city is permitted to leave his house after 8.00 pm.
Any persons found in the streets after 8.00 pm are liable to be shot.

No procession of any kind is permitted to parade the streets in the city, or any part of the city, or outside of it, at any time. Any such processions or any gathering of four men would be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assembly and dispersed by force of arms, if necessary.

A note by Irving clarified, “I have put in the words ‘if necessary’ in the draft which I was asked to edit in legal language so as to bring it into line with ‘liable to be shot’ in paragraph 2.”

But did the addition of these words really have any preventive impact or was it only to protect Dyer and Irving?

This second (ambiguous) statement was read out in Urdu and Punjabi and it is the addition of the last two words that indicated that some kind of warning would be given before shooting. The additional information that people would be shot if they were out after 8.00 pm, also made it confusing for most. Many who heard it may have thought that people would only be shot after 8.00 pm if they were still on the streets. In any case, the proclamation was made at 19 places, none of which were close to Jallianwala Bagh or even the Golden Temple – the most crowded part of the city and an area where even visitors were likely to throng to.

Kishwar Desai

For the residents of Amritsar who wanted to attend, the fact that a respected local elder and barrister, Kanhya Lal, was going to address the assembly meant they could expect to receive some “sound advice”.

Kanhya Lal himself said in his evidence to the Congress Committee: “I heard that some men (who have not been traced up to this time to my knowledge) had on the 13th April, proclaimed that a lecture would be given at Jallianwala Bagh by me. This led or induced the public to think that I should have given them some sound advice on the situation then existing.”

A boy with a tin can had also gone around announcing that Kanhya Lal would preside over the 4.30 pm meeting at Jallianwala Bagh. He too could not be traced later. Neither could Hans Raj, the person said to have called the meeting, be questioned about the meeting, as he became a government witness in the “Amritsar Conspiracy Case”. He did not give evidence before the Hunter Committee as he had left for Mesopotamia by then.

Some historians suspect that Hans Raj was used to gather a crowd because Dyer wanted a large number of people to be “punished”.

That the meeting was going to be held at 4.30 pm was confirmed at 1.00 pm to Dyer, who remained at Ram Bagh till at least 4.00 pm, and later said, “I went there as soon as I could. I had to think the matter out. I had to organise my forces and make up my mind as to where I might put my pickets. I thought I had done enough to make the crowd not meet. If they were going to meet I had to consider the military situation and make up my mind what to do, which took me a certain amount of time.”

The “military situation” meant he must have asked for a map of the area and studied how he could attack the enemy – with maximum impact. He was proud of his technical skills.

Something of what was going through his mind is in his biography, The Life of General Dyer, written by Ian Colvin, in close association with Dyer’s wife, Anne, in 1929. Puzzled about how to attack the “rebels”, he had exulted over the “gift of fortune” when the “rebels” decided to congregate in an open space. He wanted to take “immediate action” on the Amritsar “mob” which had tasted blood and “began to feel themselves masters of the situation”. He realised that he needed to bring a sizeable crowd together, but how could he do it?

In the narrow streets, among the high houses and mazy lanes and courtyards of the city the rebels had the advantage of position. They could harass him and avoid his blow. Street fighting he knew to be a bloody, perilous, inconclusive business, in which, besides, the innocent were likely to suffer more than the guilty. Moreover, if the rebels chose their ground cunningly, and made their stand in the neighbourhood of the Golden Temple, there was the added risk of kindling the fanaticism of the Sikhs. Thus he was in this desperate situation: he could not wait and he could not fight.

The fact that the rebels themselves chose to go to an open space, where they could be corralled in was an unexpected “gift of fortune”: something he could only have hoped for and not devised. As his admirer Ian Colvin said, now the enemy was within easy reach of his sword. “The enemy had committed such another mistake as prompted Cromwell to exclaim at Dunbar: ‘The Lord hath delivered them into my hands.’”

For Dyer, this was not a murderous attack on defenceless, innocent people. For him the people assembled were all guilty; it was a state of war, in which he wanted to teach them a “moral” lesson. He assumed all of those present at Jallianwala Bagh to be guilty without any idea of who they were.

Dyer’s planning was impeccable. He ensured that he conscripted soldiers who were sufficiently removed from Punjab so they were able to shoot without compunction. He deliberately took no British troops, because he wanted no blame to fall on them. He took none of the other commanders – what would have happened if they resisted his orders?

He was thus accompanied by twenty-five Gurkhas and twenty-five Baluchis armed with rifles. These were fierce fighters and the Gurkhas, especially, were incredibly loyal. They had no connections with Punjab, they did not even know the language. Aware that if the crowd rushed towards him, there might be hand-to-hand combat, he took forty Gurkhas armed only with khukris. He was prepared for a bloodbath. Knowing fully well that they would not fit into the entrance, he took two armoured cars. This was more for effect and, if things got out of hand, for escape. He also placed pickets all along the routes to the Bagh so people could be shot even if they escaped.

As the Hunter Committee admitted in its report to the British Parliament in 1920, “It appears that General Dyer, as soon as he heard about the contemplated meeting, made up his mind to go there with troops and fire” because they had “defied his authority” by assembling. The fact that they may have been unaware of his prohibitory orders was not important for him. He wanted to create a “wide impression”.

He said, “If they disobeyed my orders it showed that there was complete defiance of law, that there was something much more serious behind it than I imagined, that therefore these were rebels, and I must not treat them with gloves on. They had come to fight if they defied me, and I was going to teach them a lesson.”

In his defence, British historians have said that he took a very small force and that he was surprised by the crowd that he found, forcing him to react the way he did. This is contrary to the facts. He had carefully calculated how he would spread the force available to him all around the city and an aircraft flying over the meeting had already conveyed to him the strength of the crowd.

He stationed around fifty men to protect his Ram Bagh base, and also dropped off five pickets of forty each en route to Jallianwala Bagh. It was thus that he was left with “fifty rifles, forty armed Gurkhas and two armoured cars”. But he also had another fifty stationed at the Kotwali, which was not very far from Jallianwala Bagh.

Of course, the people assembling at the Bagh had no inkling of his plan, while he knew about their meeting. The CID, based in the Kotwali, were keeping a close eye on the assembly, as they had been asked to do. They too did not request people to leave, or stop them from going to the Bagh, following the morning proclamation by Dyer. This would have added to the confidence of the gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, as the police would have watched them assemble and done nothing about it. Some members of the CID and a few police constables were even seen at the gathering – as was normal.

It is also interesting to note that despite the large presence of the army and the discomfort and deprivations they had been subjected to, the people of Amritsar still had faith in the system, in each other and, to a large extent, the British. They were defiant, but also sombre – after the deaths on April 10, they could not imagine that a peaceful gathering, so close to the Golden Temple, on the festive day of Baisakhi could become a bloodbath. The events of April 10 were seen as an aberration. The two days of calm that followed had given them false hope, leading them to believe that things had calmed down and they could carry on with their satyagraha.

Excerpted with permission from Jallianwalla Bagh, 1919: The Real Story, Kishwar Desai, Westland.