Not far from where Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev shot dead British police officer JP Saunders to avenge the death of the Congress leader Lala Lajpat Rai stands Bradlaugh Hall. Named after Charles Bradlaugh, the 19th century English radical who advocated for Indian representation in the colonial administration, the hall served as the hub of revolutionary anti-colonial struggle in Punjab until 1947.
Bradlaugh Hall also housed the National College, set up by Lala Lajpat Rai to prepare “intellectual revolutionaries” such as Bhagat Singh. It hosted the Indian National Congress’s historic 1929 Lahore session that culminated in the declaration of Purna Swaraj, or full independence, on December 31, which the party would celebrate as India’s symbolic Independence Day until 1947.
Twenty years earlier, in March 1919, the hall had hosted another historic, though less remembered, meeting that would hugely impact India’s anti-colonial movement.
Though an Indian nationalist consciousness, conjoined with a communal discourse, started taking root in urban India after the turn of the century, the predominantly rural Punjab remained favourable to the British Raj. The landlords, who in most cases enjoyed the allegiance of the peasants, saw no reason to upset the status quo. Introduction of capitalist agriculture and the laying of canals and railways transformed Punjab into the breadbasket of British India. The heady myth of being the land of the “martial races” had also turned Punjab into the primary military recruitment centre for the Raj, supply cannon fodder during the First World War.
The economic pain caused by the Great War, though, started to turn the ordinary people who did not necessarily have political allegiances against the British. High taxation and the Rowlatt Act, which made permanent the wartime restrictions, giving the Raj complete authority to search and arrest any Indian without warrant or hold a suspect without trial for up to a year, only deepened the alienation.
It was against this backdrop that the March 1919 meeting of mostly common folk was organised by the Congress at the Bradlaugh Hall.
In keeping with the programme agreed at the meeting, a peaceful protest against the colonial administration was held in Amritsar on April 6. Thousands of people turned out, only to be violently confronted by the police. Ten people were killed and several more injured. The protestors retaliated by targeting government property – bank, telegraph office, post office and railway station. A few Europeans living in the city were also attacked and killed.
It seemed that for the first time since the annexation of Punjab, the British were losing control of the province. Even in 1857, when popular uprisings swept much of North India, Punjab had remained largely peaceful. In fact, it was Punjab’s “loyalty” to the colonial regime that had made it possible for the British to put down the 1857 “mutiny”; it was forces drawn from Punjab that recaptured Delhi from the rebels.
To the British, protests in major cities of Punjab and elsewhere in India, signalled a breakdown of their policy of “divide and rule”, crafted in the shadows of the War of 1857. The murder of the Europeans in particular came as a jolt. The colonial state resolved to preserve “order” at any cost and prevent the situation from spiralling out of control as it had over six decades earlier.
A week after the violent protest in Amritsar, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place. It was a consequence of the colonial state’s desperation to not only exert control over “its” cities but reassert its ideology, which projected the Raj as the benevolent master of scattered communities and nationalities lacking a common identity. It was a savage reaction to a growing nationalist consciousness and was informed by the trauma of 1857 that still haunted the colonial state.
By committing the massacre, the British thought they were strengthening their control over Punjab specifically and India generally. But time would prove otherwise.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.