In 1919, worried by the disturbances provoked by economic discontent, the viceroy’s legislative council passed the Rowlatt Acts. These continued for three more years the repressive powers of the Defense of India Act, passed to help fight the World War, which had now ended. The Rowlatt Acts were opposed by every Indian member of the legislative council, and only went through because British officials still formed a majority of councillors. Gandhi called for resistance through "satyagraha" (non-violence), through a national strike or hartal (“lock market”). In Punjab, a tense climate arising from economic troubles and communal hostility resulted both in widespread observance of the hartal and in rioting.
On April 12, 1919, five British citizens were killed during a riot by Indian nationalists, who were protesting the Rowlatt bills. The next day, April 13, about 10,000 unarmed Indians assembled in Amritsar, again protesting the bills. Refusing to disperse, the Indians were fired upon by Gurkha troops under the command of British brigadier general Reginald Dyer (1864-1927); 379 Indians were killed and about 1,200 wounded. After the shooting, Dyer imposed martial law and ordered floggings and public humiliations. Dyer's actions were denounced in the British House of Commons but upheld in the House of Lords. The massacre was viewed in Britain as an unfortunate but necessary act and Dyer, who was forced to retire from the army as a result, was seen as a victim. British support for Dyer came from the upper and middle classes and those with direct connections with India or the army. The British had always justified the use of force in moral terms, but the Amritsar massacre fatally undermined any moral claims the British made to rule India.
Gandhi served on the an inquiry sponsored by the Congress Party. His discoveries there and his conviction that the government report on the massacre was a whitewash changed his mind about British rule, which he now believed was unjust and unacceptable. Public opinion shifted overnight, changing the mindset not only of the elites but also of the 'muted groups,' specifically the poor illiterate masses and women, and brought them firmly into the nationalist movement as followers of Gandhi.
The episode marked a decisive watershed, with the British Raj steadily losing support afterward from the Indian people, as nationalist forces led by Mohandas Gandhi gained strength. From that moment onward, the colonial government had to face a nationalist opposition capable of coordinating mass agitation. The noncooperation movement of 1920-22 and the civil disobedience of 1930-34 demonstrated the growing scope of anti-British mobilization in India.
The ineptness and harshness of the British government in handling the Amritsar riots made this Punjab city a byword for harsh imperialism and is still a matter of deep resentment in India. The site of the massacre, called the Jallianwallah Bagh, is now a national shrine.
- Draper, Alfred. Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj (1981)
- Sayer, Derek. "British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919–1920." Past and Present 131 (May 1991): 130–64. in JSTOR
- Swinson, Arthur. Six Minutes to Sunset: The Story of General Dyer and the Amritsar Affair (1964), pro-Dyer