The Chronicle of a Bloody Massacre in Saadat Hasan Manto's Ancestral Amritsar

Manto, a young boy at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, has painted the event and its aftermath orally through his characters.

This is the second article in a two-part series on Manto’s writing on Jallianwala Bagh. Read the first here.

May 2019 marks Saadat Hasan Manto’s 107th birth anniversary. 

The news of the conditions in Amritsar had reached other cities. There was a big protest in Delhi and a strike in Kasur on April 11. People got inflamed and assumed the shape of a mob. The participants of this mob murdered a few Europeans, tried to burn the railway station and other government buildings and destroyed the wire and telephone system. The army was called and the English administration flogged the people and made arrests.

After Amritsar, the greatest hardship came in Lahore. The chief administrator of the Martial Law General Johnston had the agitators flogged even there. Meanwhile, 500 students and teachers were arrested in Lahore and taken on foot to the Shahi Qila as punishment. Then, political leaders Pandit Ram Bhaj, Hari Krishan and Duni Chand were expelled from the district.

In Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), the mob set fire to the railway station and godowns of Cotton Mills. As retribution for this protest, all the students of a school in Lyallpur were taken to stand in the ground outside the office of Major Smith, their hands tied and were asked to bow their heads in front of the major and salute the Union Jack.

In Gujranwala, people witnessed a strange sight in the morning. A headless calf had been tied to one side of the railway station while a dead pig was hanging on the other. This was a tactic to inflame the Hindus and Muslims – the administration’s doing – who then set fire to the railway station, and destroyed the telecommunications system. Here, the English administration sought the services of the air force, which bombed Gujranwala and the neighbouring villages. A military division fired machine guns to disperse those protesting inside and outside the railway station.

There were similar events in other cities of Punjab and Martial Law was imposed in five districts.

On April 12, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer apprised the Indian government in Simla via telephone about the conditions, which responded saying: ‘Even if the army has to fire bullets to control the situation, restraint should not be practiced. An example should be set as to the consequences of rebellious activities’.

Therefore, as per a government order, on April 12, Governor O’Dwyer prohibited all kinds of gatherings and meetings. They had information about a big gathering of Indians in Jallianwala Bagh.

The day was April 13. Given the circumstances in the city, the business of life was suspended. People were all but besieged in homes. Manto’s father was just about to go outside when the servant came and informed that despite the Governor’s clear declaration, a public meeting was to be held in Amritsar near the evening.

This was terrifying news. The airplanes, the patrols of armed police and the state of sadness on the faces of people were the premonition of some horrible calamity. He was thinking about postponing the thought of going outside when the din of airplanes rose, as if several humans were groaning in harmony with pain. Hearing the din of planes, Manto ran out of the room carrying his air-gun and began to look towards the sky above in that should they drop any cannon, he would shoot them down with his air-gun.

At that moment, an iron determination was evident on his innocent face. However, right before his eyes, the plane dropped some things resembling pieces of paper. As soon as they dropped, these pieces flew in the air like moths, then came very near and began to drop in streets, houses and rooftops. A few of these papers also fell on the upper rooftop of Manto’s home. Manto scampered upstairs and brought back that paper.

‘Abba jaan… The plane folks have dropped these slips instead of cannons.’

Also read: The 1919 Amritsar Violence, Through Saadat Hasan Manto’s Eyes

Ghulam Hasan Manto began reading – they were government advertisements. It was clearly mentioned that the government had denied permission for the gathering, and if a meeting was held, the people themselves would be responsible for the consequences. Ghulam Hasan’s complexion turned yellow. Now he could clearly visualise the impending calamity. Manto, looking at his father appear so surprised and worried after reading the advertisement, asked in fear, ‘What is written on them?’

‘Saadat, go away now…go play with your gun.’ the father said.

‘But what is written on it Abba jaan?’

‘It’s written that there will be a show in the evening today’, Ghulam Hasan said in order to delay the matter.

‘There will be a show! Then I will go too.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Can’t I go to this show with you?’

‘Fine, I will take you…now go play’, Ghulam Hasan said, afraid to extend the conversation any further.

‘Play where…you don’t let me go outside. Mother and sister do not play with me. My classmate Tufail does not come these days. Who should I play with now? We will definitely go see the show in the evening right?’

Manto went inside without waiting for an answer.

He wandered around before settling himself in his father’s sitting room and began to see the view outside the window. He saw that the shops in the bazaar were closed, but people were going to and fro today. He began to wait with bated breath for the evening.

People were coming and going in the bazaars. It was the festival of Baisakhi. Even during those chaotic days, people from near and far gathered in Amritsar where the mela of Baisakhi was celebrated with fervour and festivity. Manto had not been out to play for the last 2-3 days so he didn’t know about the Baisakhi fair. Even his family members did not mention fearing he would insist on watching. Also, they were doubtful that the fair would even happen.

The English historian Arthur Swinson has, however, written that ‘That day, thousands of people were gathered in Jallianwala Bagh. There was a festive scene and people were joyously celebrating the festival. Several were lying on the grass of the Bagh. Many were busy playing cards and there were also a lot of people who were busy in fun and sport along with their children and these latter were aged from three to twelve years.’

The garden was gradually getting busier. There were police check posts on the city routes. Armed white soldiers were standing at the mouth of the bazaars but people were arriving from everywhere. There were only four narrow gates for entry into Jallianwala Bagh, all of which were being guarded.

Also read: Why Popular Local Memory of Jallianwala Bagh Doesn’t Fit the National Narrative

There were roaring shouts and these groups were stopped by the administration. Jostling kept increasing at the entry gates. There were protesting cries. The armed soldiers tried to stop them, but fear was replaced by passion on their faces. There was a sea of humans inside the Bagh. The dust rose from the feet and hovered over their heads. There was utter confusion.

The Muslims were entering shouting the name of their God and religious leaders, and the Hindus and Sikhs responded with passion and fervour, calling out to their own Gods and leaders. The crowd was now getting out of the administration’s control. A Hindu leader addressed the crowd from a raised position. Then a Muslim leader took that platform.

The English officers, having failed to establish control, looked on as a bearded man addressed the crowd by gesturing and screaming. Then, right before their eyes, a gora (white man) appeared wearing a military officer’s uniform. He threw the bearded one down and began to say something, gesturing in a similar manner. The crowd went silent for a moment as the angry voice of the white man roared. No one could actually understand what he was saying, but it was evident from his gestures and postures that he was asking the crowd to expel.

Suddenly, his voice was drowned out by a noise. Someone took off his shoe and threw it in the white man’s direction. Then a sudden assault of shoes began from several directions. Alongside, a really huge crowd was also moving. Several people then began flinging their clothes at the police authorities.

There must have been 20,000-25,000 people in Jallianwala Bagh when General Dyer entered along with his army. The armoured military cars were left outside since they could not enter through the narrow gates. All exits were closed. The army immediately took positions and loaded their machine guns as General Dyer had ordered. A swift wind was blowing, bring with it a message of the impending bloody calamity.

General Reginald Dyer. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The whole city was wrapped in an unknown fear. Ghulam Hasan Manto and his wife were sitting in silence in the courtyard of their house. Their son was gazing at them, sitting with his sister on the charpoy. There was a whistle-like voice in the swift wind.

Trr, trr, trr, trr…

The colour of Saadat’s father’s face became white like paper upon hearing these voices.

He could only manage to utter the word ‘bullet.’ and Saadat’s mother became gripped with fear. She stood up, so did her daughter. Both went into the room one after the other. Saadat got up from the charpoy, approached his father and said, ‘Abba, get up. Let’s go, the show has begun.’

‘What show?’ Maulvi Ghulam Hasan responded in a stern tone.

‘The show about which the slips were advertising in the morning. The mela has begun, you hear the noise of these crackers right?’

‘There’s still a lot of time. No need to hurry’, the father said, concealing his fear. ‘Now go study inside in the room with your sister.’

Filled with disappointment, Saadat went towards the kitchen. Not finding his mother there, he went looking in the other room. The firing – what Saadat thought was the noise of crackers – continued.

In Jallianwala Bagh, death was roaring. A rare scene had begun to unravel. Panic had spread throughout and there was chaos. Everyone was running to save their lives. The running men targeted by bullets somersaulted in the air as if they were clowns in a circus falling down during a performance. People fell, balanced, and then collided with each other, but the pursuing bullets ran much faster than humans.

Heaps of those who died and were injured lay at several places in the Bagh, and when people headed towards the narrow exit gates, they would have to face a hail of bullets there.

The white soldiers were firing continuously. Thousands, unable to leave through the exit gates, tried to scale the walls, which at some places was as much as 10 feet high. The bullets did not spare even them. There was a well towards the left of the Bagh and human screams were roaring from inside it.

Panorama of Jallianwala Bagh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Afterwards, while sitting on the capstone of this well, Saadat Hasan Manto felt that incident with his heartbeats, with the eye of his imagination and chronicled it. Manto has written in his short story Deevana Shayir, ‘The rustle of dry leaves beneath my footsteps was making a sound like the breaking of dried bones. I felt on every step as if countless corpses are lying on the evergreen bed of grass. I quickened my steps and with beating heart sat on the platform that was constructed around the well.’

While sitting there, he met an insane poet who was aggrieved over the injustice of that bloody incident. Manto said to him, ‘I was young at the time of this incident so very foggy traces of it remain in my mind. I have a lot of respect in my heart for these people who had sacrificed their lives for their motherland and passion for freedom. Bullets were raining Trr trr. People were dying over each other fleeing everywhere in horror. Death is gruesome, but oppression is many times more terrifying and gruesome!!!’

Also read: A Single Heart Beating in Jallianwala Bagh

There were bullet marks on the wall in front of the well and the broken square latticed window. These innumerable marks seemed like thousands of bloody eyes watching. The legs of men hanging by the walls around the Bagh were turned inwards and their heads and arms were clinging outwards. They were those unfortunate ones who had climbed the wall, hoping to scale it, but had instead come within the range of bullets. When seem from inside, it appeared as if a dhobi had spread out several different kinds of clothes to dry.

Bullet holes in the wall at Jallianwala Bagh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Far in the distance, Saadat was looking outside from his window. The evening was setting in. The bazaar was deserted except for the sound of the wind. After momentary pauses, the noise of bullets could be heard. Suddenly, Saadat heard the sound of someone moaning. He was looking in amazement when a boy came running from the chowk, screaming, running, stumbling. He then fell exactly opposite to their house. He was injured. Saadat became really scared at this sight, ran to his father and said, ‘Abba abba someone has fallen there in the bazaar. He is also bleeding.’

Upon hearing this, Ghulam Hasan Manto went to the window and saw that indeed a young boy was lying outside face down. He had a wound on his calf from which a lot of blood was oozing. But he did not have the courage to go near and help. He knew too well the horrible conditions outside. So the boy remained there gasping, dying.

‘Abba jaan, has someone hit that boy?’

The father shut the window and went into the room nodding in assent… The noise of bullets coming from the direction of the Bagh had abated. Saadat stood thinking how much pain that boy would have felt from such a big wound. Once he had been unable to sleep the whole night due to a prick from a penknife – and his parents had sat by his bedside. The moment this thought came to him, he felt as if that wound was in his own calf and it had acute pain… his eyes became wet. When his mother came inside, she asked: ‘My bete, why are you crying?’

Ammi has someone hit that injured boy?’ He asked in a bittersweet voice, pointing a finger outside the window.

The mother had learnt about the injured boy and the conditions outside from her husband. ‘He must have done something wrong’, the mother said, to him changing the topic.

‘But in school, a mischief or wrong is punished with a cane. It never bleeds,’ Saadat said, looking at his mother with uncertainty. ‘Won’t his father be mad at the teacher when he goes to the school; whoever has hit him so badly. One day when master sahib pulled my ears so hard that they turned red, Abba jaan had gone to the headmaster to complain na?’

‘Bete! The master who hit him is a very powerful man.’

‘Is he even more powerful than Allah mian?’

‘No he is less powerful than Him.’

‘Do you know him?’

‘No…. leave this nonsense. It’s night time. Chalo, let’s sleep’, the mother grabbed his arm to take him to the other room to his sister.

‘Allah mian! I pray that the master who has hit that boy, you punish him severely. Snatch such a cane from him which causes bleeding…I too haven’t memorised the tables. So I’m afraid lest my teacher too finds such a cane… If you do not listen to me, then I too will be displeased with you,’ Saadat prayed in his heart as he slept.


Some parts from the aforementioned narrative are derived from Saadat Hasan Manto’s first short story Tamasha, which he witnessed in his young age during the Martial Law of 1919. There are merely two main characters in Tamasha: father and son (the child’s name in the short story though is Khalid but it is clear from study that it is Manto in the form of Khalid) The conversation in the form of a dialogue between a father and son in the aforementioned pages encompasses the personality and psychology of Manto in every way.

In the plot of this short story carrying the background of Jallianwala Bagh, the citizens of the city were protesting against the ruler of the time and the empire had resorted to extreme oppression and injustice against them. Due to this, a strange silence descended over the city for many days.

The child was asking the father to go see the show when the sounds of bullets firing began to be heard in the city. Hearing these sounds, the father sent the child to the mother inside. Entering the home, the child saw from the window the injured boy falling outside the house.

Saadat Hasan Manto says in the short story that although the boy was seriously injured and lying on the road, out of fear of the ruler, neither the child’s father nor anyone else dared to help him or at least pick him from the road and lay him down on the platform of the shop where he could lie with comfort or if he had passed away, would have laid aside.

Here, Manto indicates another social problem wherein vehicles are used to shift unarmed and poor people to jail, and not to move some poor and injured innocent to a hospital or home.


That night in Amritsar was extremely gruesome. A horrifying silence overshadowed the Bagh and its environs. General Dyer of the British government established an unforgettable example of favouring wanton injury with this bloody incident. He made no arrangements for the dead and injured. Only the social welfare organisation Sewa Samiti did a bit of work by shifting a few injured to the hospital with the permission of General Dyer.

Curfew was imposed in Amritsar and nobody was permitted to go outside after 8 pm. Even the relatives of those who had died could not pick the bodies of their slain ones, and neither the Sewa Samiti was allowed after that time to shift the dead and injured to their destination.

There was hardly a drop of water for the injured in the Bagh. They were moaning lying on the ground, bodies bruised and lips crusted with dryness. The dead youth, aged, women, children were lying moist in their own blood. Dogs were barking and wild animals were lying in wait on the walls when to make a meal out of them.

Also read: Why the Context of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Is So Important

What great punishment was meted out to that rebel city. There was uninterrupted indiscriminate firing for 15 minutes on unarmed people – 399 were killed and more than 2000 wounded.

This firing ceased when the soldiers ran out of ammunition. At least 1650 rounds were fired in this duration. These were the numbers of the official report and according to the figures collected unofficially, the number of dead was between 500 to 600, and the wounded was near 3,000.

Due to the imposition of Martial Law and censorship of newspapers, accurate news was not reaching other parts of the country. But when the truth was known, the whole of India became a veritable protest from head to foot. A great protest camp set up in Jallianwala Bagh and people began a series of swift arrests in succession. In this reference, Manto has mentioned the protest camps in Jallianwala Bagh and the enthusiasts of freedom giving themselves up for arrest in his short story Swaraj ke Liye and has painted that situation orally through the characters. He himself also kept participating in that protest.

Even after the horrible incidents, Lord Chelmsford and Michael O’Dwyer did not bother to visit Amritsar. The British government, however, did appoint an investigative commission under the chairmanship of Lord Hunter, a member of the House of Lords, whose ambit was to appraise and enquire into governmental injustices in Punjab during Martial Law.

Simultaneously, the Congress appointed its own investigative commission under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru. That crowd in Jallianwala Bagh was in no way a gathering of rebels, this much was confessed by General Dyer himself too in front of the Hunter Commission. The crux of the report compiled by the Hunter Commission was that there was no need for the imposition of Martial Law in Punjab. The commission also said that during the Martial Law, the British administration has handed down sentences more severe than necessary. But it concurred with Michael O’Dwyer that a situation of an organised rebellion in Punjab was created and in these circumstances, greater punishments than usual were essential in order to crush the rebellion.

But Lord Montagu did not agree with this argument; he confessed to this issue that General Dyer had no authority to punish peaceful and unarmed people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh so severely.

The editor of the Morning Post newspaper collected a donation of 30,000 pounds from the British public so that General Dyer could be rewarded for his services to the British Empire, and most of the members of the Conservative Party and several members of the House of Lords established an organisation to defend General Dyer so that arrangements could be made to save him from any possible punishment.

The Army Council of Britain, which had taken up the responsibility of defending General Dyer’s case, requested that he should be punished merely by awarding him half his pension after retirement. The Army Council also said that General Dyer had committed only an error of proportion in Jallianwala Bagh; and the Court of Justice of Britain afterwards even exonerated Dyer of this accusation, who had, with his “accomplishment” decorated the forehead of Manto’s ancestral city Amritsar with a pride-worthy wound like Jallianwala Bagh.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore. He is the recipient of a prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in the UK for his translation and interpretive work on Saadat Hasan Manto’s essays. His most recent work is a contribution to the edited volume Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry (Niyogi Books, 2019). He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.