Unbelievable cruelty that befell the Lahore of 1919

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 23, 2017

As a schoolboy I remember walking with my father near Nila Gumbad and him telling me a story of when in 1919 the students and respectable people of Lahore were made to crawl on the road every time they saw a British officer, or even a ‘memsahib’, in the area.

At that moment it was too incredible a story to believe, as were most of his amazing stories. But with time I am discovering that they were all true. The sheer cruelty of the British Raj has been so subtly disguised by the colonial bent in our history books, perpetuated by feudal and industrial loyalists of that age, that a lot of people still believe that the British Raj was a good thing, a modernising force, a progressive age in our history. They forget that when the British arrived the sub-continent held 28.9 per cent of the world’s wealth. On the 14th of August, 1947, this had shrunk to a mere 2.4pc. This was ‘progress’ for them.

Of recent I have been researching the ‘Punjab Disturbances 1919-20’ and have had the opportunity to going through the ‘Report of the Disorders Inquiry Committee 1919-20’ headed by Lord Hunter, the then solicitor-general of Scotland. Other members of the committee were a judge from Calcutta, an ICS officer, a British Army general, a member of UP’s legislative council, and two advocates from Bombay and Gwalior. Also the archives of the old Civil & Military Gazette verified what the report said. The Indian National Congress had decided to boycott the proceedings in view of the cruelty and humiliation meted out to the people of Punjab. The All-India Muslim League was till then an ‘Aligarh literary movement’ that had just removed a ban on discussing politics, a result of Lord Curzon’s ‘divide-and-rule’ partition of Bengal of 1905. That evil yeast of communal hatred still continues to multiply.

The context of the disturbance was the terrible incident of massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on the 13th of April, 1919. In this horrible incident General Dyer boxed in almost 1,500 people celebrating Baisakhi by ordering his 50 soldiers – 25 Gurkhas and 25 Baluchis – to fire on an unarmed and unaware crowd enjoying the traditional spring festival. Once the 1,650 rounds they had finished, the soldiers moved out after killing 379 innocent people, wounding over 847. This massacre was to go down in history as one of the catalysts of the movement for independence.


The news of the massacre hit Lahore like a thunderbolt. A stunned population, almost as if by instinct, took to the streets. The British immediately imposed Martial Law and a night curfew was imposed. To strictly impose the curfew order, at least four representatives from every ward of the old city were asked to remain present in the main waterworks at Paniwala Talab. On the 15th of April the order was expanded and an 8pm to 5pm curfew was imposed and except for Europeans and special permit holders, no one was allowed to leave their homes. A shoot-at-sight order meant that the representatives of the ward of an offender were also to be punished.

The military commander of Lahore, Lt. Col. Johnson, confiscated all motorcars belonging to Indians. He was to tell the inquiry: “I wanted to teach all Indians a sound lesson.” All horse-pulled carriages and carts were banned from plying. The reason for this order he explained: “Vehicles of every description assist the ‘hartal’ and the troublemakers.”

Then this Lt. Col. Johnson on the 16th of April imposed yet another ‘order’ on the people of Lahore. That was that during non-curfew hours no two persons could walk abreast together. Also no gathering, not even at home, could be of more than ten persons. These orders were pasted on selected buildings and houses. The selection of these houses was made via Order VIII issued on 16th of April, 1919. The selection was made at random by the Lahore CID Police on the assumption that the owners of the properties were “not terribly loyal”. If an order was “removed, defaced or written on” then that portion of the property where the ‘order’ was pasted was knocked down and the owner was liable to ‘severe punishment’.

When the inquiry quizzed the colonel if the order was “a reasonable order” he replied with a smile: “I would do it again.” The wrath of this army officer fell on the college on Bahawalpur Road then called Sanatan Dharam College. Today it is known as the Adabistan-e-Soophia. On learning of the ‘order’ being removed from the outside of the compound wall, he ordered that all males within the compound of the college be arrested, both students and teachers, and he marched them three miles away to the Lahore Fort, where he jailed 500 of them without food for 30 hours. “I wanted to show the people of Lahore my power. An example had to be set,” he was to tell the inquiry.

Next an ‘objectionable’ poster was allegedly found on the outer wall of Dayal Singh College near Lakshmi Chowk. The principal was asked to produce the writer and was fined Rs250. Later the colonel discovered that the charge was false. The very next day he decided to ask the students and teachers of seven major colleges to report every day in the hot sun at a place 16 miles from Lahore for a roll call. The inquiry was appalled by such an order, but Lt. Col. Johnson merely said: “16 miles a day is nothing for able-bodied young men. Plus it keeps them out of trouble.”

It may sound alarming today, but in a city of just over 250,000 persons more than 1,000 students were punished, and to top it they were banned from studying and expelled from colleges. But then another amazing incident was looked into by the inquiry committee, and that was that the colonel appeared at Dayal Singh College and the students refused to stand up. He ordered that all students be lined up and the six tallest be set out for receiving six lashes each. On inquiry he recorded his statement that: “The people and students of Lahore should know that they must respect us and have better manners. Except for being loyal there was no way anyone would be spared”.

But the happenings at Nila Gumbad were amazing. European ladies had reported that the population had become rude to them. Lt. Col. Johnson immediately set out barbed wires all over the crossing and people were asked to crawl under it. Any person who did not salute or ‘salaam’ a European, especially a lady, was sent for lashing. These stories, and many more such gruesome incidents, must surely have been the topic of discussion for years in the old walled city, which my father had listened to. It was from such cruelty that freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh emerged.

So it was that these stories were passed on to me and my brothers. Recently I told my daughter a few of these cruel happenings in the Lahore of 1919, and she said: “I always feared you journalists love constructing tall tales.” My wife gave me a look that said: “Serious research has made you wild”. The next day I took home photo-copies of the inquiry report pertaining to Lahore. I hope they pass it on to their children.


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