In February 2013, David Cameron, UK prime minister, paid his respects at the scene of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, one of the bloodiest massacres in British history. Rupert Colley offers a summary of the occasion:
On Sunday 13 April 1919, the occupants of the city of Amritsar, in the Punjab, were preparing to celebrate the Sikh New Year. Three days previously, six Britons had been indiscriminately killed by an Indian mob and the British, fearful of further violence during such a potentially volatile occasion, sent in a man ‘not afraid to act.’ That man was 54-year-old Reginald Dyer, and act he did.
Dyer (pictured) issued a proclamation banning any gatherings of four or more men and imposing an eight o’clock curfew. Those failing to comply risked being shot. Yet word reached Dyer that a gathering of about 5,000 men, women and children (Dyer’s estimate) had converged in a square at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting. The square was accessible only via a narrow gateway and otherwise was surrounded by walls. Dyer approached with a unit of about 90 soldiers, mainly Indians and Gurkhas. Although the gathering was unarmed and, it seemed, peaceful, Dyer feared that his small contingent of men would, if things got out of hand, soon be overwhelmed. Deciding attack was the best form of defence, he ordered, without warning, his men to open fire. Bedlam ensued.
With the only entrance blocked, there was no escape from the withering fire that lasted an entire quarter of an hour. People hid behind bodies, others were killed in the circling stampede. Dyer only ordered a stop when he feared his men would run out of ammunition. Without sanctioning any medical aid, Dyer ordered his men out. 379 were left dead, over 1,200 wounded. Dyer did not stop there; in the days that followed, Dyer subjected miscreants, as he saw them, to public flogging.
Mistaken concept of duty
At the resultant enquiry, General Dyer was censured for ‘acting out of a mistaken concept of duty’ but survived unpunished. The British press was outraged – not by the lack of punishment but that the British establishment had failed to condone his actions. The Morning Post launched a campaign, raising over £26,000 for, what they considered, the beleaguered general; Rudyard Kipling being one such giver. Reginald Dyer quietly took early retirement and died eight years later humbled perhaps but unrepentant. Indeed, his only regret was that ‘I didn’t have time to do more’.
(Pictured, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial).
Amritsar was systematic of all that was wrong in post-First World War British India. Mahatma Gandhi wrote of the massacre, ‘We do not want to punish Dyer; we have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.’
Amritsar confirmed an uncomfortable truism – that ultimately British rule in India was dependent on force.
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling saga set during the First World War, is now available.