One hundred years between history and memory
“When fire was opened the whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground… a whole flutter of white garments, with however a spreading out towards the main gateway, and some individuals could be seen climbing the high wall. There was little movement, except for the climbers.”
– Sergeant Anderson, General Dyer’s personal bodyguard
WE ENTER THE BAGH BY THE SAME NARROW entrance, only two abreast, used a century ago. We’re surrounded by cheerful families out for a picnic. They pose for the usual selfies with a large red sandstone martyrs’ memorial and squat on the green, ornamental lawns. It was all very different a hundred years ago. The Bagh was then a dusty, barren maidan where people congregated and grazed their cattle, surrounded and overlooked on all sides by residential brick housing with three small exits to the sides.
We’re following in the footsteps of a squad of British Indian troops, 50 Gurkhas, Baluchi and Pathan Muslims and a few Sikhs armed with Enfield rifles and another 50 Gurkhas armed only with kukri knives, commanded by a couple of British officers. They took up position, facing a huge crowd estimated at between 5,000 and 30,000. Only 30 seconds later, their commanding officer, Brigadier-General Reginald (‘Rex’) Dyer ordered his men to open fire.
“When fire was opened the whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground,” Dyer’s personal bodyguard, Sergeant Anderson, later noted, “a whole flutter of white garments, with however a spreading out towards the main gateway, and some individuals could be seen climbing the high wall. There was little movement, except for the climbers. The gateway would soon be jammed. I saw no sign of a rush towards the troops. After a bit, I noticed that Captain Briggs was drawing up his face as if in pain and was plucking at the General’s elbow. Mr Plomer, Deputy Superintendent of Police, told the General during a lull that he had taught the crowd a lesson they would never forget. The General took no notice, and ordered fire to be resumed, directing it particularly at the wall.”
The squad fired exactly 1,650 rounds, non-stop for six to 10 minutes until the entire crowd had fled or fallen, and the walls still bear the highlighted bullet-holes. Two Gurkhas later remarked with evident relish: “While it lasted it was splendid. We fired every round we had.” For the many thousands they faced, it was a death-trap, with only three tiny exits as their escape.
Even in the sunshine with the holiday-makers around me, there is something eerie and deeply moving about this place. As I gulp back the tears unsuitable for a BBC presenter, I read a large plaque near the entrance. It describes what happened and estimates the casualties at 2,000. Sukumar Mukherji, my guide to the Bagh and its third-generation caretaker since 1988, well remembers the Queen visiting in 1997. Prince Philip, he recalls, was with her and remarked with characteristic frankness that this casualty figure was an exaggeration. He had served with Dyer’s son in World War II and been told it was only a few hundred.
Standing here in the prince’s footsteps, his correction sounds tactless to say the least. The precise casualty figure seems irrelevant, though hotly contested. This is largely because of difficulties in estimating how many wounded in the Bagh later died in their homes or in the streets. Dyer did not offer any medical assistance to the wounded, later claiming that to remain at the Bagh would have exposed the column to an ambush. Relatives who arrived with lanterns had no easy way of distinguishing between the dead and the wounded, as darkness was falling on the nightmarish piles of corpses littering the Bagh. Best estimates, based on exhaustive home visits in the city and surrounding districts by local volunteers, are that between 500 and 600 people were killed and roughly three times that number wounded. Many were shot in the back while trying to flee.
In October 1919, the Hunter judicial enquiry was set up under a British high court judge by the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, to report on the Punjab unrest generally and the Jallianwala massacre in particular, with five British members and three Indians, including the eminent jurist, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University. The committee reported 379 people killed and up to 1,200 wounded. Of the 376 victims identified, 217 were Hindus, 102 were Sikhs and only 57 were Muslims, surprisingly few in what was then a Muslim-majority city. Most Hindus and Muslims were local to Amritsar, while most Sikhs were villagers from outside the city, visiting for the Baisakhi fair. Some even had their bullocks with them, though we don’t know how many died.
Richard Attenborough’s famous biopic of Gandhi had a highly emotive, largely fictionalised scene of the massacre, showing many women and children in the crowd. The reality was far more banal. Only two women were listed among the fatalities and later claimed as martyrs by the Indian National Congress, reflecting the fact that Punjabi women rarely joined such large gatherings and would certainly not have ventured out during riots and curfews. But surprisingly, of the overwhelmingly male victims, 15 were mere boys aged 15 or younger, the youngest being only eight. The oldest was 80 years old.
I’m on a home visit, again in a narrow Amritsar alleyway, to the aged descendants of survivors of the massacre. They tell me how their uncle, then only a child, insisted on accompanying his father to the mass meeting on the maidan. While his father died in the firing, the boy survived under a heap of dead bodies.
How and why did any of this happen? Why did the crowd assemble at all? Why did Dyer decide to disperse them? And was it a premeditated slaughter or the massive over-reaction of an insecure man, panicked by a hostile mob of thousands?
Ever since its annexation in the Anglo-Sikh War of 1849, the Punjab had been broadly quiescent and even loyal to its imperial masters, with the East India Company’s Sikh and Muslim Punjabi sepoys coming to its rescue during the Great Revolt of 1857. And yet half a century later, the province had become the flashpoint of confrontation between the Raj and its opponents.
THE PUNJAB IN 1919 WAS A place of widespread agrarian unrest, caused by monsoon failures, food scarcity and high prices, to which World War I had added its own pressures. The Punjab had supplied roughly 60 per cent of the British Indian army, which had the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest ever volunteer fighting force numbering 1.5 million men. It was a lucrative and honourable profession for generations of professional soldiers who had served the Mughals, then the Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh, and now the British Raj. Lots of financial and land incentives had been offered to recruits as the War increased demand for them to replace the 62,000 Indian troops who died.
There had been no conscription in India, but there had been allegations of forced recruitment to the army by village elders and nobles keen to please the authorities. Added to this came the new tensions caused by widespread demobilisation when the war ended. Jobless soldiers returning to the Punjab with new ideas of nationalism, acquired in the West, were a fertile recruiting ground for nationalist agitation.
The Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, who shot to fame after the Jallianwala massacre, was Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic Irishman born into a poor family in Tipperary and, like Dyer, more loyal to the British Raj than its most aristocratic officers.Though widely blamed by his superiors in Delhi for provoking unrest in the Punjab, O’Dwyer was deeply invested in a style of colonial rule called ‘despotic paternalism’, which believed it necessary to protect the peasantry, the ‘real India’, from the self-serving and corrupting influence of educated, nationalist, urban elites. O’Dwyer had advocated halting unpopular army recruitment in 1918, but he had been overruled by New Delhi.
General Reginald Dyer was described by one of his officers as “a short, thick-set man of more than average ability as a soldier and with a great knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Indian”. Though very popular with his troops and fluent in Hindustani, he was something of a loner among his fellow-officers
Surprisingly, the unrest coincided with a major initiative to democratise the Raj, like most autocracies weakest while it reformed. A declaration by the War Cabinet in London in 1917 held out the goal of responsible government for India, on the lines of the White dominions in Canada and Australia. But it was a long-term goal, and the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, enacted in December 1919, the same year as the Amritsar massacre, were only intended as a starting point. They introduced the new system of provincial dyarchy, in which some ministerial portfolios were transferred to elected ministers, while the provincial governor appointed the rest. The reforms also included provisions to widen the franchise, elect more members and increase the powers of the imperial legislature at the Centre.
Unfortunately for the reforms, largely the brainchild of the Liberal Jewish Secretary of State, Edwin Montagu, they were preceded in March 1919 by the notorious, parallel Rowlatt Act, renewing the preventive detention powers of lapsing wartime legislation. To British officialdom, including Viceroy Chelmsford, the Rowlatt Act was seen as an essential part of a carrot-and-stick policy, carefully calibrated to punish extremists while rewarding moderates. In the end, the argument that, without these preventive detention powers, extremists might derail the entire reform package convinced even Montagu to sanction the Rowlatt Bill.
To his dismay, the Rowlatt Act had exactly the opposite effect in uniting nationalist moderates and extremists in campaigning for its repeal. The legislation was targeted by Mahatma Gandhi, recently returned from South Africa, and until then still loyal to the Raj. Wild rumours circulated about the iniquities of the Rowlatt Act, including even that it could be used to get a husband out of way if a policeman coveted his wife.
Locked in a power struggle for control of the Congress with the Irish theosophist Annie Besant, who advocated a constitutionalist demand for Home Rule, Gandhi launched his own brand of direct action. Though intended to be peaceful, the anti-Rowlatt satyagraha rapidly turned violent.
In the new imperial capital of Delhi itself, a hartal on March 30th, 1919, resulted in a mob besieging the main railway station and a police station. Police and military firing followed, resulting in 10 dead and wounded. The crowd, though ostensibly non-violent, was brandishing sticks and throwing stones, leaving many police and infantry injured. The violence spread as far as distant Gujarat, Gandhi’s own homeland, where there was extensive rioting and burning of government buildings, with a British police officer beaten to death by a mob in Ahmedabad on April 10th.
The squad fired exactly 1,650 rounds, non-stop for six to ten minutes until the entire crowd had fled or fallen, and the walls still bear the highlighted bullet-holes. Two Gurkhas later remarked with evident relish: “While it lasted it was splendid. We fired every round we had”
And then there was the Punjab, with mobs virtually seizing control of the provincial capital of Lahore. The authorities were forced to take refuge in the Mughal fort, besieged by crowds armed with makeshift pikes, shouting ‘Let’s kill the white pigs.’
Significantly, there were unprecedented displays of Hindu-Muslim unity, encouraged by Gandhi’s somewhat opportunist espousal of the Khilafat agitation. We are told the astonishing fact that 35,000 Hindus and Muslims symbolically drank water together at Lahore’s imposing Mughal Badshahi mosque. Muslim masses were mobilised with the cry of Islam in danger, wrongly informed that it was the British who were attacking the Caliphate in Turkey, instead of the reality that it was being abolished by the Turkish secularist Kemal Ataturk against British advice.
TELEGRAPH AND TELEPHONE wires were being cut all over the province, railway lines uprooted and British communications seriously disrupted. Not surprisingly, there were many in the Raj who thought they were facing a major revolt with echoes of 1857. Their worst fears were confirmed when a poster appeared on the clock tower next to Amritsar’s fabled Golden Temple, calling on people to be prepared to ‘die and kill’. And then all hell broke loose when the government decided to ban Mahatma Gandhi from entering the province, while also foolishly externing from Amritsar its two local Congress leaders, Doctors Kitchlew and Satyapal. Both nationalist medics were despatched by car to the hill station of Dharamsala.
On April 10th, a peaceful Gandhian hartal turned violent with an angry mob rampaging through the city. Its Town Hall was set on fire, and its telegraph office and several post offices were looted. The quick thinking of an Indian telegraphist saved some of the instruments. Arming himself with a lathi, he struck out at the table without injuring the instruments. He then pretended that he had joined the rioters and assured them that all the instruments were broken. He was the telegraphist to signal Lahore with its first intimation of what was happening at nearby Amritsar.
By now almost all Europeans in Amritsar had been evacuated to the old fort outside the city walls. In a scene reminiscent of the infamous 1857 siege of the Lucknow British Residency, women and children were lined up on camp beds in unsanitary conditions. A Punjab official describes how the British perceived the situation:
“Those of us who have seen an Indian mob in action can picture the scene. All night there has been drum-beating, and glib-tongued orators have been haranguing the populace, harping on the sins of the Government, the iniquitous Rowlatt Act and the insult offered to Mahatma Gandhi by turning him back from the Punjab. The time is drawing near, they shout, for dealing properly with the ‘white monkeys’, and the looting will be great! Morning comes, and through all the streets and alleyways the rabble swarm in their thousands, yelling their war-cries, ready to join in wholesale plundering and murder. There are more fiery speeches; and then the speakers, mindful of their own skins, fade cleverly out of the picture. The rabble has been sufficiently worked up.”
The British found themselves having to fend off what a later official account described as ‘a determined attempt to rush the Civil Lines’. “This was an agitated crowd, empowered by its sheer size,” reported another eyewitness. “People were hitting and pushing the frantic [police] horses, while one boy waved a handkerchief to excite the animals.” Picking up bricks and stones from ongoing roadworks, the crowd followed closely on the heels of the retreating riders. “The bricks came in a steady hail,” a British officer noted, “luckily not very well aimed.”
Miss Marcella Sherwood was cycling along the narrow alleyways of the old city, when she suddenly came upon a large crowd, which yelled: “Maaro Angrez!” She tried to escape, took a wrong turning and fell into their hands. She was stripped naked and mercilessly beaten and kicked by a group of young men
The local District Commissioner described them as “very noisy, a furious crowd, you could hear the roar of them half way up the long road, they were an absolutely mad crowd, spitting with rage and swearing”. Prevented from entering the Civil Lines, they vented their fury on the few European civilians who fell into their hands. Attacks on the two banks in the city centre resulted in the brutal murder of three British bank staff, bludgeoned to death with lathis, one of them set on fire while he was still alive.
Two days later, in a nasty incident at Kasur town near Amritsar, a train was stopped by a local mob, its European passengers then besieged and beaten up and two railway staff killed. Local labourers who witnessed the attack described how the ‘the mob closed round’ one of British railwayman as he ‘joined his hands and implored them not to kill him’. But he was not spared, the doctor who later examined the body noting that ‘his head was beaten to a pulp by blunt weapons’. At about the same time, the British cantonment electrician was attacked and killed by a crowd near the power station, the body later found with the head also ‘bashed in’.
The most emotive attack was on Miss Marcella Sherwood, the 45-year-old superintendent of the city’s mission schools. Hearing that a hartal had been proclaimed, she had insisted on cycling into the city alone to close down the five schools she managed and to send home the hundreds of students in her charge. “I could see that trouble was imminent,” she later stated. She was cycling along the narrow alleyways of the old city, when she suddenly came upon a large crowd, which yelled: “Maaro Angrez!” She tried to escape, took a wrong turning and fell into their hands. She was stripped naked and mercilessly beaten and kicked by a group of young men. “There was a mob of about 100 people,” said one eyewitness. “They were shouting ‘Gandhi ki jai’ and ‘Kitchlew ki jai’. When Miss Sherwood was struck down, they shouted, ‘She is dead’, and went off leaving her there.” Local residents later carried her to a mission school where an Indian doctor bandaged her wounds. Late that night she was taken to the fort, where she hovered between life and death for several days.
One of Miss Sherwood’s first visitors was ‘Rex’ Dyer, summoned to Amritsar with about 500 predominantly Gurkha troops to help restore order by civil authorities unable to cope. Then in his mid-fifties, he was described by one of his officers as “a short, thick-set man of more than average ability as a soldier and with a great knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Indian”. Though very popular with his troops and fluent in Hindustani, he was something of a loner among his fellow-officers. Second-generation country-born and bred, scion of a family of brewers who established the Dyer- Meakin brewery, Dyer was considered to have a chip on his shoulder when dealing with colleagues and superiors ‘from the top drawer’.
We are told that he was deeply distressed by Miss Sherwood’s plight and by the wider breakdown of order in the city. “I had to put all that together in my mind,” Dyer noted, “and say this is a rebellion.” It was an impression confirmed by the garbled news he was getting from Lahore. “We heard that the troops had mutinied,” he later claimed, “and that the Lieutenant-Governor had been murdered. For all we knew, we were the only white men left in India.” The myth of a nationalist conspiracy, similar to the 1857 revolt, appears to have been shared at the highest levels, including even the Viceroy, then in Simla.
ON THE MORNING OF THE APRIL 13th, Dyer marched his troops with their armoured cars through the city, stopping at 19 locations to read out a proclamation prohibiting gatherings of more than eight people. It’s questionable how widely this ban was publicised since Dyer, ignorant of the city’s layout, took a route that left out its entire central and eastern parts, including both the Sikh Golden Temple and the neighbouring Jallianwala Bagh. “I confess I do not know how far we had penetrated into the city,” Dyer later admitted. “I do not know the city very well…. There may have been a good many who had not heard the Proclamation.”
Only three days after the slaughter at Jallianwala, Dyer was invited to the Golden Temple by its loyalist mahants for an event extraordinary, though rarely mentioned, in Sikh history. They had decided to confer on him the highly unusual honour of a public conversion to Sikhism. The General, we are told, politely thanked them for the honour but objected that he could not as a British officer let his hair grow long. A priest named Arur Singh laughed: “We will let you off the long hair.” Dyer then protested: “But I cannot give up smoking.” “That you must do,” said Arur Singh, “but we will let you give it up gradually”
We are told that a counter-proclamation by a boy with a tin can was announcing a public meeting that very afternoon at four o’clock at Jallianwala Bagh. The meeting had been planned the previous day and not in defiance of Dyer’s proclamation, but to him it appeared as a direct provocation.“The crowd, in complete defiance of my orders, forced my hand,” he noted, “and it was my duty to vindicate authority…. I knew that the final crisis had come, and that the assembly was primarily of the same mobs which had murdered and looted and burnt three days previously…”
Dyer claimed in his later accounts that the massacre that followed was carefully premeditated, like the unrest it was designed to quell. The actual facts suggest that neither was the case. To start with, Dyer’s decision to take along 40 Gurkhas armed only with kukris, in addition to the 50-strong firing squad, was itself practical evidence that he was expecting some hand-to-hand fighting in the narrow streets of the old city, where kukri knives might prove more effective than rifles.
The reports Dyer had so far been receiving were from unreliable police informers who indicated that only a thousand people had assembled for the meeting and that they were shouting hostile political slogans. Dyer was not told that some of those present were only there for a Baisakhi cattle fair, nor that there were some small children among them. Dyer himself had never before been to the Bagh, so was surprised to find that his two armoured vehicles, mounted with machine-guns, had to be abandoned at the narrow entrance. Then he seems to have been genuinely shocked by the sheer size of the gathering facing him.
“I had no doubt,” he later wrote, “that I was dealing with no mere local disturbance but a rebellion, which, whatever its origin, was aiming at something wide reaching and vastly more serious even than local riots and looting.… The whole Punjab had its eyes on Amritsar, and the assembly of the crowd that afternoon was for all practical purposes a declaration of war by leaders whose hope and belief was that I should fail to take up the challenge…. I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself…. I realised that my force was small and untrained, and to hesitate might induce attack.… The responsibility was very great. I had made up my mind that if I fired I must fire well and strong so that it would have a full effect. I had decided if I fired one round I must shoot a lot of rounds or I must not shoot at all.”
The Manual of Military Law, drilled into the Indian Army, required the issue of a formal warning before opening fire on civilian rioters and the use of minimum force, if possible only firing into the air. But Dyer conducted the shooting as a military operation against enemy troops, reasoning that he was the one under attack. “The crowd was so dense,” he declared, “that if a determined rush had been made at any time, arms or no arms, my small force must instantly have been overpowered and consequently I was very careful of not giving the mob a chance of organising. I sometimes ceased fire and redirected my fire where the crowd was collecting more thickly…. I was liable to be assailed from behind and the extrication of my small force from the city would have been practically impossible if after the firing the rebels had maintained an aggressive spirit.”
Later that evening, Dyer arrived to pay his respects to the British women huddled in the fort. “General Dyer came in looking very sad,” an officer’s wife noted, “and we gave him a drink from the only bottle in the fort and then he said:‘I’m for the high jump but I saved you women and children.’” Dyer reported to Lahore that he had faced a crowd of 5,000, that his own force was tiny and that to hesitate about firing might have endangered their safety. Lieutenant-Governor O’Dwyer was persuaded and sent Dyer this telegram, flown over by plane since the lines were down: ‘Your action correct and Lieutenant-Governor approves.’
“What happened at Jallianwala Bagh is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” – Winston Churchill, who was then Britain’s Secretary of State for War
DYER FOLLOWED UP THE MASSACRE with a highly effective curfew, marching through the city himself that night to enforce it. “The curfew was 100 per cent,” an eyewitness noted. “There was not a soul in the streets.” The same deathly calm might have been said to have descended on the province and onthe country as a whole, with Gandhi calling off his satyagraha as a Himalayan blunder. The Punjab once again became the most quiescent province in the Raj, dominated by a conservative coalition of Muslim landlords, Sikh princes and notables and a Hindu business elite. Many upper-class Indian residents of Amritsar, especially shopkeepers, had been appalled by the hartals closing their shops and by the breakdown of normal civic services. They seem to have been delighted by what they saw as Dyer’s firm action to restore public order. The priests in charge of the Sikh Golden Temple were no exception.
Only three days after the slaughter at Jallianwala, Dyer was invited to the Golden Temple by its loyalist Mahants for an event extraordinary, though rarely mentioned, in Sikh history. They had decided to confer on him the highly unusual honour of a public conversion to Sikhism. The General, we are told, politely thanked them for the honour but objected that he could not as a British officer let his hair grow long. A priest named Arur Singh laughed: “We will let you off the long hair.” Dyer then protested: “But I cannot give up smoking.” “That you must do,” said Arur Singh, “but we will let you give it up gradually.” “That I promise you,” joked the General, “but only at the rate of one cigarette a year.” The priests, we are told, chuckled and proceeded with the initiation, investing Dyer with the five Sikh kakars.
A shrine was also built to General Dyer at another Sikh holy place, Guru Sat Sultani. A month later, when news came that Afghans were yet again invading on the North-West Frontier, Sikh leaders offered the General 10,000 men to fight for the British Raj if only he would consent to command them. In fairness to them, it was some time before news of the full enormity of the Jallianwala massacre trickled to the outside world.
Its immediate result was to put an end to resistance across the province. According to Amritsar’s Commissioner, the effect of the firing at Jallianwala Bagh was “electric”. “The whole rebellion collapsed,” he reported. “It was felt throughout the district. One of the reasons why there had been a danger was that the people out in the district thought for some reason or other that the arm of Government was paralysed. The inaction of the police when the National Bank was burned lent some colour to that belief and there was an idea that Government could do nothing…”
During the subsequent months, O’Dwyer and his administration at Lahore made no attempts to correct the prevailing impression in both Delhi and London that the April 13th firing at Amritsar had been a minor incident, no different from several others. Without actually lying, the Punjab government deliberately chose not to pass on estimates of fatalities greater than the 200 reported in the press.
Even Mahatma Gandhi initially held back from any direct criticism of the government, assuming that the promised judicial enquiry would do its job. “The fury that has been spent on General Dyer is… largely misdirected,” he wrote in his journal Young India. “No doubt the shooting was frightful, the loss of innocent life deplorable. But the slow torture, degradation and emasculation that followed was much worse.”
He was referring to the infamous ‘crawling order’, imposed by Dyer in the alleyway where Miss Sherwood had been so brutally assaulted. O’Dwyer, backed by Viceroy Chelmsford himself, had the infamous order cancelled as soon as he heard of it five days later. But during that time 50 people, including some nationalist youths in deliberate defiance, crawled the 150 yards of the little alleyway.
MARTIAL LAW HAD BEEN PROCLAIMED in the province immediately after the Jallianwala massacre, involving hundreds of arrests and some fancy punishments such as being made to skip, salaaming with the forehead touching the ground and even being made to compose pro-Raj poetry.
It’s ironic that the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’, as Dyer came to be known, received a full military funeral, with his coffin, draped in the Union Jack that had flown over his headquarters at Jullundur, carried on a gun-carriage of the royal horse artillery past the cenotaph. Among the flowers was wreath from Rudyard Kipling with a small ambivalent message: ‘He did his duty as he saw it’
From the outset, even within the Raj itself, opinions were deeply divided, both as to the enormity of what had occurred at Jallianwala and Dyer’s culpability for it. “We’re in a bit of a mess out here,” wrote Malcolm Darling, a liberal-minded ICS officer in Lahore, to his close friend, the novelist EM Forster. “Racial hatred in towns leaping in a twink to pillage and murder, murder too of the most horrible kind. Then panic and cruelty—the two go together. I understand now why Germans did those terrible things in Belgium, they got cold feet passing through and fell blindly upon the people whom they feared. We did not rape or hack to pieces, but one day in Amritsar they shot down hundreds…. God it makes me sick to think of it.”
Jallianwala equally turned the stomach of CF Andrews, one of the founders of the Congress and a close friend of Gandhi. “I could not sleep or eat or even speak to anyone after what I saw,” he recorded. “I wanted to go apart, and be alone…. It was a massacre, a butchery… I feel that if only I could take each single Englishman and show him out of my eyes what I have seen, he would feel the same as I…”
But there were many Britons in India and back in London who took an opposite view. ‘No European who was in Amritsar or Lahore doubts that for some days there was a real danger of the entire European population being massacred,’ wrote one of the women who had taken refuge in Amritsar fort. ‘It was General Dyer’s action alone saved them.’ For almost a year, the issues were investigated and hotly debated by the Hunter enquiry, which finally reported in March 1920, with the three Indian members submitting their own minority report.
During his close and prolonged examination at committee, Dyer had admitted: “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed [the crowd] even without firing.” Under cross examination by Setalvad, he even claimed that his actions were premeditated and declared that his motive had been to demoralise rebels across the Punjab and send out a message to the whole province, and that he had to fire long enough to have this impact.
Not surprisingly, Dyer and other British officers bristled at the hostile questioning by Indian members. One British officer noted that “General Dyer, baited beyond endurance made some very silly statements. In this respect he was his own worst enemy.” When Setalvad asked whether he would have used the machine guns if he could have squeezed his armoured cars into the Bagh, Dyer responded: “I think probably yes.” It was an unrepentant attitude which exasperated even Dyer’s firm supporter, Lieutenant-Governor O’Dwyer, driven to state that, despite having initially approved the firing as Dyer reported it to him, he found his subsequent assertions at the enquiry “indefensible”.
By the time the seven-volume report of the Hunter Committee, hundreds of pages long, was finally completed, the distance between its British and Indian members had become only too apparent. According to Setalvad, “As regards the condemnation of the Jallianwala firing, the crawling order and other oppressive measures under the Martial Law administration, the European and Indian members were agreed except that the Indian Members took a much graver view than the one taken by the European members which was somewhat halting and apologetic. The discussions which were on occasions heated led to some unpleasantness, particularly because of the intolerant attitude adopted by Lord Hunter towards any difference of opinion. During one of the discussions I had with Lord Hunter, he lost his temper and said: ‘You people (meaning myself and my Indian colleagues) want to drive the British out of the country.’ This naturally annoyed me very much and I said: ‘It is perfectly legitimate for Indians to wish to be free of foreign rule…. The driving out process will only become necessary if the British are represented in this country by people as short-sighted and intolerant as yourself.’ After this, though under the same roof, we, the Indian members, ceased to talk to Lord Hunter.”
The minority report submitted by the three Indians went even further than the Congress in its condemnation of Dyer: “We feel that General Dyer, by adopting an inhuman and un-British method of dealing with subjects of His Majesty the King-Emperor, has done great disservice to the interest of British rule in India. This aspect it was not possible for the people of the mentality of General Dyer to realise.”
Dyer himself was now regarded as an embarrassment to the Raj, to be removed from the scene as soon as possible. He was hastily summoned to Delhi to be informed by the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army that he would have to resign his command and that he would receive no further appointment in India. The ailing General had no choice but to comply. A couple of weeks later, his wife and he boarded a ship in Bombay bound for England. It was exactly a year after the unrest had started at Amritsar.
‘The fury that has been spent on General Dyer is… largely misdirected. No doubt the shooting was frightful, the loss of innocent life deplorable. But the slow torture, degradation and emasculation that followed was much worse’ – Mahatma Gandhi in his journal Young India
Most of the Anglo-Indian community, then defined as Britons settled in India, saw Dyer as ‘the Saviour of Punjab’, and he was given a hero’s send-off, with a testimonial signed by more than two hundred European survivors of the Punjab troubles in 1919. ‘We… desire to express our heartfelt gratitude,’ it assured him, ‘for the firmness You displayed in the crisis which arose in this Province last April. We deplore the loss of life which occurred, but we believe that it was Your Action which saved the Punjab and thereby preserved the honour and lives of hundreds of women and children.’
On the nationalist side, the massacre had the opposite effect. The Nobel prize-winner, then probably the Indian best known abroad, Rabindranath Tagore, reflected the prevailing mood when he returned his knighthood in protest. Gandhi too returned the medals awarded for his wartime services to the Empire and formally withdrew his loyalty to the British Government. The massacre had the unintended consequence of catapulting him to unrivalled leadership of Congress, isolating or converting moderate constitutionalists like CR Das and Motilal Nehru, who would have preferred to work the new reforms as a step towards dominion status. In the summer of 1920, the Congress formally decided to withdraw its support for the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, and Gandhi launched his first non-cooperation movement with the goal of swaraj.
The issues raised finally came before the House of Commons during a debate on Dyer’s future on July 8th, 1920, at which Dyer, his loyal wife and Sir Michael O’Dwyer were present in the Visitors’ Gallery. Montagu, in his opening speech asked the House, “Are you going to keep your hold upon India by terrorism, racial humiliation and subordination, and frightfulness, or are you going to rest it upon the goodwill… of the people of your Indian Empire?” The debate turned highly acrimonious, and Montagu was repeatedly interrupted and heckled by Conservatives. One eminent Tory later recalled: “I think I have never seen the House so fiercely angry—and [Montagu] threw fuel on the flames. A Jew, rounding on an Englishman and throwing him to the wolves—that was the feeling.”
TORY MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT read out several letters from Anglo-Indian women, including one from Miss Sherwood herself, in which she declared herself ‘convinced that there was a real rebellion in the Punjab, and that General Dyer saved India and us from a repetition of the miseries and cruelties of 1857’. It was nevertheless Winston Churchill’s speech as the government’s secretary for war that ultimately won the day. “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia,” Churchill proclaimed. “What happened at Jallianwala Bagh is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire…. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation…. Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things.”
The government won with 230 to 129 votes for its resolution upholding the censure of Dyer, with his wife weeping copiously at the result. A week later, he received the letter from the War Office informing him of the Army Council’s final decision.
“In spite of the great difficulties of the position in which you found yourself on 13 April 1919 at Jallianwalah Bagh, you cannot be acquitted of an error of judgment. [The Army Council] observe that the Commander-in-Chief in India has removed you from his employment, that you have been informed that no further employment will be offered you in India, that you have in consequence reverted to half pay, and that the Selection Board in India have passed you over for promotion. These decisions the Army Council accept. They do not consider that further employment should be offered to you outside India. They have also considered whether any further action of a disciplinary nature is required from them; but in view of all the circumstances they do not feel called upon, from the military point of view with which they are alone concerned, to take any further action.”
Dyer then formally resigned and, as far as the government was concerned, that was the end of the matter. It’s significant that the House of Lords took a rather different view. A motion was put forward by Tory peer: ‘That this House deplores the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer, and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of order in face of rebellion.’ Several peers spoke in support of the government’s decision, including the former Viceroy, Lord Curzon, but it was Tories who won, with the House voting 129 to 86 in favour of a motion rebuking both the government and the Hunter Committee.
The conservative Morning Post had meanwhile launched a patriotic appeal for funds for the benefit of Dyer, portrayed as a victim, an honest officer stabbed in the back by armchair liberals, with the headline, ‘The Man Who Saved India’. More than £26,000 were raised, which meant that Dyer could buy himself a house and retire in comfort in rural England. In poor health, he died a few years later in 1927.
It’s ironic that the ‘Butcher of Amritsar’, as he came to be known, received a full military funeral, with his coffin, draped in the Union Jack that had flown over his headquarters at Jullundur, carried on a gun-carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery past the Cenotaph. Among the flowers was a wreath from Rudyard Kipling with a small ambivalent message: ‘He did his duty as he saw it.’
It’s also ironic that the Jallianwala massacre made the Raj far more tolerant of dissent in future and far more reluctant to use its fire power. The Rowlatt Act, over which so much blood had been spilled, became a dead letter, quietly repealed a few years later, its provisions never invoked. New military manuals and rules for military engagement with civilians meant that there were no more Dyers after 1919 and no more massacres in British India. So reluctant were British troops to fire on civilians that they even refused to intervene against murderous mobs during the partition riots of 1947, which were also worst in the Punjab.
ON A MORE POSITIVE NOTE, Marcella Sherwood returned to the Punjab in 1947 at the age of 70 to help with relief work among the thousands of refugees uprooted by the violence. When British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, he wrote an apologetic message in the visitor’s book instead of aformal government apology. ‘This was a deeply shameful event in British history,’ he wrote, ‘one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as ‘monstrous’. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world.’ It was a skilful reference to Churchill’s speech in the House of Commons in July 1920.
Would more apologies matter to descendants of those long gone who were victims of the massacre? Only if they carried a silver lining, according to my enquiries. Following much wrangling between the Punjab government and the Government of India over who was going to foot the bill, more than Rs 20 lakh were paid in compensation to those who were wounded or to the relatives of those killed during the Punjab unrest of 1919. The relatives of those killed received, on average, Rs 8,700 for each life, approximately Rs 32 lakh each in today’s money.
Those I interviewed complained vociferously that they had been neglected by politicians, who had for generations made political capital out of them. Others pointed out that Jallianwala is important not so much for the numbers killed, tiny by Indian standards, but because it changed the course of history. While it set the Congress on the road to full independence, as against Home Rule, it remains a potent reminder that violence breeds violence in a spiral in which there are no winners, only losers.