The Amritsar Massacre: Shame of an Empire

On 22 June 1897, as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession wound its way slowly through the streets of London to Buckingham Palace the many thousands of people who lined its route were enthralled at the sight of the Empire in the heart of its capital city and of particular fascination were the gaily dressed Sikh and Gurkha troops and extravagantly bejewelled Rajahs and Nawabs.

India had long been seen as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire and as long as it remained in her possession then the sun would indeed never set and o as far as most people were concerned all seemed well.

During the First World War India had rallied in support of the Mother Country with more than 1,500,000 Indians volunteering to fight for Britain and some 800,000 transported overseas served in the Middle-East, in Africa, and in the trenches of the Western Front. Of these 47,476 were killed in the service of the Empire, 65,000 wounded, and 12 Victoria Crosses had been won.

It was a display of loyalty to the British Raj that shocked many in India itself because for many years it had been a seething cauldron of resentment. But this support had never been unconditional, a quid pro quo was expected on the part of the British and this meant nothing less than self-Government. When this was not forthcoming resentment quickly turned to open rebellion.

The British tried to placate Indian ire and pander to nationalist sentiment by establishing a Parliament but its scope was so restricted that its effectiveness was all but nullified for despite their loyalty to the Crown during the war the Indians remained distrusted and were believed unfit to govern themselves.

In 1915, they had passed the Defence of India Act, supposedly an emergency wartime measure which allowed for the arbitrary arrest and internment of those accused of sedition without charge remained in place at the wars end. Similarly, press censorship and the trial of suspects before specially convened and secret tribunals that were expected to be abolished following the wars conclusion were merely reinforced by the passage of the Rowlatt Act in 1919.

The British political establishment in Westminster simply could not contemplate losing their grip on India and they were determined that the levers of power would remain firmly in their hands.

India had not been immune from hardship during the war, the British had raised taxes to almost punitive levels and the disruption in trade had led to severe shortages, increased poverty, and in some places even starvation. The flu pandemic that swept the Continent at the war’s end just added to the overall misery.

Dissent was growing at the incapability, or unwillingness, on the part of the British to tackle issues that were affecting Indians on a daily basis, and the more the British tried to rule with a rod of iron in response the more their grip on power seemed to loosen.

The Indian National Congress, an organisation dominated by British educated upper-caste Indians was becoming increasingly under the influence of a London trained Barrister Mohindas Gandhi, known as the Mahatma, and his Satyagraha Movement which advocated non-violent, mass non-cooperation was gaining widespread support.

Perhaps, for the first time the Congress began to act in unison on a national level and protests against the Rowlatt Act were organised the length and breadth of the country.

In the Punjab, where tensions were running particularly high, a mass-demonstration had been organised against the arrest of two nationalist leaders Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, members of Gandhi’s Satyagraha Movement.

It was to take place at the Jalianwala Bagh, a walled garden near the sacred Sikh Golden Temple and over 5,000 people were expected to attend in what was a confined space with few points of egress.

They were to be noisy, fervent, and angry, but they were unarmed and it was intended to be a peaceful, non-violent protest in line with the movement’s ethos but in the days prior to the demonstration there had been sporadic outbreaks of violence. Small crowds of protesters had gathered outside the Lieutenant-Governor’s Residence and been fired upon and some people had been killed, and in retaliation a number of buildings had been set alight.

On 9 April, a British woman, Marcella Sherwood, who supervised the local Mission Schools, was attacked and physically assaulted as she cycled through the streets of Amritsar.

amritsar dyer x

This act of gross indecency outraged the local Military Commander General Sir Reginald Dyer, a bloody-minded and unsympathetic man who had little time for the ‘Browns’ as he called them, despite having been an Officer in the Indian Army for over 30 years.

Although things had been relatively quiet in Amritsar itself in the run-up to the planned Jalianwala Bagh protest tensions had been running high in the Punjab as a whole – telegraph lines had been cut, railways sabotaged, Government buildings set alight, and some 8 Europeans had been murdered.

There was a sense of revolution in the air and nerves were strained.

Dyer firmly believed that the demonstration arranged for the Jalianwala Bagh was part of a deliberate plot to overthrow British rule in India and he was determined to stamp out any dissent within his jurisdiction.

On the morning of the intended rally he marched 90 men, mostly Gurkha troops, and two armoured cars to police what he considered nothing more than a howling mob of ignorant savages and as the crowd were whipped up into a frenzy of anger by speaker after speaker, Dyer fumed at the abuse being hurled in his direction and the wild gesticulating of the protesters. Determined to disperse the crowd he believed was getting out of hand he ordered his troops to open fire.

He had issued no warning to the crowd and so his troops misunderstood this to mean in the air but he soon corrected them and ordered them to lower their sights and fire into the thickest part of the mob. They obeyed, if on the part of many reluctantly and with no little sense of disbelief.

Panic ensued as 5,000 desperate and frightened people scrambled with no cover in the garden and nowhere to hide or seek shelter rushed towards the few available exits or leapt into a well to escape the bullets.

Many were trampled to death in the stampede but most of the victims were shot down in cold blood as the firing intensified only ceasing when the troops ran out of bullets. Dyer was later to express his regret that he had not made provision for more ammunition.

Within a few short minutes 379 people had been killed and a further 1100 wounded, though it has since been suggested that the official figures were kept deliberately low.

amritsar jbagh xx

In the immediate aftermath of the massacre Dyer was widely praised for his quick and decisive action. He had, it was felt, nipped a Second Indian Mutiny in the bud. The Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, sent him a telegram: “Your action is correct and the Lieutenant-Governor approves.”

There was outrage in India at what had been by any definition a massacre and a Commission of Inquiry was hastily formed to get to the full facts of the case. It established that General Dyer forewarned that a demonstration was due to take place had done nothing to raise issues of safety or tried prevent it on grounds of security. Neither had he spoken to the organisers beforehand.

When questioned about the events of the day he remained wholly unapologetic. He had neither tried to disperse the crowd by other means, or issued a warning of the consequences should they refuse to do so, because he would merely have been laughed at and made to look a fool.

The Commission wanted to know if, had the two armoured cars unable to enter the Jalianwala Bagh because the entrances were too narrow, been able to do so would he have used their machine guns on the crowd? Dyer answered: “Yes, without question.”

When asked why he made no effort to tend to the wounded he replied: “It was not my job. The hospitals were open.”

They then wanted to know why he had not ordered the firing to cease when it became apparent that the crowd were trying to flee?: “It was my duty to continue firing,” he said.

The Commission was critical of Dyer’s actions but concluded that there should be no penal sanction.

But the Commission’s findings did nothing to placate the anger felt or to prevent the wave of protests that now swept India and so on 20 March 1920, he was relieved of his command and forced to retire.

To many in Britain, General Dyer was at first thought to be the man who had saved India for the Empire but as the details of the actual events at Amritsar became more widely known the feeling turned from one of relief to one of shock.

Winston Churchill described it as monstrous, though he was censured in the House of Commons for having done so; while the former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said it was one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.

Having been forced to resign his Commission, General Dyer returned to England where he was presented with a cheque for £26,000, the proceeds of a public collection made on his behalf. Not long after he suffered a stroke and was to remain incapacitated until his death in 1927.

The fall-out from the Amritsar Massacre continued, however.

On 13 March 1940, the former Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer who had appeared to sanction Dyer’s actions at Amritsar was shot and killed in Caxton Hall, London, by an Indian nationalist, Udam Singh who was later hanged in Pentonville Prison for murder.

amritsar memorial x

The terrible events at Amritsar did much to destroy of notion that the Raj displayed in all its finery at the Queen’s Jubilee just 20 years earlier was governed by consent and fundamentally undermined British legitimacy in India. The campaigns of strikes, sit-ins, and non-cooperation instigated by Mahatma Gandhi now reached levels of support and popularity that had been previously unimaginable and the Indian National Congress came to be seen more and more as a Government in waiting and the Amritsar Massacre could be said with some justification to have marked the beginning of the end of British rule in India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked