Empires Events

Amritsar: a very British massacre

The Jallianwala Bagh Amritsar massacre
Zareer Masani
Written by Zareer Masani

It is rare for any discussion of British rule in India not to mention sooner or later the Amritsar massacre. What really happened and what does it mean today?

Britain and India in 1919 both commemorated an atrocity in our imperial history—the massacre by government troops on 13 April 1919 of several hundred unarmed civilians gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a park in Amritsar, capital of Indian Punjab .  The most striking feature of the centenary was the raw nationalism unleashed among third generation British Asians who had no part in India’s nationalist movement.  The main victim in all this has been the truth of what actually happened and why it was such a historical landmark.

Some British Sikhs claimed they were victims of the massacre and in the vanguard of anti-colonial protest, ignoring the fact that Sikhs were a small minority of the casualties and generally loyal to the Raj throughout its history.  There were Sikhs among the predominantly Gurkha and Muslim firing squad at Jallianwala.  And the Sikh priests of the Golden Temple felicitated their commander, General “Rex” Dyer, only three days after the massacre and conferred on him the unique honour of conversion to Sikhism.  Dyer cheerfully accepted on condition that they let him off growing his hair and giving up smoking.

Contrary to the caricatures, he was no colonial monster.  He spoke fluent Hindustani and was popular with his Indian troops.  So why did he order several minutes of continuous firing on civilians trying to escape, without even a warning shot?  Was he panicked into massive over-reaction or was he sending out a deliberate warning?  One clue might be Dyer’s Indian-born antecedents which left him with a chip on his shoulder, competing with upper-class colleagues to demonstrate his loyalty.

Nationalist historians tend to ignore the spiral of Indian mob violence in Amritsar during the week leading up to the massacre, with five British civilians working in banks and the railways bludgeoned to death and a British woman missionary knocked off her bike, beaten senseless and left for dead while she was trying to protect her Indian pupils.  Most European women and children had to take refuge in the old fort.

A favourite myth, perpetuated by Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” film, is that many women were among Dyer’s victims.  Nationalist records show that there were only two women among the dead.  Few Punjabi women of that generation would have ventured out of their homes at a time of widespread rioting.  The grim body count also confirms that there were only 57 Muslims among the 376 bodies identified, a small minority in what was then a Muslim-majority city.  This gives the lie to claims of spectacular Hindu-Muslim unity against the Raj.  Yet another myth has been that Dyer used machine-guns on the crowd.  The truth is that his armoured cars with fixed machine-guns couldn’t get through the very narrow park entrance and were mercifully not used.

What’s ignored in the chorus of protest is the extent to which Amritsar divided liberal and conservative Britons at the time.  Dyer’s actions were endorsed by the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, himself an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, who believed in a far more despotic imperialism than his more liberal English colleagues.  He paid with his life twenty-one years later, when a Sikh assassin gunned him down in revenge.

Unlike O’Dwyer, the then Liberal coalition government in London was trying to launch its constitutional reform package, setting a united India on the path to democratic dominion status, like Canada and Australia.  The Amritsar massacre drove a previously loyal Indian National Congress, led by Gandhi, to boycott these reforms and launch a series of non-cooperation movements that led up to partition and full independence as a republic.

The home government set up a judicial enquiry into the Punjab crisis under a British High Court judge, Lord Hunter, with prominent Indian members.  It condemned the firing, and Dyer was forced to resign from the army.  He was the subject of a heated House of Commons debate, in which his boss, the Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, famously condemned the massacre as “monstrous” and “un-British”.  It was a remark echoed by former Prime Minister David Cameron, when he visited the Jallianwala memorial in 2013, but he stopped short of the formal apology demanded by Indian nationalists.

Most historians, including those I interviewed in India, saw little point in a government apology a century later. The demand first raised its head during the Queen’s visit to the massacre memorial in 1997.  She signed the visitors’ book, looked sad and said little.  Prince Philip, on the other hand, caused something of a diplomatic furore by challenging the commemorative plaque, which referred to more than 2,000 casualties.  An exaggeration, he told the curator, because he had served in World War II with Dyer’s son, who told him it was only a few hundred.

However tactless his remarks and dubious his source, historians agree that Prince Philip was right on his numbers.  The death-toll is put at between 500 and 700, with about twice as many wounded.  But numbers are not really the issue.  In 1984, independent India’s Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi was responsible for massacring many more in her Operation Blue Star, using the military to flush out Sikh separatists and many innocent civilians besieged in the Golden Temple.  What makes the 1919 massacre so special is its continuing role as a battle-cry for Indian nationalists and for some British Asians eager for a cause to rebel.

About the author

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani is an author and broadcaster, whose books include Indira Gandhi: A Biography (1976), Indian Tales of the Raj (1990) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2013).