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Jad Adams considers the complex origins of Britain’s worst atrocity in India
On 13 April 1919 in Amritsar, soldiers under British command fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition into an unarmed crowd, without warning. It was the worst atrocity committed in British India, a defining moment that surrendered the moral high ground to the nationalists.
In an excellent work of painstaking research across many archives, Nick Lloyd of King’s College London calls into question the nationalist interpretation of the massacre as an unprovoked attack on innocent civilians, and strikes a welcome blow at the myth of the nonviolent Indian independence movement.
After 1918, instead of rewarding the Indians for their huge contribution to the First World War, the British brought in the Rowlatt Acts which extended wartime restrictions on civil liberties for those accused of sedition.
Lloyd makes much of the fact that many of the demonstrators against them did not understand the complexities of the acts but that is not the point: they were a perceived injustice and a particular insult to loyal Indians.
As Lloyd shows, the Punjab was in such turmoil over protests against the Rowlatt Acts in the days leading up to the massacre that the British feared “the greatest calamity since the mutiny [of 1857–8]”. The supposedly nonviolent protests were often anything but that. Many nationalist leaders were openly in favour of nonviolence only so long as it worked; otherwise, violence was a perfectly good option.
The mobs looting and burning buildings in spring 1919 had no interest in Gandhi’s philosophy.
Gandhi himself is presented as his British contemporaries in India saw him: as a sanctimonious trouble-maker rather than a saint, as he was later represented. Even ‘pure’ nonviolence was questionable as its object was to goad the authorities into over-reaction and then gain sympathy for having embraced martyrdom.
Marcia Sherwood, a missionary teacher, was severely beaten in the street three days before the massacre; a woman doctor was able to escape from a mob out for her blood only by slipping out wearing a burqa, her feet dyed with ink. Terrified women and children huddled together into barracks for fear of rioters. British-commanded troops had been firing on restive crowds for days in a rapidly deteriorating situation.
Lloyd hunts through the minutiae of the timing of incidents leading up to the massacre, exposing conspiracy theories with contempt but noting that at least some of the disorder was co-ordinated. When government buildings were targeted and telegraph wires cut, these were clearly planned acts of sabotage, not the spontaneous behaviour of hooligans.
After the massacre, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, who had been in command of the troops, was accused of “indulging in frightfulness”: floggings and unusual punishments. The most infamous of these was the ‘crawling order’ that Indians who wished to pass along the street where the English missionary had been assaulted should do so on all fours.
The viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, was incensed; this did not reinforce the impression of sober and dispassionate rule. In the end Dyer, “a man of few subtleties” as Lloyd puts it, was condemned by his own testimony at the government inquiry: “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed them even without firing.”
The provisions of the Rowlatt Acts were never used and were allowed to die quietly, meaning the British authorities had made a huge sacrifice of morality for no administrative gain.
The chaos in which this all happened has never been better described than in Lloyd’s book.
Jad Adams is the author of Gandhi: Naked Ambition (Quercus, 2010)
Nick Lloyd discussed the Amritsar massacre in our April 2009 podcast