Amritsar: day of shame

A century ago, hundreds of innocent civilians were massacred on the orders of a brutal British general. Writing for BBC History Revealed, journalist Nige Tassell looks at a watershed moment in Indian history

A young visitor looks at a painting depicting the Amritsar Massacre

When the Punjabi city of Amritsar woke from its fitful sleep on 14 April 1919, its population remained frozen by the twin emotions of disbelief and horror. Less than 12 hours earlier, one of the 20th century’s most brutal peacetime atrocities had taken place within its city limits.

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In a small, walled-in area of open ground known as Jallianwala Bagh, a 20,000-strong crowd had gathered for both a public meeting and to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi. Instead they were exposed to ten long minutes of indiscriminate Indian Army gunfire which, directed by an English brigadier general, took the lives of hundreds of unarmed citizens. As the bullets rained down on those frantically trying to flee the scene through the park’s narrow exits, the bodies fell where they were hit, piling on top of each other, sometimes 12 corpses high. Among the dead were dozens of boys: one was as young as six weeks old.

As the sun rose to signal another blisteringly hot day in the state of Punjab, the full horror of the previous evening made itself known. With a curfew in place the previous evening, those who had avoided the bloodbath were unable to recover the bodies of their loved ones. The majority had died instantly; those who were injured and unable to move at the time were likely to have perished overnight. The dead were subjected to the indignity of having stray dogs feast on their flesh. “The Bagh was like a battlefield,” described Lala Karam Chand, a survivor of the prolonged shooting, who searched for his brother among the carnage. “There were corpses scattered everywhere in heaps.”

Rising tensions

As shocking and significant as the Amritsar Massacre was, the violence didn’t come from nowhere. In the few months since the end of World War I, discontent had been brewing across India – and across the Punjab in particular. In these immediate postwar years, Punjabis felt understandably aggrieved. Having served on the Allied side during the war (often having been recruited by strong-handed means), they were now feeling the brunt of the economic hardship that continued to dislocate much of the world in this new, young era of peace.

The Defence of India Act of 1915 had been passed in order to outlaw any indigenous political insurrection that might compromise the war effort. Now, in peace time, the British government sought to replace the legislation. The Rowlatt Act – enacted in March 1919 and named after its architect, Sir Sidney Rowlatt – was controversial, introducing some strident and deeply unfair measures. Local government was invested with the power to search people and property without a warrant, and to put civilians on trial in specially constructed courts where, if found guilty, there was no right to appeal.

Accordingly, there was a growing distrust of the British-led government right across the Punjab. This revolutionary, anti-colonial spirit was not only on the rise, but was crystallised in Amritsar with the imprisonment, and ordered deportation, of two significant Indian nationalists, one a Muslim lawyer (Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew), the other a Hindu who had previously served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (Dr Satyapal). On 10 April, rioting broke out in protest at the pair’s intended deportation. Around 20 protestors lost their lives as a result, killed by the massed rifles of the Indian Army.

There was little escape for the thousands trapped within the Bagh

Retaliation came swiftly, with the more militant Indian activists setting their sights on white Europeans. Five lost their lives, killed at the hand of baying, bloodthirsty mobs. In the centre of Amritsar, an English missionary teacher called Marcella Sherwood was knocked from her bike, set uponMand left for dead; sheonly survived after being rescued by the father of one of her Indian pupils.

Punjab was now nothing short of a powder keg; the merest spark could set the region ablaze. Yet, on the day of the massacre in Amritsar, one man was confident that he could quell the insurrectionary tension that hung heavy in the air. His methods, though, would prove myopic, misguided and murderous.

Amritsar's Flame of Liberty monument
Amritsar’s Flame of Liberty monument commemorates the men, women and children killed. (Photo by Narinder Nanu, AFP Creative/Getty Images Plus)

Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer arrived in Amritsar on 11 April, charged with taking over the running of the city. He wasn’t going in lightly, declaring that his soldiers had been instructed to use “all force necessary” to restore social order. He quickly swung into action. Two days later – the morning of the day of the massacre – Dyer took to the streets of Amritsar to publicise the clampdown he was applying to the city. Accompanied by foot soldiers and two armoured vehicles, he visited 19 locations. At each a town crier read aloud, in several languages, a list of fresh restrictions being placed on Amritsar’s citizens. One new restriction in particular would have grave consequences within a matter of hours:

“Any procession or gathering of four  persons or more will be looked upon and treated as an unlawful assemble, and dispersed by force of arms if necessary.” Amritsar’s streets were especially busy during Baisakhi, with many pilgrims travelling to and from the city’s famous Golden Temple. The nearby Jallianwala Bagh was a convenient place to rest and recuperate, even if it was little more than a dusty wasteground. At the Bagh, Satyagraha Sabha – the civil disobedience movement recently formed by Mahatma Gandhi in opposition to the Rowlatt Acts – was holding a public meeting. Many of the attendees were unaware of the proclamation made earlier in the day that banned all but the smallest public gatherings.

The British Raj – a brief history

The Raj refers to the 89 years that the British Crown ruled India. Previously under the rule of the East India Company, India came under the control of the crown in 1858, with Queen Victoria recognised as Empress of India in 1876. In Victoria’s words, the aim of the arrangement was: “to stimulate the peaceful industry of India, to promote works of public utility and improvement, and to administer its government for the benefit of all our subjects”.

Under a Secretary of State for India answerable to the British parliament, and a viceroy based in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a programme of infrastructure improvements was embarked upon. A substantial railway network was constructed, and thousands of miles of metalled roads built. The respective economies dovetailed; India became a major market for British exports, while supplying Britain with goods such as tea, rice and cotton.

However, the way British values were imposed on India, and the racially superior outlook such impositions were based on, fuelled the movement for Indian independence. The Indian National Congress fought hard for national self-determination and, in 1947, the British Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act. India became its own sovereign state, albeit in reduced form, following Partition – the splitting of India in two, which created the nation state of Pakistan.

When Dyer got wind of the numbers that had congregated at Jallianwala Bagh, he summoned some of his men, including 50 riflemen, and headed to the park. They arrived three hours after the rally had started, but didn’t stop to assess the nature of the gathering. Setting his men on raised banks either side of the main entrance, the order to fire came within 30 seconds. Over the course of the next ten minutes, around 1,650 rounds were fired. There was little escape for the thousands trapped within the Bagh. Not only had Dyer’s men blocked off the main exit, but the other exits were extremely narrow. And the walls surrounding the Bagh were ten-feet tall.

This was no scattergun assault. Dyer commanded his men to fire on the more densely populated areas of the Bagh; understandably these were the congested exits. The casualties didn’t just die from gunshot injuries; many were trampled to death in the ensuing stampedes. In order to escape the bullets, many jumped into the well in the centre of the Bagh. It was reported that 120 bodies were later recovered from the water. When his men had run out of ammunition, Dyer ordered them to withdraw and return to their barracks. Several hundred victims, either dead or dying, were given no attention. The brigadier-general simply left the scene of the crime.

Sheer brutality

The severity and swiftness of the incident were chilling. “The grating sounds of rifle fire, combined with the screams and cries of the crowd, made for a horrid cacophony that echoed around the Bagh and into the surrounding streets,” wrote the military historian Nick Lloyd, who has written a book on the massacre. “Many years later, people in Amritsar would still recall the roar that was produced when Dyer’s 50 rifles opened fire.”

There was no denying that Dyer’s orders were brutal and inhumane, despite subsequent attempts to defend his actions. “There could be no question of undue severity,” he rather astonishingly remarked later. “The mutineers had thrown out the challenge, and the punishment, if administered at all, must be complete, unhesitating and immediate.” He even admitted that, had his armoured vehicles been able to fit through the main entrance to the Bagh, he would have set their machine guns on the crowd.

The British government appointed the Hunter Commission to hold an inquiry into the massacre, an investigation boycotted by the Indian National Congress, which embarked on its own inquiry into the brutality of that day. Despite wildly conflicting casualty numbers (the Hunter Commission put the death toll at 379, while the Congress claimed it was into four figures), there was some similarity in the two reports.

British Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer
Though publicly humiliated, Dyer was not without supporters – a newspaper appeal raised a £26,000 purse for him. (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images)

Who was was the Butcher of Amritsar?

Although he was trained at Sandhurst and made a sharp upward trajectory through the ranks of the British Army, Reginald Dyer was far from the typical expat enjoying the benefits of the British Raj. He was born in India and had spent a fair proportion of his life as both boy and man on the subcontinent, and had the rare honour conferred upon him of being made a Sikh of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. As his biographer Nigel Collett notes, Dyer was “more of a stranger to the English than he ever was to the Indians amongst whom he lived almost all his life”.

This background makes it trickier to understand hismotivation to fire upon 20,000 trapped Indians on 13 April 1919. The ultimate irony is what those actions caused both to him personally and to his precious British Empire: having been stripped of his rank in 1920, he was exiled to England, where he failed to resurrect his career and fell into ill health; meanwhile, the tragic events in Amritsar accelerated the call for Indian independence.

That devastating day rightfully plagued Dyer for the rest of his life. On his deathbed, he told his daughter-in-law that he was impatient to hear the final judgement: “I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong”. The widespread condemnation of his actions from all around the world at the time (echoed in the 100 years since) suggests that Reginald Dyer didn’t need to wait until the afterlife to find out the answer.

Both condemned Dyer for ordering the rifle fire without due warning and for not ceasing the onslaught until ammunition stocks had run out. Dyer, a man not given to sophistication and subtlety, himself admitted that he saw life in brutally absolute terms. His motivation “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience”. In more conservative quarters back in Britain, Dyer was seen as the hero of the Raj, as a saviour. This was certainly how a majority in the House of Lords viewed him. However, the House of Commons took a different perspective. Winston Churchill, then Secretary for War, was one of Dyer’s sternest critics.

“The crowd was unarmed,” he told Parliament, “except for bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything.” Churchill also placed the massacre in the context of history. “This is an incident that appears to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire,” he announced. “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

Dyer's motivation 'was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience'

An overwhelming House of Commons vote saw Dyer stripped of his position in March 1920. An existing recommendation for him to be awarded a CBE was rescinded. He was overlooked for promotion and disqualified from further employment in India – the place of his birth and where he spent a large part of his childhood and adult life.

As much as Dyer was the villain of the piece, some historians also blame Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, whose expulsion of the two Indian nationalists had sparked the unrest. He enthusiastically backed Dyer’s actions and is thought by some to be the real architect of the massacre. Whatever the level of his involvement, the events in Amritsar ultimately led to his demise.

Twenty-one years later, in 1940, O’Dwyer was assassinated in London by Udham Singh, an Indian revolutionary. It was a case of revenge. “I did it because I had a grudge against him,” Singh explained at his trial, where he would be convicted and hanged. “He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him.”

Patriot martyrs

Today, 100 years on from the atrocity, a permanent memorial notice at Jallianwala Bagh reminds visitors of the barbarity witnessed that April day in 1919. “This place is saturated with the blood of thousands of Indian patriots,” reads the inscription, “who were martyred in a non-violent struggle to free India from British domination.”

The massacre marked a strengtheningin the resolve and the militancy of the Indian independence movement, with O’Dwyer and Dyer’s actions precipitating a process that would ultimately end in the partition of the country. Gandhi, for one, found his commitment to rejecting every facet of British rule immeasurably emboldene by the massive loss of life. As Nick Lloyd concludes, that fateful, inexplicably bloody day in Amritsar continues to represent “a fatal parting of the ways between British and Indian that would never be mended”.

Nige Tassell is a journalist and author.

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This article was taken from the April 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine