Amritsar: beginning of the end of Empire

The true casualty figures are still hotly disputed 100 years after the Punjab massacre, but its real legacy was the slow death of the Raj

Features History India
Visitors at the site of the Amritsar Massacre. Bullet holes in the wall are marked with white squares. The red sandstone memorial is on the left (© NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

We enter the Bagh by the same narrow entrance 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. On April 13, 1919, 50 Gurkhas, Baluchi and Pathan Muslims and a few Sikhs armed with Enfield rifles marched in, commanded by a couple of British officers. They took up position, facing a huge crowd estimated at between 5,000 and 30,000. Thirty 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 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.” The squad fired exactly 1,650 rounds, non-stop for six to ten minutes until the entire crowd had fled or fallen. Today,  the walls still bear the highlighted bullet-holes.

Even in the sunshine with holiday-makers around me, there is something eerie and deeply moving about this place. I read a large plaque near the entrance, estimating 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 when Prince Philip remarked with characteristic frankness that this casualty figure was an exaggeration. He had served with Dyer’s son in the Second World War and been told it was only a few hundred.

The precise casualty figure, though hotly contested, seems irrelevant. This is largely because of difficulties in estimating how many of those wounded in the Bagh later died in their homes or on the streets. Best estimates are that between 500 and 600 people were killed and roughly three times that number wounded.

In October 1919,  the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, set up the Hunter judicial inquiry under a British high court judge to report on the Punjab unrest, with five British members and three Indians, including the eminent Bombay jurist, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad. The committee reported 379 people killed and up to 1,200 wounded. Richard Attenborough’s famous 1982 biopic of Mahatma Gandhi had a highly emotive 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, reflecting the fact that Punjabi women rarely joined such large gatherings and would certainly not have ventured out during riots.

In a narrow Amritsar alleyway, I visit 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? Was it a pre-meditated slaughter or the massive over-reaction of an insecure man, panicked by a hostile mob of thousands?

Certainly, the Punjab in 1919 was a place of widespread agrarian unrest, to which the First World War had added its own pressures. The Punjab had supplied roughly 60 per cent of the British Indian Army, the world’s largest-ever volunteer fighting force, numbering 1.5 million men. While there had been no conscription in India, there had been allegations of forced recruitment. New tensions were caused by widespread demobilisation after the war ended.

The Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab was Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic Irishman born into a poor family in Tipperary. Like Dyer, he was more loyal to the British Raj than its most aristocratic officers. The unrest coincided with a major initiative to democratise the Raj — which, like most autocracies, was 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. Unfortunately, the reforms — largely the brainchild of the Liberal Jewish Secretary of State, Edwin Montagu — were preceded in March 1919 by the notorious Rowlatt Act, renewing the preventive detention powers introduced in  wartime.  Wild rumours circulated about the iniquities of the Rowlatt Act, including even that it could be used to get a husband out of the way if a policeman coveted his wife.

Mahatma Gandhi, until then still loyal to the Raj and locked in a power struggle for control of the congress with the Irish theosophist Annie Besant, who advocated a constitutionalist demand for Home Rule, led the opposition to the legislation and launched his own brand of direct action.

Though intended to be peaceful, his anti-Rowlatt satyagraha (non-violent protest) rapidly did turn violent, especially in the Punjab, with mobs virtually seizing control of the provincial capital, 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 movement, in which the Indian Muslim masses were mobilised with the cry of “Islam in danger”. They wrongly believed the British  were attacking the caliphate in Turkey. In  reality, it was being abolished by the Turkish secularist Kemal Ataturk against British advice.

Telegraph and telephone wires were 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”.

On April 10, a peaceful Gandhian hartal protest turned violent with an angry mob rampaging through Amritsar. The town hall was set on fire, the telegraph office and several post offices were looted. By now, almost all Europeans had been evacuated to the old fort outside the city walls. In a scene reminiscent of the infamous 1857 Siege of Lucknow, women and children were lined up on camp beds in unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile, the mob vented their fury on the few European civilians who fell into their hands. Attacks on two banks in the city centre resulted in the brutal murder of three British  staff,  who were bludgeoned to death, with one of them set on fire while still alive.

Two days later, a train was stopped by a local mob, its European passengers were beaten up and two railway staff bludgeoned to death, like a British electrician found with his head bashed in. The most emotive attack was on Miss Marcella Sherwood, the 45-year-old superintendent of the city’s mission schools. She insisted on cycling into the city alone to close down the five schools she managed. Riding though the narrow alleyways of the old city, she suddenly came upon a large crowd. 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. Local residents carried her to a mission school where an Indian doctor bandaged her wounds, and she hovered between life and death for several days.

One of Miss Sherwood’s first visitors was Dyer, summoned to Amritsar with about 500 predominantly Gurkha troops to help restore order by civil authorities unable to cope. Though very popular with his troops and fluent in Hindustani, Dyer was something of a loner among his fellow-officers.

Second-generation country-born and bred and the scion of a family of brewers, Dyer was considered to have a chip on his shoulder when dealing with colleagues “from the top drawer”.

He was said to be deeply distressed by Miss Sherwood’s plight and by the wider breakdown of order in the city. On the morning of April 13, Dyer marched his troops through Amritsar, 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.

A counter-proclamation by a boy with a tin-can announced a public meeting at 4 o’clock that very afternoon at Jallianwala Bagh. The meeting had been planned the previous day and was not in defiance of Dyer’s proclamation. But to him it appeared a direct provocation. Dyer claimed in his later accounts that the massacre that followed was carefully premeditated, like the unrest it was designed to quell. The  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.

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.

“The assembly of the crowd that afternoon,” he later wrote, “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.”

Dyer followed up the massacre with a highly effective curfew, marching through the city himself that night to enforce it. The same deathly calm might have been said to have descended on the province and on the country as a whole. Gandhi called off his anti-Rowlett Act satyagraha, calling it a “Himalayan blunder”. The Punjab now became the most quiescent province in the Raj, dominated by a conservative coalition of Muslim landlords, Sikh princes and a Hindu business elite, 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 for an event extraordinary in Sikh history. The priests had decided to confer on him the highly unusual honour of a public conversion to Sikhism. The General politely thanked them for the honour, but objected that he could not as a British officer let his hair grow long. A priest laughed: “We will let you off the long hair.” Dyer then protested: “But I cannot give up smoking.” “That you must do,” said the priest, “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 chuckled and proceeded with the initiation.

During the subsequent months, Gandhi initially held back from any direct criticism of the government, assuming that the promised judicial inquiry 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”, in which Dyer ordered that for five days anyone using the alleyway where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted had to crawl on all fours. Martial law was 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.

From the outset, 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 E.M. 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 . . . God it makes me sick to think of it.”

But there were many 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 inquiry, which finally reported in March 1920, with the three Indian members submitting their own minority report.

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, “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: ‘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 further than the majority in its condemnation of Dyer, now generally regarded by the Raj as an embarrassment to be removed from the scene as soon as possible. A couple of weeks later, his wife and he boarded a ship in Bombay bound for England. 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 200 survivors of the Punjab troubles.

On the nationalist side, the massacre had the opposite effect. The Nobel prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore, then probably the Indian best known abroad, 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 C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru, who would have preferred to work the new reforms as a step towards dominion status.

The massacre finally came before the House of Commons during a debate on Dyer’s future on July 8, 1920. In his opening speech Edwin Montagu 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 he [Montagu] threw fuel on the flames. A Jew, rounding on an Englishman and throwing him to the wolves — that was the feeling.”

It was Winston Churchill’s speech as Secretary for War that ultimately won the day. “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopœia,” he 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 motion upholding the censure of Dyer. A week later, he received the letter from the War Office informing him of the Army Council’s final decision to offer him no further employment, but to take no disciplinary action either. Dyer then formally resigned and, as far as the government was concerned, that was the end of the matter. The conservative Morning Post launched a patriotic appeal for funds for the benefit of Dyer, portrayed as an honest officer stabbed in the back by armchair liberals. More than £26,000 was 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.

It’s ironic that that the Jallianwala massacre made the Raj far more tolerant of dissent in future and far more reluctant to use its firepower. The Rowlatt Act, over which so much blood had been spilled, became a dead letter, quietly repealed a few years later. New military manuals issued for 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.

On a more positive note, Marcella Sherwood, aged 70, returned to the Punjab in 1947 to help with relief work among the thousands of uprooted refugees. When the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, he wrote an apologetic message in the visitor’s book: “This was a deeply shameful event in British history, 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.”

Would more formal apologies matter to descendants of victims of the massacre? Those I interviewed complained vociferously that they had been neglected by the 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, but because it changed the course of history. It remains a potent reminder that violence breeds violence in a spiral in which there are no winners, only losers.