Jallianwala Bagh massacre: 100 years later

100 years later: The many meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

It has often been said that Britain lost its empire the day when, a hundred years ago, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, 55, commanding a regiment of 50 Gurkha and Baluchi riflemen, ordered firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.

Dyer had brought two armoured cars with mounted machine guns as well, but the entrance to the Bagh was too narrow to let them in. Perhaps to compensate for this shortcoming, Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest. Dyer was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”: women, men, and children were all legitimate targets. And, at Dyer’s directions, the troops deliberately aimed at those desperately seeking to clamber over the walls to safety. The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1,650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded. As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men: “Good shooting.” The Sunday picnic was over, and the men could take pride in their training: “We have done a jolly good thing.”

Spring was in the air: April 13 was Baisakhi, and crowds from the city and the adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity. But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence. The end of World War I, to which, ironically, subjugated Indians had contributed with their own blood, brought forth not intimations of greater freedom but repression.

Wonderful spectacle

A committee appointed to enquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies, headed by Justice Rowlatt, had effectively recommended the suspension of civil liberties. The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.”

Mohandas Gandhi had returned to India four years ago after 20 years in South Africa. He responded to the Rowlatt Act with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal, with this launching himself into national politics. “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day. It was a most wonderful spectacle.”

In the Punjab, however, Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer did not take kindly to the slightest expression of defiance of colonial authority and saw the “spectacle” as anything but “wonderful”. He fancied himself a great upholder of the ‘Punjab tradition’, or the idea that ordinary Punjabis were simple folk without any interest in politics, who had reposed their trust in the government and therefore deserved protection from corrupt urban-based nationalist Indians. The iron hand of the colonial state had saved the Punjab from the “mutiny” of 1857-58 and its corrosive effects, and the peasantry of this State expected the government to preserve “law and order”.

A scene from the 2006 film, ‘Rang De Basanti’, depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

A scene from the 2006 film, ‘Rang De Basanti’, depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  

At a meeting of the Legislative Council in Lahore, O’Dwyer ridiculed the “recent puerile demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts”, describing them as indicative of “how easily the ignorant and credulous people, not one in a thousand of whom knows anything of the measure, can be misled.” The agitators, he ominously warned, “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length. Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving betrayed the fact that truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united”. The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations. Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.

Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood: she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians. The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, ‘untouchable’ to the Indian. The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.

A crawling lane

Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was: the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane. A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might think otherwise. Gandhi would go on to describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation.

When the firing at Jallianwala Bagh stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air; this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification”. O’Dwyer, who signalled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation that recalled the rebellion of 1857-58. Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of 1857 loomed over the debates that raged on the measures taken by the British to contain the disorder.

1919 was, however, not even remotely akin to 1857, if only because the Indian National Congress was now a formidable organisation and, moreover, the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered into the phase of plebeian protest. Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.

Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest. He was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”: women, men, and children were all legitimate targets.

Dyer directed his troops to fire wherever the crowd was densest. He was not constrained by any conception of “the innocents”: women, men, and children were all legitimate targets.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an enquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by William Hunter of Scotland.

Both O’Dwyer and Dyer chafed at the enquiry, and many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London. The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality. Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot”, he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect. Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgement of experienced officers.

Harsh view

The “Punjab disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history. The Congress appointed its own committee of enquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Just as Indians such as Tilak, Nehru, and Gandhi had demonstrated their mastery of the courtroom, so the Congress showed it had a command over the inquiry commission format as well, both as a form of governance and as a form of knowledge.

Indian affairs had never drawn much interest in Parliament, but, quite unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”. Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so, with no other motive than “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism”. Montagu went on to charge Dyer with “indulging in frightfulness”.

Dyer and his men in a scene from Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ (1982).

Dyer and his men in a scene from Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ (1982).  

The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians: “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in WWI. That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.

Error in judgement?

The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practising Jew, a suspect figure, and his criticisms of Dyer did nothing to endear him to the General’s supporters and the defenders of political authoritarianism. Conservatives charged the government with throwing Dyer to the wolves. For every person prepared to critique Dyer, two came forward to defend him. The Hunter Commission found him guilty only of an error in judgement, exercising excessive force, and having a somewhat mistaken conception of his duties. Dyer, nevertheless, could not be permitted to continue in his position, and he was dismissed, even as many senior officers demurred, on half-pay.

It was enough to outrage the English public, for whom, the same Orwell had once remarked, liberty was like the very air they breathed. A hero had been unfairly maligned, and the Morning Post raised funds in support of ‘The Man Who Saved India’. At its closing, the Fund amounted to over £26,000, a little over £1.1 million in today’s currency. The ‘Butcher of Amritsar’ went into luxurious retirement, though arteriosclerosis cut his life short.

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Tagore described the incident, in a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood, as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.” More than 20 years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 at the time of the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver. The day of reckoning that O’Dwyer had spoken of had come, if unexpectedly. What most accounts occlude is a stunning little detail: when captured, and in subsequent police documents, Udham Singh gave his name as Ram Mohamed Singh Azad — to taunt the British whose entire Indian adventure had been tainted by their wilful determination to characterise India as a land of eternal communal tensions.

And then there was Gandhi, who with his gift for neologisms, coined the word “Dyerism” to signify the repressive apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

Sinister isolation

Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.” Churchill, of course, had a way with words, and so he continued: “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”? As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it: the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.

Dyer, on all accounts, remained unrepentant to the end of his life, but was Churchill ever afflicted by remorse? It cannot be said that remorse is part of the story of the Jallianwala Bagh. Remorse, it should be clear, is not part of the lexicon of any colonial state.

The writer is Professor of History at UCLA; he blogs at vinaylal.wordpress.com and has a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/dillichalo.

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