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Jallianwala Bagh Massacre 1919

Update : 14 Apr 2023, 02:33

The 13th of April 2019, was the centennial anniversary of the notorious Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, committed by the British in India on unarmed civilians, in which some 500 people were killed and 1500 injured.

I have just finished reading a new book on the subject  “ Amritsar 1919, An Empire of Fear and Making of a Massacre “, written by Dr Kim Wagner, Lecturer of British Imperial History at Queen Mary, University of London, published in February, this year.

The book records some facts and quotes some eye witness accounts of writer’s own choosing and cleverly superimposes them on quotes from fictional stories to develop a theory that  the ghosts of the 1757 Black hole of Calcutta and that of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny always haunted the British civilian and Military administration in India. They were in a perpetual state of fear—-which led to the overestimation of the threat level posed by the 5000 or so unarmed civilians —who gathered for a peaceful public meeting in the Amritsar garden. That induced panic in the British Military personnel and the commanding officer, Brigadier Dyer, which led to the fatal shooting. And if they started shooting they had to shoot well. And if they shot one bullet, then they had to shoot more bullets.

It has been said that the British Military and civilian population were victims of their own perception of the overblown threat level that they faced .They suffered from Paranoia, which Brigadier Dyer had reacted to. He was, therefore , not reacting to the actual crowd in front of him as much as to what he imagined that crowd to be—-and to the hostility and aggression that he ascribed to the crowd.

In a quote, the Brigadier himself said, “We cannot be very brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear.”

Dr Wagner’s postulation might provide some comfort to those who believe that the Empire did much good despite the occasional Massacre but will not add to sum total of human understanding of mass murders committed by state power.

It must be a matter of sadness for decent  British people to see that one hundred years on, apologists for the Empire are still around trying to find excuses for the misdeeds committed in their name, rather than holding their hands up and saying SORRY.


Introducing the book, Kim Wagner writes: — “[I tried to] reconstruct events not simply as it happened objectively , but as they were experienced at the time —and as they were experienced differently by different people. “ He has not been true to his intention as he has chosen a large number of quotes from white people, some real and some from works of fiction , but  a very few quotes  from Indians who were real and present at Amritsar at the time . And if he has chosen a quote from an Indian, he had only done so for the purpose of criticism. Thus he quotes Indian lawyer Setalvad , who asked Brigadier Dyer whether he would have used machine guns if he could have brought the armoured cars,  to which Dyer replied  “ I think , probably yes . “ 

 Dr Wagner says —-“Considering Dyer’s evident readiness to use extreme force, there was little point in hypothesising what he might have done if greater firepower had been available and the question served no purpose beyond muddying the water. It is thus noteworthy that many later accounts, as well as illustrations of the Massacre inaccurately depict the use of machine guns.”

As if there was something irrelevant about the lawyer’s questions to bring out the disproportionate savagery of the British attack on unarmed people.

He quotes one of Dyers subordinate officers describing him as a “Man of more than average ability as a soldier and with great knowledge of and sympathy for the Indians —He was extremely conscious and rather religious”

yet he could not find one quote from a single Indian in respect to the two most respected and popular persons in Amritsar of the day, Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, whose Deportations in the morning of the 10th of April, in the first place, escalated into the fatal shootings of the afternoon of the 13th of April.

The author has quoted General Herbert Lawrence, saying:—“[……] Dyer had been brought into this world solely that he might be at Amritsar at that precise time; for no other soldier of his rank would have been so fearless as to act as he did without thought of his own future, and have acted with an understanding of the ‘half devil and half child’ as Kipling, also born in India, diagnosed the natives to be.”

Whoever might have brought Dyer into this world, the author did not try to find out who brought Dyer to Amritsar. He was the commanding officer of the 45th infantry brigade and was based in Jullundur, some 50 miles away from Amritsar. Who was responsible for sending him to Amritsar? Who asked Dyer to come to Amritsar? We do not find a clear answer to these questions.

The book is full of quotes from many relevant and irrelevant people but none about or from the two most important men of the day, Ratto and Bugga, who organised the meeting of the 13th of April 1919.

The author said at the outset of the book that he was going to explain the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in the context of “the brutal attacks on Europeans by Indian rioters a few days before.” He was of course alluding to the fact that Indian demonstrators had attacked two European Banks in the town in which 3 English men had died and that a female Christian missionary teacher was beaten up in the afternoon of the 10th of April. But he failed to contextualise the events of the afternoon with those of the morning of the same day, when two very renowned and respected citizens of Amritsar , Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal , were unceremoniously put into army vehicles and deported out of their own birthplace by a bunch of foreigners and that when unarmed civilians protested against it they were shot at , and that 20 Indians were killed, whose relatives, to add insult to injury, had to seek permission for their  funeral from the very people who killed them , the white men. So much for an understanding of “different peoples different experience.”


So what was Dyer’s future that General Lawrence had spoken about?

After sustained pressure from Indian Nationalists, the British government was forced to setup an Enquiry headed by an Scottish politician, Lord Hunter, who completed the white wash. He exonerated the British Administration and governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, and offered the mildest of rebukes to Brigadier Reginald Dyer, who by that time was referred to by Indians as the “Butcher of Amritsar.” Not for the massacre but for his bad tempered performance in front of the Hunter Enquiry Brigadier Dyer was asked to resign, which he complied with.

Dyer arrived back in England on the 5th of May 1920 to a hero’s welcome. A fund set up for the benefit of Dyer with the headline “The Man Who Saved India. “raised £26,000 from voluntary subscriptions ( equivalent to £ 830,000  in today’s money ) . With which Brigadier Dyer was able to buy a nice house near Bristol and have a comfortable retirement from the annuity.

When the House of Commons debated and censured Brigadier Dyer, the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu was called “a Jew, daring to discredit an Englishman”. And within 2 days of that debate, the House of Lords passed a motion by a 129–86 majority, to pay respect to Brigadier Dyer and to denounce the House of Commons.

The retired governor of the Punjab Michael O’Dwyer, returned to England and sued Sir Sankara Nair for libel for criticising him for atrocities in the Punjab. Although Nair was a very moderate nationalist who was highly critical of Gandhi, yet O’Dwyer seized the opportunity to vindicate himself and, perhaps more importantly also Brigadier Dyer.

This was the first and only time a British judge sitting in a court of law in England had the opportunity to make findings on the events of 1919 and pass judgements on the main players involved.

Judge McCardie made full use of his power to find Nair guilty of libel and he had to pay substantial damages and the trial cost and most importantly the Judge found Brigadier Dyer not guilty of any crime and criticised the British government for wrongly punishing him .The newspapers claimed—-“ Dyer Justified “ .

He died on 23/7/1927, at the age of 62, of a stroke. He was given a full military funeral. His coffin, draped in the Union Jack, was carried in state on a gun-carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery past the Cenotaph. Rudyard Kipling wrote “He did his duty as he saw it.”

Not a bad end at all for a mass murderer!


The book ends with a description of the Jallianwala Bagh memorial as it stands today. It describes the green garden with its prominent red-stone monument, porticos and pathways; martyrs well and gallery, Udham Singh’s statue standing at the very entrance through which Dyer and his killer soldiers entered the garden has all been depicted, even though the writer had expressed doubt whether 120 bodies were really recovered from the martyrs well following the massacre and if Udham Singh was at all present at the Bagh at the time of the massacre. He says that “ the memorial itself is an entirely teleological narrative that has come to dominate—one in which the significance of the massacre recognised only insofar as it served as inspiration for others —-Jallianwala Bagh is no longer a place for mourning the dead, but a celebration of a nationalist myth.”

Thus to the end, the author failed to understand the true significance of Jallianwala Bagh. On the 13th of April 1919, the forces of good and evil came face to face; both were part of the same event. One represented the force of freedom and the other the force of oppression. And what happened on that fateful summer afternoon not only changed the course of the Indian freedom movement but also produced determined young men and women who were willing to hit back and hunt down the killers. You cannot write history of Jallianwala Bagh without reference to British imperialism nor can you erect a Jallianwala Bagh memorial without reference to Indian nationalism. Nothing is mythical about Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh ; they were real people, and real heroes produced by the same incident and it is not surprising that Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh pictures, the Udham Singh  statue and the stories of their heroic deeds came to dominate the Jallianwala Bagh memorial. It was their bravery, determination and sacrifice that gave the nations of India the hope, inspiration and courage which finally brought the end of British Empire in India and ushered its collapse worldwide.

The author says— “Today the Jallianwala Bagh memorial is heavily circumscribed by a post-independence narrative which celebrates the sacrifices and contributions of nationalist leaders and revolutionaries.” In my opinion that is the right way to remember people who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and justice in Jallianwala Bagh, but I agree that names of those who died there should be engraved on stone and put in a suitable place within the compound of the garden.


The book, for all its soul searching, failed to prove the contrary to the popular belief, that the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was committed to take revenge for the death of 3 white men.  It does not deserve to be recommended to anybody else.

The writer is the Director of Birmingham Asian Resource Centre, U.K.

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