Yesterday marked the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre. I’ve written about this, of course, in my Empire histories; and also in a review of a biography of the villain of the piece for the TLS, afterwards republished in my Empire Ways (2016), which I’m reproducing here.
Incidentally, the fashionable way the event is being treated today is as typifying the British Empire, which it didn’t. Atrocity may have been a characteristic of the Empire – that is, there are many similar ones featured in the Empire’s history – but not typical – i.e. a predominant and defining characteristic. Her Empire was not Britain’s equivalent of Nazi Germany, as it is sometimes presented now. (I feel I need to whisper this, for fear of being accused of being an imperialist, or an empire-denier, or a nostalgic reactionary, or even a fascist, myself.) If you’re interested in what it really was, may I recommend my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t (also 2016). Among other things, what you’ll learn there are (a) that the most harmful repercussions of British imperialism were more often the results of good intentions than of bad (viz. Tony Blair); and (b) that Britain didn’t invent ‘imperialism’ (of course not), but did invent anti-imperialism. No, not colonial nationalists, nor the American revolutionaries, who were only concerned to throw off their own imperial chains (in the Americans’ case in order to colonise others), rather than opposing imperialism per se. This was a strong tradition in Britain, side-by-side with the imperialist one. That’s why the Amritsar massacre provoked so much shock and opposition there, especially on the Left, which is usually not credited. On the origins of anti-imperialism in Britain, you’ll need to go to another of my books: Critics of Empire (1968/2008). Sorry for all these self-references; but I don’t want to repeat myself.
Here’s my TLS piece on Amritsar.
The Butcher of Amritsar
The Amritsar massacre of 13 April 1919 is the most notorious atrocity in British imperial history. Lord Birkenhead – no bleeding-heart anti-imperialist, he – believed it was unique ‘in all our long, anxious and entirely honourable [sic] dealings with native populations.’ Churchill thought it stood ‘in sinister isolation’. Confronted with a large crowd of peaceful Indian protesters in the Jallianwala Bagh, General ‘Rex’ Dyer ordered his (‘native’) troops to fire into it, and didn’t stop them until their ammunition ran out. He gave no warning. The people were already fleeing as he opened fire, scrambling to get out through the narrow exits; most were shot in the back. Afterwards Dyer made no effort to aid the wounded, and forbad the Indians to return to the square to help their own. Hundreds lay there, bleeding, until the next day. At least 379 died, including children, one a baby of six weeks. That was followed by wholesale floggings of suspected malefactors, and an infamous ‘crawling order’, whereby Indians were forced to shuffle on their bellies along a narrow street. Sometimes this penalty was imposed by Dyer for not ‘salaaming’ him as he drove through the town.
Immediately afterwards Dyer claimed he had opened fire because, in the heat of the moment, he feared an attack by the crowd. That might furnish some kind of excuse for him: like many soldiers in such situations, he panicked. Later on, however, he modified this line. He could have dispersed the crowd peaceably, he admitted; or even prevented the meeting. (It was illegal.) But he didn’t want to. He wanted the demonstration to go on, in order to be able to fire at it, and kill as many people as he could. If he’d had more ammunition, he said, he would have killed more. So it was all premeditated. It was meant as a ‘lesson’, to ‘nip’ what Dyer was convinced was an incipient re-run of the 1857 Mutiny ‘in the bud’. It was this extraordinary admission that ruined him. It set the Government of India against him; every member of the British cabinet; the House of Commons; all the native Indian papers (of course), and most of the metropolitan press. He was drummed out of the Army, and only escaped court-martial for homicide because of a technicality. Unfortunately he also had some vociferous supporters: most of the Anglo-Indian community, especially women and Christian ministers; the Morning Post and Daily Telegraph (later to merge); most of the Army, including many of his own ‘sepoys’, especially Sikhs; the usual right-wing reactionaries in Britain; and the House of Lords – who were generally more pro-Dyer the more lordly they were. These seem in retrospect a pretty unrepresentative bunch of people, but their blimpish defence of Dyer had a drastic effect on opinion in India. This whole affair turned Gandhi, for example, from an imperial reformer, content to work for Dominion status, into an out-and-out enemy of the British connection. It is arguable that it was the turning point against the British raj. In his excellent new biography of Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar (Hambledon, 2005) Nigel Collett doesn’t go this far, but believes that when the time came to hand over power in 1947, Amritsar made it impossible for Britain to do it ‘with honour and with the affection or respect’ of the Indians. That would have tortured Dyer, whose main motive on 13 April 1919, he claimed (surely sincerely), was to save the empire for Britain; and whose underlying personal insecurity, as Collett paints it, made him crave ‘affection and respect’.
Collett’s picture is a convincing one, despite the lack of personal evidence about Dyer (he left no papers), for which he compensates with some well-researched reconstructions of the milieus in which he lived and worked. (Hence all the ‘he will haves’ and ‘must haves’ and ‘probablys’ on almost every page.) Collett is hugely helped here by his own background as a commander of Gurkhas: so he knows the Army and Indian aspects inside out. Dyer was clearly a problematical character. The son of a brewer, and so without social status; sent away to a very minor school in Ireland when he was eleven; not seeing his parents again for twelve years; awkward and unsocial, ‘a fish out of almost every water’ he swam in; hot-tempered; probably rather stupid; with a Boy’s Own Paper approach to soldiering and the empire; dangerously chivalric (the ‘crawling order’ was to avenge an assault on a woman missionary); impatient of orders; loathing politicians; depressed at the signs of imperial decline all around him (in Ireland as well as India); but also – on the more positive side – strong, hard-working, brave, loved by his ‘men’ (they cheered him as he left India for disgrace in Britain), racially tolerant in a paternalistic kind of way (he resigned from a club that refused to admit ‘native’ officers), a bit of an inventor (a new range-finder), and with some real military achievements to his credit (though his annexation of eastern Baluchistan, which he wrote a Boy’s Own Paper-style book about, was against orders, and had to be undone): all this tells us an enormous amount about the man, and, by extension, the event.
Perhaps the key factor, however, was Dyer’s total immersion in the Anglo-Indian community from birth. He was born and brought up in India, and mainly served there: initially, as it happens, on stations with powerful Mutiny resonances. His occasional trips to England, on furlough or for training, were when he felt most out of water. He was like Kipling in this regard. One person who met him there noticed that there were even some English words he didn’t know. He certainly imbibed all the authoritarian prejudices of the Anglos in India. It was probably to this gallery that he was playing when he made all those damaging admissions about his motives at Amritsar. He knew his own people would approve of his ‘terrorist’ methods (the word used at the time). None of this, of course, was bound to lead to atrocity. But it may explain why Dyer’s atrocity was, in Churchill’s opinion – it was his reason for regarding Amritsar as sui generis – so essentially ‘un-British’. (We may not agree.)