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The NS on Amritsar in 1919: “We hold India by the sword and rule her by fear”

A historical note.

David Cameron in India
David Cameron arrives at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial. Photo: Getty Images.

On his final day in India, David Cameron laid a wreath and signed a memorial book of condolence in order to express his regret over the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh public gardens in 1919. The slaughter, led by British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, was reported in Britain in a variety of ways. “Those who defended Dyer look, with hindsight, as though they were so blinded by the mythology of Empire that they could not see the simply inhumanity of what had been done,” Iain Martin has written for the Telegraph – a newspaper which, at the time, defended the “Butcher of Amritsar”. The final death toll is still contested.

Below is the New Statesman’s account of the event and the public reaction that followed. The piece, published in December 1919 after the Hunter Commission, reminds readers that Dyer's actions were a particularly ugly product of relatively mainstream sentiments back home. It attempts to place the massacre within the wider context of British imperialism: “Fundamentally, the Amritsar massacre was merely a corollary of the conditions of British rule in India. If General Dyer had not been there to fire upon the crowd some other soldier would have done it … The truth, which cannot and must not be ignored or evaded, is that we hold India by the sword and rule her by fear.”

The Common Sense of Coercion

Everyone, it appears, is inexpressibly shocked by the story of the Amritsar massacre. And indeed the crude horror of the picture presented by General Dyer himself, in his evidence before the Hunter Committee, would be hard to match even amongst the most appalling incidents of the Great War. Ten minutes' steady rifle fire at close quarters upon a great crowd of unarmed and unresisting men and women, resulting in about five hundred people being killed and another fifteen hundred being wounded and left to groan where they lay for a day and a night—neither the Germans in Belgium nor the Bolsheviks in Russia were ever, we believe, accused of any act quite so horrible. No doubt, as General Dyer declared, the incident was calculated to “make a wide impression throughout the Punjab.” It was a very thorough piece of frightfulness—too thorough, apparently, for the stomachs of even the fiercest of fire-eating Imperialists in this country, for no attempt appears to have been made to defend it in any quarter.

But though the fact that General Dyer finds no apologists over here may be in one sense a matter for congratulation, in another it has a somewhat disquieting significance. For it surely indicates a very widespread failure to appreciate the conditions of our rule in India. In Anglo-India where those conditions are comprehended and accepted, General Dyer, we have no doubt, will find not only plenty of apologists but plenty of whole-hearted champions who will maintain that by his decisive action at a critical moment he saved the whole British Raj, or at the least averted a tragedy that would have involved scores of thousands instead of only a few hundreds of lives. And it is important that the Anglo-Indian point of view should be understood. To treat the incident as a unique outrage due to the accidental presence on the spot, and in temporarily supreme authority, of a peculiarly brutal type of soldier, is to overlook its real significance. It is true that certain details brought out at the enquiry seem to indicate that General Dyer is a man of exceptionally insensitive temperament. His repudiation of responsibility regarding the wounded and his stupid “crawling” order, will not, we imagine, be defended even in India. But stripping the story of these details—and though they have done much to move English public sentiment, they are essentially only details—what General Dyer did is probably no more than what nine Indian Army officers out of ten would have done in the same circumstances, provided they had the courage. And the tenth would have acted otherwise as the result of the possession of a cooler intelligence rather than of more humane sentiments.

Consider the position. A large part of Northern India was seething with sedition. Violent outbreaks were occurring simultaneously in widely separated districts. There had been fighting in Delhi and Lahore. Officials had been murdered. Systematic attempts at various points to wreck trains, seize railway stations and sever telegraphic communications, conclusively showed the existence of a widespread and well-organised revolutionary plot, behind which loomed the terrifying spectre of “Bolshevism.” In Amritsar itself a bank had been attacked, looted and burnt, two bank managers had been killed, the Town Hall had been burnt, a Mission station had been raided, an Englishwoman had been beaten almost to death and the city was practically in the hands of the rioters. Such a state of affairs had never been known in India since the days of the Mutiny and many men believed that the British Raj was face to face with a second Mutiny on, perhaps, an even larger scale. General Dyer was called in by the civil authorities to restore order. He promptly proclaimed martial law—a proceeding which was probably in excess of his technical powers but was not otherwise unreasonable in the circumstances—and forbade meetings or assemblies in the streets. He caused an order to this effect to be proclaimed in all quarters of the city and himself took an energetic part in making it known. A few hours later, however, he heard that in defiance of the order a crowd of five thousand people had assembled and was being harangued by an “agitator.” There were only a hundred British and two hundred native soldiers in the city. The lives of the tiny European colony depended on General Dyer; and if visions of Cawnpore and the Black Hole of Calcutta rose before his eyes, who are we, in the safety of London, to say that those visions were mere idle imaginings? When white men believe that white women under their protection, in the midst of a huge coloured population, are in danger there are very few steps they will shrink from in their defence. That is a fact of human nature, not a peculiarity of General Dyer's. General Dyer decided upon a step of extreme severity in order to save the situation; he saved it, and we do not suppose that a single white man who was in the city at the time condemned him for the excessive brutality of the means he adopted. The resident civil commissioner evidently acquiesced, and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province subsequently telegraphed his approval.

Needless to say, we have set out the facts in this manner not in order to defend General Dyer's action or to minimise the horror of the massacre, but rather as a protest against the idea that the British public can escape its responsibility in the matter by denouncing this particular officer as a criminal and demanding his punishment. Fundamentally, the Amritsar massacre was merely a corollary of the conditions of British rule in India. If General Dyer had not been there to fire upon the crowd some other soldier would have done it. Another man might have been content to kill fewer people and might have concerned himself with the subsequent care of the wounded, but almost certainly in the circumstances he would have shot and shot to kill. The truth, which cannot and must not be ignored or evaded, is that we hold India by the sword and rule her by fear. There is no other way by which a population of three hundred millions can be governed by a handful of foreigners. The justice of the British Raj and the benefits which it has conferred on the Indian population are not here in question. The Indian people may be very foolish, very unappreciative of the disadvantages and dangers of any practicable alternative, but they do not want British rule and, at bottom, nothing but force induces them to submit to it. We hold India by the sword and as long as that is true, we must be prepared to use the sword in an emergency—or go. We may, by wise government, contrive to keep it in its sheath for half a century, but when the emergency arises there must be no hesitation in drawing it; and sooner or later the emergency is bound to arise. General Dyer's view is that by shooting 500 people he averted the necessity of shooting perhaps 50,000 in the course of suppressing a general rising in the Province. And who is to say that that view is incorrect? The essential and governing fact is that the British administration in India is attempting to rule a nation or a number of nations against their will; and, having accepted responsibility for that attempt, we at home have no right to hold up our hands in horror of those who do the dirty part of the job for us.

The moral of Amritsar is not that a particular soldier is a very brutal person, but that force is force and that it is both useless and dishonest to pretend that it is anything else. We are certainly not prepared to say that England ought never to have taken India and held it as she has held it, still less of course that she ought now to abandon precipitately the responsibilities which she has assumed and accumulated in that vast Empire. But where we are manifestly at fault is in our failure to introduce democratic institutions concurrently with the spread of democratic ideas. We can rule our African dependencies—Nigeria, for example—without massacres, because the Nigerian population has not absorbed and is not yet ready to absorb, the doctrines of Mill and Mazzini. But in India the danger of our being forced to use the sword increases with every year by which self-government is delayed. It is a danger which must be frankly faced. If there should be signs of a rising next year in some other part of India there will have to be more shootings. But when these unfortunate necessities arise we must not attempt to throw the blame on the man on the spot, even though his judgment may have erred, but accept it ourselves and do what can be done to hasten the application of the only possible remedy. Mr Montagu's Act is a great step forward, but it is only a beginning and it comes a decade late. If it had been passed ten years ago and had been developed with all practicable speed by subsequent measures leading towards self-government, it is probable that the Amritsar massacre would never have occurred. But we can see no other means by which this incident, which has stained our national reputation in the eyes of the whole civilised world, could have been surely been averted.

Once a policy of coercion is adopted it is impossible to define its limits. To suppose that it can be conducted on liberal and humane lines is a sentimental illusion. Its character is determined not by the Government which coerces but by the people who are coerced. The ruled can drive the rulers to any excesses they please. That is the essential vice of coercion. Applied to a nation which is politically conscious and awake it is not the vindication but the negation of government. The process may be observed in Ireland at this moment. The Irish Executive is powerless not only to govern the country but even to determine its own acts. It is being led willy-nilly into all sorts of indefensible extravagances. Whether the “Liberal” Mr Macpherson, in the course of the next few weeks or months, will be using machine-guns in the streets of Dublin depends not at all upon his own views or his own political principles but simply upon whether the Sinn Fein leaders consider it advisable or not to invite such a measure. The coercionist—unless, of course, he is prepared to surrender—can shrink from nothing and determine nothing. If his victims choose that he shall act like a Tsar, a Tsar he must become. If they wish to be imprisoned wholesale he must imprison them wholesale. If they wish to be massacred he must massacre them. Coercion, in however mild a form it may originally be adopted, implies the absolute abandonment of every principle of freedom or democracy. It is the rule of the sword and the most brutal excesses of the sword are implicit in it from its very beginning. Having admitted it—inevitably—as the foundation of our rule in India we cannot evade responsibility for its consequences by making scapegoats of our General Dyers.

Unsigned, 20 December 1919