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10 April 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:27pm

The ghosts of Amritsar

A hundred years ago British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians. The massacre still haunts the history of empire today.  

By Manu S Pillai

On 10 April 1919 the city of Amritsar in Punjab found itself in the grip of riotous anti-colonial fury. The day had begun peacefully enough, but by midday the town was up in arms as mobs of men shouting nationalistic slogans embarked on a spree of pillaging and burning. The Englishmen who actually held power over them were beyond reach, and so everybody else with white skin became a target. The British manager and accountant of the National Bank were beaten and stabbed, their bodies burned in a heap of furniture and stationery. At the Alliance Bank, the manager was thrown out of the window, his mangled corpse set on fire afterwards. Another group began to rain blows on a statue of Queen Victoria. But then somebody argued that Her late Majesty ought not to be held responsible for the faults of her successors. And so, with only marginal damage, most of her image was spared. All through these proceedings, meanwhile, the air rang with cries of “Gandhi ki jai” (victory to the Mahatma), irony having taken a leave of absence at the very first eruption of violence.

This is one of many striking scenes that emerges from Kim A Wagner’s excellent new book on the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. It is an intelligent and unsentimentally argued account of one of the most horrifying moments in the history of the Raj.

The events at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919 are well known. Brigadier-General Dyer of the British Indian Army, since confirmed as one of the great villains of India’s colonial experience, had his troops open fire on a gathering of between 5,000 and 10,000 unarmed people in a walled garden. Hundreds were killed, while a thousand more lay wounded, unable to seek aid due to curfew orders. The episode became, as Wagner writes, “one of the best-known items on the imperial butcher’s bill” – not least because Dyer and his superiors showed little remorse. On the contrary, they were quick to telegram support: “Your action correct and Lieutenant Governor approves.” Dyer was lambasted in the House of Commons but lauded as a good soldier in the Lords. And as late as 1978, a subordinate would defend him: he “killed, yes”, but “massacred, no”. Even the number of dead remains uncertain: Dyer claimed 200-300, estimated loosely from the 1,650 rounds fired, while the Indian National Congress suggested 1,000 people were killed. An official commission settled for 379, including a six-week-old baby.

Making historical and scholarly (as opposed to political or emotional) sense of this tragedy is one of the principal intentions of Wagner’s study. Both parties thought their actions legitimate. But how did a massacre resemble justifiable military action for the Raj’s officials? Despite the atrocity he authored, how was Dyer consecrated “The Man Who Saved India”? And how was it that thousands of people, who set out with Gandhi’s name on their lips, could burn and loot, assaulting a middle-aged white woman and leave her for dead?

Wagner’s nuanced book explains the inner workings of both sides. The Indians were certainly the victims: despite their violence on the eve of Jallianwala Bagh, bricks and sticks ought not to have provoked any government to prepare air power against the people it governed. In the end, Amritsar narrowly escaped being bombed, but at nearby Gujranwala gunfire was indeed opened from above, with as many as eight bombs dropped on villagers. It was a disastrous overreaction, but one born of a paranoia as old as the empire itself.

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Wagner emphasises this paranoia carefully. Too often, he notes, Amritsar is viewed in isolation or as a catalyst for the concluding chapter in India’s struggle for freedom: it was in response to Jallianwala Bagh that Gandhi launched his movement of non-co-operation. Wagner turns the focus on the decades that preceded Dyer, casting his actions as the culmination of a previous chapter. It is a compelling argument, and it helps us understand the gap between ruler and ruled more fully. The British were, after all, aliens in a large and complicated country, conscious that their power was never secure. Confidence, where it did not exist, was feigned. Confronted by bewildering diversity, the British introduced rigid one-size-fits-all rules and a cumbersome bureaucracy that eschewed face-to-face interactions with its people. Racial fallacies, missionary polemics and changes at home all affected India, but instead of bridging gaps, distances were exacerbated by a ruling class that remained perpetually aloof.

Small mutinies took place now and then, but in 1857 northern India rose in revolt in the Great Rebellion, when Hindus joined Muslims under the banner of an emasculated Mughal emperor. Not only was British power rattled, but instances of violence against British women and children were exaggerated by rumour, leading to horrified reactions at home and a brutal military response. The debacle saw power transferred from the East India Company to the Crown, and Queen Victoria issued a proclamation with several guarantees to her Indian subjects (later such innovations as income tax would be resisted by citing the proclamation). But the essential preoccupation of the British in India – of “the men on the ground” – was to maintain control and resist any challenge to what they feared was a tenuous authority.

A great deal could depend on the attitude of viceroys appointed by the Crown. Some won popularity among Indians (Lord Ripon’s progressive reforms alarmed his own countrymen), but for nearly all of them, concessions could not come at the cost of control – which limited their actions to tokenisms and kind words. Theoretically, rule under the Crown was more liberal than in the East India Company era. In reality, it quickly became business as usual.

Wagner offers an explanation for the unyielding attitude of the Raj’s officials. In 1857 British power had come close to being extinguished: it was reasserted only with spectacular violence. The Mughal emperor was packed off to Burma on a bullock cart and violent punishments were designed for the rebels. “Blowing from a gun is an impressive and merciful manner of execution,” it was proposed even in the 1870s, for it was “well-calculated to strike terror into the bystanders.” In other words, to control an unpredictable people, the colonial state had to be prepared to deploy violence – and to make it a public affair. When some criticised such attitudes, there was the press to ramp up support. “The truth is we want omelettes without the breaking of eggs,” declared the Anglo-Indian newspaper the Pioneer. In the years and decades preceding the Amritsar Massacre, these fears played in the minds of colonial officials: as Wagner writes, “In the British colonial imagination, the ‘Mutiny’ [of 1857] never ended.” In the circumstances, it was not surprising that mass gatherings began to look like founts of sedition.

In 1907, for instance, the government imagined local leaders in Punjab as part of a Russian-Afghan conspiracy, and in 1915, an unlikely revolt organised by Indian expatriates in America reinforced such fears. In 1919 the stage was set for crisis by the Rowlatt Act, which curtailed political liberties: people could be arrested without warrant and detained without trial, and the press was gagged, all in the name of security.

Prominent figures in Amritsar had planned public meetings, and on 10 April they were taken into custody. It was to protest this that the crowds first gathered, demanding a meeting with the authorities. But their sheer size caused such concern to British officials that shots were fired. Several Indians were killed: the riots, in which those bank managers were lynched, were the response. “Just as the British misread the nature of the protests,” writes Wagner, “so too did the population of Amritsar fail to grasp the extent to which their mass protests sent the authorities into paroxysms of panic.” The officials saw a “fanatical” mob; the masses saw arrogant officialdom. Add to this “the brute reality of popular politics” and the “dynamics of crowd violence”, and the stage was set for Dyer.

Dyer was not summoned to Amritsar: the head of the 45th Brigade at Jalandhar, 50 miles away, appeared uninvited, telling his son, “There is a big show coming.” Martial law was imposed and all gatherings banned, but the men sent out to announce this did a hopeless enough job for most people to wake up oblivious on 13 April to these orders. A meeting planned earlier went ahead, with Dyer promptly reading this as undisguised provocation. “I was conscious of a great offensive movement gathering against me,” he later wrote, “and knew that to sit still… would be fatal… I knew a military crisis had come and that to view the assembly as a mere political gathering…was wholly remote from the facts.”

To him, Amritsar was “the storm centre of a rebellion” and other officials too interpreted every hint of discontent as the rumblings of a treacherous conspiracy. “My mind was made up… If my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately.” To not act would entail the military losing face, and this would embolden refractory “natives”. Dyer insisted that he was simply doing his “horrible, dirty duty”.

While Dyer is synonymous with Amritsar, there was another figure whose views shaped British responses at that time: the man who telegrammed Dyer his words of approval, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. Born in Ireland and raised to dislike nationalists in his own country, O’Dwyer brought with him to India an imperious style. As Anita Anand writes in her new book on Amritsar, ever since his arrival, “the new Lieutenant Governor had been categorising Indians like a botanist documenting interesting but potentially dangerous specimens”. The Mahratta Brahmin was “intelligent but… often treacherous”. Sikhs were: “Virile and enterprising, but… unless firmly and tactfully handled, obstinate to the point of fanaticism.” When legal obstacles were raised, O’Dwyer dismissed courts as taking “too technical and narrow” a view of evidence. It was no wonder that he and Dyer got along.

Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin is primarily the story of Udham Singh, the revolutionary who would assassinate O’Dwyer in 1940 in belated retaliation for Jallianwala Bagh. It is a dramatic, fast-paced narrative, its protagonist’s career bringing together everyone from the Soviets to the Americans. Very little is known about Udham’s early life, and what is known is enveloped in myth. While Udham claimed he was in Jallianwala Bagh on that fateful day in 1919, it is unclear whether he was even in the city. Either way, as he put it after shooting O’Dwyer, “For full 21 years [sic] I have been trying to wreak vengeance.” For him “the real culprit” who wanted to “crush the spirit of my people” was not Dyer but the ex-Lieutenant Governor.

Udham Singh began life as Sher Singh (and in his lifetime would also become Ude Singh, Frank Brazil, Mahomed Singh Azad, and finally Prisoner 1010). By 16 he had lost both parents and his brother. Raised in an orphanage, the only skill he acquired was carpentry. Towards the end of 1917, he joined the British army, serving in Basra briefly before being deemed unfit for service. There was an impetuosity to him, a yearning for greatness, a confused but determined love for his country, and charm that often got him out of tricky corners.

It was thanks to his powers of persuasion that in 1918 he managed to re-enlist in the army, before retiring to Amritsar in more honourable circumstances after the war, in 1919. Attracted to the politics of the Ghadar Party – that network of expatriates seeking, unsuccessfully and often amateurishly, to liberate India by force – he became a pamphlet mule, spreading their message around Amritsar and in the wider Punjab. But the urge to make a difference had to be carried alongside that other urge to fill his stomach, so that by 1920 he was in Africa working for a railway line like thousands of “coolies”.

Anand does a meticulous and determined job of tracing his steps and debunking more than one theory about him, though there isn’t as complete a treatment of the Ghadars themselves as one would expect. After all, they are integral to Singh’s tale. He encountered them again in Africa, and sailed back to India with more sedition in his suitcase. By 1922 he was on his way to the United States, where he rose in their underground ranks while working as a mechanic. Whenever immigration caught up with him, Udham moved, till in 1927 he quit the country. Returning to Amritsar, he was apprehended, and, after confessing to his activist role with the Ghadars, was given a prison sentence.

By 1933, in another mystifying twist, he had acquired a fresh passport, and soon set out for London. In the years that followed, he found himself a mysterious English girlfriend, worked as a peddler of clothing and household goods, sang the praises of the revolutionary hero Bhagat Singh, appeared as an extra in the 1937 movie Elephant Boy, and finally in 1940 accomplished what he had pledged to do: send Michael O’Dwyer to his maker.

On the afternoon of 13 March, O’Dwyer had come to Caxton Hall in Westminster to hear a lecture on Afghanistan. His assassin was waiting in the audience. When at the end of the event the 75-year-old Englishman rose to talk to the speakers, Udham approached and shot him twice at close range, through the heart, before turning his revolver on three other senior Raj officials, who were injured but not killed. One of the first things Udham did after being seized was to ask the police for a cigarette.

After he was hanged in an English prison, for decades Udham lay buried under English soil. In 1974, his remains were handed over to the Indian government, and last year, a statue was installed at Jallianwala Bagh. But the man remains an enigma: he had a stint in London in the 1920s when he could have achieved his goal – why he didn’t we cannot say. But despite the impossible task of truly understanding Udham’s motivations, Anand produces an engaging account of the times and of this unlikely hero. And though gripped by her subject, she does not shirk away from his human failings. His legend has him pick up the bloodied earth from Jallianwala Bagh and vow revenge for his murdered “brothers and sisters”. That is how his new statue depicts him. But a century later, understanding the events of 1919 in a dispassionate historical sense – as Anand does – is essential.

How these two remarkable books will be received in India is uncertain. A hundred years later, Amritsar is a wound that has still not healed, and there are portions in Wagner’s book especially that will sit uneasily with hyper-nationalists. Visiting British dignitaries, from Queen Elizabeth to David Cameron, have expressed regret about 1919 – the former called it “distressing” while the latter saw it as “deeply shameful” – but an outright apology has never been offered.

Perhaps this year the British government might be inspired to say the words it has so far avoided. Or perhaps it will not. Maybe it is best for India, too, to not expect apologies. But so central has Amritsar become in collective memory that a sincere expression of remorse would not only offer closure for relatives of those who suffered Dyer’s bullets, but could encapsulate all other acts of injustice sponsored by the Raj. And this, perhaps, is something worth the British government’s attention, 100 years after one of its own showered fire and death on a mass of unarmed civilians. 

Manu S Pillai’s most recent book is Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (Juggernaut)

Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre
Kim A Wagner
Yale University Press, 360pp, £20

The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj
Anita Anand
Simon & Schuster, 384pp, £20

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