On 13 April 1919, in Amritsar in the Punjab, India, 50 soldiers under the command of the British General Dyer opened fire on a crowd gathering in the Jallainwala Bagh – a garden-cum-open area popular for meetings and social or religious gatherings.
Many of the crowd were there to celebrate Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year. No one was armed, there were no disturbances, it was peaceful.
The British authorities put the number of dead at 379, with more than a thousand injured. The actual number of fatalities will never be known.
After the shootings Dyer returned to British Military Headquarters in Amritsar without bothering to inspect the casualties or offer any medical treatment or assistance to those who were wounded. It is quite possible that many more would have been killed, but the armoured car which accompanied Dyer’s detachment could not navigate the narrow streets and had to be left behind.
Indians were horrified and outraged and the massacre was a pivotal event in the growing resistance to British colonial rule in India.
A Commission of Inquiry led by Lord Hunter was critical of Dyer but seen as a whitewash by most Indians.
In Britain the General was hailed as a hero by the Conservative Party, although he was eventually dismissed from the army.… on half pay. There was even a public collection for Dyer, supported by Rudyard Kipling, which raised £26,000, no mean sum in those days.
The “Butcher of Amritsar” (the title of a book on Dyer by Nigel Collet, 2005) died in 1927. He was given a standard military funeral in his home village but then, astonishingly, was also given a full ceremonial funeral in London (akin to state funeral). His coffin was conveyed by a gun carriage, to a service in St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
Such honours have usually been reserved for servants of British imperialism of the magnitude of T. E. Lawrence and, much later, Winston Churchill.
In Parliament, Churchill (whose hands were hardly free of blood) argued that the massacre was “…an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands out in singular and sinister isolation”.
Yet just a few days after the massacre the RAF bombed rioters in Gujranwala, about 50 miles north of Amritsar. In places such as Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, and Lucknow, the British Army had carried through huge massacres after the defeat of the Indian Rebellion of 1857-9.
After Amritsar, the British colonial administration attempted to reform the manner of its rule in India,.
Yet British domination of the Indian sub-continent was still based primarily on military power, intimidation and brutality. Resistance to British rule grew steadily and was to lead ultimately to independence.
Acknowledgement, and further reading: Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre by K. A. Wagner, Yale University Press, 2019; and a review of that book in London Review of Books, 4 April 2019.