Inexcusable disgrace

Some events – the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Soweto shootings, the suppression of the Mau Mau – die slowly in the memory of nations, primarily because of the brutality that accompanied them. The memory of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919, a colonial outrage of monumental proportions, still evokes deep political and emotional reaction in India.


Kim Wagner’s Amritsar 1919, one among several books and articles published to mark the centenary of the massacre, describes a Punjab in turmoil. Governed by the crusty imperialist Lieutenant Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, with despotic paternalism, the province was reeling from famines, epidemics and the high prices of the war years. It had contributed almost half a million men to the war effort, at times recruited under coercion by O’Dwyer, as well as £700,000 in so-called war loans. The returning soldiers, now politically conscious, and the expectant population were rewarded not by some progress towards self-government but with the draconian Rowlatt Act, a continuation of wartime emergency regulations. Protests against this clampdown broke out in several towns, reinforced by the launch of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement. In Punjab, O’Dwyer, always contemptuous of reform, talked up fears of a non-existent rebellion and proceeded to quell the protests with full force. He ensured that Gandhi could not enter the province and on April 10 deported two popular leaders, Saiffuddin Kitchlew and Dr Sataya Pal, from Amritsar.


Wagner details a microhistory of what followed over the next few days in Amritsar: the spontaneous crowds that gathered on April 10 to seek the release of the two leaders were fired on. More than twenty people died, many shot in the back, and several more were injured. The angered mob killed five Europeans, burnt down government buildings and banks, and attacked a missionary Englishwoman, Marcella Sherwood. Colonel Reginald Dyer – holding the temporary rank of Brigadier-General – arrived in Amritsar from his port at Jullundur and took charge as civilians abdicated, though martial law would not be proclaimed formally until April 15. He imposed a curfew and banned all public meetings; how many people were aware of this ban is open to question.


On April 13, the day of the harvest festival of Baisakhi, Dyer opened fire without warning with fifty rifles on a large crowd of 15,000– 20,000 that had gathered in an enclosed ground, the Jallianwala Bagh, some to attend a political meeting and some who were simply visiting on Baisakhi from surrounding villages (the Bagh lies next to the Sikh Golden Temple). The 1,650 rounds fired in the space of ten minutes killed between 500 and 600 people, Wagner estimates, and wounded three times that number, whom Dyer left without medical attention. Several weeks of martial law followed, during which heavy censorship blanked out the infamous crawling order (forcing Indians to crawl on the street where Sherwood had been attacked), the salaam order (compelling them to salute every British officer), public floggings, torture and arbitrary arrests.


Wagner’s considerable research and diligence in putting together this account is admirable. But at places, such as in the narrative of the clashes on April 10, more rank-and-file Indian voices would have ensured better balance: it was after all inept handling and arbitrary shooting that angered the mob, unarmed and peaceful to begin with, resulting in the five graphically detailed European deaths. Wagner’s more level treatment of the aftermath of the massacre itself brings out the prejudices that fuelled the debate – between civilians and the Army, Liberals and Conservatives, Commons and the Lords – on what to do with Dyer: whether to regard him as “the butcher of Amritsar” or indeed the “The Man Who Saved India” for the empire. In the process he effectively unmasks Winston Churchill who disingenuously resorted to British exceptionalism – blaming Dyer for a “monstrous” act – while distancing the larger colonial enterprise from men like him.


The academic premiss behind the book is debatable: declaring that the event is “poorly understood” only as a symbol of colonial brutality and that its factual history is being overwritten by nationalist mythmaking, Wagner sets himself the task of explaining “the structural dynamics of the event itself”, a phrase that he does not explain. Wagner’s presumption is unfair to the scholars and writers who have come before him, and in fact to the intelligent reader; in India, the considerable debate around the centenary has not focused on the facts, most of which are now generally accepted. He also labours a moot point: that the massacre was not the beginning of the end of the Raj as generally believed, but a final consequence of a nineteenth-century colonial mindset. The massacre could well be seen as both: its pivotal place in India’s freedom struggle is established by its real consequences – the loss of faith in British intentions, the hardening of Gandhi’s stance, the launch of the non-cooperation movement, and the inspiration to a generation of revolutionaries, notably Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh.


One could also quibble with Wagner’s preoccupation with colonial panic – essentially the scary shadows of the Mutiny of 1857 – to which he ascribes the exaggerated British fears and reactions in 1919. By that logic, the Indians too should have suffered from panic, caused by the memory of the brutal execution of the 1857 rebels by men like Nicholson or Cooper, or the blowing of the Kuka rebels from the mouths of cannons in 1872. Colonial wives, whose racially biased diaries get far too much space in the book, may have suffered from panic, but hardened officers, armed with full intelligence, surely knew better. Kim Wagner’s parallel explanation of a tradition of racialized colonial violence is more logical. Dyer testified that he had fired deliberately to make a wide impression throughout Punjab, even stating that if his armoured cars equipped with machine guns had got through the narrow entrance of the Bagh, he would have used them. Ultimately, the sheer starkness of the massacre obviates the need for any exaggeration, and no matter through which contorted academic prism we look at it, it remains, in the words of the close Gandhi associate and missionary C. F. Andrews, “an unspeakable disgrace, indefensible, unpardonable, inexcusable”.