Analysis: Amritsar massacre festering sore will not heal easily

By Professor David Hardiman

On February 20th 2013, on his visit to Amritsar in the Indian state of Punjab, David Cameron expressed his personal regret at one of the most notorious acts carried out by British imperial troops – the Amritsar massacre of 1919.

Cameron quoted Winston Churchill, who in 1920 had described it as a "deeply shameful event".  The prime minister did not, however, offer a formal apology from the British government.

He stated: "I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened."

Cameron held that we must try to put the massacre in perspective, and see it as an aberration in what was otherwise a generally positive history.

He said: "I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate."

This stance has not gone down well with some in India. Some demanded a full official apology from the British government. In general, however, the reaction has been muted. 

Some felt that such apologies for events that occurred long in the past are largely meaningless, and once started there can be no end to them.

The well-known historian Mushirul Hasan argued that such acts occurred in a context, and all we can do is try to understand it. He went on to point out that Cameron was only doing it to smooth the way for British business contracts in India.

Well-known writer and historian of India, William Dalrymple, argued that it is only meaningful to apologise for something that one has a direct responsibility for.

He went on to say that if Cameron was really serious about this, he should do more to inform the British about their previous empire. He stated: "My children at school have learnt about Tudor England, the Nazis, wars in Europe, but nothing in comparison about the empire. The British are simply unaware of the empire's good — like the Indian civil service's integrity — or its bad, like the terrifying killings of 1858 in north India, compared to which Jallianwala Bagh was a sideshow.

"The British don't know enough about a period which was much longer and more radically important in its global effects than Nazi Germany."

Dalrymple goes on to take a side-swipe at the sort of history-teaching preferred by Cameron's government. In looking to Niall Ferguson for advice, he is valorising a historian whom Dalrymple describes as "the most pro-empire voice in academia." Cameron's position is thus, for Dalrymple, full of contradictions.

So, what exactly was the context for this massacre?

It occurred soon after the end of World War One. During the war, the British had needed Indian troops, produce and financial support for the war effort.  They had sought this by promising a devolution of constitutional power to Indians once the war had ended.

The British secretary of state for India, the liberal politician Edwin Montagu, and the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, drew up a programme that provided limited power to elected Indians in the provinces. This measure became law in 1919.

The government was at that time a coalition, and Montagu had to gain support from Conservative MPs and Lords who felt strongly that all such grants of power to 'natives' ran the risk of undermining the Empire.

He managed to get a sufficient number on to his side by providing for them a sop, namely by establishing a commission under a judge, Lord Rowlatt. This was to examine previous acts of terrorism by Indian nationalists and to suggest legislation that would allow the government to act tough on all acts of political violence.

In fact, such terrorism was by then largely a thing of the past. The Rowlatt report, however, listed in great detail all previous terrorist acts – even quite trivial ones – giving the impression that they provided an ongoing threat to British rule. The report recommended that a system of trial by secret tribunal be established to try terrorist cases. This became law in March 1919. 

Indian nationalists were outraged by this measure. M.K. Gandhi took the lead in organising civil disobedience in protest.

Selected laws were broken, such as selling censored literature.  There were demonstrations in major cities that were met with varying degrees of police repression. On March 30th 1919 the police fired on demonstrators in Delhi, killing ten.  In April, there were strikes in other major cities.

On April 9th, Gandhi was arrested when on a train to north India and sent back to Bombay. News of his arrest sparked off rioting in Bombay, Ahmedabad, and rural Gujarat.

The next day, April 10th, troops fired on peaceful protestors in the city of Amritsar, killing several.  Enraged, the crowd turned on Europeans, and killed five.  Martial law was declared, and the army ordered to enter the city and suppress any further protest.  The stage was thus set for the massacre, which occurred three days later, on April 13th.

One particularly important element in this was that the British administration in the Punjab was in India perhaps the least tolerant. The Punjab was a major supplier of troops for the Indian army, and the British had tried to gain support there by investing in a number of infrastructural projects- notably canals.

The Punjab civil service cultivated an image of benign paternal rule while cracking down on any attempts by nationalists to win support from the peasantry.  They claimed to be the 'true' friend of the Punjabi people.

All of this generated an attitude of extreme intolerance to the least show of nationalist dissent. The lieutenant-governor of the Punjab at the time was Michael O'Dwyer, who had served for many years in the Punjab Civil Service. He believed that the nationalists were preparing for a mass insurrection of the sort last seen in the great revolt of 1857.  It was he who ordered the crack-down of April 10th, creating a situation in which a British officer was willing to take harsh action to "save the Empire".

On April 13th, a large crowd of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims – most of whom were peasants from outside the city – gathered in a public square called Jallianwala Bagh.  They were largely unaware of the order banning demonstrations.

The local army commander, General Dyer, marched a troop of Indian soldiers – who were mainly Gurkhas with some Baluchis – to the square. Dyer blocked the main entrances and lined his troops up on one side. Without any warning, he ordered them to open fire.

There was panic and chaos as the people tried to force their way out of the remaining narrow entrances. Firing continued for about ten minutes.

The British officially admitted that 379 had been killed; the nationalists put the figure at more like 1,500. The actual figure is likely to have lain somewhere in between. By all accounts, this was a dreadful atrocity.

Dyer himself stated that he had ordered the firing "not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience."

O'Dwyer extended full support. Dyer went on to order that anyone passing along a street in which a British woman had been killed on April 10th should be forced to crawl in a humiliating way.

Suspected protestors were arrested and whipped in public.  The Punjab administration, in other words, showed no remorse for the action – but sought rather to reinforce it with further harsh measures while suppressing news of the massacre.

In this they did not succeed, as in the following days people throughout India became aware of what had happened.

The government of India was forced to take action, dismissing O'Dwyer, and, after some delay, relieving Dyer of his command.

In Britain, opinion was divided.  Those aligned to the Liberal and Labour parties condemned the firing strongly, this included Winston Churchill, who was still at that time a member of the Liberal party.

Many Conservatives, however, claimed that this was a necessary act. Rudyard Kipling praised Dyer as "the man who saved India" and started a benefit fund for him, which was supported by the right-wing newspaper the Morning Post (which later merged with the Telegraph), raising in all about £26,000, which was presented to Dyer on his return to Britain in 1920.

It was this blatant justification for a particularly vicious and unwarranted act that caused such alienation. Many handed back the honours that had been granted by the British, including Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

Gandhi himself launched a campaign of non-cooperation against the British in late 1920, in which the Indian National Congress refused to support the constitutional reform of 1919 and boycotted the elections held under its provisions.

Rather than stifle dissent in India, O'Dwyer and Dyer in fact stoked it. In the process, they were responsible for an act that continues to be cited as one of the blackest in British imperial history.

Whether or not Cameron's efforts will do anything to heal this festering sore remains to be seen.

David Hardiman is a professor of history at Warwick University and director of final year studies.

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