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The Amritsar Massacre

The Untold Story of One Fateful Day


Nick Lloyd


London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Hardcover. xxxiii-264 p. ISBN 978-1848857230. £22.50


Reviewed by Mélanie Torrent

Université Paris-Diderot


Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, 13 April 1919—Following a ban on public gatherings, proclaimed in the city earlier that day, and on the order of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, British troops fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition over a period of almost 10 minutes, leaving at least 1,200 wounded and countless dead in the Indian crowd: 379 according to the official report, while the Indian National Congress inquiry put the estimate at 1,000 and the current plaque at Amritsar commemorates 2,000 martyrs. As unrest mounted, martial law was declared on 16 April 1919 and remained in force until August. A fateful marker in Indian and imperial history, the Amritsar massacre remains a potent memory in contemporary Anglo-Indian relations, as shown by the debates surrounding the first visit to the site by a British Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2013. While Nick Lloyd acknowledges that Amritsar was a “deeply sad and tragic event”, and indeed a “massacre”, he contends that it was “not an example of premeditated imperial murder, but rather the result of a series of unfortunate and unexpected events that came together one afternoon with devastating results” [203]. In The Amritsar Massacre : The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, Lloyd sets out to prove this very point, taking a clear stand against the history and politics that have turned Amritsar into the epitome of a systematically brutal British rule which, he contends, did not exist. Central to this is the assessment of what lay behind Dyer’s order to open fire on 13 April—and, therefore, the re-investigation of the inquiries into Amritsar in 1919-1920 as well as the re-assessment of subsequent historical interpretations.

Prominent in the history of India’s struggle for independence, Dyer’s actions were scrutinised and criticised at the time. He was the object of fierce debates in the British press and the British Parliament, and eventually dismissed from office in March 1920. The report of the Hunter Committee, published in May 1920, stated that strong action had been required against what was perceived as an Indian rebellion in the Punjab in 1919. But it criticised military behaviour under martial law and considered that on the particular issue of the Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer should have given the crowd more warning before the firing began and that the firing should have been stopped earlier. A “gross betrayal of British officials” in the eyes of most die-hards, the Hunter Report was no more than “official whitewash” for the Indian National Congress, who had published its own, far more damning report in March, after a ten-month inquiry by a specially appointed sub-committee. Dyer, as Gandhi put it, had simply tried to “kill the soul of a nation” [132]. Lloyd’s re-interpretation, in The Amritsar Massacre, focuses on three elements: whether there was a rebellion in the Punjab; whether there is evidence that Dyer premeditated his action; and who the crowd really was.

As Lloyd emphasises, “the speakers in the Jallianwala Bagh do not seem to have been inciting the crowd to armed revolt or urging them to rush towards the railway station and cantonment and finish off the British” [168]; they did not have firearms; there were “no hardened terrorist cells behind the violence” [127] in the Punjab. The events of 1919 were not a rebellion or mutiny, as the Sepoy rising of 1857 had been. But this, he argues, does not mean that the British response, i.e. the decision to open fire, was “unjustified and disproportionate” [127]. The political context in the province, Lloyd argues, shows that strong action was seen to be necessary. In post-war Punjab, which had provided the bulk of India’s troops during the world conflict, agitation had mounted on a number of counts: rising prices, anger at the fate of Turkey among the Muslim community, and the Rowlatt Act of March 1919, which extended the provisions of the Defence of India Act (1915) into peacetime, allowing for the arrest and detention without trial of political suspects. Even before 6 April, a “Black Sunday” of strikes in protest at the Rowlatt Act, Gandhi’s call for Satyagraha, non-violent non-cooperation, had resonated profoundly in the province. On 11 April, Dyer had arrived in Amritsar in a fraught situation, after the arrest of two of the most respected local leaders of the Satyagraha movement, Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal, and as British troops had already used firearms against protesters. In the province, the fact that strikers focused on transport and communication, coupled with the arrival of Amanullah Khan to power in Afghanistan, triggering the third Afghan War in May 1919, reinforced the sense of a generalised rebellion and external anti-British support. The broader context provided by Lloyd, however, also demonstrates numerous instances of the use of force by British troops. On 30 March in Delhi, British troops had already fired on a crowd of young men who were gathering support for a strike at the station and the Queen’s Gardens. In Ahmedabad in Gujarat, the confrontation between British troops and popular mobilisation had left 28 Indians dead and 123 wounded. In Lahore on 11 April, British troops had killed one man and wounded another 28 when dispersing the meeting held at the Hira Mandi near the Badshahi Mosque to discuss the formation of a People’s Committee, which was seen as a distinct threat, as was the creation of a danda fauj (“stick army”) of Muslim artisans. Lloyd’s conclusions, in part, derive from his assessment of the Indian nationalist movement in the late 1910s. He thus stresses “the great amount of violence and brutality that [Gandhi’s Satyagraha] produced and which was directed against the European population” [xxx] and states that “Gandhi must take his share of responsibility” [36], even though he was never the direct cause of the violence itself. Confused tactics and the violence of non-violence, LLoyd argues, were key causes of unrest. Among historians, Lloyd is certainly not alone in taking a critical approach to the politics of Gandhi. But in The Amritsar Massacre, these politics are primarily analysed as one of the factors influencing the management of empire—the rights to self-determination, liberty and freedom that agitated peoples around the empires in 1919 remain peripheral in the investigation of law and order.

In parallel, Lloyd argues that there was no premeditation on the part of Dyer, who had never been to the Jallianwala Bagh, and that the disaster rather resulted from confusion: the crowd was much larger than he had expected and essentially composed of Hindu men. Lloyd, in other words, contests the notion that women and children were present in any significant numbers. He also rejects the idea that many in the crowd came from outside the city, and argues that unrest in the province would have made travel more difficult. The majority of the crowd, he concludes, most likely knew about Dyer’s proclamation against public gatherings—although quite how Dyer was able to ascertain this “when he first saw the crowd, which seemingly confirmed his worst suspicions; that a crowd had gathered in defiance of his orders and to challenge his authority” [181] is less clear. Lloyd also underlines that Dyer himself was obviously confused in the wake of the firing and his worst enemy in the inquiries that followed. When his initial reports stressed his fear of an attack against his troops, he emphasised the need to produce “a moral and widespread effect” [173] on 25 August and replied to one of the Indian members of the Hunter Committee, that he would probably have used armoured cars had he been able to. And yet again later, he confided that he “never knew there was no way out” [182] of the Jallianwala Bagh, preventing the crowd from dispersing, and that he had not “had a night’s sleep since that happened. I keep on seeing it all over again” [182]. Whatever conclusions one may draw on Dyer’s motives, Lloyd’s study certainly heightens the sense that 13 April 1919 in Amritsar was one, indeed, of the most desperately sad tragedies of contemporary history.

Finally, Lloyd assesses the aftermath of Dyer’s action in the province. The “high-water mark of the rebellion” [106]—in the words of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab—was 14 April but, Lloyd argues, this cannot be taken as proof that violence had increased as a result of Dyer’s actions: according to O’Dwyer, once “the news had penetrated over the Province, it was not necessary to fire another shot” [107]. And yet, Lloyd concludes that there was no overall attempt by the British “to ‘terrorise’ the civilian population” [xxx]. He argues that the use of aircraft to bomb parts of Gujranwala “was indicative of the desperation and fear that gripped the British authorities” and “was not something that the authorities had ever planned or wanted to do” [115]; the infamous “crawling order” was “insensitive and misguided” but not “evidence of a brutal and widespread policy of British repression” [136]; the “fancy punishments” that accompanied martial law (the battery of humiliations imposed on the Indian population) were often cancelled by the military hierarchy once they knew of them. Martial law, he underlines, also involved more positive measures such as those “that reduced prices and prevented the adulteration of milk” [148]. Lloyd also reveals that O’Dwyer did attempt to mitigate some of the more brutal or humiliating orders—including the crawling order—and his failure demonstrated to the British Government the dangers of leaving the administration of martial law entirely in the hands of the military. Lloyd’s choice of terms is rather disconcerting at times, and his conclusions rather abrupt: Gandhi’s arrest is presented as a “gentle” act [48]; in Delhi, “[t]he police and military response”, he writes, “was not disproportionate and at least one volley was fired into the air above the heads of the protestors (with little effect) before the authorities resorted to controlled firing” [34]; the most “striking” thing about the “crawling order”, he also adds, is “its insignificance. It was in force along one lane for five days between the hours of 6 am and 8 pm and only 50 people crawled along it” [136]. There was, certainly, “a fluid situation in which the British Raj was introducing a variety of reforms” [xxviii]. But what reform there was fell short of the aspirations of large numbers of Indian nationalists: there were immediate criticisms against the diarchy introduced by the Government of India Act of 1919, while the Rowlatt Act itself was only repealed in March 1922.

As compelling new research argues that brutality was precisely at the heart of the empire, with another massacre, at Hola Camp in Kenya in 1959, being re-assessed as far more symptomatic of British practice than had previously been thought, Lloyd’s book seems to be driving in the other direction. It is, as he puts it, a re-interpretation of “the British response to the violence of 1919” [xxxiii], which tries to uncover the intentions and motives behind British actions in the Punjab in 1919. Doing so without appearing to justify imperial repression or downplay its tragic outcomes is an arduous task. The evidence presented by Lloyd may not lead his readers to believe thatAmritsar was but “one” fateful day. But it certainly demonstrates the uncertainties facing all foreign occupiers, the complexity of military / civilian relations, the dilemmas of crowd control and, most importantly, the flawed evidence on which life-and-death judgements can be made. Lloyd’s book, ultimately, shows that beyond its complex history, the Amritsar massacre remains one of the most politically charged events of the last century.


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