It’s long time since I talked about India (15 February 1915: Negative Thinking) and long past time me, you and the British Empire paid it some serious attention – because change was afoot in the Raj and the end of the First World War had sharpened its edge. Today marks the centenary of one of British rule in India’s darkest and most deadly days – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, usually known in Britain as the Amritsar Massacre –and of a fundamental sea change in the nature of India’s battle for independence.
The massacre is infamous across the Asian subcontinent. It is understood as a signal of changing Anglo-Indian relations, as a trigger for the acceleration of that change and as a symbol of the long struggle for Indian political independence. Above all, it is recognised as a damning exposure of the British Empire’s repressive, greedy, arrogant, ungrateful and clumsy response to a subject population’s hard-earned and reasonable hopes for political representation. The event is also reasonably well known to the British, for whom it is routinely presented as a regrettable imperial error, but seldom discussed, let alone taught, in depth or from anything other than an Anglocentric perspective –so it seems to me some context is in order.
British imperial authorities had spent the war years showering their Indian subjects with praise and positive propaganda, as well they might. More than 1.3 million Indians had fought for the Empire during the First World War, of whom 72,000 were killed, and they had fought well, generally displaying loyalty and tenacity despite appalling conditions, occasional communal disputes between Indians of different faiths or cultures and some maltreatment at the hands of officers inexperienced in Asian affairs.
War-related problems with British internal administration of colonial India had, understandably enough, been kept as quiet as possible – but they reflected a significant seam of native discontent across the Raj. With German help, militant Indian nationalists, some of them imported from the British Empire and the USA, had fomented trouble in various corners of the sprawling Raj, with particular effect in Punjab and Bengal, and attempted to stir up rebellion in the Indian Army. In March 1915, shortly after foiling an attempt by one militant organisation, the Ghadar group, to coordinate a major Indian Army mutiny, the British vice-regal government introduced the Defence of India Act. Aimed at revolutionary militants but used at the whim of regional authorities against anyone deemed a nuisance, the Act gave the administration sweeping powers to imprison any Indian citizen without trial or verified evidence.
Militant nationalist agitation, regardless of religious or provincial background, existed side by side with the blossoming of Indian mass politics, centred on the Indian Congress. Formed in 1885 as a largely powerless national forum for airing high-caste Hindu concerns, Congress had evolved into a broader arena for nationalist debate and a nationally recognised symbol of Indian identity. More or less tolerated but never encouraged by the British, it had encompassed broad, overlapping divisions between moderates seeking gradual social reform and activists chasing more radical change, as had the parallel All-India Muslim League, formed in 1906. Hindu and Muslim politicians generally squabbled with each other as much as with the colonial administration, but vague British promises of political reform as a reward for wartime loyalty had brought them closer to unity than ever before.
In December 1916 the Lucknow Pact temporarily committed Hindu and Moslem groups, with the support of all their internal factions, to the presentation of joint demands for specific reforms to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford. This is not the place for a discussion of the details, but when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms arrived in 1918 Indian politicians of all persuasions were united in regarding them as paltry reward for years of military service, political repression and economic hardship. A consequent upsurge in political protest – in particular the rapid spread of MK Gandhi’s innovative, popular, pacifist nationalism – helped harden attitudes towards India once the British were free to administer their empire without the constraints of total war.
In Britain and among its enemies, few questioned the India’s position as the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’, in both economic and prestige terms, and so British governments had long been accustomed to a defensive attitude towards internal change or foreign involvement in their prize possession. With civil protest spreading fast, post-War British policy in India was dominated by memories of the Ghadar conspiracy and the German mission to Afghanistan (6 March, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons), by fear of the new revolutionary threat of Bolshevism from nearby Russia, and by nervousness around continuing, apparently revolutionary unrest in the Punjab and Bengal. The result, presaged by the appointment in 1917 of a Sedition Committee to investigate the various threats to the Raj, was the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi on 10 March 1919.
Also known as the Rowlatt Act (after the chair of the Sedition Committee, Sir Sidney Rowlatt), but generally called the Black Act by those it governed, this was an indefinite extension of the Defence of India Act, with all its powers to detain and imprison without trial. Designed to douse the fires of protest, it had precisely the opposite effect, inflaming Indian public and political opinion, provoking a hartal (essentially a general strike) in Delhi that formed part of Gandhi’s mushrooming civil disobedience movement, convincing many politicians (including Gandhi and Jinnah, the future leader of Pakistan) that cooperation with the British would never bring significant reform, and sparking an upsurge in civil unrest, much of it scarred by violence, across the subcontinent.
In Punjab, (typically racist) British assumptions about ‘martial’ Indian peoples, a wartime history of violent unrest, evidence of German infiltration and geographical proximity to the former Russian Empire had already convinced many colonial authorities that the province was on the verge of revolution. Now things got a lot worse. In the wake of the Act massed protests in Lahore, against a background of strikes and infrastructural sabotage throughout Punjab, prompted British arrest of two popular Punjabi politicians who had campaigned for Indian independence and supported Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent protest) movement. Their arrest brought protests onto the streets of the Punjab city of Amritsar on 10 April, during which troops opened fire, killing several protesters. Riots followed, along with attacks on public buildings and British property, before the city fell temporarily calm on 11 April.
The city of Amritsar looked set for a big day on 13 April. The Sikh festival of Baisakhi always attracted thousands to its spring harvest fair, and local nationalist leaders had organised a large protest movement for the afternoon, to be held in the Jallianwala Bagh, the public garden of the building known as either the Harmandir, Sri Harmandir or Darbar Sahib (but usually called the ‘Golden Temple’ by Europeans). The acting British regional commander (Acting) Brigadier-General Dyer, spent the morning announcing the imposition of martial law in the city, with a curfew and a ban on all meetings of more than four people – though his tour of the streets seems to have been ignored or missed by the population in general – but news of the protest persuaded him to abandon the effort and focus on events at Jallianwala Bagh.
The meeting had been called for 16.30 in the afternoon, but by 15.30 a crowd of at least 6.000 (Dyer’s estimate, based on aerial reconnaissance) was packed into the six-acre garden. Subsequent enquiries suggested that the crowd was much larger – between 15,000 and 20,000 – boosted by festival-goers who had left the Baisakhi livestock fair after Dyer had it closed at 14.00. Rather than attempt to enforce martial law and/or disperse the crowd, Dyer and his political chief, Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving, did nothing for the next couple of hours, before arriving at the garden with 90 Indian Army troops and two armoured cars at around 17.30.
The Jallianwala Bagh was an ideal spot for a massacre. Surrounded by high buildings, it could be accessed by one main entrance or a number of narrow alleys, most of which were kept locked. With the armoured cars (which were too wide to enter the garden) and troops blocking the main entrance, the protesters were effectively trapped when Dyer, without issuing any form of warning, ordered his men to open fire on the densest sections of the crowd. The troops duly loosed off more than 1,600 rounds in the next ten minutes or so, killing indiscriminately and triggering a stampede that killed many more. Many protesters jumped down the garden’s well to escape the shooting, and reports claim some 120 bodies were later recovered from the well, while British imposition of curfew meant that wounded could not be moved from the garden during the evening or night, and many more died before morning.
British reactions to what can only be called a disaster said plenty about the attitudes that caused it. Dyer reported his action as necessary in the face of a ‘revolutionary army’, and was supported by his immediate superiors, while the British lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, asked for and got permission to impose martial law in Amritsar and other Punjabi hotspots.
Immediate Indian reactions can be summed up as outrage. The most violent reaction took place on 15 April, in the Punjab city of Gujranwala, where local British commanders suppressed a full-scale riot by bombing and strafing from the air – which dispersed crowds rapidly while killing 12 and injuring 27 – and although the British tried to suppress news of the massacre elsewhere in India, the Indian population was quite capable of spreading news on its own and less violent protests took place in cities across the subcontinent. The massacre’s effect on Indian political leaders of all faiths was as anyone would expect, in that it multiplied mistrust of British political intentions and exposed the fear of imminent revolution lurking beneath the propaganda facade of unalloyed gratitude for the Indian people’s wartime contribution. As such it struck a massive, arguably fatal blow to increasingly fragile hopes on either side for India’s gradual, peaceful transition to self-government within the Empire.
Meanwhile, an initial British report estimated casualties at 200 dead and approximately 1,000 injured, and although subsequent British investigations revised the casualty figures (accepting 379 deaths) they never matched the estimate by an Indian Congress investigation that posited at least 1,000 dead, possibly as many as 1,500, and at least 1,500 injured. In November 1919, during a more formal Anglo-Indian inquiry carried out by the Hunter Committee, Dyer made it perfectly clear that he had gone to Jallianwala Bagh intending to open fire on any crowd he found there, by way of teaching the natives a lesson and of course avoiding personal (and by extension imperial) humiliation. He was also clear that he would have used the armoured cars to fire their machine guns into the crowd had he been able to deploy them inside the garden.
British attitudes broadened somewhat in the face of such breathtakingly brutal realpolitik. While the Hunter Committee was preparing its report, in December 1919, news of the massacre finally reached London, where Dyer’s actions and excuses were condemned by much of the national press and many British MPs during the following months. When the Committee’s report was released, in May 1920, it concluded that Dyer had been wrong about the prospect of revolution and had acted with unnecessary harshness, but that the immediate support of Dyer’s superiors at the time made his prosecution politically impossible. He had nevertheless been removed from his post in March of that year, after which he was denied his promotion and effectively retired.
The Hunter Committee’s report (which dealt with disturbances all over the Punjab province) was almost universally regarded as half-baked. It provoked scorn and outrage in the British parliament, where Churchill was among those most strident in demanding more comprehensive condemnation of the massacre, and is still seen as an insult by many Indians. Although various British leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II during the 1990s and Theresa May last week, have expressed their regret and sorrow at the events of 13 April 1919, no formal apology has ever been made. The only real consolation available to those Indian politicians and cultural figures still demanding such an apology is that, despite the loss of life, the ultimate outcome of the massacre was Britain’s complete and irrevocable loss of political and economic control over India.
That was a long, late, rambling piece – but I’ve not been well and, like most Tottenham fans, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on real life for the last ten days. As far as I can tell its only raison d’être is to provide a timely reality check to British readers, especially to those parts of the British population which have developed a taste for facile, noisily expressed jingoism, infused with the (essentially Nazi) idea of national exceptionalism. If you know anyone with opinions along those lines, remind him or her that we’re no different to other bullies.