Amritsar Massacre 1919: a shameful imperial legacy

Kabul Sandhu remembers 100 years ago when British troops killed hundreds of peacefully protesting unarmed Indians

In July 1974 the body of a man hanged for murder was exhumed at Pentonville prison and without fanfare was put on a plane to India. In India the body was received by Indira Gandhi (prime minister of India) and Zail Singh (chief minister of Punjab, later president of India). The body was that of Udham Singh. His ashes now lie in Jallianwala Bagh where the Amritsar Massacre took place. 

In India Udham Singh is commemorated in at least one place name, statues and in annual ceremonies as a great martyr. In Britain he is unknown.

What had he done? In 1940 in Caxton Hall, London, he shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of Punjab at the time of the Amritsar Massacre. As a boy Singh had been providing water for those attending the meeting in Jallianwala Bagh and witnessed the 1919 massacre. He like other Indians hadn’t forgotten what happened that day. Victims of horrendous wrongs remember, perpetrators forget.

On the 13th April General Dyer marched with about ninety troops to Jallianwala Bagh and, with no warning to disperse, ordered troops to open fire on a crowd of thousands. By Dyer’s own admission firing only stopped when his men had loosed off 1650 rounds. By one account between 200-300 were killed, but other accounts claim that 379 killed and 1,100 wounded. Among the dead were 41 boys and a six week old baby. The number of dead and wounded might have been even higher if two armoured cars with mounted machine guns Dyer had taken had been able to get through the narrow entrance to the Bagh. All those killed were unarmed, many passing through or around to listen to protest speeches on the day the Sikh Baisakhi festival was held, unaware that an order against gatherings had been declared.  

The background to this massacre was the increasing agitation for independence that Indians felt they had a right to and in recognition of Indian help and sacrifices in the First World War. There had been the arrest of two nationalists and the meeting in the Bagh was in protest against that action. There had been strikes and rioting and twenty Indians had been killed. In this febrile atmosphere, four Europeans had been killed and a white woman had been beaten. 

An outrageous order was given – enforced by British soldiers – that any Indian using the alley where the woman was beaten had to crawl on his or her hands or knees. An element of racial revenge and teaching Indians a fearful lesson played a part in General Dyer’s actions. 

The government of Punjab tried to suppress the news and information about the massacre. But that was impossible in India and details of the event reached Britain in December. In the House of Commons Dyer was condemned. Churchill called the action ‘unutterably monstrous’. Many Britons in India and England, however, regarded Dyer as the saviour of the Punjab. At the request of O’Dwyer, the then Governor General of Punjab, the Vice-Roy of India, Lord Chelmsford, put Punjab under martial law.

Far from suppressing the nationalist movement, the massacre gave it a further boost. To many Indians the British had lost any moral authority they had. A non-co-operation movement against British authorities began. This was refined over the years by Gandhi and the Congress party. Twenty- eight years later India had gained independence.

General Dyer – the Butcher of Amritsar, as he was termed in India – was not condemned by his military superiors but he was obliged to resign from the army and he retired to England. Here through a public subscription he received £26,000 from people who saw him as a hero. He died of natural causes in 1927. He was given a grand funeral.

The Amritsar massacre is a grim and shameful event in British history. There have been expressions of regret in recent times by British leaders but so far no official apology. 

Did Britain and the army act differently after this event? In Ireland as in India there was much agitation for independence. On Sunday morning of 21st November 1920, the IRA assassinated 14 British intelligence officers in Dublin. That same afternoon British troops with armoured cars mounted with machine guns went to Croke Park where a Gaelic football match was taking place. They entered the field and shot into the crowd of spectators. Fourteen civilians lay dead. Did this act of revenge stop the campaign for independence? Two years later most of the island of Ireland became independent. The Irish remember this atrocity as do the Indians theirs. The memory of injustices lives on in the histories of its victims.

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