On this day in 1919, Colonel Reginald Dyer ordered British troops to open fire on a gathering of Indians at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar
Hundreds were killed and scores injured in one of the most brutal acts during British rule in India
When Reginald Dyer was a young boy, he went out one day to shoot. His family lived in Shimla, and going into the jungle nearby, the chota sahib took aim at a bird. But no sooner had he pulled the trigger than young Rex heard a squeal—he had accidentally injured a monkey. “Tears streamed down her cheeks," his biographer wrote, and she looked at her assailant “so reproachfully that her eyes haunted his dreams for months". He lost all his appetite for killing animals, we are informed, with one exception. The “tender-hearted boy" could not stand snakes. Where snakes were concerned, he would “seek them out and kill them with a cane". With snakes, there could be no benevolence.
Given what Dyer is notorious for—the murder of hundreds at Jallianwala Bagh this day 100 years ago—one wonders whether he saw that gathering as a nest to be destroyed. He was a servant of the imperial state, after all, and to him Amritsar was in rebellion, which meant only firmness was feasible. Trouble had begun on 10 April when two nationalist leaders were arrested. A mass of people sought to meet the deputy commissioner and register their protest, but their sheer size provoked such panic that shots were fired and many killed. In retaliation, violence broke out and several Englishmen were lynched and one woman horribly beaten. The white names were recorded; those of the Indians were not. They were simply “the mob".
As is well known, curfew orders were issued, while official paranoia swelled. They were prepared to deploy bombs and aeroplanes, convinced that there was a treacherous conspiracy at work in Punjab, one of its chief objectives being to spark mutiny in the army. The appearance of posters—“fight with bravery against the English monkeys"—did not help, and neither side comprehended the other. The British authorities saw all political activity as yet another step in the execution of this seditious plot; the Indians, meanwhile, did not understand, as scholar Kim Wagner notes, how “their mass protests sent the authorities into paroxysms of panic".
Given his actions, Dyer is today the confirmed “villain" of Amritsar. He was emblematic of the worst impulses of the Raj certainly, but the Raj, in turn, writer Kishwar Desai notes, “washed its hands" off its own culpability, presenting this “black sheep" as an aberration. There were, however, larger dynamics at play, and more complex causes behind Amristar. Wagner notes in his masterful Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making of The Amritsar Massacre, for example, how much the Great Rebellion of 1857 haunted the British. The merest expression of discontent was viewed as the launch of the next “mutiny", and in Amritsar in 1919, this played constantly on British minds. When they saw Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs unite, old ghosts loomed ominously again. As the deputy commissioner argued, communal amicability was a great thing “if one did not fear that the underlying motive had a sinister purpose".
Desai’s Jallianwala Bagh, 1919: The Real Story also alludes to this paranoia. There was among British officers a genuine fear that a danda fauj was about to eject them by force. In the circumstances, therefore, the gathering on that fateful day was seen as a stroke of luck—once it was known that thousands had converged in Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer saw an opportunity to make one decisive, bloody statement. As his biographer puts it, “this unexpected gift of fortune, this unhoped for defiance, this concentration of the rebels in an open space" placed them all “within reach of his sword". In the “narrow streets, among the high houses and mazy lanes and courtyards of the city the rebels had the advantage of position"—here they were cornered. And so, Dyer went, and he fired. It was another matter that one of the “rebels" was six weeks old.
That the gathering was unarmed was irrelevant. As one grandee declared in the House of Lords later, they may not have been “ostensibly armed with bludgeons". But Indian crowds, he claimed, tended to have “a very large supply of bludgeons somewhere or other near", which meant that “the mob that faced General Dyer was undoubtedly dangerous". Better they were pre-emptively struck than allowing the risk of Dyer’s men being “overwhelmed and cudgeled to death".
There was no evidence of a conspiracy, there were no arms, and there was a peaceful gathering, yet the British were convinced of “rebellion"—a strange, murderous logic that perhaps excuses Desai’s passionate pronouncements as she calls Dyer “psychotic" and asks whether the British were “Fascist, Racist or Both?"
Though there was a commission of enquiry, and official censure, there was little remorse. Days after the tragedy, the deputy commissioner put out a notice: “The government," he said, “is sorry that some innocent people were forced by wicked people to go there and got killed." But what transpired was ultimately due to Indian disobedience. The lieutenant governor of Punjab wrote that at least the episode had thwarted the “conspiracy": “The Amritsar business cleared the air and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere…it was best at Amritsar", which “paralysed the movement before it had time to spread". British excesses were, meanwhile, played down: When two women complained they were stripped and sticks inserted in their vaginas, they were called “low class prostitutes". When reports suggested British soldiers were defecating in wells, the viceroy declared that “it is impossible to believe that any British soldier purposely defiled wells".
In the end, Dyer, the poster-boy of British atrocity in Amritsar, retired to England. His health failed and he became a recluse. Initially, he did not repent: “I shot to save the British Raj…doing my duty—my horrible, dirty duty." But in the end, doubt seems to have gnawed at his mind. As he said to a family member before he died in 1927, “I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong." Of course, regardless of God’s views on the matter, a century later we can recognize Amritsar for what it truly was: a massacre where an insecure, paranoid empire unleashed unspeakable horror.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).