Anatomy of a massacre

Trevor Grundy on a gripping new book that explains the causes, course and aftermath of the Jallianwala massacre of 1919

With the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth approaching on October 2, we can expect a tsunami of books, articles and radio/TV programmes about the way this remarkable ascetic turned the British Empire upside down by using Indian truth force (Satyagraha) to undermine British bullet power.

Amritsar 1919 - An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre by Kim A. Wagner (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019, £20.00, pp. 325)
Amritsar 1919 – An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre by Kim A. Wagner (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019, £20.00, pp. 325)

Despite the hundreds of books that already exist, there remains an insatiable desire to know more about this extraordinary man and what shaped him and his ideas. So a round of applause for Kim Wagner, a Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History at Queen Mary, University of London, whose compelling book Amritsar 1919 – An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre, about events at Amritsar on April 13, 1919 – a key episode in Gandhi’s formation – should be on the desk of every student of history throughout the Commonwealth.

On the centenary of this vile act, there is in certain British political closets a yearning for the days of the Raj. A yearning, too, for an official apology.

In 1919, Winston Churchill condemned what happened at Amritsar, describing it as ‘an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’. And while David Cameron didn’t get round to formally apologising to the people of India during his 2013 trade visit as premier, he did describe the massacre as ‘a deeply shameful act in British history’.

Yet for nearly all Indians, the slaughter at Amritsar, following weeks of agitation against the draconian Rowlatt Act that banned political gatherings but succeeded in uniting Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, was the most murderous single act in the history of the Raj.

The facts are no longer in doubt, though the meaning remains disputed. Late in the afternoon of April 13, 1919, the British officer Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, with 50 or so troops under his command, entered the enclosure known as the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in Northern India (Punjab). A crowd of several thousand civilians had gathered in the high-walled public garden to protest against the imprisonment of two local nationalist leaders.

Following riots in several cities in response to the murder of five British citizens in Amritsar, all political rallies had been banned and a curfew imposed. Without prior warning, Dyer ordered his men to open up sustained fire on the crowd. This lasted for ten minutes, stopping only when the soldiers ran out of bullets.According to official figures, 1,650 rounds were spent, 370 people were killed and 1,200 wounded – though Indian journalists said the death toll was closer to 1,000, including women, children and some babies.

The Amritsar Massacre has since become a byword for colonial brutality and repression and in India it is remembered as the moment that set Indian nationalists on a one-way road to independence.

Kim Wagner’s placing of the massacre in its wider historical context and the way he sheds fresh light on this old story makes Amritsar 1919 a truly important book.It is vital, he says, to understand the impact the Indian Rebellion of 1857 had on those who came later, Dyer just one of them.Wagner’s emphasis on the way almost all Anglo-Europeans in the Raj lived in daily fear of a resurgence of the 1857 violence goes some way towards explaining the actions of Dyer, a child of the Raj, a product of his age and in many ways a total victim of his class and racial prejudices.

‘A British apology for the Amritsar Massacre in 2019 would, as a result, only ever be for one man’s actions, as isolated and unprecedented, and not for the colonial rule, or system, that, in Gandhi’s words, produced Dyer,’ writes Wagner. ‘Rather than being an act of humility, an apology in the centenary year would thus simply sustain a sentimental vision of the British Empire – a vision in which the red blotches of the world-map are not blood but clutches of eternally grateful “natives”, and on which the sun stubbornly refuses to set.’

Eight of the book’s 13 chapters are devoted to the days immediately before and after the April 13 bloodbath, creating in this reader’s mind a powerful sense of proximity and atmosphere. The book, therefore, provides the thrill of reading not just a major historical work that is critically astute, but also an accessible detective-style ‘whodunnit’ – and, crucially, why.

The text is further enriched by pictures of Amritsar before and after the massacre, portraits of Dyer and other key players in the grisly drama, and cartoons from contemporary English and German magazines.

Making this book even more timely today, especially for those in the UK and Ireland, is the burning issue of fear, responsibility and impunity on both sides of a conflict, which is arousing strong feelings following a fresh look at events surrounding the deaths of 13 civilians it Londonderry during Bloody Sunday in 1972.

At the Hunter Committee Inquiry following the Amritsar slaughter, arguments for and against Dyer’s actions were heard. Those there remembered the words of Frederick Cooper, the deputy Commissioner of Amritsar in 1857, who said that violence was necessary to keep people in order and ‘to show publicly in the eyes of all men that at all events, the Punjab authorities adhered to their policy of overawing, by a prompt and stern initiative’.

‘Overawing’ was certainly used by the British after the uprising of 1857, as they responded with repercussions of great cruelty. But it was the Indian atrocities at Cawnpore the same year that entered the history books read by British schoolchildren, and the memory of the slaughter of British women and children hung like some bloody cloud over British rank-and-file in the Raj.

Do the events of April 13, 1919 still fester in India? Only young Indians can answer that, though the role played by the tragedy in fuelling Indian loathing of Empire, enabling Gandhi to emerge as a pre-eminent nationalist leader who united different classes, ethnic backgrounds and religions, will not be lost on discerning minds throughout the country.

Will what happened at Amritsar in 1919 be forgiven and forgotten? As William Wordsworth said, there are some thoughts and memories that lie ‘too deep for tears’. A thorough reading of this authoritative, absorbing book – fact-packed, beautifully illustrated, keenly researched and clearly indexed – will convince most readers that the tragic and utterly unnecessary events at Amritsar 100 years ago this month is one of them.


Trevor Grundy is an English author and journalist who lives and works in Canterbury, England

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