The British Empire's most shameful day

Trevor Grundy reviews "Amritsar 1919 – An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre" by Kim A. Wagner

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)

Soon (October 2) it will be the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Expect a tsunami of books, memoirs, articles, radio/tv programmes about the way this remarkable ascetic turned the British Empire upside-down by using Indian soul force (Satyagrapha) to under-mine British bullet power.

Despite the hundreds of books written about him, there remains an insatiable desire to know more about this extraordinary man and the societies in Britain, South Africa and India that shaped him and formed his ideas.

So a round of applause for Kim Wagner whose compelling book about the massacre at Amritsar on April 13, 1919 should be on the school and college desks of every young student of history throughout the Commonwealth.

As we approach the centenary of the vile act there is in certain British political closets a yearning, a longing for the days of the Raj.

A yearning, too, for an official apology.

In his book Inglorious Empire (Hurst & Company , London 2016) Shashi Tharoor suggests the best form of atonement is not a politician’s apology but rather to start teaching un-romanticised colonial history in schools because “the British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of the British Empire and what it meant to its subject people.”

In 1919, Winston Churchill condemned what happened at Amritsar describing it as “an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 didn’t get round to formally apologizing to the people of India during a trade visit but did describe the massacre as “a deeply shameful act in British history.”

But for nearly all Indians, the slaughter at Amritsar following weeks of agitation and demonstration against draconian legislation (the Rowlatt Act) that banned political gatherings but which succeeded in welding together Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs was the most murderous single act in the history of the British Empire.

The facts are no longer in doubt, though the meaning remains disputed still. The way Wagner sheds fresh light on an old story makes this one of the most important to study and own this year.

Late in the afternoon of April 13, 1919, the British officer Brigadier-General Reginal Dyer (born and brought up in India from British parents) 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, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, one of the main leaders of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement in Amritsar and Dr Satyapal.

Riots had broken out in several cities following the murder of five British citizens in Amritsar and the British officials had introduced a curfew. All political rallies were banned.

Without prior warning, Dyer ordered his men to open up a sustained fire of the crowd which lasted for ten minutes, stopping only when the soldier ran out of bullets.

According to official figures, 1,650 rounds were spent, 370 people were killed and 1,200 were wounded. Indian journalists said the death toll was more like 1,000 including a handful of women, children and some babies.

The Amritsar Massacre has since become a by-word for colonial brutality and repression and in India it is remembered as the watershed that irrevocably put Indian nationalists on the path to independence, a struggle that came to fruition in 1947.

There are no photographs from the massacre but thanks to the visceral depiction in Attenborough’s 1982 film, the massacre is now one of the most recognizable images of British India.

Of course, Wagner is not the first – nor will her be the last – to write about Amritsar.

Nigel Collect’s biography of Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer (London, 2005) contributed to the public’s knowledge of what happened.

Then the other side of the Amritsar coin - Nick Lloyd’s The Amritsar Massacre: The untold story of One Fateful Day (I.B. Tauris 2011) which Wagner described in a review as “a complete whitewash” and a piece of “callous jingoism.”

Wagner’s book is timely, especially if you live in Britain.

The subject of who is responsible for massacres is a burning issue with the question of impunity arousing strong feeling in England, Ireland and Northern Ireland following a fresh look at the events surrounding the death of 13 civilians at Londonderry during Bloody Sunday 47 years ago.

At the Hunter Committee Inquiry following the slaughter in the Punjab, arguments for and against the actions of Dyer were heard. Those there remembered the words of Frederick Cooper, the deputy Commissioner of Amritsar in 1857, the year of the Indian “mutiny” or  India’s First War of Independence.

He 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 over-awing, by a prompt and stern initiative . . .”

Over-awing was certainly used by the British after the uprising of ’57 when the Mughal practice of capturing rebels and strapping them to the mouths of cannons loaded with gunpowder and blowing them to pieces in front of crowds of local spectators forced to watch the executions. The prisoners had their intestines blown in to the faces of their former comrades who stood watching the scenes, horrified and shell-shocked for the rest of their lives.

But it was the Indian atrocities at Cawnpore that entered the history books read by British school-children. Memory of the slaughter of British women and children hung like some bloody cloud over those Anglo-Europeans in the Raj.

The officious policeman McBriyde tells the liberal minded Fielding in E.N., Forster’s Passage to India to study the records of the Indian Mutiny rather than the Bhagavad Gita if he wants to understand India.

Stiff upper lips and rhino-whips at the ready dominated imperial behaviour.

There was no place for self-doubt as Orwell tells us in Shooting an Elephant (written in 1936) about life in another part of the empire, Burma. “ . . . every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

The Morning Post newspaper of 8 July 1919 commented ”Whenever the people of India show signs of un-rest or of conspiracy or of revolution there rises before the minds of Anglo-Europeans the spectre of the Indian Mutiny and the horror of Cawnpore and they are constrained to ask themselves whether the disturbances are only the precursors of a similar revolution. So a great force is used in quelling disturbances that would be used in other places where British rule is more firmly established.”

Middle class England and the aristocracy rallied to Dyer and raised the massive for that time sum of £26,000 so he needed never work again.

Later on, many Indians rejected the relatively paltry amounts that were offered to the victims as compensation.

But another half-hearted but well-worded apology for a crime so little known by the British people?

Wagner writes: “A British apology for the Amritsar Massacre in 2019 would only ever be for one man’s actions, as isolated an unprecedented and not for the colonial rule that in Gandhi’s words, produced Dyer. 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 on which the red blotches on the world-map are not blood but clusters of eternally grateful ‘ natives’, and on which the sun stubbornly refuses to set.

And some of our readers will remember what Princeton Professor Duncan Spaeth (1868-1954) jokingly remarked about the sun never setting on the British Empire.

He said that not even God would trust an Englishman in the dark.

Do the events of April 13, 1919 fester or are they forgotten in India?

Only young Indians can answer that. How a tragedy fuelled Indian loathing of Empire and enabled Gandhi to emerge as a pre-eminent nationalist leader able to bring togethere different classes, ethnic backgrounds and religions will not be lost on discerning minds throughout India.

But to forgive and forget?

As William Wordsworth said, there are some thoughts and memories that lie "too deep for tears."

A thorough reading of this well-written, fact-packed, beautifully illustrated and keenly researched and clearly indexed book will convince most readers that the tragic and utterly un-necessary 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.