Amritsar 1919


Read 03/06/2019-16/06/2019

Rating 4 stars

Read for the 20 Books of Summer readathon hosted by 746 Books.

Back in April I watched Sathnam Sanghera’s film about the 100th anniversary of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India and was shocked at how little I really knew about the Raj, and about British brutality towards Indians. I mean, I knew we weren’t the blameless bringers of all things good that British history wants British people to believe, but I hadn’t realised the extreme distance we were from that fantasy. I wanted to know more about the massacre, so I reserved Kim A. Wagner’s book, published this year for the anniversary, at the library.

It’s an excellent exploration of what led up to the massacre and what followed, giving more weight to these elements of the meaning of Amritsar than to the massacre itself. He sets Amritsar in a wider social and political context that enables him to outline the need for reform in British politics and the reluctance of the ruling class to respond to that need.

Wagner looks at the massacre through a number of lenses. It’s difficult to get an unbiased picture, he tells us, because much of the primary source material was created after the massacre happened, and as a result of the massacre becoming contentious. Wagner says in the introduction that he wanted to be as objective as he could and so chose to approach his research by not assuming that the massacre would contribute to Indian independence or that a hundred years later it would be viewed as a symbol of British oppression.

He offers a portrait of Amritsar as a city, as much as he presents the facts of the massacre, believing the geography of such an urban space to be a factor in the events.

Drawing on a range of material from diaries, letters and court testimonies to produce an intimate account of colonial crisis, my aim has been to shed new light on a well-known story from multiple perspectives.

The diaries in particular reveal the blinkered experience of the British in Amritsar and show how rumour and lies were spread among them in response to the calls for self rule from the Indian population.

Wagner writes engagingly, putting the evidence he has found into clear language and asking the reader to make a human connection with the history he is telling. He also pulls strands from other scholars’ approaches to colonial history and in particular Ann Stoler’s approach of reading “along the archival grain”. He takes this to mean reconstructing the events as they were experienced at the time, not just as they were documented to have happened. Placing experience and meaning at the centre of his research approach makes for a riveting book. He is my kind of historian.

Wagner’s geographical approach begins with a series of maps. The first shows the Punjab, of which Amritsar is a part, and the offences/outrages/direct actions undertaken in the region in the days before and after the massacre. The next map focuses down on the city of Amritsar and provides details not just of the Indian direct actions but also of the locations where General Dyer, instigator of the massacre, made his proclamations warning the local population that gatherings would not be tolerated. Map three focuses on an area near the railway station where a shooting happened three days before the massacre, while map four is a ground plan of Jallianwala Bagh. Before Wagner’s narrative properly begins, our attention is focused on the region and the urban geography and we are already thinking about how other events might have influenced Dyer’s decision to indiscriminately open fire without warning on the people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh. Later, we learn of the racialised geography of the city, with the ruling British occupying a distinct area across the railway bridge from the old city known as the Civil Lines, and the warren of streets and alleys of the old city being unfamiliar territory to the British.

Most importantly for understanding Amritsar, Wagner brings in the Indian Uprising of 1857. For Wagner, understanding this uprising is the key to understanding British attitudes to Indian people in the following years and to understanding the British fear of further resistance that led Dyer to make the decision he did. This fear stemmed from the brutality of the attacks against the occupying British, and was facilitated by the trait still present in some white men of European origin to feel outrage when non-white men of non-European origin dare to do anything to their women and their children. The reprisals for the uprising were equally brutal and chosen to offend the religious beliefs of those being executed. The extracts from the memoirs of colonial officers involved in quelling the uprising are disgusting in their racism. Wagner demonstrates that the long shadow cast by the uprising led to a specific approach to ruling Punjab, one that continued right into the twentieth century. British fears in India, to the mystification of British people back home, were kept heightened by rumours in the popular press and by novels set in the region that exaggerated the risk of further rebellion along the same lines of that half a century previously. Violence, referred to by the British as exemplary punishment, was the go to response to rebellion, imagined or actual. And there was very little actual. The propaganda in newspapers and novels referred to by Wagner reminded me of the conspiracy theories and outright lies that are freely shared by our populist politicians today who want to keep people in a state of terror but put the blame at the feet of those who aren’t white. It confirmed for me that there’s something fundamentally broken about white British culture. I’m the child of older parents who both had older parents and so both my grandfathers fought in the First World War and both my parents grew up during the Second World War. I was brought up to venerate the First World War in particular, for the sacrifice made by young men of my class for the greater good of the world. There’s an element of truth to that, but I am starting to see that in Britain we set too much store by these past actions, harking back to a very different time in history far too often, and refusing to accept that the world has changed and that not only are we not the nation we were back then in social and political terms but we never really were. This book makes that latter point clear.

Wagner reports the reactions back in Britain to how British rule was being meted out in India, making it seem as though the biggest bullies had made their way out to India, where they behaved as though they were free to subjugate the Indian people in whatever way they saw fit, beyond the bounds of common decency, because the liberals back home couldn’t possibly understand what it was like trying to impose British rule in a country like India. The British Government in India was stuck in a rut of divide and conquer.

This was in spite of the numerous changes taking place in India. The cynical co-opting of Indian troops during the First World War, with promises of greater involvement for Indian men in the governance of the country, was an attempt to protect British interests in the region while staving off the threat of the nationalist demand for independence.

British colonial governance during this period thus vacillated between liberal attempts to co-opt and conciliate Western-educated Indians and those nationalists working within a constitutional framework, and draconian repression of revolutionary nationalists who sought to overthrow the Raj by violent means.

This all made me think of a recent British television series, Indian Summers, which attempted to marry the ‘Golden Age of the Raj’ mythologising with the facts of the Indian struggle for independence. In this TV show we saw the British attempting to continue in the old ways of segregation and superiority and the increasingly well educated Indians in minor civil service roles removing their blinkers to join the nationalist fight. For me, it was useful to make a connection between something hinted at in a TV drama with actual political change happening thirty years earlier. I’ve been reading recently about the modernisation of Britain in the interwar period by a sequence of Conservative governments led by Stanley Baldwin that moved Britain away from the traditional governance by the ruling class towards the increasing involvement of the merchant class – those upper middle class bankers and businessmen who had used the Victorian period of industrialisation to shift the balance of power away from the landowners. It’s a different setting with different protagonists, but Britain’s early 20th century modernisation isn’t so far from the push for modernisation and independence from a defunct system of control championed by Indian nationalists. Wagner usefully brings in the wider picture of political change in Britain as context for the changes sought in India and resisted by the British.

Wagner also discusses the Defence of India Act, which was put in place during the First World War to subdue any potential political opposition to British rule and any political action seeking to bring about self rule. Political activists could be detained and deported without evidence or trial. These powers were retained as some kind of spurious precaution once the war was over, enshrined in what was popularly known as the Rowlett Act. Wagner provides useful background to this Act as well as detail on its implementation in Amritsar at the end of March when one of India’s nationalist movement leaders, Dr Satyapal, was prevented from attending a meeting held in Jallianwala Bagh in response to Gandhi’s call for a national day of fasting and peaceful protest. I found echoes in what Wagner says about the Rowlett Act in a number of current pieces of legislation in force in Britain that on the surface are portrayed as bringing security and stability to the nation but in practice are used to intimidate and surveil people who mainly don’t have white skin. The ruling class enjoys finding subtle ways to exercise its lust for power. In Punjab in 1919, Lieutenant-Governor-General Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the official who ordered Satyapal’s detention, embraced the necessity of the Rowlett Act with a particularly paranoid zeal. Wagner sums up his attitude:

Any critique of the British Government was thus labelled as simply extremist, and any form of organisation or movement was immediately branded a conspiracy.

The detention of Satyapal and another leader,  Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, and their subsequent expulsion from Amritsar led to a face off between the Indian population of Amritsar and the British on 10 April 1919, three days before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. Initially a peaceful protest, tensions soon boiled over into shootings by the British and rioting by the Indians. Death occurred at the hands of both sides, and lines of communication were cut by the Indian rioters leading to rumours passing among the British about the severity of the situation.

Again, Wagner uses a mix of diary accounts, witness testimony and newspaper reports from the time to build a picture of the fear, anger, chaos and confusion that existed before, during and after the riot. It makes it easy to imagine being there.

The following day, the British response was to bring in aeroplanes and to threaten bombing the city if the residents left their homes other than to conduct funerals. A proclamation issued by Deputy Commissioner Irving permitting only eight people at a funeral was rejected by the Indian population, with the result that the limit on attendees was raised to 2000 but everyone had to be back in their homes by 2pm. Wagner points out that the threat of bombing was not included in official reports and so did not become part of the historical narrative about the unrest in Punjab. Only the private sources used by Wagner in his research make clear that aeroplanes were brought to Amritsar from Lahore and bombing was threatened as a consequence of Indian people gathering together. The British considered themselves to be at war with the Indian population. In reaction to the situation, one Brigadier-General R E H Dyer took it upon himself to go to Amritsar and take command. Dyer was considered to be a good soldier “with a great knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Indian.” He arrived the evening after the riots. The British misreading of the situation enabled Dyer to behave as though martial law was in place, ignoring the requirements of Military Law that included formal warnings before opening fire on rioters and use of minimum force in suppressing riots. Not only had martial law not been declared, but civil law had not fully been ceased, due to Kitchin improvising his abdication of authority when Dyer arrived before the officially appointed military commander and took control without authority. The panic of the British meant that all consideration of the law went out of the window. Nobody in authority was willing to assume responsibility, and some denied all knowledge of the law.

By default, rather than by design, General Dyer was thus given completely free reign at Amritsar and effectively operated beyond the law.

Dyer’s first encounter with the inhabitants of Amritsar was an attempt to disperse a crowd returning from a funeral in the morning of 12 April 1919, followed by a rounding up of the men Dyer considered to be the ringleaders of the riot two days previously without any legal grounds to do so. Dyer was also minded to use force to disperse any crowds, pulling back from doing so on 12 April on the basis that “it would not be quite right and that perhaps I had better make a proclamation”.

Interestingly, Dyer was seen by the British civilians in Amritsar as the strong man sent to save them from the weakness of the incumbent government officials. The use of hyperbole by Kitchin, the Commissioner of Lahore, to whip up fear among the British and then the appearance of the decisive and firm handed Dyer reads like a populist playbook, the intention being to sidestep the law and impose the will of right thinking individuals.

Wagner discusses the 24 hours leading up to the massacre and the massacre itself almost in passing. In this history, the massacre is the kernel of a wider story that is composed of the history leading up to Dyer’s choices and the days following, so he doesn’t bring too close a focus on the event itself. What he makes clear in relation to the massacre and the hours beforehand is that there was miscommunication again, as Dyer failed to appreciate either the complex geography of Amritsar when planning the route for his proclamations of the curfew and banning of gatherings or the fact that there was a festival happening, bringing people from the surrounding region to the city, and that other proclamations might grab people’s attention before his did. The end result was that few Indians heard or paid much heed to Dyer’s proclamations and the meeting planned before the proclamations were made went ahead in Jallianwala Bagh without the organisers understanding the implications of their decision. The massacre was inevitable, because Dyer was determined to apply his own version of military law, that he effectively used as martial law.

Because of where I’m from and my political beliefs, I saw parallels to a precedent set 200 years ago in how the British ruling class prefers to deal with large gatherings of people who threaten their grip on power. A massacre at St Peter’s Field in Manchester happened on 16 August 1819, with troops brought in to disperse people who had gathered to protest their lack of political representation. A heavy handed approach to crowd dispersal involving sabres resulted in ten to twenty people being killed and around 650 injured. Peterloo was also a peaceful gathering treated as a seditious uprising with a risk of revolution by the authorities. It also happened at a time when revolution in another country, France rather than Russia, was still fresh in the minds of those in authority. It was the result of long rumbling political dissatisfaction and the flashpoint that led to later political reform. What was different was how things played out in the immediate aftermath, there being white bodies involved rather than brown bodies.

Wagner shows that, in the days following the Amritsar massacre, Dyer was quick to employ the concept of exemplary punishment to reinforce his message to the imaginary conspirators his paranoia had cooked up that Britain held no truck with sedition. Dyer came up with the infamous crawling punishment, which featured in Sanghera’s documentary, in which anyone not complying with his various proclamations about showing respect and observing the curfew, or anyone suspected of plotting against the British, would be forced at gunpoint to crawl on their belly along the muddy street. He was particularly fond of forcing people to do this along a narrow alleyway where a British woman had been attacked during the riots of 10 April. He also set up a flogging post in the same alleyway, which he’d bizarrely designated as sacred ground due to its association with the attack on the woman, after O’Dwyer banned him from putting on public floggings.

Alongside all of this personal brutality, the British Government in India agreed to backdate the martial law that Dyer had unilaterally declared to the days just before the agitation against the Rowlett Act took hold. This enabled them to criminalise everyone involved in the initial protest, the subsequent riot and the gathering in Jallianwala Bagh three days later, however loosely involved they actually were, and to do away with the need for evidence or fair trial. Men were rounded up indiscriminately. Men and women were coerced into identifying suspects. Putative witnesses and those they accused were tortured by the police, including men being raped using sticks. And the wonderful, holy, fair and democratic British turned a blind eye because brown bodies are worth nothing next to white. Disgraceful.

Some of the descriptions of what people went through during the frenzy of hatred instigated by the British in response to the massacre are sickening. People talk about it being a different time with different attitudes, but it doesn’t make it right that one group of people should subjugate, humiliate and brutalise another. No decent human being, whatever era they lived in, would participate in what the British did directly and indirectly in Amritsar. And the things that happened are not so far away from the things that happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed, so what really have we white people learned?

One thing that struck me about Wagner’s writing style, that I see as the mark of a good historian, was that it’s possible to read the evidence he presents so objectively in whatever way you choose to interpret it. I came away livid at the injustice, but I could see that someone today who holds similar views to the British in 1919 would find Dyer’s behaviour entirely justifiable and deserved. I was glad of Wagner’s measured delivery of the facts and his entire lack of hyperbole, but part of me wanted to know that he was raging, too. There was right and wrong on both sides, of course there was, but in no way was what Dyer set out to do, in full admission of not knowing the geography or social structure of the city or the context for recent events, a balanced response to a group of people gathering together to discuss how they could express their opposition to a specific change in the law. Dyer comes across as bloody minded and a bully, the worst of what military service can bring out in a person.

Wagner next goes on to discuss the impact of Punjab being separated from the rest of India for a couple of months after the massacre, as martial law was enforced and the authorities attempted to quell the unrest happening across the region. There were restrictions on travel into and out of the region and censorship of the press prevented the full story from being widely disseminated. It wasn’t until the lifting of martial law in early June that Indian politicians, lawyers and journalists were able to enter Punjab to support those imprisoned without legal representation and to deliver relief to the Indian population suffering under the actions of the British that included cutting the water and electricity supplies to the old city as well as imposing a curfew. Once outside observers gained access to witnesses in the region, the full details of the unrest and the massacre came to light, prompting the Indian nationalists who led Congress to set up their own inquiry. This was independent of the official inquiry being run by Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy to India, that had begun a matter of weeks earlier and was intended to reassure Indians that Britain was committed to fairness and reform while at the same time shutting up the Government’s critics.

The suspicions of the Indian politicians, lawyers and journalists that the British weren’t being completely transparent about the massacre meant that the two parallel investigations continued in October, when the British set up the Disorders Inquiry Committee, known as the Hunter Committee after its Chair, Lord Hunter. The parallel Indian National Congress Punjab Inquiry sought to include testimony from individuals like Kitchlew and Satyapal who had been imprisoned during the period of martial law and were therefore barred from participating in the Hunter Committee inquiry.

In giving testimony to the Hunter Committee, Dyer subtly changed his reason for opening fire from self defence to the execution of duty. Referring back to the colonial mindset established by the 1857 uprising, Wagner says this:

… none of his different explanations were mutually incompatible. In fact, everything that Dyer said was a reflection of the same colonial mindset, which carried the indelible imprint of the lessons of the mutiny. The large gathering of people at Jallianwala Bagh could only be perceived as an imminent threat to a heavily armed force if Indian crowds were considered to be inherently irrational and violent. The same threat assessment that made Dyer panic thus also prescribed the appropriate response to avert the imagined threat, namely a prompt and striking example. The fear of being overrun and the perceived need to teach the population of Punjab a lesson were two sides of the same coin. The unarmed crowd gathered at Jallianwala Bagh could only be mistaken for a rebel army, and the surge of fleeing people only perceived as an attack, if Dyer regarded Indians in racialized terms and amenable only to the language of brute force. The bare facts of the case were indeed incompatible with the notion that Dyer had merely been trying to disperse the crowd, or that he had done so with a minimum amount of force. At no point had the crowd actually turned against the troops, and all the casualties were incurred as people were either sitting down, taking cover or running away from the firing, i.e. dispersing, and in many instances people were shot as they were trying to scale the walls to escape.

It is still possible to feel a small amount of sympathy for Dyer in all this. The findings of the British portion of the Hunter Committee used him as a scapegoat, conveniently distracting from the involvement of the wider Government in Punjab and in particular O’Dwyer, who was effectively exonerated by the official report. The three Indian members of the Hunter Committee disagreed with this opinion and issued their own minority report. This, too, condemned Dyer but also held O’Dwyer to account for his part in the mismanagement of the situation. In contrast, the report of the Indian National Congress Punjab Inquiry held O’Dwyer and the Punjab administration responsible, with Dyer in the role of enforcer rather than instigator of policy. Given the evidence presented by Wagner, I’m in agreement with the authors of the minority report that both O’Dwyer and Dyer were responsible in different ways, O’Dwyer through his commitment to obfuscation of the facts and implied permission for Dyer’s actions, and Dyer through his bloody-minded belief that he had all the necessary information to assess the situation and his utter commitment to the subjugation of the Indian population.

The fallout from the official report was that Britain’s position on its high horse of fairness was revealed to be a ridiculous one. Britain had always compared itself in colonial terms to Germany, with the German colonial regime depicted as ‘frightful’ in respect of its atrocities committed in Africa before the First World War and those committed during the war. Britain now, with its actions not only in India but also in Ireland where independence was also being sought, was shown to be equally as ‘frightful’ as Germany in its attitude to its colonial citizens. History, when told objectively, shows us that Britain has been as guilty as any other powerful European country and as any other majority white country with its population origins in Europe of subjugating and exploiting less powerful countries in violent ways. Wagner makes the point in telling the story of Amritsar that the British attitude towards its colonial citizens was one of strict parent or school teacher, employing the tough love stance of punishment being to the benefit of everyone. The people of Amritsar and Punjab were expected to learn a lesson from Dyer’s actions at Jallianwala Bagh and during the weeks that followed, and be grateful for that lesson. Wagner later refers to the inherently racist attitude of the British ruling class in India towards the population they were governing. In Rudyard Kipling’s words, the Indian population was seen by the British as “half devil and half child”.

This was the prevailing sentiment among the British in India and back home, starting with the House of Lords in the aftermath of the condemnation of Dyer by the House of Commons and ending with Dyer’s exoneration as a result of a libel case brought by O’Dwyer in 1924, that caused most British people to feel outrage that Dyer had been vilified for “doing his duty”. Only five years after ordering the massacre of innocent people, Dyer had been rehabilitated to the point of receiving a state funeral when he died in 1927.

Wagner, in his conclusion, addresses both the selective quoting of Churchill’s speech in 1920 that apparently condemned the massacre at Amritsar when in fact it condemned Dyer for going against the British standard of governing a colonial dependency, and the failure of any British Government since 1919 to apologise to India on behalf of the nation. Britain is not keen on apologising for the harm it does to its citizens, whether those in Britain or those around the world afforded citizenship through Britain’s occupation of their countries. We don’t like to admit that we get things wrong. Wagner refers to the whitewashing of British colonial violence by historians across the political spectrum.

The result is an implicitly sanitised account of the British Empire. By downplaying the ubiquity of racialised violence in Britain’s imperial history, or simply relegating the subject to the margins of analysis, respectable scholarship ultimately ends up sustaining more insidious narratives.

The level of violence in the British response to Indian unrest was extreme but shouldn’t be surprising. It is still the norm for the ruling class to respond to dissent by obliterating it rather than by engaging in dialogue. Kettling and arresting protestors for disturbing the peace isn’t at the same level as gunning down a trapped crowd of people or carrying out aerial bombing of what is considered an unlawful assembly, but it comes from the same fear of losing power. Wagner quotes Labour MP J C Wedgwood quoting Gandhi in 1920 in a way that sums up what still needs to happen in Britain’s social structures.

The complaint is not that General Dyer committed this crime. It is not just a question of punishing General Dyer. I agree with Me Gandhi, the great Indian, representing, I think, all that is finest in India, when he said, ‘We do not want to punish General Dyer; we have no desire for revenge; we want to change the system that produces General Dyers.’

Amritsar 1919 isn’t just a history of a massacre. It’s a mirror held up to white British attitudes towards anyone we think of as other to our supremacy. It was painful to read, not just because of the injustice of the British authorities in Punjab but because of the way the same attitudes are still so deeply ingrained in white British society. You have only to listen to the rhetoric of the current Conservative Party leadership candidates or to the opinions of those who believe that leaving the EU will restore Britain to its fabled past glories to understand that very little has changed in the white British psyche in the past hundred years. It’s depressing to think that there are so few of us in Britain who are willing to look into the kind of mirror that historians like Wagner hold up to us.


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