Jallianwala Bagh:  The British Empire and the Day of Reckoning

First of two parts.

April 13 is never likely to be forgotten in India, certainly not in the Punjab.  That day, 103 years ago, 55-year-old Reginald Dyer, an acting Brigadier-General in the Indian Army born in Murree, in what is now Pakistan, ordered fifty Gurkha and Balochi riflemen to commence firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  Some Indian estimates of how many people were killed ran to about 1,000.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men: “Good shooting.”  The men had done their duty, order had apparently been restored: “We have done a jolly good thing.”

Jallianwala Bagh after the massacre, 1919.

It was Baisakhi, the first day of the spring harvest festival, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  Though Indians had given their lives by the tens of thousands in World War I, a war which was scarcely their own, they got rewarded at the end of the war with increased repression. True, in mid-1918, the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils. From the standpoint of Indian liberals, these reforms were too little and too late, and the more militant-minded among Indian nationalists clamored for much greater concessions from the British. Nor did Indians seem prepared to accept the preposterous idea, which the English took rather too seriously about themselves, that their word was as good as gold or that they believed above all in the idea of “fair play”.  Unfortunately, British goodwill would soon be exposed as a mere chimera.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper in early 1919 with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.” 

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.” This was just days before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Punjab was being governed by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a firm believer in authoritarian rule who fancied himself a savior of the simple-minded Indian peasants who, according to him, had nothing to do with politics and deserved protection from treacherous urban Indian elites.  Like Reginald Dyer, with whom he is often confused, O’Dwyer was of Irish extraction, a perhaps not unimportant fact considering that the Irish were brutalized by the English and in turn brutalized those whom they colonized in policing the British empire. O’Dwyer did not at all take kindly to the defiance of authority and was certain, from his apparent study of history, that the great and firm hand of the British had not only saved the Punjab from the mutiny of 1857-58 but had been crucial in enlisting the aid of the Sikhs in suppressing the mutiny.  The government had no greater task than to uphold “law and order” and, watching the effects of the hartal initiated by Gandhi, he warned that the agitators “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

Local people point to the holes in the wall to suggest how Dyer directed the firing on 13 April 1919, deliberately aiming with the intent to kill as many people as possible.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving inadvertently revealed what truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.” That the Hindus and Muslims might unite was equally incomprehensible and alarming.  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity among Indians with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, “untouchable” to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might dare to act otherwise. 

The “Crawling Lane”.

Gandhi would subsequently describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation. Once the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh had stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. He would later state that no one asked for his help–who would ask for help from a butcher, one might ask–but his real attitude is betrayed by his confession that as soldier and officer of the law, his job was not to aid the wounded.  That was not his business.  The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air: this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification.”  O’Dwyer, who signaled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation which recalled the Rebellion of 1857-58.  Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of the Mutiny loomed over the prolific debates about the measures taken by the British to contain the disorders.

1919, however, was not 1857.  The Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered the phase of plebian protest.  Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.  The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an inquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by Lord William Hunter of Scotland.  Many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London.  The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality.  Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot” he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect.  Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgment of experienced officers, they argued, and many in Britain also agreed.  When, months later, Dyer was forced to resign his commission, the British public, led by the rabidly racist Morning Post, opened a fund in his name–the antecedent of the modern-day crowdfunding campaign–and raised £26,000 for him, an amount worth over £1.1 million today.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though I suspect that some Indians rejoiced that Dyer’s life was cut short by arteriosclerosis.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  Most people, even Indians, remember only the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but Gandhi was quite clear in his mind that the “crawling lane” order was even a greater wound on the Indian psyche.  What the British created in the Punjab was a regime of terror. The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Indian affairs had never commanded much attention in Parliament, but, rather unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”.  Montagu was grateful for the service that Dyer had rendered to the Empire.  Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so from none other than a motive “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism.”  Montagu went on to charge Dyer for “indulging in frightfulness.”  The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians:  “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in World War I.  That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.  The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practicing Jew, a suspect figure, and in 1922 Montagu himself was forced out of politics. 

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Every school history textbook describes how Tagore wrote a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood, characterizing the massacre as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”  More than twenty years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 years old at the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver.  O’Dwyer had spoken of the day of reckoning and now he got his comeuppance.  Remarkably, Dyer is the only person whose name Gandhi, with his own extraordinary flair for the English language, turned into an ideology.  He wrote of “Dyerism” to signify the terrorist apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.”  Churchill of course had a way with words, and so he continued:  “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”  But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”?  As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it:  the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.  As I shall argue in the subsequent essay, however great the atrocity of Jallianwala Bagh, the view that Jallianwala Bagh was somehow an exception cannot withstand scrutiny.  The British were then, as they are now, unrepentant and day of reckoning of the Empire has yet to come–even though British rule in India ended 75 years ago.

Additional Note: I published a 3-part piece on the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity on this blog in 2019. This first part is adapted from that piece, but some portions have been entirely rewritten. The second part that will follow in a few days is entirely new. Consequently, taken as a whole, this two-part piece is substantially new.)

This part was first published at abplive.in under the same title on 13 April 2022. Translations into Hindi, Punjabi, and a a number of other Indian languages are forthcoming.

5 thoughts on “Jallianwala Bagh:  The British Empire and the Day of Reckoning

  1. The sacredness of the white woman is a common trend in history, but only in relation to people of color. When a white man assaulted a white women no person batted an eye but if a black man and a white women were in a relationship in, for example, South Africa during apartheid, he could be imprisoned. You demonstrate a fantastic example of this faux-sacredness of white women in the example of the woman who was beaten by a group of Indians (and saved by other Indians). The fact that this was such an affront to the British men and caused such a severe reaction to retaliate with humiliation of any Indian who passed proves this point. If it were a group of white men, no such punishment would have been inflicted because her humiliation was not the cause of their retaliation, it was their collective humiliation as white men.

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  2. Racism plays an important role here. Particularly in the assault of the white woman Marcia Sherwood, the racism is plain as day. It is worth mentioning that if it had been an Indian woman being attacked, the authorities would not have intervened. The authorities would have turned a blind eye as it was not “one of them” being attacked. This theme of “us versus them,” in this case white people, particularly the British, against Indians is all too common throughout contemporary history. Sherwood was attacked and beaten by an Indian man and she was saved by other Indian people. Instead of punishing only the attacker, they punished all of the local people. However, the people in power saw her as “one of their own,” and deemed it necessary for not only the attacker, but all Indian people living in the area, to adhere to the dehumanizing mandate of crawling along the street. This ultimate humiliation drives home the fact that the authoritarian rulers in Punjab did not truly care about justice or order, rather punishing the group for the actions of one, or simply punishing the locals in any way that they could in order to assert dominance. Nice post, Professor!

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  3. The Jallianwala Bagh incident was the pivotal point which gave blatant proof that even if the Indians helped the British ( as seen in WWI where India had provided about 1.3 million men), their demands and needs would never be met. The British throughout their conquest of the Indian peninsula have followed the policy of divide and rule. So the mere fact that the Hindus and the Muslim were joining together in an act of protest against the British rule was preposterous.Though the incident was thoroughly debated upon, the British didn’t learn from it as seen in the case of the British induced famines in Bengal where more than 3 million Indians died. The British not only refused the plea for food submitted by high ranking officers present in India such as Admiral Mountbatten (Supreme commander of South-East Asia 1942), but also refused the food sent by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose ( leader of the then INA and a enemy of British colonial rule). The refusal to provide for food using the empire’s sterling reserves is similar to the case of assault on Ms Sherwood as it clearly depicts the racist ideology of the British.

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  4. The Jallianwala Bagh was pivotal point in the anti-colonial movements in India. This incident was the blatant proof that the British were an ungrateful lot who would disregard any help which came from India ( India had supplied 1.3 million men for the British during WWI). Instead of concessions, they (Indians) were further repressed as colonial extremists took official positions who seek to guide the inferior men through violence (Dwyer’s approval for the shooting in the Jallianwala Bagh) to maintain ‘law and order’ and the creation of ‘ the crawling lane’. Although thoroughly debated in the house of commons, the British refused to give up their idea of superiority. This later resurfaced during the Bengal famines where Britain’s War Cabinet refused to use its resources to provide food even after multiple pleas had been made. The white man’s war was reason enough for the Indian grain to to be snatched away from its people, causing 3 million people to die. Even the food sent by the INA under Netaji ( an Indian nationalist who seeked the freedom of India through military might) was refused. The famine showed that nothing had changed for Britain even after 20 years of the Jallianwala Bagh shooting.

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  5. I appreciate the fact that you made note of how Winston Churchill indeed held a deeply racist worldview that did not directly condemn British colonialism and imperialism. Churchill, who was a fierce imperialist and liberal ideologue, rejected the notion of a diplomatic peace process to quell discord. He instead viewed the continuation of conflict as presenting an opportune moment for Britain to drastically increase their share of world power and thereby become a nation of hegemonic potential like the United States. So his criticism of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is both self-serving and ironic: self-serving in that it was politically correct to make the statement since it showed a sense of moral righteousness, and ironic in that he, as you mentioned, would ignore the Bengal famine that left millions displaced and dead. Churchill was not a liberal in the traditional sense; he was more focused on radically elevating Britain’s global status. At his core, Churchill was certainly a conservative of the historical British policy of colonial control, probably because of its efficacy in satisfying the foreign policy establishment.

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