Learning From History’s Mistakes: Jallianwala Bagh

Vasily, Painting, Blowing, From, Guns, British
Image (Representational): "Blowing From Guns In British India" by Vasily Vereshchagin/ Public Domain
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place 98 years ago, but we've yet to take the right lessons from it.

“We do not want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.” – Gandhi

The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar in April 13, 1919 was the tipping point that exposed the idea of benevolent British rule as a myth. A convoy of armed soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd – who had nowhere to run. In the most conservative account, 379 were killed with over a thousand injured. At highest toll, over one thousand were killed. Whichever estimate you take, it happened on order of General Reginal Edward Dyer.

It’s important to understand how this could have happened, because incidents like these can always happen again in places where the military replaces civil law. After all, large gatherings continue to be suppressed by acts of force. The Morichjanpi Massacre of 1978-79 was similar in many ways – where hundreds of refugees on a mangrove island in West Bengal were blockaded until starvation and then fired upon by the police. Like Jallianwala Bagh, the true death toll was masked by the authorities.

This year, on the 98th anniversary of the massacre in Amritsar, a video surfaced from Kashmir showing the Army using a civilian as a human shield by strapping him to the bonnet of a jeep. Like General Dyer’s act, this too was meant to be a ‘warning’ to rebellious forces. It reminds us that there is always the potential for the military to overstep its reach. But it takes a special set of circumstances for something like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to happen – a combination of colonial impunity, and troops who don’t question what they’re told to do, even if it means killing their compatriots.

For the days leading up to the incident, the Punjab region had been embroiled in unrest. 20,000 men, women and children had gathered in an open ground in the city of Amritsar, defying curfew. The occasion was the religious festival of Baishakhi – but the crowd had Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in attendance, most on their way back from their temples. Speeches were delivered, making the gathering political – but still unarmed.

For Dyer, what mattered was that they were defying orders. He rolled in with armoured cars and 90 odd men – that he couldn’t fit into the narrow enclosure. He left them behind – for his men had rifles. Dyer ordered them to fire into the crowd.

Women, children, men – all were shot, with orders to target the densest parts of the crowd. There was nowhere to run, but for a small well on the edge of the compound. The soldiers fired 1650 rounds in total – at which point it’s said they ran out of ammunition. Dyer ordered his men to pack up. They left the wounded where they lay – and the 8:30 pm curfew meant many died in the night. 120 bodies were pulled out of the well alone. The youngest victim was seven months old.

As Dyer later testified:

I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral, and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would be greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.

Painting, Vasily, On, Defeat
Image (Representational): “On Defeat” By Vasily Vereshchagin

Dyer was simply a product of his times. Ever since the Revolt of 1857, the British had used extreme force as a means of discouraging protest. In the Kooka incident of 1872, 68 Sikhs were executed by cannons after a minor protest. It was the precedent to 1919, an incident defended by many who felt lives had been saved by the demonstration of force.

Growing up

The man whom we know today as the Butcher of Amritsar, General Reginald Edward Dyer, was born into a family of brewers in the hill town of Shimla. Like so many Britishers before him, Edward had been born and brought up in India, and spoke fluent Hindustani.

There are many retellings of the massacre – some that try to whitewash the British action and others that call it premediated murder. Very little was written objectively about Dyer’s life – and why he never backed down from what he did. So a former Gurkha named Nigel Collett set to work trying to put together a portrait of the man.

Reginald was the youngest of six children and an avid hunter. His father ran a brewery in the hills using imported equipment from Scotland (this would later become the Mohan Meakins Brewery that makes Old Monk Rum today).

Growing up amidst the hills, he once shot a female monkey by accident – and was haunted by the sight of its crying face as it struggled to cover its wounds. He was often reckless and got into several fights at school, where he was mocked for his stammer.

Out there, as the only Europeans residing in the hills, the Dyers developed an early feeling of being surrounded by an unknown, potentially dangerous populace. It didn’t help that Reginald was sent to school in Ireland in the midst of the great famine – where he saw first-hand how quickly civil unrest could spread. He enlisted with the military and was handling riot-control duties during the Belfast riots of 1886.

His next forays into battle were in Burma, and then the North-West Frontier province. He acquired a reputation for bravery as well a tendency to act alone.

In the run-up to the massacre, Amritsar had been facing frequent bouts of violence – particularly one incident where a British woman was beaten by a crowd in the city. The Gadar conspiracy was fresh in mind of the British authorities, and the revolt of 1857 was a constant menace in the mind of any colonial army-man. Dyer and his Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, both took a resolve towards crushing the resistance. They detained non-violent protestors – and when crowds formed to protest this, had soldiers open fire on them on April 11.

Though the British had ruled India for centuries, it was only with the events at Amritsar that many realized the brutality of colonization. Even in the midst of the shooting, some of the protestors were unfazed – thinking the government was firing blanks. For many Indians who still felt themselves to be citizens of Empire with rights, this betrayal knocked them off the fence.

Apologizing for Dyer

Dyer was not prosecuted for his crimes. The London newspaper, “The Morning Post” even arranged a fundraiser for him – collecting up to £26,000. Notables like Rudyard Kipling supported him. In a break from character, even Winston Churchill called Dyer’s acts as monstrous. When Dyer died, the Morning Post called him “The Man Who Saved India.” Deeply entrenched was the idea that force was needed to keep the Indians in check. Even to this day, apologists continue to defend Dyer’s actions.

In 2013, the Daily Mail published an article, based on a recent book, claiming that by killing 379, Dyer had prevented thousands of deaths from erupting in the event of a Punjab uprising. It even suggests that Dyer used restraint – apparently for not utilizing the Vickers machine gun on his armoured car. “Nor did Dyer use more than a fraction of the ammunition he brought with him: 1,650 rounds out of 9,000.”

Jallianwala Bagh reminds us each year of the tremendous restraint the philosophy of non-violence requires. The event was a trigger for the largest non-violent protest in history at the time – and gave the freedom movement a moral high ground that could not be reclaimed. If the intention was to quell protest, it achieved the exact opposite. Hopefully, that will be a reminder worldwide to governments who continue to use force to stamp down on their populace.


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