The Amritsar massacre (April 13, 1919) helped many moderate Indian nationalists become fiercely anti-British.
The Rowlatt Acts, enacted by the British government, had outraged politically minded Indians. Extending wartime emergency legislation, the Rowlatt Acts gave the British viceroy in India the authority to silence the press, make arrests without a warrant, and imprison without trial. The Indian members of the viceroy’s legislative assembly opposed this legislation, and several of them resigned (including Mohammad Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan).
To protest the Rowlatt Acts, Mohandas K. Gandhi called for a national hartal, a day of prayer and fasting, that on April 6 closed most shops and businesses in the northwestern province of the Punjab. The British administration in the Punjab, headed by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, was notoriously stern, and the province had long seethed with unrest. In Lahore there were large anti-British demonstrations and a railroad strike. On April 10, on O’Dwyer’s order, British officials in Amritsar arrested Dr. Saif-ud-Din Kitchlew, a Muslim lawyer, and Dr. Satyapal, a Hindu who had served as a medical officer in the British army. They were leaders of the Amritsar nationalist movement. In the angry reaction against these arrests, violence broke out resulting in destruction of property and looting in Amritsar. Five British civilians and 10 Indians were killed. A school superintendent, Marcella Sherwood, was trapped by a mob, badly beaten, and left for dead. This mistreatment of a British woman outraged officials.
The satan in the story of the Amritsar massacre was Reginald E. H. “Rex” Dyer. Dyer was a colonel who held the temporary rank of brigadier general while commanding an infantry brigade in the Punjab. Born in India, he was competent in several Indian languages, including Hindi and Punjabi. Before the Amritsar massacre, he had not had a reputation of being more racist than other British officers. In fact, early in 1919 he had resigned from the officers’ club that served his brigade because he objected to the exclusion of Indians who held commissions as officers. He appears to have been lacking in self-confidence while at the same time being stubborn and rash. He did not always obey orders. Unfortunately, he was stationed near Amritsar.
Apparently, Dyer acted on his own initiative in moving his brigade to Amritsar on April 11. On the next day he reissued an earlier government order that banned any meetings or gatherings. He did not continue the previous policy of slowly extending British military and police control over one part of the city after another. He preferred to parade large forces through Amritsar as a demonstration of strength and then withdraw them.
Despite the proclamations against meetings, thousands of Indians flocked to the Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, most of them in support of the imprisoned Kitchlew and Satyapal. Some arrived after the police had closed a nearby fair held in honor of the Sikh new year. By late afternoon a huge throng was present, a rather quiet crowd and not an angry mob. Estimates vary, but there certainly were more than 10,000 people. The Bagh was a trap for them. Enclosed by the walls of surrounding buildings, it had only a few narrow openings for entrance or exit, some of them locked.
Dyer made no attempt to prevent the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh or to disperse it peacefully. He decided to make an example of those who had violated the British prohibition of large gatherings. For this purpose he assembled a small force of 90 men that included no British soldiers. Instead he chose Baluchis, Gurkhas, and Pathans, “native” soldiers but ones who lacked sympathy for local Indians. He brought with him two armored cars equipped with machine guns. He later said that he did not use them because the entrances to the Bagh were too narrow. Even without the machine guns, the carnage was great. Without any warning Dyer’s soldiers fired on the crowd for 10 to 15 minutes. There was only one exit available for the thousands. In desperation many of those in the Bagh jumped into a deep well. After his troops had fired 1,650 rounds, Dyer ordered an end to the slaughter because he feared that his men would run out of ammunition and not be able to protect their withdrawal. Nobody knows how many people were killed. An official estimate made by the British authorities says 379. An Indian investigation says 530. The wounded numbered over 1,000.
After the facts of the massacre became known, Dyer was dismissed. He returned to Britain, where a special commission of investigation censured him in 1920. Despite the official censure, some in Britain saw Dyer as a hero who took decisive action to prevent a rebellion that might have shaken British rule throughout the subcontinent. For many members of the upper and middle classes and military officers, Dyer was a victim of the government’s need to appease Indian nationalists. Dyer died of natural causes in 1927. An embittered Indian assassinated O’Dwyer in 1940.
David M. Fahey