Bloodbath at Baisakhi: the centenary of the Amritsar massacre

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

On 10 April 1919, the peppery governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, ordered the immediate arrest of two leaders of the Indian National Congress in Amritsar. Doctors Satyapal and Kitchlew were both gentle, Cambridge-educated medics who had responded to Gandhi’s call for non-violent resistance to British rule, satyagraha. O’Dwyer took the view that their actions were treacherous and seditious.

Like Gandhi and many other Indian political leaders, Satyapal and Kitchlew had responded dutifully when the first world war broke out; out of the one million Indians who volunteered, half had come from the Punjab. It had been expected that after such unprecedented loyalty, Britain would reward India with Dominion status and a degree of self-government. When, instead, the postwar government had passed the Rowlatt Act — a repressive law which limited freedom of expression and congregation — Gandhi told his followers to resist with strikes and marches of protest.

Satyapal and Kitchlew were invited to report to the house of the deputy commissioner, Miles Irving, at 10 a.m. They arrived on time, expecting to be consulted by Irving. Instead they were immediately arrested, bundled into a car and driven off across the Punjab to the hill-station of Dharamasala, where they were placed under house arrest and forbidden to communicate with their families or followers.

Without their Gandhian leaders present to insist on peaceful protest, the subsequent marches in Amritsar soon turned violent. For 24 hours the city was consumed by riots. By afternoon, buildings and cars were in flames across the city and five Brits had been horribly killed: two railway guards had their heads smashed to a pulp with staves, while three bank managers were beaten, and then burned alive with kerosene. More horrifying still to imperial sensibilities, an unarmed lady missionary on a bicycle was pursued through the streets, assaulted and left for dead.

The actions seemed to mirror the opening scenes of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and O’Dwyer responded savagely. Soldiers shot down around 30 rioters. There were mass arrests, floggings and, in the lane where the missionary had been assaulted, residents were made to crawl on their hands and knees. Nearby, aircraft machine- gunned villagers walking towards the city, then dropped bombs on their village. A curfew was imposed on much of Amritsar, and proclamations were issued warning that all gatherings would be fired upon.

Two days of relative peace followed the sudden explosion of violence. Then, on the 13 April, a large group of around 15–20,000 gathered in the Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar. Many were Sikh villagers who, unaware of the proclamations, had come in from the countryside to celebrate the annual holiday of Baisakhi. Others were Congress supporters, gathering to protest peacefully against the arrest of their leaders. More were ordinary city dwellers who had come to the garden to relax on the holiday, after days of tension. Few seemed to be aware than the ban on gatherings was still in place.

Then, at 4.30 p.m., General Reginald Dyer marched into Jallianwalla Bagh with 140 troops, most of them Gurkhas, but with a few Sikhs and Baluchis as well. Having blocked the exits, and without issuing any warnings, they fired 1,650 rounds of ammunition at short range into the peaceful and unresisting crowd. Official estimates put the casualties at 379 killed and 1,200 injured. Popular estimates put the figure as much as ten times higher. In fact the dead (who included many women and children) probably numbered between 500 and 600, with three times that many wounded. Dyer had brought two vehicles carrying machine guns with him and had only been prevented from bringing them into the garden by the narrow entrance. He subsequently admitted that there would probably have been many more casualties had he been able to deploy his Maxim guns.

The massacre was a major turning point in the Indian freedom struggle and, along with Gandhi’s Salt March 11 years later, was one of the two moments which gave India’s journey to independence its unstoppable momentum. For a generation of Anglophile Indians brought up on British propaganda that the Raj was just and uncorrupt, and that it had replaced centuries of arbitrary tyranny at the hands of brutal Muslim invaders, Jallianwalla Bagh was a moment of revelation. Tagore immediately gave back his knighthood. The Nehrus were radicalised overnight, Motilal announcing that his ‘blood was boiling’ while Jawaharlal’s was ‘like superheated steam’. Gandhi lost his faith — intact until that point — in British justice, and wrote that he had ‘underrated the forces of evil’ in the British empire.

This month marks the centenary of the massacre, and a slew of new books mark the occasion. Few are likely to be half as good as Kim Wagner’s brilliantly clear and authoritative analysis of the massacre, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Massacre or Anita Anand’s remarkable and brilliantly researched non-fiction thriller, The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj. Both books are well-written, contain new research and break much fresh ground; but in other respects they could not be more different.

Wagner’s style is coolly forensic and scholarly. He sets the massacre in its full historical context, and with massive research into a wide range of primary sources—almost every sentence is footnoted — gets as close as we are ever likely to get to the truth of what happened in Jallianwalla Bagh. In the process, he demolishes a large number of myths that have grown up around the event, both imperial and nationalist.

Anita Anand (full disclosure: she has co-authored a book with this reviewer) takes a more warm-blooded approach, focussing on one extraordinary story that had never been properly told before. The Punjabi revolutionary, Udham Singh, a Sikh orphan who was radicalised by the massacre, spent his life hunting down the man he held ultimately responsible, the former Punjab governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, whom he finally assassinated in London at a public meeting in the early months of the second world war.Singh is a great nationalist hero in the Punjab, but until now not a figure about whom much was known. Through some remarkable research in archives around the world, Anand has reconstructed much of his life, from his early days in the rural Punjab through his radicalisation at Jallianwalla Bagh and his subsequent journey through the international Indian revolutionary underground in Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia, and, perhaps most surprisingly, 1920s California.

Singh entered America illegally, through the porous Mexican border. Now generously funded by sympathisers and armed to the teeth, he married Lupe, a Latina beauty.  His journey takes us through brutal British interrogation cells and the roughest prisons of the Raj, into a twilight world of early Indian immigrants in London and the US, where money was raised for the independence struggle through a network of Gurdwaras and temples, with growing assistance from shadowy Nazi and Soviet spies, all hoping to bring down the Raj. It is no surprise to learn that Anand sold the film rights long before publication.

Both Wagner and Anand have written important books about subjects we should know more about. Amritsar was by no means the worst British atrocity in India: there were many worse examples, notably the bloodshed in the aftermath of 1857, when the British army massacred tens of thousands of innocents. Yet in Britain we remain largely ignorant of the blacker side of our imperial legacy and are still taught that it was only our German enemies who turned racism into an ideology that justified mass murder. In contrast, the Raj, we like to believe, resembled some enormous Merchant Ivory film writ large over the plains of Hindustan, all parasols and Simla tea parties, friendly elephants and handsome maharajahs.

As much of the story of the empire is still absent from our history curriculum most Brits remain ill-equipped to judge either the good or the bad we did to the rest of the world. This matters. Over and over again, we see our diplomats, businessmen and politicians wrong-footed as they underestimate the degree to which we are distrusted, and, in a few places, actively disliked. Because of the wrong-headedly positive spin we tend to put on our imperial past, we habitually overplay our hand.

This was demonstrated most humiliatingly by the ever-hapless Theresa May when she visited India with a delegation of businessmen in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. She seemed to believe that she could just kick start the empire, as if it was like an old motorbike which has been left in a garage for a few years and which, given the breakdown of Britain’s European limousine, she could now merrily mount and ride off into the sunset. But her strategy of striking trade deals with Commonwealth countries — dubbed Empire 2.0 — proved, as we now know, a deeply embarrassing failure. Liam Fox’s inability to secure trade deals with any countries other than Liechtenstein, Fiji and Papua New Guinea reflects the same fatal over-confidence.

Books such as Amritsar 1919 and The Patient Assassin are now more important than ever because they help us to understand why Indians — like so many other peoples around the globe — often have such bitter memories of British rule. Because of events like Amritsar, today it is widely believed in India — rightly or wrongly — that we were little better than looters and plunderers who subjected the subcontinent to centuries of humiliation. Until we learn to see ourselves as others see us, and to understand the very good reasons why the Raj is regarded as so toxic in India, the kind of national humiliations suffered by May and Fox look likely to continue.

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