1815-1914

The British Empire

The Significance of the Amritsar Massacre

The Golden Temple of Amritsar

A hundred years ago this week, in the city of Amritsar, deep in the heart of the Punjab region of North West India, a massacre took place during which Brigadier-General Dyer of the British army ordered his troops to shoot at an unarmed crowd of several thousand men, women and children, killing several hundred. It wasn’t the only time a British army officer had ordered his troops to fire on an Indian crowd but such was the cold hearted way in which it was carried out and the numbers involved that it was a turning point in British Indian relations. Almost overnight, the illusion that the British were in India for their own benefit disappeared. Independence for India was now inevitable, and the British in India began to accept the inevitability of independence.


The Amritsar Massacre marked the failure of the British policy of concession and repression by which they had governed India from the time of  the Indian Rebellion in 1857. Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India for seven years from 1899, may have believed that the British would be in India for another hundred years but the events in Amritsar on 13 April 1919 made that impossible.


The contribution of India during World War One in which a million Indians fought for the British Empire led to expectations of self-government if not independence but the failure of the British to accede to the demands of the new independence movement led by Gandhi led to widespread disturbances throughout India and particularly in the province of the Punjab, from which thousands of Sikhs had joined the British army. In taking the actions he did on that day in April 1919 Dyer hoped to teach Indians a lesson they would not forget and restore order in a region that was verging on being beyond British control. By killing several hundred Indians (the official figure was 379) Dyer hoped to send a message that would reverberate all around India and save the British Empire.


The massacre continues to provoke debate and has become a symbol of Indian independence. Books continue to be published with Anita Anand questioning the nationalist myths that surround the massacre in her recent book ‘The Patient Assassin’ which focuses on the man who killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer whilst Kim Wagner in his book, ‘Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre’ is doubtful that the massacre was pre-medicated or that like Anand, it was a meeting about Indian nationalism.


Anita Anand,

author of ‘The Patient Assasin’

Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab

Brigadier-General Dyer

Wagner rightly points to the Indian Rebellion of 1857 as conditioning British thinking about India and its people in the late c19th. The Proclamation of 1857 may have been seen as an Indian Magna Carta by the Indian people, and there was certainly an increase of investment by the British in railways and agriculture, especially the building of irrigation projects, but Indian interests were always subordinate to British interests. By 1900 the railway network had been increased to 25,000 miles and irrigation schemes were used by 12% of the population but when the monsoon failed as it did in the 1870s and 1890s, millions faced starvation. In the 1870s as many as four million died in the Madras presidency alone, and the only help offered by the British was to set up work camps, often far away from where they were most needed. The British authorities moreover refused to take action to make available cheap grain and where work camps were available the daily ration was too sparse to keep starvation at bay. During the crisis of 1896, the Viceroy refused to take the advice of Queen Victoria and buy up grain to distribute. He was not prepared to deviate from his ideological commitment to free trade arguing that state interference in the free market could never be justified.


The development of the Indian economy served British interests with tax levies increasing in districts where irrigation projects brought land under cultivation. In 1895 an excise duty of 5% was put on cotton goods so that Indian industry did not threaten British industry.


The British in India created a little bit of England wherever they lived, and regarded themselves as superior to Indians in every way. Typical of the British attitude was Sir Michael O’Dwyer who as Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab in 1919 was the official who sent Dyer to Amritsar. O’Dwyer had begun his Indian career in 1885 and believed that the British were born to rule, and that the British had been given by God a Mission to Civilise. The British were in India to provide security for the Indian people, to develop their economies and to educate them. O’Dwyer regarded himself as the protector of the poor and that Indian nationalists were just agitators and not representative of the Indian people.


There were attempts to reform India but these were just concessions to appease a growing Indian middle class. With just over 1000 civil servants and about 80,000 European troops the Raj lacked the ability to force its rule on the Indian people. The British had to govern with the consent of the Indian princes who managed half of the country and it was Morley, Secretary of State for India from 1905, who once suggested that if the British had to chose between political concessions and martial law, it would have to choose concessions. The Morley-Minto reforms of 1908 introduced some element of representative government when sixty elected Indians were added to the Viceroy’s legislative executive council and between thirty and fifty to the provincial councils. The notion of democratic elections was not fully supported by British officials who found they now had to take into account the views of Indians.


If the Morley-Minto reforms marked a slow movement towards self- government, World War One put a hold on any further moves. The war left the Indian people feeling let down by the complete lack of anything for having participated in Britain’s war on the Western Front and in the Middle East. When sedition increased during and immediately after the War, the British government introduced stringent anti-terror laws (Rowlatt Acts). Wartime measures were extended including trial without juries and internment at a time when Gandhi was emerging as India’s main nationalist leader and the promoter of a new type of campaign weapon – satyagraha or passive resistance. Gandhi appealed to the peasantry and and also  Muslims who joined his campaign for fear of what the British might do to the Turkish caliphate. With the impact of the flu epidemic and prices rising faster than wages, domestic dissatisfaction added to feelings of uncertainly about the whole international situation.


Images of the British in India, including a typical bungalow

Gandhi began his satyagraha campaign in March 1919 however each one was accompanied by disorderly processions, meetings, arson and police violence. In the Punjab there were riots in several cities including Amritsar on the 10th, 11th and 12th April. The Lieutenant-Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer believed there to be an imminent full scale uprising which might involve the mutiny of his Indian troops and the attempted overthrow of the Raj and he decided to send the like minded Brigadier-General Dyer, from his base at Jalandhar to Amritsar where he arrived on the morning of 11 April with 1,100 troops and two armoured cars with machine guns.


Amritsar was a city of 150,000 people and in those early days of April was in a state of excitement as a result of two hartals (general strikes) on 30 March and 6 April organized by two leading nationalists: Dr Kitchlew and Dr Pal, who had both  been arrested for organizing the hartals which received general support from both the city’s Muslim and Hindu population.  The hartals had gone off quite peacefully but there followed riots on 10 April in which Europeans were attacked and buildings set on fire and looted. Two European bank clerks were killed and a British missionary, Miss Sherwood was beaten up and left to die. Attempts to restore order by the police had only made matters worse and Dyer arrived to find all civic order non-existent.


The morning after he arrived Dyer led a party of over 400 troops and the armoured cars into the city to establish his presence. The following day he re-entered Amritsar and at various places had a proclamation read out which imposed a curfew and banned all meetings. As with the previous day Dyer’s troops were received with a sullen silence apart from the shouts which they heard about the British Raj. Dyer was by this time receiving reports of rumours of possible mutiny within the army and he must have seen the posters around the city which called on the people to be prepared to ‘die and kill’.


Dyer held similar views on the Empire and Britain’s role in India to O’Dwyer and he must have come to the conclusion that if he did not bring Amritsar back under British control, then the existence of the Raj could well be threatened. He certainly gave this as his motivation for what he subsequently did to the Hunter Inquiry.


The following day, Sunday 13 April, was the first day of a Sikh festival, and thousands of people from outlying villages were in Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple, bathe in its pool or just to visit the horse and cattle fair. In the afternoon, Dyer received news that a meeting was planned to take place at the Jallianwala Bagh and he saw this as a trial of strength. The meeting was scheduled to take place at 4.40pm, to be chaired by a senior and respected Congress Party leader, Lal Kanhyalal Bhatia, and was to consider resolutions regarding the arrests of Dr Kitchlew and Dr Pal as well as the reaction to the Rowlatt Acts. There were probably around ten thousand in the crowd, many of them in Amritsar for the Sikh festival and oblivious of the ban on meetings, and just wanting to rest whilst a speaker spoke from the raised bank of earth.


With the armoured cars, fifty Gurkha and Sikh infantrymen and a further forty Gurkhas with knives, Dyer headed for the Jallianwala Bagh which he reached around 5pm. The entrance was too narrow for the armoured cars, so he just entered the open space with his troops and lined up his men in a line opposite the crowd. Dyer then gave the order to fire without so much as a warning. In ten minutes, the soldiers fired 1650 rounds of ammunition and directed their fire to wherever the crowd was thickest. When the firing died down there were according to official estimates 379 lying dead or dying and another 1500 wounded. Dyer then departed with his men, leaving the wounded and believing he had restored the authority of the Raj. Over the following days he continued to maintain the curfew and martial law, and publicly hanged eighteen who he believed to be responsible for the riots as well as flogging many more. In response to the news of Miss Sherwood’s beating he issued a ‘crawling order’ requiring all who used the alley where Miss Sherwood was found, to crawl on their stomachs.




A scene from a film made about the massacre

Jallianwala Bagh today, showing a wall with bullet marks and the alley through which Dyer’s troops arrived

Dyer’s actions were accepted in Delhi although not without some reservations. The Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford reminded O’Dwyer that ‘we have to live with the Indians when this is all over’ and thought that Dyer was out of control. The ‘crawling order’ was soon rescinded by Chelmsford and a news blackout suppressed news of the massacre being broadcast throughout India and Britain until June. Dyer himself had gone to the frontier where Afghan units had crossed the border in May. The use of the RAF against tribesmen of the north west frontier and the Afghans  helped to defeat the invasion force and bring the area under control, after which evidence was gathered about what had happened in Amritsar. As well as this evidence largely from Congress supporters there was an official report compiled under the chair of Lord Hunter. The proceedings of the Hunter Inquiry were public and Dyer appeared in person.


Dyer’s appearances in front of the Hunter Inquiry in which he declined to admit any wrong doing incensed Indian opinion but generated support from Parliament and the British public although Churchill confirmed that Dyer would no longer receive military employment and Montagu, likewise a government Minister, said that the empire could only be maintained by goodwill. Over £26,000 was raised for Dyer by public subscription and when he died in 1927 flowers were laid at the Cenotaph in his honour.


The British people may have believed that Dyer had saved the Raj but for Indians he was typical of the British in India. The massacre gave the nationalist movement a huge boost. Nehru came to the conclusion that the massacre was not an isolated affair and very much part of the way in which the British used violence to maintain their control. The loyalty of the Indian people to the Raj was destroyed, never to be rebuilt and even attempts to use the Crown to rekindle that loyalty failed. When the Prince of Wales toured India in 1921 and long time British residents in India believed that ‘It’ll change everything. Indians can’t resist Royalty’, the Prince arrived in Bombay to a general strike and riots which were repeated in nearly all of the places he visited.



Jallianwala Bagh today