Inside India #29: The Amritsar Massacre – a mass murder that ignited a revolution

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

13 April 1919. In a walled garden in Amritsar, principal city of the north-Indian state of Punjab, and home to the famed Golden Temple, spiritual centre of the Sikh faith, a British garrison commander committed one of the worst acts of colonial-era brutality witnessed on the subcontinent.

The incident took place against a backdrop of escalating calls by Indians for self-rule, in the aftermath of the Great War.

Prior to the outbreak of WW1, the British government had granted their martinets in India repressive powers to combat politically subversive activities. Faced with a costly and debilitating conflict in Europe, this position was modified for the sake of expediency. In an attempt to ensure a ready supply of Indian servicemen into the British armed forces, promises were made to the effect that such draconian measures would be rolled back at the conclusion of the war and Indian demands for a limited form of self-rule would be met.

In the event, these promises turned out to be hollow.

Following the war, instead of self-rule, the Indians were presented with the Rowlatt Act – officially known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act – a series of legislative measures that came into force in March 1919. The acts banned seditious gatherings on the subcontinent, allowed the indefinite incarceration of suspects without trial, and ‘political’ cases to be tried without juries.

Unsurprisingly, the new legislation was met with widespread dismay among Indians, a righteous anger that quickly escalated into nationwide civil agitation. The eye of the storm hovered over Punjab, where protests were particularly belligerent, resulting in violent unrest across the state’s major cities on April 10, 1919.

Three days later, on the afternoon of April 13, a crowd of at least 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in the city of Amritsar. Some were there to defy the Rowlatt Act, some to express their solidarity with the independence movement, and others were merely there with their families to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi.

The British soldier tasked with enforcing order in the region, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, was informed of the gathering and decided to act. Assembling a force of ninety Gurkha and Indian soldiers, he rushed to the scene, ordered his men to seal the exits and then, without warning, instructed them to open fire.

They fired until they ran out of ammunition, with Dyer urging his troops to aim for the densest sections of the crowd. (He would later say that his intent had been to punish the Indians, not to disperse the crowd.) Having completed his bloody work, Dyer withdrew his men, leaving the dying and wounded where they lay. No medical assistance was offered.

At the time, official figures stated that 379 had been killed, though current estimates suggest much higher casualties. The dead included children and infants.

The consequences of Dyer’s murderous actions were immediate.

At first many in Britain praised the brigadier, including those in the House of Lords who had grown rich from the Raj. Eminent writer Rudyard Kipling stated that Dyer “did his duty as he saw it”, believing that this was the sort of stern action that would nip another Indian mutiny in the bud. It was a viewpoint held by many, symbolic of the colonial mentality where violence was the inevitable response to calls for reflection upon the brute inequalities and systematic suppression of human rights imposed by the Raj.

Opinion began to change once news filtered back of the precise circumstances of the massacre.

Dyer now found himself roundly condemned in the House of Commons (by, amongst others, Winston Churchill) and a committee appointed to examine the incident. Dyer, an unrepentant and arrogant racist to the last, eschewed legal counsel and chose to defend himself, believing himself to be on the side of the angels.

Ultimately, with the facts now glaringly obvious, the committee recommended censure and Dyer was forced to resign from the British Indian Army.

The episode soured relations between British and Indian politicians for years. The Amritsar Massacre, as it became widely known, served to galvanise the independence movement, allowing the likes of Gandhi and Nehru to stoke the engine of rebellion. Indeed, Gandhi organized his first large-scale non-cooperation campaign in the wake of the killing, thrusting him to prominence in the nationalist struggle.

Today a monument marks the site of the massacre.

Inside Jallianwallah Bagh, bullet marks have been left where they struck the walls of the garden. The well inside the compound, into which many jumped and subsequently drowned, in a futile attempt to avoid the hail of bullets, is a poignant reminder of those bloody and desperate moments.

Dyer himself died in England in 1927. On his deathbed, he is reported to have said: “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right… but so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”

If nothing else, his words demonstrate the staggering lack of self-reflection that characterises the colonial mindset. By any stretch of the imagination, the murder of hundreds of unarmed civilians – including children – can never be right, no matter who your Maker.

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here.  NOTE: In Dec 2021, in the UK, The Dying Day is available at 99p on Kindle.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

2 thoughts on “Inside India #29: The Amritsar Massacre – a mass murder that ignited a revolution

  1. I am enjoying these vignettes and just adding my two cents. The people gathered in Jallianwallah were peacefully protesting against the arrest of two Congress leaders: Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satpal. Baisakhi is not merely a Sikh but a Punjabi Hindu festival too. Dyer received a tremendous support from the English public which even collected money for him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s