Anyone with the faintest interest in the British Empire in India knows about the Amritsar massacre, a defining incident branded as "the massacre that ended the Raj". On April 13, 1919, General Reginald Dyer led a force of Indian (Gurkha) soldiers into Jallianwala Bagh, a large walled space in the city of Amritsar in Punjab. Without any warning, Dyer ordered them to fire on a crowd holding a political meeting. At least 1,650 rounds of ammunition were used, leaving a toll of dead estimated at between 379 and more than a thousand. Once Dyer withdrew his men, he gave no opportunity to remove the dead (for the city came under curfew in the evening) and no scope to succour the wounded, more of whom died during the night.
Some of the British in India were aghast at what Dyer had done. Indians were outraged. The leaders of the Indian National Congress, who had been prepared to work with the British on constitutional reform, now, under Gandhi's leadership, opted for non-cooperation and civil disobedience. Sir Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher and Nobel laureate in literature, saw the moral implications sooner than most. He could no longer support British rule. At the end of May 1919, 14 months before Gandhi acted similarly, Tagore returned the insignia of his imperial honours to the viceroy.
The Government held an inquiry, chaired by Lord Hunter. While it was not uncritical of Dyer, it held back from outright censure, and the Indian members of his commission issued a more critical minority report. On July 8, 1920, when the matter came to debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Defence and no friend of Indian political aspirations, nevertheless spoke out against Dyer's "frightfulness", meaning "the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd but the whole district or country".
Others were quick to come to Dyer's defence: British newspapers in India attacked the findings of the Hunter commission and dismissed as mere politicking the views of Indians demanding justice and compensation. Instead, they maintained that Dyer had been faced with insurrection in Punjab. The spring of 1919 had seen serious rioting, with loss of life in Amritsar and, across the province, railway lines torn up and telegraph lines cut. Shops were shut and strikes called with alarming frequency. There were fears that troops would become disaffected. Dyer's prompt action had saved the day. London's Morning Post raised more than £26,000 by public subscription for Dyer in appreciation of his "saving India" and pointed out that some of this money came in tiny sums from Indian soldiers who knew Dyer personally.
In the House of Lords, the debate went Dyer's way. Peers argued that he had been faced with rebellion and had merely done his job. They said he should be honoured by Government rather than compulsorily retired. Peers divided 129 in favour of Dyer with 86 against. When he died in 19, his body lay in the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks and was taken in procession through London to a grand funeral service at St Martin-in-the-Fields (probably with the connivance of the reactionary Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks).
The controversy has never been laid to rest. In 1929, Dyer's first biographer, the journalist Ian Colvin, set out most clearly the case for an honest soldier doing his job in difficult circumstances and being traduced by shifty politicians. However, Indian nationalists never let go of the moral advantage the bloody episode delivered into their hands. Historians, though generally agreeing that Dyer overreacted and that his conduct is not defensible, recognise the difficulties of analysing the Punjab context at the time of the event rather than with hindsight.
Many of the key issues remain tricky today. To what extent, and under what circumstances, may a government exercise unchecked executive power to maintain social order? When may military force be used against a civil population? What rules and regulations should guide such action? These questions are often answered ambiguously. When does acceptable political protest turn into insurrection? Who defines the level of disturbance necessary to decide that law and order has broken down and the survival of the state is under threat? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, British governments did suspend legal process and civil liberties, and did employ the military to keep order. But on only a few occasions was the result as politically disastrous as Dyer's massacre in Amritsar.
Nigel Collett's study of Dyer is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of this horrific event. Given the meagre private records relating to Dyer, Collett's account of both the man and his times is nothing short of brilliant. He presents a balanced reading of Dyer's character, observing his Indian birth and upbringing and reminding us that he spent all his working life in the Indian Army in command of Indian troops. Dyer was no simple racist overlord running colonies at the behest of the metropolitan authorities; indeed, he was even created an honorary Sikh.
Dyer faced the traumas of boarding school in Ireland and the trials of getting through Sandhurst and obtaining a commission without the help of patrons. He was a man with considerable mathematical and linguistic abilities, but one who never quite fitted in. He married young, thus missing out on the comradely life of a young subaltern. He was never in quite the right place at the right time to see major action; he had a short temper; his promotions were slow in coming and too often in an "acting"
capacity only. He got on extremely well with his men and his juniors, while his contemporaries and seniors were always wary of him.
The book rightly concentrates on Dyer's last years. Not until 1916 was he given a serious opportunity for command in the field, and significantly he somewhat messed up. He was sent to Persia with the specific instruction to close down German infiltration there. The terrain was isolated, communications difficult, the local peoples volatile and hostile. Dyer interpreted his instructions as licence to bring the country under British control. Ignoring political advice, he engaged his troops in brutal local fights. The mistake did not matter much in the end since the area was marginal to wartime interests, but it showed how Dyer approached a complex political problem: his one thought was to have order; his one tool to get it was the gun. (However, in May and June 1919, Dyer did conduct a short, brilliant - and unrewarded - military campaign in Afghanistan.) At the time of the Amritsar massacre, Dyer was racked by ill-health and separated from his beloved family. Perhaps this encouraged his extreme view that the Punjab was on the brink of rebellion, the empire about to collapse. It was a return to the dark days of 1857 when Indian troops had mutinied and British women were raped and murdered. The solution, he decided, was not just to restore order but to show that the state was in charge. It was not enough to have shops and businesses reopen in Amritsar - an example was needed of the consequences of insubordination.
Collett, who is a retired army officer, handles the events of 1919 with consummate skill. By and large, he lets the official documents speak for themselves. Gradually the reader is persuaded, on the arguments, that Dyer was wrong. Eventually we come to Dyer's bald statement to Hunter's commission that when he heard a crowd was gathering, it was "my duty to immediately disperse it by rifle fire"; "I had made up my mind that if I fired I must fire well and strong so that it would have full effect".
Armies may be more sophisticated at "peacekeeping" these days; in 1919, law and order operations were viewed as a battlefield activity, in which you set forth to kill. But even then, Dyer's actions ran counter to Army regulations. These required that force should be constrained by what was reasonable to achieve an immediate objective; minimum, not maximum, force should be deployed. Moreover, proper warning had to be given. On April 13, 1919, as demonstrated by Collett, Dyer ignored this. While he may have believed the Raj was threatened, and may have thought the mob was out to attack him and his soldiers, this does not justify his cavalier abuse of procedure and his indifference to Indian suffering. In so behaving, he brought not only death to the innocent but also destroyed himself and undermined the empire in which he took so much pride.
Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and general editor of the New Cambridge History of India .
The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer
Author - Nigel Collett
Publisher - Hambledon and London
Pages - 575
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 85285 457 X