Britain’s legacy in India is one of bloodshed, division and contempt. Some would say that Britain paved the way to developing a region bogged in centuries of stagnation and creating earth’s largest democracy. However this is far from the reality of our time in the region.
Today marks the 98th anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, one of many acts of brutality carried out by the British in their long rule.
As the dust settled on a nation disheveled by war Britain, looked to solidify its holdings across the globe, and as the saying went, India was ‘the jewel in the empire’s crown’. One cannot begin to imagine that after the horrors of the First World War, Britain would seek to wreak more havoc and bloodshed in their own colonies, but desperate times often result in desperate measures.
Paranoia was rife throughout Britain’s colonies at this time. Sensing weakness, some were taking advantage of Britain’s delicate state in the wake of WW1. Although having played a crucial role in the British war effort, India still had disruption in several areas at the time. Dissidents in the Bengal and Pubjab regions had been causing civil unrest for some time already, and the response was to introduce harsher policing methods in the regions.
Several mutinies in the colonial military forces had placed the ruling powers on edge, and little chances were taken in their attempts to hold these regions.
In the days preceding the massacre the Amritsar area had been placed under martial law. This information was not proliferated effectively throughout the region however and as such, hundreds of unarmed civilians made their way to celebrate the Baisakhi cultural festival. Due to the delicate state of affairs in the region, many in the regional government believed that this was the early budding of a potential uprising – This was far from the case however.
Hundreds of pilgrims gathered in the walled garden of Jallianwala Bagh, and it is there they were met with such brutality that this event heavily damaged the image of colonial rule across the globe and in mainland Britain itself. Under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, British Indian forces opened fire on gathered crowds in an area described by Winston Churchill as no larger than Trafalgar Square.
Dyer had already gained a reputation for brutality in India. ‘Crawling orders’, in which innocent civilians were forced to the ground to crawl – under penalty of a beating – were commonplace. A tactic used to instill fear and obedience among the populace.
Colonel Dyer arrived with a force of 90 men, armed with rifle and blade. For ten minutes gunfire ripped through the crowds of helpless people, and with limited escape routes, the injuries inflicted were catastrophic. Dyer had ordered the main entrances to the garden blocked, stating that his intention was not to simply disperse the crowd, but to ‘punish’ them for their ‘disobedience’, as if they were children misbehaving.
The dense sections of the crowd were targeted and with nowhere to go many fell to the ground and hoped to avoid the gunfire, however this was not to be the case as the colonial forces began firing on the helpless individuals hugging the ground.
Winston Churchill, a man whose legacy in India would see millions dead, appears to have been outraged at the time. Speaking in the House of Commons in July of 1919, he states:
“With hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides.”
When the firing stopped – only due to a lack of ammunition – hundreds lay dead. In the spring heat of the Punjab bodies lay festering, the smell of cordite and flesh ripe in the air. A truly horrific spectacle.
Official British statistics put the number of dead at 379 and over 1200 wounded. However these figures are highly questionable given the number of pilgrims in attendance that day. It is likely the case that to stem the negative press surrounding this event, the number of dead was reduced – A public relations effort to maintain image and deflect from the ghastly actions of an oppressive regime.
More reasonable numbers, released by the Indian National Congress put the casualties in the region of 1500, with 1000 of those having died. Other contemporary reports place the dead in far higher numbers, but these cannot be confirmed.
Reflecting on this period in history you struggle to envisage how any government could act in such a way, and Dyer’s actions are totally reprehensible. However at the time, there was a significant amount of support for this brutality. The House of Commons reacted to this by voting to relieve Dyer of his duties but this was met with derision from the landed gentry in India and Britain.
Maintaining a stranglehold over India was of paramount importance to the ruling class. There was money to be lost in an unstable India, and this was unacceptable by their standards. More conservative parts of British society viewed Dyer’s actions as merely maintaining the rule of British law, which they viewed as a necessary tool for progress across the globe.
A feeble response to the massacre was the creation of the Hunter Commission, which would travel to Punjab and investigate the events. Hundreds of locals were interviewed, along with military and civil personnel. It was an act of posture however, saving face in light of a disaster of Britain’s image.
The commission found that although Dyer had acted in a callous and brutal manner, due to political reasons he could not be tried in a military of civilian court. He was relieved of duty and forced into early retirement. A luxurious reprieve for a man responsible for the murder of hundreds.
There had been many atrocities committed before Amritsar, and there would be many more to come. Millions would die in famines orchestrated by Winston Churchill’s wartime government twenty years later. In the aftermath of yet another crippling global conflict, Britain would wage yet more brutal offenses against the people of India to maintain control.
That control would soon cease to be however, and acts such as the Amritsar Massacre would act only to solidify dissent among a large portion of the populace who sought self-determination. As the largest democracy on earth and one of the world’s fastest growing economies, India’s role in the world in the coming decades will far eclipse the United Kingdom, a testament to the people and the nation, as today it represents the very antithesis of everything Britain stood for during its colonial era.