The Amritsar massacre: a cold, callous display of colonial evil

Britain has never atoned for the barbaric killing of 379 unarmed civilians in Punjab

It was 1919. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had collapsed; new nations were springing up from their ruins; talk of self-determination was in the air.

India had just emerged from the first World War having made enormous sacrifices, and a huge contribution in men and materiel, blood and treasure, to the British war effort, in the expectation that it would be rewarded with some measure of self-government.

Those hopes were belied. The dishonest Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms” and the punitive Rowlatt Acts, imposing severe restrictions on Indian political activity and reimposing wartime prohibitions on freedom of the press and expression, were India’s only reward.

In March and April 1919, Indians rallied across Punjab to protest the Rowlatt Acts; they shut down normal commerce in many cities, demonstrating – through empty streets and shuttered shops – the dissatisfaction of the people at the British betrayal. This was a form of Gandhian non-violent non-cooperation; no violence or disorder was reported. But the British government arrested nationalist leaders in the city of Amritsar and opened fire on protestors, killing 10. In the riot that ensued, five Englishmen were killed and a woman missionary assaulted. (However, she was rescued, and carried to safety, by Indians.)


The British promptly sent troops to Amritsar to restore order, under brigadier general Reginald Dyer. Dyer, who was educated at Midleton College, Cork, reported to and enjoyed the unstinting support of the Tipperary-born lieutenant-governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

It is a sobering reminder that the Irish were not merely victims of British imperialism but complicit in it in many parts of the world.


After the riot, the city was calm, and whatever demonstrations and protest meetings were occurring were entirely peaceable.

Nonetheless, Dyer made several arrests to assert his authority, and on the 13th he issued a proclamation that forbade people to leave the city without a pass, to organise demonstrations or processions, or even to gather in groups of more than three.

The city was seething under these restrictions, but there were no protests. Meanwhile, unaware of the proclamation, some 10-15,000 people from outlying districts gathered in the city the same day to celebrate the major religious festival of Baisakhi.

They fired, at his orders, into the chests, the faces, and the wombs of the unarmed and defenceless crowd

They had assembled in an enclosed walled garden, Jallianwala Bagh, a popular spot for public events in Amritsar but accessible only through five narrow passageways.

When Dyer learned of this meeting he did not seek to find out what it was about, whether the attendees were there in open defiance or merely in ignorance of his orders. He promptly took a detachment of soldiers in armoured cars and equipped with machine-guns, and parked his vehicles in front of the gate to the garden.

Without ordering the crowd to disperse or issuing so much as a warning – and though it was apparent it was a peaceful assembly of unarmed civilians – Dyer ordered his troops, standing behind the brick walls surrounding the Bagh, to open fire from some 150 yards away.

The crowd of thousands of unarmed and non-violent men, women and children gathered peacefully in a confined space, started screaming and pressing in panic against the closed gate, but Dyer ordered his men to keep firing until all their ammunition was exhausted.

When the troops had finished firing, they had used 1,650 rounds, killed at least 379 people (the number the British were prepared to admit to; the Indian figures are considerably higher) and wounded 1,137. Barely a bullet was wasted, Dyer noted with satisfaction.

No warning

There was no warning, no announcement that the gathering was illegal and had to disperse, no instruction to leave peacefully – nothing.

Dyer did not order his men to fire in the air, or at the feet of their targets. They fired, at his orders, into the chests, the faces, and the wombs of the unarmed and defenceless crowd.

History knows the event as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The label connotes the heat and fire of slaughter, the butchery by bloodthirsty fighters of an outgunned opposition. But there was nothing of this at Jallianwala.

Dyer’s soldiers were lined up calmly, almost routinely; they were neither threatened nor attacked by the crowd; it was just another day’s work, but one unlike any other. They loaded and fired their rifles coldly, clinically, without haste or passion or sweat or anger, emptying their magazines into the shrieking, wailing, then stampeding crowd with trained precision. As people sought to flee the horror towards the single exit, they were trapped in a murderous fusillade.

Dyer never showed the slightest remorse or self-doubt. This was a “rebel meeting”, he claimed, an act of defiance of his authority that had to be punished. “It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd” but one of producing a “moral effect” that would ensure the Indians’ submission. Merely shooting in the air to disperse the crowd would not have been enough, because the people “would all come back and laugh at me”.

He noted that he had personally directed the firing towards the exits (the main gate and the five narrow passageways) because that was where the crowd was most dense. “The targets,” he declared, “were good.” The massacre lasted for 10 minutes, and the toll amounted to an extraordinary kill rate, akin to a turkey-shoot. When it was over and the dead and wounded lay in pools of blood, moaning on the ground, Dyer forbade his soldiers to give any aid to the injured. He ordered all Indians to stay off the streets of Amritsar for 24 hours, preventing relatives or friends from bringing even a cup of water to the wounded, who were writhing in agony on the ground calling for help.


News of Dyer's barbarism was suppressed by the British for six months, and when outrage at reports of his excesses mounted, an attempt was made to whitewash his sins by the official commission of enquiry, the Hunter Commission, which only found him guilty of a "grave error".

Finally, as details emerged of the horror, Dyer was relieved of his command and censured by the House of Commons, but promptly exonerated by the House of Lords and allowed to retire on a handsome pension. Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the flatulent poetic voice of British imperialism, hailed him as "the man who saved India".

Dyer was an efficient killer rather than a crazed maniac; his was merely the evil of the unimaginative, the brutality of the military bureaucrat

Even this did not strike his fellow Britons in India as adequate recompense for his glorious act of mass murder. They ran a public campaign for funds to honour his cruelty and collected the quite stupendous sum of £26,317. 1s. 10d, an astonishing sum for those days and worth over a quarter of a million pounds today.

It was presented to him together with a jewelled sword of honour. In contrast, after many months of fighting for justice, the families of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were given 500 rupees each in compensation by the government – at the prevailing exchange rate, approximately £37 (or some £1,450 in today’s money) for each human life.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was no act of insane frenzy but a conscious, deliberate imposition of colonial will. Dyer was an efficient killer rather than a crazed maniac; his was merely the evil of the unimaginative, the brutality of the military bureaucrat. But his action that Baisakhi day came to symbolise the evil of the system on whose behalf, and in whose defence, he was acting.

In the horrified realisation of this truth by Indians of all walks of life lay the true importance of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It represented the worst that colonialism could become, and, by letting it occur, the British crossed that point of no return that exists only in the minds of men – that point which, in any unequal relationship, both master and subject must instinctively respect if their relationship is to survive.

The massacre made Indians out of millions of people who had not thought consciously of their political identity before that grim Sunday. It turned loyalists into nationalists and constitutionalists into agitators, led the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore to return his knighthood to the king and a host of Indian appointees to British offices to turn in their commissions.


And above all it entrenched in Mahatma Gandhi a firm and unshakable faith in the moral righteousness of the cause of Indian independence. He now saw freedom as indivisible from truth, and he never wavered in his commitment to ridding India of an empire he saw as irremediably evil, even satanic.

It is getting late for atonement, but not too late. I dearly hope that a British prime minister – or a member of the royal family, since every atrocity was committed in the name of the Crown – will find the heart, and the spirit, to get on his or her knees at Jallianwala Bagh.

A memorial erected at Jallianwala Bagh, the enclosed garden where the massacre took place. Photograph Adam Jones

David Cameron's rather mealy-mouthed description of the massacre in 2013 as a "deeply shameful event" does not, in my view, constitute an apology. Nor does the ceremonial visit to the site in 1997 by Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, who merely left their signatures in the visitors' book, without even a redeeming comment.

Whoever the PM is on the centenary of that awful crime will not have been alive when the atrocity was committed, and certainly no British government of 2019 bears a shred of responsibility for that tragedy, but as a symbol of the nation that once allowed it to happen, the PM could atone for the past sins of his or her nation.

That is what Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau did in 2016 when he apologised on behalf of Canada for the actions of his country's authorities a century earlier in denying permission for the Indian immigrants on the Komagata Maru to land in Vancouver, thereby sending many of them to their deaths.

Trudeau's gracious apology needs to find its British echo. Indeed, the best form of atonement by the British might be, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested, to start teaching unromanticised colonial history in British schools.

The British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of the British empire, and what it meant to its subject peoples. These days there appears to be a return in England to yearning for the Raj, in gauzy, romanticised television soap operas.

If British schoolchildren can learn how those dreams of the English turned out to be nightmares for their subject peoples, true atonement – of the purely moral kind, involving a serious consideration of historical responsibility rather than mere admission of guilt – might be achieved.

Dr Shashi Tharoor is an Indian MP, writer and a former career diplomat. He is the author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, published by Hurst with a guide price of €25