Amritsar Massacre (1919)

The Event

In 1919, a British officer named Reginald Dyer said that Amritsar could have no more meetings of more than four people. General Dyer discovered a large crowd gathered in the walled plaza at a cattle fair at Jallianwala Bagh, to protest the enactment of the Rowlett Act, which the British administration had passed to secure "emergency" powers for itself. The troops, under orders, shot more than three hundred unarmed people (by some estimates 379 dead and 1200 wounded). Regarding it and the acquiescence afterwards as a satisfactory outcome, he was surprised to find the Commander-in-Chief in India recommending that he should be ordered to retire. The matter came before the Army Council. The Council accepted the recommendation, as did the British Cabinet. Dyer lobbied Parliament because he thought he was badly treated whilst others thought he was not treated harshly enough.

General DyerThis was 1919 just after Indians had fought alongside the British in the First World War, where 85,000 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives, and India had made large financial contributions to the war effort. In return they had received repression.


This repression led to Mahatma Gandhi's Non-cooperation Movement. The boycott of government schools, colleges and law courts, British textiles and even civil and military services were involved in Gandhi's efforts.


Reginald Dyer died in 1927 (his superior Michael O'Dwyer, was murdered in Caxton Hall, London, by Shaheed Uddham Singh, also known as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, who became a revolutionary Sikh nationalist after witnessing the massacre, and he himself was sentenced to death).


Government of India act allowed limited local government in 1919 but more or less ignored Indians.


House of Commons

July 8, 1920, Winston Churchill, for the cabinet.


Coming to the case of General Dyer, it will be seen that he was removed from his appointment by the Commander-in-Chief in India; that he was passed over by the Board in India for promotion; that he was informed, as hundreds of officers and have been informed, that there was no prospect of further employment him under the Government of India; and that, in consequence, he reverted to half-pay…

...I now come to explain and to justify the decision of the Cabinet. tremendous fact stands out - I mean the slaughter of nearly 400 persons and the wounding of probably three or four times as many, at the Jallian Wallah Bagh on 13th April. That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.

...there are certain broad lines by which, I think, an officer in such cases should be guided. First of all, I think he may ask himself. Is the crowd attacking anything or anybody? Surely that is the first question. Are they trying to force their way forward to the attack of some building, or some cordon of troops or police, or are they attempting to attack some band of persons or some individual who has excited their hostility? Is the crowd attacking? That is the first question which would naturally arise. The second question is this: Is the crowd armed? That is surely another great simple fundamental question. By armed I mean armed with lethal weapons.

... "I was confronted," says General Dyer, "by a revolutionary army." What is the chief characteristic of an army? Surely it is that it is armed. This crowd was unarmed. These are simple tests which it is not too much to expect officers in these difficult situations to apply.

... hatred of Bolshevism and Bolsheviks is not founded on their silly system of economics, or their absurd doctrine of an impossible equality. It arises from the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice in every land into which they have broken, and by which alone their criminal regime can be maintained… Governments who have seized upon power by violence and by usurpation have often resorted to terrorism in their desperate efforts to keep what they have stolen, but the august and venerable structure of the British Empire, where lawful authority descends from hand to hand and generation after generation, does not need such aid. Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things.

Let me marshal the facts. The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, 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. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.

…after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away...

I shall be told that it "saved India." I do not believe it for a moment. The British power in India does not stand on such foundations...

Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it. The British way of doing things, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, who feels intensely upon this subject, has pointed out, has always meant and implied close and effectual co-operation with the people of the country.


I do not conceal from the House my sincere personal opinion that General Dyer's conduct deserved not only the loss of employment from which so many officers are suffering at the present time, not only the measure of censure which the Government have pronounced, but also that it should have been marked by a distinct disciplinary act, namely, his being placed compulsorily upon the retired list...

It is quite true that General Dyer's conduct has been approved by a succession of superiors above him who pronounced his defence, and that at different stages events have taken place which, it may well be argued, amount to virtual condonation so far as a penal or disciplinary action is concerned. General Dyer may have done wrong, but at any rate he has his rights, and I do not see how in face of such virtual condonation ... it would have been possible, or could have been considered right, to take disciplinary action against him. For these reasons the Cabinet found themselves in agreement with the conclusions of the Army Council, and to those moderate and considered conclusions we confidently invite the assent of the House.

This speech shows the self-deception of the British Establishment that somehow the British Empire was natural to the order of things, or at least highly civilised, and involved a bond with the population. But it was a deception. Repressive measures were the order of the day until a sheer force of numbers took place at the March to the Sea and its salt protest.


There is more about Gandhi in Learning - Religion and Hinduism.