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100 years of Dyer's fire

Kim A Wagner’s Jallianwala Bagh argues how General Dyer's order to open fire at the heart of Amritsar was an act of crippling fear with telling consequences for the Indian freedom struggle. Excerpts:

When British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, he wrote a brief message in the visitor's book in lieu of a formal apology:

This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as 'monstrous'. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest around the world.

This was a skilful reference to Churchill's speech in the House of Commons on 8 July 1920, which is often taken as proof that the British Government straightforwardly condemned the Amritsar Massacre. What happened at Jallianwala Bagh, Churchill proclaimed:


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.

The real point, however, is to be found elsewhere in Churchill's speech:

Governments who have seized upon power by violence and by usurpation have often resorted 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.

Dyer, in other words, was explicitly singled out as a rotten apple, and the massacre itself portrayed as an aberration within an otherwise benign imperial project. Churchill's much-quoted disavowal of Dyer's actions was accordingly not an acknowledgment of the violence of empire. It was, on the contrary, an elaborate act of deflection and a staunch attempt to reassert the moral legitimacy of the British Empire in the aftermath of the Amritsar Massacre. Considering that Churchill, just a few months later, initiated the indiscriminate policy of brutal reprisals in Ireland and oversaw the violent suppression of unrest elsewhere in the Empire, the speech was in fact blatantly disingenuous. Yet, by invoking Churchill at Jallianwala Bagh, David Cameron could in 2013 both denounce the massacre and reclaim the moral narrative of Britain as a force for good in the world. It should thus be clear that to quote Churchill at Jallianwala Bagh does not constitute a reckoning with the past so much as a continuation of colonial policy.

Churchill's insistence on British exceptionalism has proven to be remarkably resilient, and, indeed, forms the cornerstone for renewed attempts within the last decade or so to rehabilitate the Empire and its legacies. In the twentyfirst century, empire nostalgia is predicated on the assumption that colonial violence was the result of rogue individuals, rather than part of the structure of imperialism itself. In reference to the suppression of Mau Mau in 1950s Kenya, for instance, author Lawrence James concedes that the British 'behaved savagely at times', but complains that 'An empire that lasted 300 years is judged solely on the misconduct or errors of a handful of its servants. The crimes of one vicious intelligence officer in Kenya obliterate all the patient and benevolent labour of hundreds of district commissioners throughout Africa.' Niall Ferguson, whose name has become virtually synonymous with chest-thumping neo-imperialism, similarly describes British brutality in Kenya as 'exceptional'.7 This approach is not limited to popular writers pandering to conservative sentiments. When British historian John Darwin was criticised in 2015 for not sufficiently highlighting the role of racialised violence within the British Empire, his response was tellingly dismissive:

Exactly how to discuss violence in relation to the British Empire is an interesting question. Plainly there were many brutal episodes in its history. Plainly, its authority depended ultimately (and sometimes immediately) upon the use of violence. But then so has that of almost every state in history, precolonial, colonial and postcolonial (and things are not getting better). To say that violence played a central part in Britain's imperial history is not to add much to the sum of knowledge.

Since violence was not unique to imperialism, Darwin seems to suggest, no further examination is warranted beyond a token gesture towards those 'episodes' about which it is difficult to equivocate. The inevitable invocation of the Amritsar Massacre or the suppression of the Mau Mau, as unfortunate yet singular excesses, ultimately serves to marginalise the role of violence as a key aspect of British colonialism. Add to this the similarly inevitable comparison to German or Belgian colonial atrocities, or, in Darwin's case, to the mass murders of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, which relativises British colonial violence to the point of whitewash. The result is an implicitly sanitised account of the British Empire. By downplaying the ubiquity of racialised violence in Britain's imperial history, or simply relegating the subject to the margins of analysis, respectable scholarship ultimately ends up sustaining more insidious narratives. Indeed, there is but a small step from Darwin's 'brutal episodes' to the Daily Mail proudly proclaiming that the Empire did much good, despite 'the occasional massacre'.

Churchill's description of the Amritsar Massacre, however, was profoundly misleading and Dyer's actions at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919 were neither 'without precedent' nor 'foreign to the British way of doing things'. A more appropriate speech to quote from the House of Commons debate of 8 July 1920 would in fact have been Wedgwood's brief but poignant intervention:

The complaint is not that General Dyer committed this crime. It is not just a question of punishing General Dyer. I agree with Mr. Gandhi, the great Indian, representing, I think, all that is finest in India, when he said, 'We do not want to punish General Dyer; we have no desire for revenge; we want to change the system that produces General Dyers.'

At Amritsar, Dyer had simply followed the example of so many colonial officials before him – including Cooper in 1857, or Cowan in 1872 – who, as described in the Prologue, resorted to exemplary and indiscriminate violence when faced with rebellion and anti-colonial unrest. When justifying the mass slaughter of sepoys in 1857, Cooper described such violence as necessary:

to show publicly in the eyes of all men, that, at all events, the Punjab authorities adhered to the policy of overawing, by a prompt and stern initiative (the only way to strike terror into a semi-barbarous people), and to the last would brook nothing short of absolute, active, and positive loyalty. Government could not condescend to exist upon the moral sufferance of its subjects.

These were almost the exact same words as Dyer spoke before the Hunter Committee and what happened at Jallianwala Bagh was thus in many ways predictable and cannot simply be explained ad hominem. 'Amritsar is not an isolated event,' as the Labour MP Benjamin Spoor noted in 1920, 'any more than General Dyer is an isolated officer.' Dyer himself invoked his 'thirtyfour years' residence in India' in what amounted to a plea of diminished responsibility, and during the debate in the House of Commons even his supporters made the same argument:

Whenever the people of India show signs of unrest or of conspiracy or of revolution there rises before the minds of Anglo-Europeans the spectre of the Indian Mutiny and the horrors of Cawnpore, and they are constrained to ask themselves whether the disturbances are only the precursors of a similar revolution. So a greater force is used in quelling disturbances than would be used in other places where British rule is more firmly established.

After 1857, the British in India did not respond to local unrest as much as to what they imagined that unrest was or could become – hence the consistent disproportionality of violence on the part of the colonial regime. The Amritsar Massacre was accordingly both retributive and pre-emptive: Dyer took revenge for the attacks on Europeans, including Miss Sherwood, during the riots three days earlier, but he also acted to prevent a much bigger outbreak that he believed to be imminent.

(Excerpted with permission from Jallianwala Bagh; written by Kim A Wagner; published by Penguin Viking. The excerpt here is a part of a chapter titled 'An Empire of Fear'.)

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