13 April 1919
At about 5.30 pm on 13 April 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on a peaceful rally of several thousand men, women and children protesting against British rule in India. They had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled area of unused land in the city of Amritsar in the Punjab. Although martial law had been declared earlier that day, most of the crowd was as yet unaware of the ban on public meetings, and Dyer issued no warning to disperse. Instead, his fifty soldiers unleashed a hail of gunfire of at least 1,650 rounds into the crowd, focusing on the narrow exit points through which the panicked civilians were trying to flee. Dyer finally ordered a ceasefire only when his men were almost out of ammunition.
The official estimate was that 379 people were killed, including 42 children, and another 1,200 injured.1 However, research based on a detailed house to house census of the missing suggests the number of fatalities was probably around 530. Some witnesses estimated the total at above 1,000. Dyer was unrepentant, declaring that if he’d had more soldiers and ammunition, he would have ensured a higher death toll and that the only reason he didn’t use machine guns was that the main entrance to the area was too narrow for the armoured cars on which they were mounted.2 He explained to the committee investigating the circumstances around the massacre that ‘it was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from the military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”3
The Committee of Inquiry, under Lord Hunter, did eventually rule that Dyer had used excessive force but it stopped short of imposing any penalty. Instead, and despite his being pressured to accept an early retirement, Dyer became a hero to many in Britain. At his funeral service in 1927 at St. Martins in the Fields, adjacent Trafalgar Square, his coffin, covered with a union jack and bearing the general’s plumed topee, ‘was almost hidden from view by wreaths.’4 Typical headlines included ‘He did his Duty’ ( The Morning Post ), ‘A Gallant Officer’ ( The Liverpool Echo ) and ‘The Hero of the Amritsar Shooting’ ( The Londonderry Sentinel ), while an editorial in the Yorkshire Post claimed that the man ‘who probably saved India’ had been ‘thrown to the wolves of ill informed English humanitarianism.’5
- ‘The Amritsar Massacre, 1919: General Dyer in the Punjab,’ The Stationary Office, London, 2000, pp. 42-46.
- Ibid p. 63.
- Shareen Ilahi, Imperial Violence and the Path to Independence: India, Ireland and the Crisis of Empire, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2016, p. 44.
- ‘General Dyer of Amritsar,’ The Yorkshire Post, 29 July 1927, p. 10.
- ‘A Gallant Officer,’ The Liverpool Echo, 28 July 1927 p. 5, ‘The Hero of the Amritsar Shooting,’ TheLondonerry Sentinel, 26 July 1927, p. 6, ‘General Dyer,’ The Yorkshire Post, 25 July 1927, p. 8 and headline in the Morning Post cited by Nigel Collett, The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer, Habledon Continuum, London and New York, 2007 p. 431.
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