Magazine article The Spectator

A Blot on the Imperial Escutcheon

Magazine article The Spectator

A Blot on the Imperial Escutcheon

Article excerpt

A blot on the imperial escutcheon THE BUTCHER OF AMRITSAR: GENERAL REGINALD DYER by Nigel Collett Hambledon & London, £25, pp. 575, ISBN 185285457X

The massacre of nearly 400 unarmed civilians and the wounding of over 1,000 others in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh (a barren enclosure walled in by houses) on the unlucky 13 April 1919 has a far greater historical resonance than the incident would seem to merit. This is not to make light of what the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, speaking in the House of Commons, called 'an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in sinister isolation', accusing the perpetrator of the deed, Brigadier-General Dyer, of 'frightfulness' (a word then redolent of German atrocities in the first world war). It was a heinous crime, but on a much smaller scale than many of the massacres of the terrible 20th century, not least on the Indian subcontinent itself in the runup to Partition. What justifies Nigel Collett's exhaustive account of it is its pivotal role in the struggle for Indian independence. It polarised the forces of change and reaction, largely along racial lines. On the Indian side, it turned reformers into revolutionaries; and on the British side, it solidified opposition to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms aimed at the gradual 'Indianisation' of the administration.

Churchill went on to say:

What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country.

This was the nub of the matter. The role of the military in aid of civil power was to defuse rather than exacerbate tensions, and specifically to disperse unruly or threatening crowds with a minimum of force. Though Dyer gave contradictory accounts of his motives and actions, he quite deliberately and without giving any warning opened fire on the unarmed crowd and kept on firing when he knew perfectly well that the crowd was trapped and therefore unable to disperse. Indeed, his aim was not dispersal but punishment. As Collett puts it:

He believed he was going to strike a blow at a conspiracy which he imagined stretched across India and of which one of the principal centres seemed to be Amritsar.

In taking such a role upon himself, Dyer was far exceeding his brief as military commander, and in making no provision for treatment of the wounded he compounded his crime. …

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