Jallianwalla Bagh The Jallianwalla Bagh in the months after the massacre, 1919. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Marking the centenary of one of the most grotesque atrocities in the history of British imperialism, John Westmoreland revisits the Amritsar Massacre

“Sorry” just isn’t enough.

The centenary of the Amritsar Massacre on 13 April, which included the killing of at least 379 civilians by a British general and occurred as a direct result of British policy, should draw an apology from the government. 

Jeremy Corbyn has indeed urged Theresa May to make such an apology. But like other Conservative Prime Ministers before her she has declined, saying: “The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh [where the Massacre took place] of 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history.”

She expressed “regret”. But for what? For the suffering caused by an act of state terrorism? Or because the massacre revealed the level of brute violence upon which Britain’s so-called civilising mission depended?

May’s weasel words chime with those uttered by David Cameron in 2013 when he opined:

I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for. I think the right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened.

Cameron’s trip to India in 2013 was to drum up British trade. Sikhs here and in India demanded that the British government should at last apologise – fully – for the carnage. However, Cameron felt that Britain had done enough apologising. He later defended his decision not to offer a formal apology, saying that the British government had “rightly condemned” the massacre at the time. 

The Daily Mail supported Cameron’s stance1 and approvingly noted that his reference to the massacre as ‘monstrous’ was in keeping with the words of Winston Churchill, who had said of the massacre:

It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.2

However Churchill, as Minister of War, was using the old trick of condemning the event as “singular”, in other words an aberration, and in isolation from its imperial causes. In so doing he hoped to preserve British rule in India and the integrity of the officer corps. But it was indeed a monstrous event, with equally monstrous causes.

Jewel in the crown of empire

India was the ‘brightest jewel in the imperial crown’ and the core of British global strategic thinking precisely because of her very real importance to the British economy … anything up to 60 percent of British cotton exports went to India and the Far East … and [often] the international balance of payments of Britain hinged on the payments surplus which India provided.

 — Eric Hobsbawm3

Apart from having huge economic importance to Britain, India was also a vast reserve of military manpower, and a glorious showpiece of British imperial prestige at home and abroad. Queen Victoria had been crowned Empress of India in Delhi in 1877 with a Durbar costing millions of pounds. The pomp and ceremony was indeed impressive, and a distraction from another feature of British rule – the Great Famine of 1876-78 which killed some 5.5 million Indians.

In the aftermath of World War One, Britain’s right to empire was being challenged. The “rights of nations to self-determination” was part of the post-war settlement in Europe, and it was being taken up by nationalist movements around the world. Crucially, in both India and Ireland, the cause of national independence from Britain was rising.

The Indian middle classes, who largely ran the empire in India, wanted Dominion status, a form of self-rule that had been granted to Australia and Canada. However, the prospect of self-rule by brown skinned people offended the British ruling class, who saw their imperial role as one of Christian paternalism – a civilising mission. Britain had promised an extension to Indian self-government in 1914 to maintain the flow of soldiers and goods, but when the proposed reforms (Montagu-Chelmsford) came to light in 1918, it was made clear that any self-rule would only be granted to Indians ‘as part of the British Empire.’ 

Indian dismay at the betrayal of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms was soon evident, and the need for repression in the face of unrest was provided by the infamous Rowlatt Acts.

The Rowlatt Bill was passed into law on 21 March 1919 as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act. Political offenders were to be tried by three High Court judges, with no jury or right of appeal. Trials were to be held in camera. The state could arrest, search without warrant and confine suspects without trial for renewable periods of up to a year. The legislation was designed to allow the British to lock up any leaders of the Congress party who offered resistance. Protest was inevitable.

Protest against the Rowlatt Acts was immediate. Gandhi favoured the peaceful Satyagraha form of protest, but the areas most affected by economic malaise after the war were not willing to wait. Violent protest erupted in Punjab among other places, and the Governor, Michael O’Dwyer willingly employed the new powers given to him. During the war he had ruthlessly crushed dissent, muzzled the Indian press and prevented Indian activists from entering the Punjab. Controls on the press were stepped up early in 1919. He also banned two prominent organisers of protest against the Rowlatt Acts, Doctor Satyapal and Doctor Kitchlew, from speaking in public.

O’Dwyer was entirely responsible for stoking opposition to British rule. The use of public floggings was often gleefully witnessed by Europeans, and the practice of forcing any Indians coming into contact with army officers to salaam them caused outrage. In Punjab the repression and constant racial humiliation led to the killing and beating of some Europeans. But O’Dwyer was relentless. On the morning of the Massacre, proclamations were read out in some of Amritsar’s public spaces forbidding assemblies. However none were read near the Jallianwala Bagh where the massacre was to take place, raising the question of whether the British knew a large gathering there was likely that day.

The Massacre

On the afternoon of 13 April 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer led fifty Gurkha and Sikh riflemen to Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, where a meeting was being held in defiance of his proclamation. The Bagh was a park, some two hundred yards long, enclosed by boundary walls. It had three narrow entrances, and this prevented Dyer from getting the armoured car he was travelling in into the Bagh. Had he been able so to do, he later testified, he would have deployed its machine gun on the crowd.

In the Bagh most of the twenty thousand crowd were having a picnic. They were, in the main, from surrounding villages and were in Amritsar to celebrate the Baisakhi holiday and to attend its famous cattle market. In the far corner of the Bagh two speakers were addressing a portion of the gathering.

Within thirty seconds of his arrival Dyer ordered his men to assume the continuous firing position and to open fire. No warning was given, nor was there any demand that the crowd disperse. The firing continued for ten minutes; in all, 1,650 rounds were spent. Dyer ordered fire to be focused where the crowd was thickest, including the exits. He only gave the order to cease fire when his ammunition was virtually exhausted.

According to official figures, 379 people were killed and over 1,200 were wounded; Indian estimates are much higher. Dyer made no provision for the wounded; it was, he said, “not my job”.

Over the next days further atrocities were committed by Dyer. He set up a whipping triangle near the place where an English woman missionary, Marcia Sherwood, had been assaulted. Schoolboys from a nearby school were randomly selected and flogged until they passed out. Some Hindu shopkeepers who had assisted Miss Sherwood were also flogged. In the lane where the assault had taken place any Indians wishing to pass through were made to crawl on their stomachs.

Dyer relayed his actions to his superiors without any attempt to conceal his excesses. His commanding officer, General Beynon, gave Dyer his approval. Dyer retained the confidence of O’Dwyer and the government in India.

Whitewashing state terror

The British government was genuinely shocked when news of the Massacre reached London. Foreign governments were quick to denounce British hypocrisy for condemning Germany’s imperial ambition and ‘atrocities’ while using state terror against their own Indian subjects. Britain stood accused in the Liberal press of Prussianism.

In retrospect there is little doubt that after Amritsar British rule in India was doomed. To save face a commission of enquiry led by Lord Hunter was set up. The role of the Commission was “[t]o investigate the recent disturbances in Bombay, Delhi and Punjab, about their causes, and the measures taken to cope with them.” It was not a trial in any sense, and merely made recommendations.

Dyer gave evidence with absolute frankness. He clearly did not regret any part of his “duty” and felt his actions should not even be questioned. For example, when asked if he thought his actions were justified he replied:

These were rebels and I must not treat them with gloves on. They had come out to fight if they defied me, and I was going to give them a lesson . . . I was going to punish them. My idea from the military point of view was to make a wide impression . . . Yes, throughout the Punjab.

Moreover, Dyer added:

The responsibility was very great. If I fired I must fire with good effect, a small amount of firing would be a criminal act of folly.

From his own words it is plain to see that civilians gathered in a park were an enemy to be dealt with through military force, and that collective punishment, as well as wholesale terror to subdue Punjab, should be accepted as legitimate and lawful.

If anyone accused of murder had testified in court as Dyer did to the Hunter Commission they would be rightly labelled a psychopath, a terrorist and face the maximum penalty available. That the Hunter Commission was a whitewash is evidenced by its findings summarised thus:

  • the Indian gathering was not the result of a pre-arranged conspiracy as Dyer had thought;
  • that the rioting in Amritsar had turned into rebellion, and therefore
  • the declaration of martial law was justifiable and its application was, in the main, not oppressive;
  • that General Dyer was justified in firing on the ‘mob’, though notice should have been given and its duration shortened.

Lastly Dyer, to the fury of the pro-imperialist politicians and press, was asked by his superiors to resign his commission. The Commission reports used some strong language about Dyer’s actions but emphasised that he was a “loyal and courageous soldier.” For those fighting for national independence in India and Ireland the Hunter Commission simply added insult to injury, and the hatred of British imperialism was extolled by progressive opinion the world over.

Dyer as hero and the ‘saviour of the Punjab’

The British government, through the Hunter Commission, had tried to make the best of a bad job. Dyer’s actions had been acknowledged as “monstrous” and “frightful”, but they had been shown to be an aberration in British imperial policy. Many historians have followed the official account by portraying the Massacre as a singular event, with its own narrow context and causes. This was Churchill’s intention and it will no doubt be the view dominating the British media this week.

Indians overwhelmingly saw the Commission as a whitewash.  The Massacre was the fruit of British Imperialism. And it shifted many Indians who had been prepared to work with the British thus far, into anti-imperialist struggle. This included Gandhi, who had supported the British in World War One, but now said: “We want to change the system that produced Dyer.”

The Congress Party in India was affected hugely by the Massacre, which had also boosted membership of the newly formed Indian Communist Party. Congress now had an activist and progressive wing which would continue to shape opposition to British imperialism.  Three hundred million Indians could only be controlled with the willing cooperation of the Indian middle classes, and that cooperation was coming to an end.


A contemporary cartoon by Low depicting India and Ireland being forced to crawl before their imperial master.

The threat to empire in India alongside ongoing rebellion in Ireland alarmed and incensed the British establishment, and its right wing politicians and commentators. In their minds Dyer’s actions were heroic, he had defended the empire, and should have been wholly supported by the government.

Dyer had already been feted by the British elites in India. The “Ladies of the Punjab” declared that his actions had saved the Punjab from bloodshed. The Morning Post, once Dyer had been forced to resign, repeated this fiction and launched a fund drive on his behalf which garnered £26,000. Donors included many aristocrats including the Duke of Westminster.

Far from being relieved that their boy had committed mass murder and got off virtually scot free they thought it a disgrace that mere politicians should put a serving soldier “on trial” and “break him”.

Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, was picked out for vicious abuse because he had presented the Hunter Commission reports and defended Dyer being asked to resign. Montagu was a Jew and he suffered anti-Semitic catcalls throughout the debate in the House of Commons. During the week when the reports were debated in the House of Commons the Morning Post ran a serialisation of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, deliberately stoking anti-Semitism, and implying that Montagu and the Hunter Commission he had instigated were a Jewish plot

Even The Times, which had been anti-Dyer, joined in with the right’s populist anti-Semitism:  “Mr Montagu, patriotic and sincere English Liberal as he is, is also a Jew, and in excitement has the mental idiom of the East”. His speech, the paper concluded, had been insensitive to “our inductive English method of political argument.”4

The Conservative and Unionist right in the Commons was led by Sir Edward Carson. Carson was a founder member of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and a violent opponent of Irish Home Rule – the UVF received a cache of German arms in 1914. His argument was that Montagu was guilty of using democracy (a contemporary anti-Semitic trope) to destroy the national order. It was wrong he said, for a politician to even criticise a soldier in the field. However he correctly identified brute force, and not democracy, as being the essential prop of empire.

During the protests against the Rowlatt Acts in Punjab an Indian who failed to salaam a British officer had been made to lick his boots. The right wing insistence that the rights of hundreds of maimed and murdered Indians were nothing compared to the indignity suffered by General Dyer were behaving exactly like that officer:

You talk of the great principles of liberty which you have laid down. General Dyer has a right to be brought within those principles of liberty. He has no right to be broken on the [dictum] of any Commission or Committee, however great, unless he has been fairly tried — and he has not been tried.

Carson concluded, to “loud and prolonged cheers”: “to break a man under the circumstances of this case is un-English”5.

The glorification of imperial barbarism and the dehumanisation of its victims in India (and Ireland) then, and Iraq and Palestine today, feed the dark forces of the far right. If the Hunter Commission was un-English, what, then, was the Massacre? The normalisation of racial hatred and its violent expression was a feature of the emerging forces of fascism in Europe between the two world wars. Many of the same Conservative defenders of Dyer became ardent supporters of Hitler, as any impartial study of the Daily Mail archives bears out.

The legacy

The Amritsar Massacre was probably the event which doomed the British Empire more than any other. When Gandhi visited Britain in 1931 he was asked what he thought of “British civilisation” he offered a reply that would enrage Churchill. “It would”, he said, “be a good idea”. When Gandhi visited the East End of London and the cotton mills of Lancashire he was mobbed by an adoring crowd of workers; whereas Churchill found Gandhi “nauseating” and “a fakir of the type well known in the East”. Churchill was furious that Gandhi demanded to speak on equal terms to the “King-Emperor”. Clearly social justice, in the minds of many English workers, was more important in the 1930s, than imperial grandeur.

It would take another world war to finally shake Britain’s imperial grip from India and begin the final period of imperial decline. However, the growth of an international anti-imperialist consciousness – it would be wrong to speak of a movement – was crucially important. The War of Irish independence that resulted in the 1922 Irish Free State gave inspiration to Indian activists such as Subhas Chandra Bose. Jawaharlal Nehru, after attending the 1927 League Against Imperialism conference in Belgium, where Ireland was discussed, became convinced that only purna Swaraj or complete independence from Britain would solve India’s problems. 

Finally, the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre should be a call to anti-war, anti-racist and socialist activists everywhere. Our task is to obliterate the mealy mouthed media commentary that will try and “debate” the issues, as if there was some moral equivalence between the British Empire and those who protested against it. 

“But surely the protesters were violent too?” they will whine. 

“Wasn’t Dyer, as a military man, going to use what he knew best to keep order?” British inductive reasoning at its best. 

“Didn’t Britain build railways and modernise India?” As if the marketization of the Indian economy never caused famines and insufferable poverty!

“But of course it was a most terrible event which it is only right we should acknowledge”. Sanctimony! The “event” involved racial humiliation, murder of an unarmed civilian gathering, and the anger of the protesters was fuelled by barbaric British martial law.

The Amritsar Massacre was not an aberration from British imperialism. The callous butchery displayed at Amritsar was taken as a right in an Empire on which the sun never set and the blood never dried. 



2 Hansard, House of Commons, Punjab Disturbances, July 8, 1920.

3 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1987), p. 69.

4 The Times, 9 July 1920.

5 Hansard, House of Commons, Punjab Disturbances, July 8, 1920.


John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

Tagged under: