Reviewing a Massacre

Reviewing a Massacre
AP Photo/Prabhjot Gill

A century on, it's hard to say something entirely original about the Amritsar massacre. Kim Wagner pulls together the tragedy's various threads and presents all the evidence, even that which counters his own ideological preference for seeing the massacre as symptomatic of British oppression, rather than as an exceptional event.

Wagner is not squeamish about describing anti-European rioting in the Punjab and elsewhere during the days leading up to Amritsar. Although Gandhi had issued a call for satyagraha, non-violent resistance, his request was not heeded. A poster on the clock tower next to the Golden Temple in Amritsar called on the people to be prepared to ‘die and kill'. There are graphic descriptions of Indian crowds pelting security forces with brickbats. The British found themselves fending off attempts to rush the Civil Lines where most of them lived. Wagner doesn't shrink from detailing how three British bank clerks and two railwaymen were bludgeoned to death by the mob, while one Miss Sherwood, a missionary schoolteacher, was knocked off her bike, beaten and left for dead.

General Reginald Dyer, later dubbed ‘the Butcher of Amritsar', was incensed by all this, most of all by the sight of Sherwood, hovering between life and death, and by the dormitories of British women and children herded into the old fort. Dyer was a loner, with a chip on his shoulder, though he was popular with his Indian troops. It is a shock to hear that he was felicitated by the Sikh priests of the Golden Temple just days after he had ordered the massacre next door.

The question remains whether Dyer overreacted on the spur of the moment or executed a premeditated plan. Wagner is rightly sceptical about premeditation on either the colonial or nationalist side. The latter, he argues, gathered mostly ignorant of Dyer's ban on public meetings. Dyer, unfamiliar with the city and the layout of the Bagh and its tiny exits, may have seen the meeting as a direct challenge. The horrific result was six to ten minutes of incessant firing directly at a crowd of several thousands, resulting in Wagner's estimate of 500 to 700 dead and many more wounded.

This book explodes nationalist myths around the event. There were hardly any women and few Muslims present (one sixth of the crowd), despite Amritsar then being a Muslim-majority city. No machine guns were used and the 50-strong firing squad was made up of Gurkhas, Baluchis, Pathans and Sikhs, but no whites.

Wagner is convinced that memories of the Mutiny of 1857 shaped the British response in 1919 and he accuses the Raj of paranoia and ‘racialised violence'. But he pays scant attention to the good intentions of people like Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India in Britain's then Liberal government, who introduced constitutional reforms designed to take a federal India to responsible government, as in Australia and Canada. Instead, we are told the reforms were designed to perpetuate British power.


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