Tuesday, June 07, 2005


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A little over a year before the events of “BLOODY SUNDAY” 1920 in Ireland took place a similar event occurred in India which at the time was part of the British Empire. This was The Amritsar Massacre perpetrated by the British which took place on April 13,1919. As with “BLOODY SUNDAY” the crowd fired upon were unarmed civilians & in both cases the repercussions were damaging to Britain’s reputation & led to an increase of opposition to British rule & would ultimately be their undoing in both Ireland & India respectively.

The Amritsar Massacre - Britain's day of shame.

“Politically , as well as economically, the years after World War 1 proved depressing to India's high expectations. Indian soldiers returned from battlefronts to find that back home they were no longer treated as invaluable allies but reverted immediately to the status of "natives." Most of the soldiers recruited during the war had come from Punjab, which, with only 7 percent of India's population, had supplied over 50 percent of the combatant troops
shipped abroad. It is thus hardly surprising that the flash-point of the postwar violence that shook India in the spring of 1919 was Punjab province.

April 13,British General R. E. H. Dyer marched 50 armed soldiers into the Jallianwallah Bagh (a small park surrounded by high walls) that afternoon and ordered them to open fire on a protest meeting attended by some 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children. Dyer gave no warning of his intention to open fire. It was a Sunday, and many neighboring peasants had come to Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu festival, gathering in the Bagh, which was a place for holding cattle fairs and other festivities.

Dyer kept his troops firing for about ten minutes, until they had shot 1650 rounds of ammunition into the terror-stricken crowd. The crowd had no way of escaping the Bagh, since the soldiers blocked the only exit. About 400 civilians were killed and some 1200 wounded. They were left without medical attention by Dyer, who hastily removed his troops to the camp. Sir Michael O'Dwyer fully approved of and supported the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, and on April 15, 1919, issued a martial law decree for the entire

Dyer was relieved of his command, but he returned to England as a hero to many British admirers, who presented him with a collected purse of thousands of pounds and a jeweled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab."

The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre turned millions of patient and moderate Indians from loyal supporters of the British raj into national revolutionaries who would never again trust British "fair play" or cooperate with a government capable of defending such action. The following year, Mahatma Ghandi launched his first Indian satyagraha ("clinging to the truth") campaign, India's response to the massacre in Jallianwallah Bagh. Twenty-seven years later, the British finally went home.”

And further:

“General Dyer said he would have used his machine guns if he could have got them into the enclosure, but these were mounted on armoured cars. He said he did not stop firing when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep firing until the crowd dispersed, and that a little firing would do no good.

He confessed he did not take any steps to attend to the wounded after the firing. ''Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there,'' came his pathetic response.

However, the misery suffered by the people was reflected in the account given by one of the survivors of the massacre Rattan Devi who reported “ She was forced to keep a nightlong vigil, armed with a bamboo stick to protect her husband's body from jackals and vultures. Curfew with shoot-at-sight orders had been imposed from 2000 hours that night. And as she further recalled, ''I saw three men writhing in great pain and a boy of about 12. I could not leave the place. The boy asked me for water but there was no water in that place. At 2 am, a Jat who was lying entangled on the wall asked me to raise his leg. I went up to him and took hold of his clothes drenched in blood and raised him up. Heaps of bodies lay there, a number of them innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I spent the night crying and watching..."

General Dyer admitted before the commission that he came to know about the meeting at Jallianwala Bagh at 1240 hours that day, but took no steps to prevent it. He also admitted in his deposition that the gathering at the Bagh was not a concentration only of rebels, but people who had covered long distances to participate in the Baisakhi fair. “

The number of deaths at Amritsar has been disputed over the years. Indian commentators & those who are or were more sympathetic to the struggles of the Indian people put the death toll at a thousand or more dead. The official British figure is still 379 dead.

Winston Churchill said about the event:
"The incident in Jallian Wala Bagh was 'an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation"...Winston Churchill

And as he further stated:

“The Indians were 'packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies'; the people 'ran madly this way and the other. When fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for eight or ten minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion".....Winston Churchill

In the British Parliament Churchill argued that General Dyer should have been more roundly condemned for his actions & that the government should express its revulsion over the Massacre but Parliament was more sympathetic to Gen Dyer than to those murdered at Amritsar.

What is odd about Churchill’s response is that within a year it was Churchill who encouraged the British Government to enlist & deploy the Auxiliaries & the notorious Black & Tans to Ireland to terrorize the insurgents & the Catholic populace of Ireland. Did Churchill see the two events as different situations which demanded different reactions & solutions. Or is it that the Irish were to be treated differently because of some inherent native characteristics making them less amenable to non-violent actions such as persuasion accommodation & compromise which the Native population of India would be more amenable to. Or in his defense did Churchill not foresee what a mess the Irish situation would turn into.

What is disturbing about the Amritsar Massacre is that a number of English people saw the Massacre as a justifiable action against the unruly natives of India who needed to be reminded of their place in the British Empire . It is part of the British notion of the time & later revised by those in power for instance Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that people in different classes or of different ethnic origins should know their place in society & that it is up to the ruling classes to decide what is good for the rest of the people of England & by extension in the British Empire & Commonwealth. Thatcher put this into practice in Ireland & when fighting the labour unions especially the coal miners’s unions in her willingness to use police & soldiers to end the strikes in Northern England.
It does sometimes seem as if those in authority have become more & more willing to use force against peaceful demonstrators even in the more democratic countries like the USA & Canada & Britain & other European countries.

See website:
Amritsar Massacre - Jallian Wala Bagh.
Amritsar Portal
Our Community, Our Punjab
Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh

See Website of Winston Churchill’s Speech July 8,1920
Winston Churchill - Amritsar Massacre Speech - July 8th 1920, House of Commons.

For more on Ghandi & The Amritsar Massacre it is treated in some detail in Richard Attenborough‘s Film GHANDI (1982)

Imperialism in India 1498-1740; British vs. French: 1740-1761
... Beginnings of Indian Nationalism: 1885-1919 ...

includes an extensive bibliography on primary & secondary resources

on GHANDI see


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