As the anniversary of Bloody Sunday approaches, Eamonn McCann looks back at the Amritsar massacre, drawing parallels between two murderous atrocities at the hands of the British Empire.
Sunday, April 13th 1919 was the day the decline and fall of the British Empire became obvious and undeniable.
This was the day of the Amritsar massacre when British troops shot and killed between 350 and 1,200 (nobody was counting) peaceful, unarmed Indians in the Punjabi city. The event was so shocking that even Winston Churchill back in London was dismayed – or at least felt called upon to say that he was dismayed.
Rage erupted across India. Support for independence surged. The moderate politics and peaceful methods associated with Gandhi’s Indian National Congress no longer matched the mood.
Kim A. Wagner’s “Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre,” published last year, provides a meticulous examination of how and why the atrocity came about and of the shuddering effect it had on India. Wagner paints an ugly, angering picture from which it is virtually impossible to drag your eyes.
April 13th was a Sunday. Around 15,000 women, men and children converged on the Jallianwala Bagh, a park near the Sikh Golden Temple, to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi, in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. For local British army chief Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, this was a challenge which had to be faced down if British authority was to be preserved.
Dyer led a detachment of 50 soldiers through the narrow streets of Amritsar to take up positions around the square patch of parkland and ordered them to open fire. According to army records, 1,650 shots were pumped into the jam-packed crowd. Panic-stricken thousands running pell-mell for shelter or escape found themselves funnelled and wedged into the narrow openings. Many were crushed to death in the compression, even as the bullets scythed through their ranks and spurted blood in all directions.
Protecting the Empire
The Amritsar massacre didn’t come out of the blue. At least six people had been killed over the previous week in fierce protests against the imprisonment and exile of their political leaders. British army officers saw these protests as the beginning of a re-run of the uprising of 1857, when Indian troops had turned their guns on their white officers. That event had put a scare across the Raj, not just because it represented an insult to the British sense of entitlement to rule, but because India was of tremendous importance to the Empire, by far its most populous country, producing most of the Empire’s tea, spices, fabrics etc.
Lose India, and other components of Empire would surely slip away…
The massacre, then, wasn’t a mindless aberration but the latest in a long line of major crimes against the people of India, going back to the 18th century and freebooter days of the East India Company. Insofar as Amritsar represented an escalation of British violence against Indians, this was a measure of the rising fear of the ruling class that its imperial role was beginning to come under unprecedented challenge.
Dyer may have been dismissed as a madman by British liberals and even some conservative commentators. But he had merely been following a well-established colonial practice of using “exemplary” violence to subdue the natives.
It was on this basis that Empire loyalists stood by Dyer. The Daily Express dubbed him “the man who saved India” and launched a “defence fund” which raised today’s equivalent of almost a million pounds.
Ex-soldiers and uber-patriots marching in Whitehall to the tune of the Express and Mail in protest against any of the Bloody Sunday killers being put in the dock are today’s expression of the same colonial mind-set.
War tired masses
The end of the First World War had triggered a wave of anger across the world, particularly in colonised countries which had contributed mightily to Britain’s war effort and lost tens of thousands of their people at the Somme, in the Dardanelles, etc., only to be “rewarded” when war was over with continued occupation, oppression and contempt. The surge in anti-colonial feeling engendered as a result affected Ireland, Egypt, South Africa, the West Indies etc.
Thus the stakes were high when Dyer ordered his troops to open rapid fire into the jam-packed square of Jallianwala Bagh. But this, Dyer quickly learned, was an atrocity too far for his political bosses back in Britain – not because of tender-heartedness towards Indian people but because the slaughter didn’t resonate with a population already wearied of war and useless political violence and longing for peace at home and abroad. The event also contradicted the image which, increasingly, the ruling class wanted to promote about its supposedly benign role in India and, by extension, in every far-flung country coloured red on the world map.
Bloody Sunday, again, provides the closest contemporary parallel. In 2010, then prime minister David Cameron was able to endorse the damning finding of an official inquiry that the 1998 Bloody Sunday killings in Derry had been “unjustified and unjustifiable” – while maintaining that the blood-letting had been an anomaly, out of character, unrepresentative of the role of British forces in the North generally.
What this meant in practice was that a handful of privates and corporals were made to shoulder all of the blame while the army itself and the State it represented were adjudged entirely innocent.
At Amritsar, one allegedly deranged officer was fingered for the killings, the State itself let off the hook.
Wagner’s meticulously researched “Amritsar 1919” not only provides a detailed pitiful picture of the mass murder at Jallianwala Bagh, but maps out the historical and political terrain on which the outrage unfolded.
On May 18th 1918, the socialist leader John Maclean, speaking from the dock in Glasgow at his trial for urging young men to refuse to “take the king’s shilling,” declared: “I am not here as the accused but as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.” A year later, 10,000 miles away, his point was made, the holy ground of Jallianwala Bagh drenched in the gore of Empire.
The book is a huge contribution to our understanding of British colonialism in India and of colonialism elsewhere and in other times, including in Ireland, even now.