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COSTS OF WAR: THE AMRITSAR MASSACRE

One hundred years ago, in the Indian city of Amritsar, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer led some of his troops into the Jallianwala Bagh, a garden enclosed by high walls. Dyer then ordered his soldiers to open fire into the mass crowds of thousands of Indian people who were taking part in a peaceful protest meeting.

Twenty-two years before, in 1897, Queen Victoria had been applauded by large crowds in London as she travelled from her palace to St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate her jubilee. Accompanying her in the vast procession were soldiers from all parts of the Empire.

Reporting this event, the ‘Daily Mail’ commented on the troops:

‘White men, yellow men, brown men, black men, every colour, every continent, every race, every speech – and all in arms for the British Empire and the British Queen. Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms, at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum – a living gazetteer of the British Empire.

With them came their English officers, whom they obey and follow like children. And you began to understand, as never before, what the Empire amounts to … that all these people are working, not simply under us, but with us – we send out a boy here and a boy there, and the boy takes hold of the savages of the part he comes to, and teaches them to march and shoot as he tells them, to obey him and believe in him and die for him and the Queen’. [Daily Mail, 23rd June 1897].

Just 17 years later, During WW1, a then undivided India was ruled by Britain and the country contributed over a million personnel to serve under the British flag. Many Indians volunteered, but the British authorities had required more men. They considered introducing conscription, but instead ordered Indian officials to produce a quota of men or risk losing their jobs.

Indian soldiers fought in France, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Aden, East Africa, Gallipoli and Salonika. They were awarded 9,200 decorations, including 11 VCs, and over 60,000 of them died in the fighting. Indians at home bought War Bonds and sent 170,000 animals and 3,700,000 tons of stores and supplies to the war.

When the ‘Great War’ ended it was clear that now not everyone shared the Daily Mail’s attitude towards the Empire. In both Ireland and India opposition was building up and challenging British rule – which responded with repressive legislation and military force.

At the end of the WW1 many Indians had expected positive moves towards ‘self-governing institutions’ as a reward for the men and money they had supplied for Britain’s war in far off places. Instead, new repressive measures were introduced.

In 1919, twenty-two years after Victoria’s jubilee parade and 5 months after the end of the ‘Great War’, outraged people across India joined mass protests against the coercive Rowlatt Act, which brought in internment without trial and introduced no-jury courts for political trials.

One of these protests, in the Indian city of Amritsar, took place in the Jallianwala Bagh. The thousands of protesters were hemmed in by the garden’s high walls, and could not escape as the soldiers started firing into the mass of Indian people. After given the order to fire Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer watched his 90 Sikh and Gurkha riflemen continued shooting for over ten minutes.

They fired directly into the crowd until their ammunition ran out, many of the heavy bullets passing through the bodies of their first victims to claim others beyond. When the firing had ceased thousands of men, women and children lay dead or wounded. Forty-two children were among the dead, the youngest victim was a 7-month-old boy.

Two days later another protest occurred in Gujranwala in solidarity with those who had been killed at Amritsar. Armed police and aircraft were used against the demonstrators killing 12 and wounding 27. The Officer Commanding the Royal Air Force in India, Brigadier General MacEwen, boasted:

‘I think we can fairly claim to have been of great use in the late riots, particularly at Gujranwala, where the crowd when looking at its nastiest was absolutely dispersed by a machine using bombs and Lewis guns’.

A century before the Amritsar Massacre, during the British conquest of India, the Gurkhas of Nepal had been defeated after a period of bloody conflict with the East India Company. Impressed by the fighting qualities of the Gurkhas, the company, following the British tradition of employing the ‘martial races’ it had defeated, secured the rights to raise battalions of Gurkhas for their forces in India.

During the ‘Indian Mutiny’, of all the native troops it was the Gurkhas who proved to be the most loyal and dependable. Indeed, the Gurkhas loyalty to British interests was so highly rated that after Indian independence, while most native troops joined the Indian army, Britain ensured that some Gurkha battalions would stay within the British Army.

Nepal, an independent state between north-east India and Tibet, continues to supply soldiers for Britain. Famed for their stealth and silent killing techniques, these Gurkha troops have subsequently been used to protect British interests in other parts of empire.

In 1974 when Gurkhas were sent to reinforce the British sovereign base areas in Cyprus, local papers objected to the ‘Mercenaries in Her Majesty’s uniform.’ At that time there were 6,500 Gurkhas serving in the British Army.

With nearly half the population living below the poverty line, the money earned by Gurkhas serving as British soldiers was Nepal’s largest source of foreign currency. Sympathy for the economic reasons that were a factor in why so many men from Nepal joined the British Army, however, should not blind us to the role the Gurkhas were happy to play for their English masters.

After taking part in the Amritsar killings some Gurkha soldiers gloatingly told a British official: ‘Sahib, while it lasted it was splendid: we fired every round we had’.

Brigadier-General Dyer, who ordered his troops to open fire on the crowd at Amritsar, said that: ‘For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same.’ However, while Dyer clearly saw his military actions as part of a war, Indian independence activists who were captured knew they would not be treated as PoWs.

At the end of the ‘Indian Mutiny’ the British authorities had established a penal colony on the remote Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. After 4 years, 3,500 prisoners out of 8,000 transported to the islands had been killed or had died from fever because of the unsanitary conditions.

For the next 80 years the brutal prison regime attempted to break the will of a constant stream of Indian political prisoners by subjecting them to forced labour, torture, executions and medical experiments.

The prison was finally closed after the deaths of several prisoners during a hunger strike in 1937. Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, one of the leaders of the movement for Indian independence, sent the prisoners a telegram saying: ‘… TRYING BEST TO SECURE RELIEF FOR YOU’ and a wave of support swept across India forcing the authorities to repatriate the prisoners and close the prison.

After the Amritsar Massacre the Indian National Congress had purchased the Jallianwala Bagh to ensure the victims would be remembered. On the site is recorded these words:

THIS PLACE IS SATURATED WITH THE
BLOOD OF ABOUT TWO THOUSAND HINDU,
SIKH AND MUSLIM PATRIOTS WHO WERE
MARTYRED IN A NON-VIOLENT STRUGGLE
TO FREE INDIA FROM BRITISH DOMINATION.
GENERAL DYER OF THE BRITISH ARMY
OPENED FIRE ON UNARMED PEOPLE.
JALLIANWALA BAGH IS THUS AN
EVERLASTING SYMBOL OF NON-VIOLENT
AND PEACEFUL STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
OF INDIAN PEOPLE AND THE GROSS
TYRANNY OF THE BRITISH.

The British Government tried to suppress the information about the massacre, but the news could not be quelled in India and widespread outrage ensued. A decade after the massacre Gandhi visited England and was asked for his view on ‘Western civilization’. He replied: ‘I think it would be a good idea’.


Aly Renwick served in the British Army on operations in South East Asia, he is now a member of Veterans For Peace.

  • David Marchesi 07/06/2019, 11:11

    Yes,important to underline the mercenary nature of the Gurkhas. They must be considered as victims, of course, of the Raj and its militarists, but it is anomalous that today we have some seeing Gurkha recruits as “patriotic” (the Joanna Lumley episode) A useful illustration of the cynical misuse of the word, as any Nepalese patriot must be patriotic about Nepal, not the UK. Just as it is absurd for UK people to be patriotic about any country than the UK. Therefore, neutrality makes sense. Above all, stay/get out of alliances.

  • Martin Little 07/06/2019, 19:25

    Thank you for this reminder of a history we should never forget. If we are to preserve what little democracy we have left, we must always be ready to question our own mythologised past and supposed moral superiority.

  • David Collins 22/06/2019, 23:01

    Well written Ali, thank you. I recall the unfailing hospitality of the Indian people I met in Amritsar in 1970. I was as ignorant of the massacre as my history teacher was about British Imperial rule.

    • David Marchesi 22/06/2019, 23:19

      doubt if your history teacher was ignorant, but probably chose discretion as the better part of valour. See the great “1066 And All That” for a still relevant spoof of history as it is taught.

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