100 years after Amritsar

A hundred years ago, on 13 April 1919, British Brigadier-General R E H Dyer ordered his troops to fire on a crowd of thousands of Indians in Amritsar killing about 380 of them. The troops included 25 Gurkha riflemen from the 1/9thBattalion.

The event remains one of the most shocking in the long history of British colonialism in India, and is remembered in ceremonies every year, held not just in Amritsar but across India. Although the town remained remarkably quiet afterwards, it had previously been the site of considerable popular unrest related to the emerging Indian nationalist movement, and in the following months and years this atrocity played an iconic role in the rise of Mahatma Gandhi’s movement.

The massacre itself, however, was only part of a wider and deeper conflict between the British and their Indian subjects, which lay at the heart of the late colonial ‘situation’ in the British Raj.

There had been meetings in Amritsar in support of Gandhi’s movement, another a series of peaceful hartals. But on 9 April, the Government of the Punjab ordered the deportation of the two nationalist leaders from Amritsar and their internment in Dharamsala, and elaborate arrangements were made to increase the level of security in case there was a political reaction.

Indeed, there followed attacks on various government offices and their staff, including the Telegraph Office and Telephone Exchange, as well as the Alliance Bank, the National Bank and the Chartered Bank, all of which were also subject to looting. The Town Hall and the nearby sub-post office were set on fire, sub-post offices at the Golden Temple, Hajith Mandi and Dhal Basti Ram were looted.

In some cases, the violence led to the killing of Europeans and Anglo-Indians. The main goods’ yard in Amritsar was stormed, damaged and looted, the guard of the North Western Railway was beaten to death and the Station Superintendent injured severely. One infamous incident involved a lady missionary who was pursued by a crowd, knocked down, beaten while on the ground and left for dead. She was picked up by some kind locals whose action ensured she received medical attention and may therefore have saved her life.

A total of about ten people, mainly Muslims, were killed by government forces on 10 April. But the situation was now considered to be beyond civil control. A contingent of some 260 Gurkhas from the 1/9th, arriving at the railway station on the way to Peshawar, was detained and armed. The pickets were strengthened throughout the town. Late at night, 300 troops (125 British and 175 Baluchis) arrived from Lahore under Major Macdonald, and early the next day (11 April), 300 more troops arrived from Jalandhar (100 British and 200 Indian). The city remained generally quiet throughout the day, preoccupied with funerals and burying the dead, there were processions of both Hindus and Muslims.

The Deputy Commissioner issued a notice to the leaders of these processions that gatherings of persons or processions would not be allowed and that any such demonstrations would be fired on. On the evening of the 11 April, Brigadier-General Dyer, took over command from Major Macdonald.

On 12 April, a column of troops under General Dyer marched around the city as crowds were reported to be gathering outside it. Dyer reported later that ‘the bearing of the inhabitants was most insolent and many spat on the ground as the troops passed’.

At the Sultanwind Gate there were shouts of “Hindu-Mussulman ki jai”, and the crowd was dispersed with difficulty. General Dyer apparently considered opening fire, but refrained from doing so until he had issued a proclamation warning that any acts of violence would be punished under Military Law. The distribution of this proclamation was left to the police.

During the day, the telegraph wires were cut. During the night, the railway lines were torn up and a goods train derailed. On the morning of 13 April 1919, General Dyer went through the city in the company of the District Magistrate and other officials and had a proclamation read out that no procession or gathering of more than four men would be regarded and treated as an unlawful assembly and would be dispersed by force of arms if necessary.

General Dyer first learned of the proposed meeting at Jallianwala Baghat 1pm, and he  proceeded through the city with a special force of 25 Gurkha (1/9thbattalion) and 25 Sikhs (54thand 59th) riflemen, 40 Gurkhas armed only with kukris, and two armoured cars. On arriving at Jallianwala Bagh, he found that the entrances to this area of waste land were too narrow to permit the entry of the armoured cars, so they were left in the street outside.

A large crowd of between 6-20,000 was already assembled at the opposite end of the Jallianwala Bagh and were being addressed by a man on a raised platform. Without giving the crowd any warning to disperse he ordered his troops to open fire. Altogehter 1,650 rounds were fired and continued for about 10 minutes. A reported 379 were killed., about 87 of them villagers from outside Amritsar.

General Beynon, who was General Dyer’s superior, was reported to have fully approved the action, as did Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab. Martial Law was declared on 15 April.

There were no further disturbances in Amritsar. Shops remained closed for several days, but the city apparently ‘gradually returned to normal’. Later in the year, however, the British Government set up a Committee under Lord Hunter to investigate the circumstances of the massacre at Amritsar. The Committee met first in Lahore in November 1919 and continued its hearings into 1920, when its conclusions were published. It was highly critical of General Dyer’s actions. But the incident remains controversial, even today.

The 1/9thGurkhas were re-deployed while on their way to Peshawar, and brought under the command of General Dyer. He selected 25 Gurkhas and 25 Sikhs with rifles to accompany him to the Jallianwala Bagh, as well as 40 Gurkhas armed with kukris. It would have been an act of mutiny to refuse to carry out the orders given to fire on the crowd assembled there.

Arguably, it was simply one incident among many in which the Gurkhas have been involved, inevitably, as a result of their participation in the British Army over two centuries. Nevertheless, the role of the Gurkhas in this incident must have been, and must continue to be, a matter of regret for the battalion concerned and for the Gurkha Brigade as a whole.

Dr David Seddon is Director of Critical Faculty, author/co-author of many publications on Nepal, and currently writing a three-part book on ‘Nepal and the Great War’.  

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