My Review of Nick Lloyd’s Book on the Amritsar Massacre

Here are my feelings about a recent attempt to re-write the history of India in 1919:

A Muse Abused: The Politicizing of the Amritsar Massacre

by Nigel Collett


Amritsar Massacre; The Untold Story of One Fateful Day

Nick Lloyd

I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, September 2011


17 July 2012 — The abuses by occupying forces that have come to light over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan can be interpreted as the unpredictable mistakes of misguided individuals. In one light, of course, this is true, for individual responsibility has to be invoked to differentiate between the vast majority who keep the rules and the few who break them. In another light, though, it is irrefutable that such abuses would not have occurred had there been no involvement of outside powers. This may seem simplistic, an echo, even, of the unchanging Chinese argument against interference in sovereignty, but it is as well to remind politicians who are advocating such interference that abuses are inevitable.

The Amritsar massacre of 1919, perpetrated by British forces in India, became one of the seminal events of modern Indian history and, as it teaches this lesson clearly, it is therefore more relevant to contemporary considerations than might at first appear. Both those who would evade recognition of the inevitable dark side of foreign intervention, and those who would emphasise it, have interpreted this massacre to suit their own views, so there is a very large range of published opinions about culpability for the massacre and its significance.

The emergence of Nick Lloyd’s The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of a Fateful Day [1] makes a review of the vast literature on the subject, as well of the political uses and abuses to which its history has been put, timely. The historiography of the massacre is a perfect example of how history is often shaped to a political end and Lloyd’s new book is an illustration of how that is done.


First, though, I should explain what the Amritsar massacre was and why it has such historical significance. In 1919, the year after the 1st World War ended, a wave of civil unrest broke out in British India, mostly in the northern province of the Punjab, which gave its name to what became known as the “Punjab Disturbances”. Riots in several major cities and some smaller towns caused many deaths and the destruction of a good deal of property. There was no coordinated revolt, though at the time the British feared there was. India at the time was suffering from a multitude of old grievances and new discontents and Gandhi’s first national campaign set them alight. Gandhi was fighting two new pieces of security legislation (the Rowlatt Bills) by which the British Government of India planned to extend the emergency powers of arrest, trial and internment that had been in force during the War. The bills seemed to many educated Indians to be both draconian and an insult to India’s aspirations for self-government within the Empire. Gandhi intended a campaign of peaceful non-cooperation, but this soon turned into violence. Amritsar, one of the principal cities of the Punjab and the site of the Sikh’s Golden Temple, was one of the places most badly affected.

In rioting there on 10 April, some five Europeans and many more Indians lost their lives. Three days later, the area military commander, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, personally commanded a military force that opened fire without warning on a peaceful crowd of some 20,000 or more people gathered in an enclosed public space (the Jallianwala Bagh[2]) from which easy escape was impossible. For between 10 and 15 minutes Dyer ordered his troops to continue to fire into the crowd, which contained unarmed men, women and children, all of whom attempted to flee but many of whom became trapped in the confined space of the Bagh. The dead and wounded piled up around the few narrow exits and the lowest places on the surrounding walls. When Dyer finally ordered a ceasefire, he made no attempt to count or succour the casualties. After he marched away, the curfew he had imposed on the city prevented aid being given those lying in the Bagh until the next day. No one knows how many he killed or wounded as neither he nor the Punjab Government made any attempt at the time to make a count. Estimates of the dead run to over 500 and, of the wounded, to many thousands. In the days following the massacre, with martial law imposed on the city, Dyer closed a street where a female British missionary had been assaulted by a mob and left for dead, ordering that any Indians wishing to traverse it must crawl down it on their stomachs. This was regarded by most Indians as a racial insult and became notorious as “the crawling order”; Gandhi called it more shameful to India than the shooting.

Dyer made a series of three conflicting sets of statements about his motives and actions, which have been the subject of historical debate ever since. At first, immediately after he carried out the massacre, he made a series of partial explanations to those with whom he spoke, all giving slightly different reasons for his actions, but all with the common aim of exonerating him from any blame. One claim he made at this time, one taken up by the Punjab authorities, was that he had been forced to fire to prevent his small force being overwhelmed in a confined space.

Later, after he had received approval for his actions from all his superiors in India, both civil and military, Dyer allowed a second set of explanations to emerge, making plain that his actions in firing without warning and for so long had not been caused by any fear for his force. They had, he now stated, been a deliberate attempt to punish people he believed were rebels and to make an example for the rest of the Punjab that would stop what he regarded as a rebellion. In his written report submitted to the Hunter Commission (which was appointed by the British Government to investigate the Punjab Disturbances), and in his verbal evidence before it, he maintained this line, and would continue to do so until he died in 1927.

Finally, on his return to England in disgrace in 1920, Dyer’s lawyers drafted a statement for Parliament, repeating that his actions had been deliberate but justifying them on his belief that he was facing an insurrection and that, on those grounds, any amount of firing was permissible. This third interpretation did not, though, alter his claim that what he had done had been premeditated and deliberate.


In the aftermath of the massacre, many British in India and at home claimed that Dyer’s actions saved India from revolution. When the Hunter Commission reported in 1920, it rejected this entirely and censured Dyer and many others in the military and civilian administration of the Punjab. It found no hidden “antecedent conspiracy” or insurrection, no plot to bring down the British Government in India. However, its members split on national lines over the issue of how to classify the disturbances. British members, the majority, called them “an open rebellion”.[3] Indian members, the minority, found that “there was no rebellion in the sense we have mentioned nor any organisation for that purpose.” [4] This disagreement was by far from merely a quibble for the word “rebellion” was used my many to justify what had happened, including subsequently Dyer’s lawyers.


The British authorities in India concurred with the censure of Dyer. He lost his post and was sent to England, where he was publicly censured by the Government. The issue was debated in the House of Commons, where Winston Churchill, who believed Dyer a murderer, made a stirring and persuasive speech decrying Dyer’s acts as un-British “frightfulness”, the word used most recently for German atrocities in the 1st World War. Dyer, though, was protected by the Army and suffered no form of disciplinary proceeding. He was allowed to retire. His actions were supported by the House of Lords, by much of the press and by many on the right wing. The Diehards, right wing figures seeking to retain British control of India, continued to maintain that there had been a conspiracy to overthrow the Raj, that Dyer had saved India and that he and the others censured with him had been betrayed by the Government to pander to Indian rebels.

To many Indians, on the other hand, Dyer was a murderer who escaped punishment and the handling of his case indicated racial prejudice and the falseness of British declarations of intent to grant India increasing self-rule. The massacre and the martial law that followed the disturbances of 1919 turned hitherto loyal reformers like Gandhi and the Nehrus into outright opponents of everything British. By 1920, the British had managed to alienate almost the entire Indian middle class and had created the support for the Indian National Congress that was, some twenty-seven years later, to end the Raj.

* * *

The earliest writing about the massacre was, as one might expect, political in motive and published in India. First to appear was Kapil Deva Malaviya’s Open Rebellion in the Punjab, which was rushed out within five months of the disturbances in September 1919.[5] Malaviya was a government servant working in Amritsar and his book is edited versions of his letters from there. His is neither a full nor a judicious account, but it is one that has the advantage of its immediacy. He went to see the Jallianwala Bagh, counting 167 bullet holes he could see in its walls and describing it more vividly than anyone since. Malaviya was not at that stage aware of any explanation for the massacre given by Dyer, but his conclusion that the massacre was a ‘cold-blooded disregard at the sanctity of human life amounting to butchery’ was an opinion from which almost no Indian has deviated since.[6]

The following year, but before the publication of the report of the Hunter Commission, B.G. Horniman published Amritsar and Our Duty to India. [7] Horniman had been editor of the Bombay Chronicle and had been deported from India for the critical attacks his paper had made on the policies adopted during the disturbances. He was a supporter of Gandhi so his book is also not a balanced account. He, too, was unaware then of any explanation given by Dyer, but his work includes useful analyses of the Rowlatt bills and of Gandhi’s satygraha [soul force] opposition to them. His description of this opposition makes it clear that there was no organised rebellion. The following will give the flavour of his polemic, one that nevertheless puts succinctly the major accusations against Dyer made at the time:


It is impossible to believe that the people of England could ever be persuaded that a British General was justified in, or could be excused for, marching up to a great crowd of unarmed and wholly defenceless people and, without a word of warning or order to disperse, shooting them down until his ammunition was exhausted and then leaving them without medical aid.[8]


Pandit Pearay Mohan’s The Punjab ‘Rebellion’ of 1919 and How It Was Suppressed appeared in the same year.[9] Mohan was a young lawyer who, until he conducted research for his book, had been a “liberal-moderate”. Despite the anger evident in his book, it succeeds in being a comprehensive account of most of the events of the disturbances accompanied with a mass of supporting statistics. His account suggested that an Amritsar police informer, Hans Raj, had been used to set up the meeting in the Bagh to lure a crowd there in order for it to be fired upon. The evidence for this was only circumstantial and contradicts all that is known of the events, but Mohan’s suggestion began a fashion for conspiracy theory that has continued to this day. Mohan was the first to write after Dyer’s appearance at the Hunter Commission and so became the first writer to focus on Dyer’s admission of responsibility there, unaware seemingly of the explanations Dyer had also given immediately after the massacre. In his view, Dyer was motivated by revenge:


Ever since General Dyer arrived at Amritsar, he was preparing his forces for the great hour of vengeance […] The massacre […] was the outcome of a deliberate desire to teach the inhabitants of Amritsar a terrible lesson for having killed Europeans.[10]


The publication which most turned Indian public opinion against the British after the massacre was the report of The Congress Punjab Inquiry 1919-1920. [11] This was authored by a team of five Congress lawyers led by Gandhi, who conducted extensive interviews of victims of the disorders who had not been interviewed by the Hunter Commission. Their extremely harrowing testimony was translated and published in Volume 2 of the report. Included in their report was testimony heard before Lord Justice Hunter, and on that basis, they condemned Dyer from his own mouth, writing that: “The meeting of the 13th furnished a ready chance and General Dyer seized it.”[12] As had Pandit Mohan, the Congress Commission reported on events across the Punjab and like him they ignored Dyer’s earliest explanations for his actions. It is noteworthy that, whilst writing this report, Gandhi specifically rejected inclusion of any conspiracy theory as a cause for the shooting in the Bagh.


Early English writing about the massacre was from the pens of the Diehards. First among these was Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab in 1919, who was blamed by many in India for at least some of the ills that affected his province and who had certainly lit the fuse that led to the violence by ordering the arrests of Gandhi and his chief supporters. O’Dwyer maintained until he died that there had been a rebellion, that Dyer had acted rightly in Amritsar and that his actions had saved the province. He was in print in 1925 with his version of events, India as I Knew It, 1885-1925.[13] This was a highly partisan account of self-justification. O’Dwyer relies solely on Dyer’s initial justifications for his actions and discounts the explanations he made subsequently. His view was that:


In giving his evidence before the Hunter Committee in November, Dyer, a blunt, honest soldier, under stress of a hostile cross-examination, appeared as having made statements which he, like many other witnesses, was given no opportunity of correcting and which, when he saw in print, he did not recognise as his own.[14]


Here is the first appearance of the Dyer myth, that of the simple soldier who did his duty and saved the Raj.

Four years later, this was a line brought to perfection by Ian Colvin in his Life of General Dyer.[15] Colvin was a professional writer, one of the Diehards’ principal polemicists and a leader writer for the right wing London newspaper, the Morning Post. His life of Dyer was a justification for his actions in Amritsar, and one quote from his book will suffice to give its tone:


General Dyer was a humane man. I will go a step farther and say that his motive, even as he expressed it, was a motive of humanity.[16]


Colvin followed O’Dwyer’s line exactly, that based upon Dyer’s early explanation that he had fired to protect his soldiers. He ignores or explains away Dyer’s subsequent changes to that position, and Dyer, the man of “a horrible, dirty duty”, the bluff, unsophisticated but honest saviour of British India, was the hero he very successfully created in his book.


General Sir George Barrow also wrote at this time from a position of partiality but from the other side of the fence. He had been the sole military member of the Hunter Commission and had heard Dyer’s testimony. He was also a man who idolized the officer who subsequently removed Dyer from his post, the Commander-in-Chief India, General Sir Charles Carmichael Monro. Barrow was dismayed at the criticism made of Monro’s dismissal of Dyer and in 1931 wrote a life of his hero in part to exonerate him from the Diehards’ attacks.[17] In this biography, Barrow was the first to carefully dissect all Dyer’s actions, his initial explanations for them and his statements before the Hunter Commission, and he damns him. Barrow focused on Dyer’s changes of tune:


If we are to accept the view that, as he told General Beynon, he killed so many because his force was in danger of being rushed and of a portion of the crowd getting behind him, all one can say is that in the excitement of the moment he became unduly alarmed and failed to appreciate the situation correctly. But, since he did not put this view before the Hunter Committee or in his report of August 25th, 1919, we are bound to accept the other reason, viz. that he fired with the object of making an impression. These apprehensions regarding the safety of his force appear to have been an afterthought.[18]


Barrow’s conclusions, though, did not muster much support in the decades that followed, and there the matter rested, with the Dyer legend almost intact in England and the belief in his criminality firm in India, until the Raj had passed into history and had become, by the Sixties, a phenomenon to be explained and excused rather than of which to be proud. In 1963 appeared the first of what was to be a series of books by non-academic writers seeking to bring the tale to the attention of a generation that had heard of neither Dyer nor Amritsar. Rupert Furneaux’s Massacre at Amritsar began a reassessment.[19] Furneaux was a competent writer of popular history who reviewed all the evidence known to him from the (largely English) sources he consulted, and took note of all three stages of Dyer’s explanations. He could not bring himself to justify what Dyer had done, but he found it difficult to condemn him either, and so suggested the theory that Dyer’s behaviour was caused by illness. The fact that Dyer, he suggested, made


a mistake, and committed such a terrible error, is supported by evidence that suggests that he was a man of poor judgment, which may have been impaired by the onset of the disease that struck him down finally. Arterio sclerosis has a retrograde effect, and it may have been creeping up on him in 1919. If that was so, his judgment, at times of extreme mental stress, may have been so impaired as to diminish his responsibility.[20]


The problem with this theory, alas, was that there was nothing to support it. Dyer did suffer later from arterio-sclerosis, but there is no evidence that it had affected his behaviour in 1919.


In 1965, Arthur Swinson, a writer both more popular and prolific than Furneaux, came to Dyer’s defence in his Six Minutes to Sunset: The Story of General Dyer and the Amritsar Affair.[21] Swinson had served in the East as a British Army officer in the 2nd World War. Unlike Richard Attenborough, for whom he worked at the BBC, he had a conservative bent, which he displayed in his biographies, which included lives of Brigadier Orde Wingate and Lord Louis Mountbatten. In Six Minutes to Sunset he set out to justify Dyer and, like O’Dwyer and Colvin before him, based his interpretation of events solely upon Dyer’s early claim that he had feared being overwhelmed.


Anyone who has faced an eastern mob will know just what Dyer meant. By sheer weight of numbers, the crowd, had it so chosen, could have surged at him, broken his ranks, turned his flank and engulfed him.[22]


With O’Dwyer, Swinson alleged that Dyer had saved the Punjab and had then been sacrificed by the politicians and senior Army officers to save their own skins. Dyer had been, he said:


Condemned because his motives (or at least as they were later formulated) were wrong. [But he] should be judged by what he did, not by what he said […] The Army […] submitted to political pressure and betrayed him.[23]


Clearly, like the Diehards before him, Swinson did not consider that the action of killing hundreds of Indian civilians in cold blood was itself a matter that needed condemnation.


The Indian historian V. N. Datta was the first professional historian to address the subject in his Jallianwala Bagh of 1969.[24] Datta was to establish a position as the pre-eminent historian of the massacre, and from his first book onwards he was clear and consistent in his view that both Dyer and the system that he was part of were jointly responsible for it. His interpretation, like Pearay Mohan’s before him, of Dyer’s motivation was that he was driven by a desire for revenge.[25] Also following Pearay Mohan, he also believed that Dyer had planned the massacre beforehand, using the police informant Hans Raj to set up the meeting in the Jallianawala Bagh.[26] There is, though, as with Raja Ram’s later theory of a wider conspiracy, no evidence to support this.[27]

Datta’s cool analyses were followed in 1969 by the more lurid conspiracy theories of historian Raja Ram, whose The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: A Premeditated Plan made the unsubstantiated claim that the Amritsar massacre had been planned by Sir Michael O’Dwyer and that Dyer was but his obedient agent and chosen scapegoat.[28] He writes:


The real cause [was], namely, the pursuance of the policy of Imperialism followed by the Britishers in India […] General Dyer performed his duty with thoroughness, according to the direction given by his superiors.[29]


Both Datta’s and Ram’s conclusion that at its root the massacre was the fault of the system was elaborated by the American academic Helen Fein in 1977. In her theoretical review of the case, Imperial Crime and Punishment: The Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and British Judgment, 1919-1920 [30] she blamed the system rather than its agents. She was sure (a thesis much in tune with the post-colonialism of the time) that:


Dyer reacted at Jallianwala Bagh to express the rage of his class.[31]


These interpretations echoed that of another American academic, Stanley Wolpert, who in 1970 turned novelist to dramatise events in his Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.[32] Wolpert, a renowned scholar of India, gave full rein in his novel to the anti-British and anti-imperialist reactions in his gut. His Dyer is a pantomime villain, a caricature of the bigoted imperialist. Here he puts thoughts into Dyer’s mind as he makes his way to the Bagh:


Life meant nothing to Orientals, it was cheap, meaningless as the dirt of this disgusting ‘garden’, a filthy field filled with rebellious natives. He’d made up his mind, during the drive over here, to open fire without further warning. He’d given them all the notice any of them could ask for. Much more, in fact, than they deserved. He’d been patient as Job with these vermin. They were a pestilence, a blight defacing God’s earth. They had to be crushed, ground under heel of boot into oblivion. Exterminated.[33]


Greater common sense was shown by another popular writer, Alfred Draper. Like Swinson, he had served in the 2nd World War, but his time as a Sub -Lieutenant in the RNVR had contributed to his very different outlook. After the war he became a journalist and a prolific writer of popular history. In 1981, in his The Amritsar Massacre: Twilight of the Raj, he turned his attention to Dyer.[34] Draper took account of all of Dyer’s three sets of explanations for his deeds and he had no doubt of Dyer’s guilt. He was sure of the premeditated nature of his massacre in the Bagh and his book is an exposé of Dyer as a man who had calmly planned to kill. Dyer had, Draper said: ‘acted with incredible callousness’.[35]

Draper was the first popular English writer to write critically of Dyer. Writers in India continued to do so. Prolific historian of the freedom struggle S.R. Bakshi’s Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy of 1982 was typical of these, as it was of the vituperative style that Indian historians had developed since Datta’s calmer era.[36] The massacre was, he wrote:


Unwarranted prejudice of highest degree […] It was a heinous crime, nay immoral as well as illegal.[37]


In 1989, ex-Royal Air Force serviceman and military writer Roger Perkins published The Amritsar Legacy: Golden Temple to Caxton Hall, the Story of a Killing, a lively account that assessed all the old evidence and uncovered some new.[38] To Perkins’s mind, Dyer’s guilt, based on the evidence of his own words, was clear: 


Dyer concluded that the time had come for a showdown. Without consulting [he] took it upon himself to use rifle fire against an unarmed civilian assembly. As he later freely admitted, he decided that he must: ‘punish the naughty boys…teach them a lesson…make a widespread impression.’ This decision was reached early in the afternoon, while he was still at the Ram Bagh [Dyer’s base] and before he or any of his officers had seen for themselves what was happening at the Jallianwala Bagh. [39] 


Subsequent writing added little of substance to the debate. In 1998, Savita Narain reviewed writing on the massacre in her The Historiography of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, a bibliographical account.[40] Her opinions harked back to Datta and Fein and her style echoed Bakshi’s:


The massacre was an example of the most cruel and discriminatory aspects of British rule.[41]


Documents relevant to the events in Amritsar appeared in the London Stationery Office list in 2002; Tim Coates’s The Amritsar Massacre: General Dyer in the Punjab 1919 presented an edited set of extracts from the record, but did not add to the debate.[42] 



At the turn of the 21st century, there was, it seemed, little more to say about culpability for the massacre. Earlier divisions of opinion had largely submerged since Draper’s book of 1981, with writers in England tending towards a view of Dyer’s personal responsibility and those in India blaming both him and the Raj he represented. The final major question remaining to be answered appeared to be what exactly Dyer’s motivations had been, and this I set out to answer by looking at his whole life in my biography of Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar, published in 2005.[43] My analysis established chronologically that the massacre had not stopped violence in the Punjab but had stimulated it to spread widely. I clarified the sequence of the three sets of explanations that Dyer had given. I postulated that he had acted (as he himself had said in his written report) out of “a greater fear”, not of being rushed by any crowd in the Bagh, but of the loss of his whole way of life that he thought would result from the “rebellion” he believed was all around him.


* * *


The debate about the Amritsar massacre was, though, far from settled and a reaction to the generally accepted positions ensued. The first to enter the field was Andrew Roberts. In 2006, he published A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900, continuing the story that Winston Churchill had left off in 1914, but, unlike Churchill, whose mantle he was assuming, Roberts maintained that Dyer’s actions had saved the Punjab and stopped the violence there.[44] His book became immediately popular on the right, James Delingpole, for instance, congratulating him “for tearing apart the apologetic, self-loathing theories of liberal English historians”. Others thought differently: Tim Gardam of the Guardian, for instance, neatly skewering the book as “1066 and All That, without the jokes”.

Roberts’s book was too general an account to have much effect on the Amritsar discourse, but the next book to appear, in 2011, Nick Lloyd’s implausibly named The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day, was a more direct effort at revision, in effect resurrecting the case the Diehards had made some ninety years before. Lloyd is an academic of King’s College London and the author of a book on the Battle of Loos.

Lloyd set out to place the Amritsar massacre in the context of wider events across the Punjab, a useful approach that had not been attempted since the early writing in India, but his book remains focused on Amritsar and on the culpability, or lack of it as Lloyd would see it, for the massacre. He gives us fair warning in his preface that he is out to make a case:


The conclusions of ‘The Amritsar Massacre; The Untold Story of One Fateful Day’ may surprise some readers, particularly its reappraisal of Dyer’s motives, and its defence of Sir Michael O’Dwyer […] It does present a more balanced view of the British response to the violence of 1919 than has been commonly accepted, and argues that to vilify the officials who were tasked with restoring order during such difficult times as nothing more than vindictive and brutal imperial oppressors is to misunderstand their motives and perpetuate an historical injustice.[45]


Lloyd makes this case by a selective use of evidence. Denis Judd, the hugely reputable historian of the Empire, has been much criticized for his comment, reproduced on its cover, that Lloyd’s book is “A brilliant piece of almost forensic history”, but he is closer to the truth in his use of the word “forensic” than any idea of dispassionate scientific inquiry might cause one to imagine. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines “forensic” as: “A speech or written thesis setting out one side of a question”; Judd’s is thus an exactly apt description of this book.


Lloyd’s was in many ways a strange work to come from the pen of the only professional English historian to have written a book dedicated to this subject. It is an unusual fusion of the academic and the popular. For example, Lloyd fictionalizes his tale in places, perhaps to arouse our sympathy:


Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer confidently made his way up the steps and into the foyer of the railway station. Dyer, known as ‘Rex’ to his friends, was tired and stiff from the journey but tried not to show it.[46]


Well, perhaps he did, but we have no way of knowing it.

Lloyd adopts a political rather than a historical method of setting up windmills at which to tilt, attacking the most extreme or peripheral viewpoints as if they were the standard views of reputable historians. His Introduction has a whole list of these.[47] Here is an example of his technique:


From reading many accounts of this period, one could believe that the British responded to the growing calls for power-sharing and more representative government with only repression and ‘imperial terrorism’.[48]


He should, perhaps, have read better accounts.


Lloyd is a historian not yet entirely at home in India. His use and translations of key Indian words in the text is erratic. His glossary has serious holes, for instance in his definitions of:


Baluchi – ‘nomadic people from southern Afghanistan’. He means the Baluch from the region of Baluchistan, which then lay in Persia, Afghanistan and British India. ‘Baluchi’ is their language. The Baluch are not nomadic.


Danda fauj – ‘rebel army’ is an army armed with clubs, the ‘club army’.


Sahib – ‘title given to Europeans’ is the general Indian honorific given to people to whom respect is owed.[49]


The text contains similar solecisms. Somewhat uniquely, he describes Bengal as “a vast expanse of scattered habitation and jungle, home to poisonous snakes and tigers,” omitting to mention that it was the home of much of India’s commerce, a province full of cities and towns and the seat of a deep culture that had produced among many others the internationally renowned sage, Rabindranath Tagore, who was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 1913.[50]

More seriously, Lloyd scarcely acknowledges the intellectual currents that dominated the British debates on India from the 19th to the 20th Centuries nor the long-standing Liberal views on the need to slowly bring India towards self-governance. To Lloyd, the reforms of Indian governance introduced by Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, were just a reaction to unrest.[51] This leads him to classify as appeasers those who believed that British principles meant that India had to be nurtured towards self-rule:


The decision to treat the Home Rule movement not as ‘seditious’ or ‘revolutionary’ and only to act when those advocating it actually broke existing laws marked an important change in British policy … Indian politicians, of whatever stamp, would now be appeased as much as possible.[52]



Lloyd omits to quote from important sources which contain the views and rulings of the British authorities which considered the case. One cannot help feeling that Lloyd does this as these sources invalidate his line that all criticism of Dyer and the Punjab administration derives from the political propaganda of the Indian National Congress. An examination of the records of advice provided the Viceroy by his key officials would have shown that they were almost unanimous in recoiling from what Dyer had done and in recommending his dismissal. A reading of the records in the Cabinet Conclusions (minutes), Memoranda and Papers series would have shown that the British cabinet committee that examined the issue was similarly appalled by Dyer’s actions and sought to have him punished. The rulings of both the British Governments at home and in India that censured Dyer were published in parliamentary papers that Lloyd does not cite.[53] The papers of the British Minister responsible, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, make it quite clear that he, that ardent imperialist, believed that Dyer had behaved in a way unbefitting a British officer and was guilty of murder. These officials were not moved by any Indian nationalist propaganda. Lloyd passes over them in silence.

Instead, Lloyd treats us to the Diehard case down to its silliest innuendo. He repeats, for instance, the gossip picked up by Dyer’s niece that the death of her fiancé, Dyer’s Brigade Major, Captain Briggs, had been caused by ground glass, presumably administered to him by nationalists, rather than by the peritonitis of which he in fact died:


Briggs died on the operating table three days after Dyer had appeared before the Hunter Committee […] Whether or not this was the case is impossible to say, but his sudden and untimely death is strange given that he had previously been in good health and was only 29 years of age.[54]


So the omission of much of the official British view allows Lloyd both to continue to tilt at his windmill of Indian nationalist propaganda and to exonerate almost all the figures censured by the Government for their roles in the Punjab, chief among them O’Dwyer.

His book has the tone of an apologetic throughout. A few examples will suffice as illustration:


His [O’Dwyer’s] call for the suspension of recruitment in 1918 (which unfortunately could not be heeded) reflects well upon him; a call, incidentally, which is never mentioned in nationalist accounts.[55]


Lloyd omits to mention the abuses of Army recruiting that occurred on O’Dwyer’s watch in the Punjab, abuses which included press ganging, the use of threats and force accompanied by blackmail, and which at times resulted in violence and murder. Again:


Although some historians continue to view these arrests [of the leaders of the political movement in Amritsar, Kitchlew and Satyapal] with indignation and scorn, they were not necessarily unjustified.[56]


These arrests were the immediate cause of the civil disturbances in the Punjab. They were of political leaders who were guilty of no crime and were the immediate cause of the violence in Amritsar, a city that had hitherto been peaceful. Concerning the loss of control by the civil authorities in Amritsar before Dyer’s arrival there, Lloyd writes:


It was this, so the story goes, that allowed Dyer to take such drastic action in the Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April.[57]


As “the story” really went, after the disturbances, the Government of India ended the career of Commissioner Kitchin for his failure to maintain control in Amritsar and to hand the city over properly to the military. Discussing the failure of the Amritsar police to prevent murder and destruction of property occurring only metres from where they were holed up inactive in their police station (kotwal), Lloyd says:


In many ways criticism of the handling of the police reserve at the Kotwal is unfair.[58]


Neither the Police nor the Government of India, both of which censured the police officers in charge, thought the criticism was unfair. Here is Lloyd again on Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving, the civilian supposedly in charge of Amritsar, who, when Dyer began to make it plain that he intended to march to the Jallianwala Bagh, absented himself and hid in the fort.


Irving […] was not someone who would panic in a crisis or advocate harsh repression.[59]


The Government of India was forced to regret that Irving had found it necessary to absent himself from the operation at the Bagh. Some, myself among them, would consider that Irving’s behaviour then and throughout the disturbances exhibited signs of recurrent funk.

Blame for the disturbances, in Lloyd’s version, lies outside India. All, it seems, was the fault of Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, whose introduction of political reforms started a process that unravelled the Raj.[60] Poor Montagu, in this account, then destroyed remaining British prestige and brought about the end of the Empire by allowing the Hunter Commission to reveal what the British had done in the Punjab:


Had Montagu listened to those in the Government of India who had cautioned him against taking such a dangerous step, he would not have been in such a parlous position. There undoubtedly would have been an outcry against the Jallianwala Bagh, but it would have been manageable and easy to survive […] His failure either to understand or appreciate the implications of Hunter’s inquiry, meant that he was responsible for undermining support for the Raj in a period of acute difficulty. This was not the way to run an empire; it was, on the contrary, a recipe for complete and utter disaster.[61]


Lloyd seems to hold the view that the Raj was beneficial to India and that what followed it has been worse. His most egregious illustration of this view is the inclusion as Epilogue to his book of the story of Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assault on the Sikh extremists in the Golden Temple. This is an event unconnected with the events of 1919 but one which goes to show, Lloyd thinks, what a mess the Indians have made of it all afterwards. His views are worth quoting at some length:


But looking at the violence in the Punjab in 1984, and at the scale of the action taken by the Indian Army, gives the lie to the accusation that the British ruled the Punjab with anything approaching the ‘iron fist’ of legend. It was not just the events of 1984 in and around the Golden Temple that showed the level of brutality that the Indian state was capable of […] Even if one considers the British response to have been disproportionate or overly brutal, the number of dead and wounded from the disorders remains tiny when compared with the vast numbers who became victims of the struggles in the 1980s […] This was the reality of democracy in India, a far more volatile and unstable type of rule than the British imposed, and which showed its dark side in dealing with the Khalistan [Sikh homeland] problem. But Congress won the battle of history and still distorts our view of the Punjab under British rule.[62]


Lloyd says in his introduction that he is trying “to separate myth from reality. Only then can nations truly understand the events of the past and attempt to move on from them.”[63] Instead, the offensiveness to Indians of the political views he expresses seems more likely to set our two nations further apart.

* * *

Selective use of evidence allows Lloyd to draw invalid conclusions in two crucial areas. The first arises from his examination of the suppression of the disorders. A few quotes will illustrate this:


What strikes one about these ‘fancy punishments’ is that although they may have been distasteful and irritating, they were, like the ‘crawling order’, on a very small scale and were in no way evidence of an attempt to terrorise the civilian population. Indeed, they were, in effect, a way of reducing punishment [emphasis in the original].’[64]


The reaction of the British authorities to the crowds and mobs that gathered in April 1919 was, contrary to Congress propaganda, not marked by any great overreaction or indiscriminate violence.[65]


What Lloyd is omitting to recount here is that some of these “fancy punishments” were very vicious indeed and often aimed at humiliating those who suffered them. They included flogging untried suspects until they were unconscious. Some of those flogged were innocent schoolboys selected at random. These ‘fancy punishments’ were condemned by the Hunter Commission and by the British Governments.

Lloyd omits to recount that one of the principal reasons that martial law was introduced was to remove legal due process and its protection of suspects, and that as a result of the trials conducted under it many innocent men were incarcerated without trial for months, sentenced to imprisonment or even hanged. He does not recount that surrounding these legal abuses grew up an entire industry of extortion, blackmail and torture operated by the Police, who took the opportunity offered by the ability to make arbitrary arrests to get rich. It would indeed be difficult to overstate the effect all of this had upon the Indian lawyers, doctors, journalists and businessmen at whom many of the abuses were aimed.

These omissions lead Lloyd to minimise the effect of what the British did in the Punjab. Rather than emphasising the effect of the suppression of the disorders upon the minds of Gandhi, Nehru and their like, who turned from advocates of British liberal principles and moderate reforms supportive of the Empire into implacable opponents of everything British, Lloyd prioritizes what he describes as a weakening of British resolve and strength. He concentrates his attention upon contemporary complaints that no soldier would fire in future for fear that the Government would fail to support him. He does not see it as important that, by what they had done in the Punjab, the British had alienated the entire educated Indian middle class and had soured relationships for the next forty years.


At the heart of this book lies Lloyd’s attempt to exonerate Dyer. His Dyer is a man who panicked and made a mistake and was then let down by the system of which he was a part. Save for the panic (and no true blue Diehard would have dreamed of accusing Dyer of anything as demeaning) this is the Diehards’ case in its entirety. As with the rest of his thesis, Lloyd reaches this conclusion by ignoring much of the evidence. He manages to avoid consideration of the full extent of what Dyer had done, in particular the fact that he marched away his troops to leave the civilians they had shot to die slowly overnight. He passes over the fact that Dyer callously ignored the effect of the curfew he had himself imposed which prevented till the next day any help coming into the Bagh. He seems not to think it important enough to mention that neither Dyer nor the Punjab Government could even bother to find out how many had died.

Lloyd seeks to excuse the length of firing ordered by Dyer using an argument that didn’t wash before the authorities of the day and doesn’t wash now. He writes approvingly, and rightly so, in other chapters of his book about the short bursts of controlled firing to which British officers resorted to disperse crowds elsewhere in the Punjab, but seems not to see that the rules these men followed were ones that should have been observed by Dyer. Lloyd excuses Dyer for firing for a full quarter of an hour on the ground that the rules called for firing to continue until a crowd had dispersed. This did not mean then, and has never meant in the British Army, that firing should continue after a crowd had turned its back and fled and until there were none of them left in sight. Dyer broke the rules and knew that he had done so.

Here is what Lloyd says he believes that Dyer did:


Dyer did not enter the Jallianwala Bagh with a plan already hatched in his mind, but walked up that narrow entrance, alone and alert, unsure of what would confront him. It was only when he saw that vast space and the huge crowd that had gathered inside did he understand what had happened; it was only then, in those few precious seconds, that he allowed fear to grip him. There were thousands of them. There was no time for anything else. He had to open fire.[66]


As an explanation this is inventive but unconvincing. There are four reasons why the idea that Dyer panicked will not work.

First, as Lloyd points out, Dyer walked into the Bagh before his troops entered it. Had he panicked, it would have been then, before his troops were committed. Had he seen any ‘trap’ he would not have led his men into it. Instead, he ordered his men to deploy inside the Bagh then gave the order to open fire. This is made clear by the statement of Captain Briggs, his Brigade Major:


The General Officer Commanding, Colonel Morgan, Mr Rehill and myself, got out of the motor car and advanced up the alley, the troops following us. Coming to the end of the ally, we saw an immense crowd of men packed in a square, listening to a man on a platform who was gesticulating with his hands. It was very hard to estimate the size of the crowd […] The troops deployed to the right and left of the exit to the alley and laid down. The General Officer Commanding then ordered the men to open fire.[67]


Secondly, there is no evidence whatsoever that Dyer panicked in the Bagh. The crowd was peaceful. Dyer was a man renowned for his reckless courage in the face of the enemy. Lloyd cites evidence that Dyer was shaken up after the event, which is the case, as was to be expected after seeing at such close quarters the deaths and injuries he had inflicted. But there is no evidence that he was shaken before he ordered his men to fire. There were six other Englishmen present in the Bagh and we have statements from five of them. Those among them who commented on this point either say specifically or imply that Dyer was calm when he ordered the firing. Captain Briggs’s statement we have already examined. Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan, who was acting as second-in-command to Dyer, had nothing but admiration for him, not something that was likely had Dyer panicked and failed in his duty. Morgan wrote: “Dyer was a very fine fellow. He had saved the Government of India, he had saved India for the British for nearly another thirty years.”[68] The clearest evidence is found in a letter to Arthur Swinson from Dyer’s bodyguard, Sgt William J. Anderson: “Dyer seemed quite calm and rational. Personally, I wasn’t afraid. I saw nothing to be afraid about. I’d no fear that the crowd would come at us.”[69]

Thirdly, Dyer continued to order fire for about a quarter of an hour. Such an action is not consonant with the idea that he fired because of a moment’s panic.

Fourth and finally, we return to what Dyer himself told the Hunter Commission. The Diehards and Lloyd write this off, saying that by the time he appeared before the Commission Dyer had changed his mind and was basking in the adulation of British India, which believed itself ‘saved’ by his actions. They also claim that he was badgered into indiscretions at the Inquiry by the aggressive Indian members of the Commission and that he did not say some of the things which he was recorded as saying. All these arguments are tendentious and the transcript of Dyer’s verbal evidence before Hunter, half of which was given in response to polite questioning by the British members of the Commission, makes it clear that Dyer did in fact verbally inform the Commission that he had formed the intention to fire without warning and at length, if he found a crowd present on his arrival in the Bagh. That aside, the major piece of evidence which Lloyd discounts and the Diehards that preceded him chose to ignore is Dyer’s statement, written for the Hunter Commission (which based their questioning upon it) two months before in the calm of the hill station of Dalhousie. This was on 25 August 1919, and Dyer submitted it to the General Staff, 16th (Indian) Division.[70] 


I shall quote this statement, Dyer’s own words, at length so that he may have the final say in this account of the historical writing about the massacre he perpetrated:


I personally had ample time to consider the nature of the painful duty I might be faced with […] There was no reason to further parley with the mutineers, evidently they were there to defy the arm of the law. The responsibility was very great. If I fired I must fire with good effect, a small amount of firing would be an act of criminal folly. I had the choice of carrying out a very distasteful and horrible duty or of neglecting to do my duty, of suppressing a mutiny or of becoming responsible for all future bloodshed. We cannot be very brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear. I had considered the matter from every point of view. My duty and my military instincts told me to fire. My conscience was also clear on that point. What faced me was, what on the morrow would be the “Danda Fauj.” The enemy had given me a fleeting opportunity of suppressing the mutiny there and then, and I must take advantage of it at once or lose it for ever. I fired and I continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect, it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. I would in any case have driven matters to their logical conclusion and continued to fire until the mutineers dispersed. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity. The mutineers had thrown out the challenge and the punishment, if administered at all, must be complete, unhesitating and immediate. [71]


No doubt others will try to make a better case for Dyer, O’Dwyer and what the British did in the Punjab in 1919 than Lloyd has made. I have to confess, though, to a total inability to understand why anyone should want to. The participants in these events are long dead, the politics that drove them long irrelevant. Save for the benefits to publication that controversy brings, this seems to me a barren furrow to plough. Must we continue to try to evade the fact that sometimes those who ran the Empire were capable of catastrophic failures of judgment? To do so in the Amritsar affair rights no historic wrongs but only embitters once more our relations with the descendants of those who were the real victims of this tragedy, the Indians Dyer killed.


This is not just a matter of being right about the past. We need to understand the history of abuses like the Amritsar massacre so that if we follow political paths that put us in similar positions in the future, we shall go down them knowing not what may, but what will, transpire.


Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.



[1] Nick Lloyd, The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of a Fateful Day (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

[2] Bagh means garden, but the Jallianwala Bagh was a bare enclosure surrounded on all sides by high walls with only five narrow lanes leading into and out of it.

[3] Paragraphs 8 and 9, p. 68, Command 681: Parliamentary Papers (Commons), 1920, vol. 14, Reports, vol. 6, ‘East India (Disturbances in the Punjab etc)’. ‘Report of the Committee Appointed by the Government of India to Investigate the Disturbances in the Punjab, etc.’ (Hunter Report).

[4] Paragraph 9, p.93, Hunter Report.

[5] Kapil Deva Malaviya, Open Rebellion in the Punjab (with Special Reference to Amritsar) (Allahabad: Aludaya Press, 1919).

[6] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[7] B.G. Horniman, Amritsar and Our Duty to India (T. Fisher Unwin: London, 1920).

[8] Ibid, p. 8.

[9] Pandit Pearay Dattatreya Mohan, The Punjab ‘Rebellion’ of 1919 and How It was Suppressed; An Account of the Punjab Disorders and the Working of Martial Law (1st edition 1920; 2nd edition ed. Ravi M. Bakaya, 2 vols, New Delhi: Gyan Publishers, 1999.

[10] Ibid, p. xvii,138,145.

[11] The Congress Punjab Inquiry 1919-1920: Report of the Commissioners Appointed by the Punjab Sub-Committee of the Indian National Congress, Volume I: Report; Volume 2 Evidence (1st edition: 1920. 2nd edition New Delhi: National Book Trust, India: 1994).

[12] Ibid, Volume I, p.53.

[13] Sir Michael O’Dwyer, India as I Knew It, 1885-1925 (London: Constable, 1925).

[14] Ibid, p. 322.

[15] Ian Colvin, The Life of General Dyer (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood, 1929; second edition 1931).

[16] Ibid, p. 336, 2nd edition.

[17] General Sir George Barrow, The Life of General Sir Charles Carmichael Monro (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1931).

[18] Ibid, p. 198.

[19] Rupert Furneaux, Massacre at Amritsar (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963).

[20] Ibid, p. 177.

[21] Arthur Swinson, Six Minutes to Sunset: The Story of General Dyer and the Amritsar Affair (London: Peter Davies, 1964).

[22] Ibid, p. 193.

[23] Ibid, p. 202.

[24] V. N. Datta, Jallianwala Bagh (Ludhiana: Lyall Book Depot 1969).

[25] Ibid, p. 168.

[26] V.N. Datta and S. Satter, eds, Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (Delhi: Pragati Publications, 2000), p. 13.

[27] V.N. Datta’s other writings on Amritsar include: Amritsar Past and Present (Amritsar: Municipal Committee, 1967); New Light on the Punjab Disturbances in 1919: Volumes VI and VII of Disorders Inquiry Committee Evidence, 2 vols (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975); Jallianwala Bagh: Commemoration Volume and Amritsar and our Duty to India (Patiala: Punjabi University Publication Bureau, 1994).

[28] Raja Ram, The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: A Premeditated Plan (Chandigarh: Panjab University Press, 1969; second edition 1978).

[29] Ibid, p. 141.

[30] Helen Fein, Imperial Crime and Punishment: The Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and British Judgment, 1919-1920 (Hawaii: The University Press of Hawaii, 1977).

[31] Ibid, p.185.

[32] Stanley Wolpert, Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (Delhi, London, New York: Penguin 1970; first published as An Error of Judgment (New York: Little, Brown & Co, 1970).

[33] Ibid p. 210.

[34] Alfred Draper, Amritsar: The Massacre that Ended the Raj (London: Cassell, 1981).

[35] Ibid, p.156.

[36] S.R. Bakshi, Jallianwala Bagh Tragedy (New Delhi: Capital Publishers, 1982).

[37] Ibid, p. 42.

[38] Roger Perkins, The Amritsar Legacy: Golden Temple to Caxton Hall, the Story of a Killing (Chippenham: Picton, 1989).

[39] Ibid, p. 80.

[40] Savita Narain, The Historiography of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, 1919 (South Godstone, Surrey: Spantech and Lancer, 1998).

[41] Ibid, p. 62.

[42] Tim Coates, ed., The Amritsar Massacre: General Dyer in the Punjab 1919 (London: The Stationery Office, 2002).

[43] Nigel Collett, The Butcher of Amritsar (London: Hambledon and London, 2005).

[44] Andrew Roberts, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).

[45] Lloyd, op cit, p. xxxiii.

[46] Ibid, p. xvii.

[47] Ibid, p. xxix.

[48] Ibid, p. xxviii.

[49] Ibid, pp. 251-2.

[50] Ibid, p. 9.

[51] Ibid, pp.12-13.

[52] Ibid, p. 21.

[53] Correspondence between the Government of India and the Secretary of State for India on the Report of Lord Hunter’s Committee, Command 705.

[54] [1]Lloyd, op cit, p. 241, Note 23.

[55] Ibid, p. 63.

[56] Ibid, p. 70.

[57] Ibid, p. 80.

[58] Ibid, p. 82.

[59] Ibid, p.43.

[60] Ibid, p. 23.

[61] Ibid, pp. 160-161.

[62] Ibid, p. 208.

[63] Ibid, p. xxxiii.

[64] Ibid, p.145.

[65] Ibid, p. 197.

[66] Ibid, p. 203.

[67] Report of Captain F.C. Briggs D.S.O. – Appendix A to Command 771, p 25.

[68] Lieutenant-Colonel M.H.L. Morgan, The Truth About Amritsar: by An Eye Witness, in the Imperial War Museum, 72/22/1 T.

[69] Times Literary Supplement 9 April 1964; Swinson, op cit, Postscript, p. 210.

[70] Brigadier-General Dyer’s Statement to the General Staff, 16th (Indian) Division, 25th August 1919, in the Dyer papers, National Army Museum.

[71] Ibid, pp. 4-5.


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