The man who lost India


The white squares in the Amritsar park wall mark bullet holes.

Part of your History GCSE course covers the events of the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919. The following provides some more information on the disaster and on the British officer who allowed it to happen.

Edward Reginald Dyer was born in the Punjab on 9th October, 1864, the son of an Anglo-Indian brewer. He spent his childhood in Simla, at the very heart of the Edwardian Raj. He went to Ireland for his education before graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy. After Sandhurst he served with distinction in Burma, back in India, and in Afghanistan, rising steadily through the officer ranks of the Indian Army to become an acting Brigadier General in 1919. Here was a man intensely loyal to both the ideas of Edwardian imperialism and the mores of the Indian Army.

In 1919, the European population of the Punjab feared the overthrow of British rule in India. Both Hindu and Muslim were solidly behind popular agitation for the abolition of the hated “Salt Tax”. Strike action had been called for by Mahatma Gandhi, and in the city of Amritsar, shops and businesses were closed. The atmosphere was tense, with many Europeans also having memories of the slaughter of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

The military Governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, deported or arrested agitators. Matters rapidly became ugly and confused, with thousands of Hindu’s from the rural areas flooding into Amritsar to celebrate a religious festival. The British feared an insurrection akin to Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916, or, even more recently, the Russian Bolshevik revolution.

On 9th April, crowds gathered to demand the release of political activists. Government buildings were torched; A Miss Marcella Sherwood, a supervisor at a Mission School for Girls, was assaulted by the mob. She was rescued by other Indians, but it would only serve to accelerate the British response. On the 13th, Dyer, commanding troops with Lee-Enfield rifles, opened fire on unarmed civilians, including women and children, who were crowded into a small stretch of parkland which was walled-in on all sides and had only a few extremely narrow exit-points. Further, he had mad sure even these were blocked by the infantry and a number armoured vehicles.

Casualty figures vary for the resulting massacre. The very least was 379 dead and 1200 wounded. Dyer earned the title of “The Butcher of Amritsar.” Churchill, then Secretary for War, called it the worst catastrophe to have befallen the Empire in modern times. Despite this, the Globe and Daily Telegraph newspapers supported the action.

Indians reacted with horror and consolidated Hindu and Muslim resistance. Europeans in the Punjab condoned the action, however. Imperial supporters of all classes in England, including Rudyard Kipling, did so too. Kipling saw Dyer as “the man who saved India.” Indeed, he even helped raise a benefit fund for him on his return to England, collecting £26,000 (£1 million in today’s money). And the King contributed £50. It was all in stark contrast to the compensation payments of just £37 afforded by the government to relatives of the survivors.

The official enquiry did find Dyer guilty of “grave errors”, and he was forcibly retired by the House of Commons, but in truth there was no real justice to fit his crime. He died in 1927 and was unrepentant, convinced he was right to the last.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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