The British Empire Library

Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the making of a Massacre

by Kim A. Wagner

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
‘This damns us for all time.” So said Colonel J. C. Wedgwood MP in the House of Commons in 1919 about the Amritsar Massacre when Brigadier Dyer’s small force fired into the crowd in the Jallianwala Bagh. How right he was. Indeed for many people it is the only event for which the British Raj in India is known. Kim Wagner, an academic at Queen Mary University of London, has produced one of the best descriptions of what happened in Amritsar between 10th and 13th April 1919. It is narrated skilfully without allowing the detailed sourcing to get in the way of a highly readable, indeed exciting, account of the events. By initially focusing on the 10th of April when the civil authorities lost control of a riot which threatened to overrun the Civil Lines and during which several British nationals were killed, Wagner reminds us that the events of the 13th April had a hinterland which played a key role in the disastrous events three days later.

Wagner contends that historians have underestimated the importance of the 1857 Mutiny in instilling a sense of paranoia amongst the British in India and a conviction that anything less than firm action in the face of civil unrest might result in a repeat of the Cawnpore Massacres. He makes a valid point. One of the problems of the Mutiny is that the British did not see it coming and never fully understood why it happened. Over a century and a half later there is still much about the Mutiny which we don’t comprehend. Was it just a sepoy mutiny or a rebellion or a conspiracy or even a war of liberation? No wonder, therefore, that a repeat of the Mutiny engendered such fear amongst the tiny British population of India. However, stories of the Mutiny do not justify Dyer’s behaviour when he led his small detachment of Indian and Gurkha soldiers into the Bagh. Even if a volley over the heads of the crowd had been justified (which was not the case) there was no excuse for firing into the multitude for a full 10 minutes. 1650 high velocity bullets wreaked terrible carnage. The imposition of a curfew added to the misery and death-toll by denying the wounded access to medical help. Ironically it is Dyer’s ‘crawling order,’ the least lethal of his measures, which demonstrates the Brigadier’s lack of mental balance. Wagner shows that Dyer himself was racked with self-doubt before and after the massacre. Indeed he is quoted as saying ‘I’m for the high jump.’ It was only when he was lionised by the right-wing press and parliamentarians in London and interviewed by the Hunter Commission that Dyer gave the impression of being sure of his actions.

He certainly had supporters in England and India but there will always be advocates of extreme action; that does not indemnify a public servant for losing his head in a crisis. Wagner tells us almost nothing about Dyer the man. This is probably because he sees Dyer as merely a tool of the ‘racialised violence’ by which he contends Britain ruled India. He thinks it wrong to interpret Amritsar as an aberration but as completely in character. This argument is only developed in the Conclusion but one can detect his train of thought occasionally emerging throughout the narrative. I question whether Wagner has got this right.

Generations of colonial administrators and soldiers knew that the vastness of India could not be ruled by force. It could only be managed by consent, co-option and occasionally by divide-and-rule. Indeed most Indians continued to be ruled by their local Princes, all of whom had a modus vivendi with central government. The only time when unbridled violence was employed was in response to the 1857 Mutiny when Britons in northern India faced annihilation and when additional troops were summoned. However the Mutiny was far more akin to war than domestic law enforcement. Local unrest occurred throughout British rule in India; riots appearing to get out of control; administrators wondering whether to arrest, deport or co-opt the ringleaders; soldiers advocating a ‘firm hand’ and ‘civilians’ arguing for more time to gather intelligence and gauge the mood; and families feeling vulnerable.

What marks Amritsar out as different was that Dyer was given free rein by incompetent civil administrators and then acted with criminal folly. Patrick French writes of Amritsar that it was ‘not representative of the imperial response to disorder but an aberration.’ (see Liberty or Death, page 31.) More recently David Gilmour has written about the ‘doctrine of minimum necessary force usually followed by British officers except at Amritsar when it was notoriously ignored by Brigadier Dyer’. {The British in India, page 262.)

Nonetheless Wagner does a good job of debunking some of the misrepresentations of Amritsar. Although Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’ stayed reasonably close to the facts, it portrayed Dyer as a man who was completely sure of himself, rather than the troubled and inadequate personality so clearly outlined on pages 420-423 of Nigel Collett’s The Butcher o f Amritsar. Wagner says on page xix of his Introduction about Shashi Tharoor that his ‘account of the Amritsar completely inaccurate’ although, to be fair to Tharoor, he would own to being more politician and polemicist than historian.

There are a few small blemishes. Given the multiplicity of contemporary sources it seems odd that the author repeatedly relies on comments by fictional Indian characters from E.M. Forster or caricatures of British officials from George Orwell. However Wagner has nonetheless produced the best narrative of Amritsar 1919.

British Empire Book
Kim A. Wagner
First Published
Yale University Press
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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