Repression: The Amritsar massacre, 1919: the Irish connection

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

Dyer’s most infamous edict in the wake of the massacre was the so-called ‘crawling order’ whereby Indians had to crawl on all fours past the spot where mission school teacher Miss Sherwood had been attacked on 10 April 1919. (National Army Museum, London)

Dyer’s most infamous edict in the wake of the massacre was the so-called ‘crawling order’ whereby Indians had to crawl on all fours past the spot where mission school teacher Miss Sherwood had been attacked on 10 April 1919. (National Army Museum, London)

During World War I most Indians (like the Irish) supported Britain’s war effort on the assumption that some form of self-government would be granted at the end of hostilities. Instead, in March 1919 they got the Rowlatt Act, which gave the British Indian government draconian powers, including that of internment. In response, Mohandas Gandhi began a nationwide satygraha or non-violent protest. Nonetheless, violence erupted in Delhi and in the Punjab, where Sir Michael (‘Micky’) Francis O’Dwyer had been lieutenant-governor since 1912.


O’Dwyer’s philosophy was paternalistic: Britain should provide India with security and prosperity but government should be firmly in the hands of the British Raj. Any democratic aspirations the Indians might have should be quashed vigorously. He was keenly aware of ‘terrorism’ and took firm measures against the revolutionary Ghadr movement among the Sikhs at the beginning of the First World War. His coercive recruiting policies in the Punjab also made him unpopular. It was unlikely that this Irish imperialist would deal sensitively with the Rowlatt protests in 1919.

On 9 April 1919 the Hindu festival of Ram Naumi was celebrated in Amritsar with remarkable friendliness between Hindus and Muslims, interpreted as a political act by the authorities. O’Dwyer ordered Miles Irving, deputy commissioner in Amritsar, to arrest and deport Drs Kitchlew and Satyapal, the local organisers of the satygraha. As a result, on 10 April protesters stoned troops, who opened fire, killing twenty people. The city erupted in rioting and five Europeans were killed. Miss Sherwood of the City Mission School was attacked in the street and left for dead. Terrified women and children crowded into the Gobindgarh fort. On 11 April Brigadier General ‘Rex’ Dyer, commander of the Jullundar Brigade of the Indian Army, arrived to take control.

The massacre

Remembering what had happened in the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, Dyer fervently believed that he faced a major rebellion in Amritsar. On 12 April he issued a proclamation restricting movement, imposing a curfew and outlawing all assemblies. The 13 April was Baisakhi, the Sikh New Year’s Day. A large number of people who were probably unaware of the proclamation congregated at Jallianwala Bagh, a large enclosed area with one entrance through a narrow lane. Just after 5 p.m. Dyer arrived with 90 soldiers (the 1st/9th Gurkhas, the 54th Sikhs and the 59th Scinde Rifles) and two armoured cars, which could not get into the Bagh because of the narrow entrance. Dyer marched his troops in, lined the riflemen up opposite the crowd and without warning ordered them to fire. This they did, firing 1,650 rounds for ten minutes, reloading twice, killing 379 and wounding 1,500 people. Dyer then marched his men away, leaving the wounded to their own devices. O’Dwyer approved of the action and declared martial law on 15 April, backdated to 30 March; this meant that anyone arrested after that date could be tried by military court.

Of 852 people tried by court martial, 264 were transported for life and 108 were sentenced to death. Most sentences were later commuted but eighteen men were hanged. Summary courts also ordered flogging as a punishment; a wedding party was flogged for being an illegal gathering. Dyer’s most infamous edict was the so-called ‘crawling order’ whereby Indians had to crawl on all fours past the spot where Miss Sherwood had been attacked; a Hindu family had actually rescued and looked after her. Lieutenant Colonel O’Brien in Gujranwala insisted that all Indians ‘salaam’ Europeans, just as another Irishman, John Nicholson, had done after the 1857 ‘Mutiny’. While some Britons were appalled at what had happened, many considered the O’Dwyer/Dyer double act to have been the saving of the Punjab, ‘and a good thing too’.

Lord Hunter’s committee

In October 1919 the Hunter committee of inquiry into the events at Amritsar began its hearings. Dyer admitted that he went to the Bagh with the deliberate intention of shooting those assembled. Only the narrowness of the entrance had prevented him from using the machine-guns on the armoured cars. His aim was to ‘strike terror’ into the Punjab to prevent a mutiny. Yes, he had ignored the wounded but he was unapologetic. The Hunter report condemned him, stating that he had ‘succeeded in creating a “wide impression” but of a character quite opposite the one he intended’. Nevertheless, O’Dwyer escaped censure by Hunter, although Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, condemned him, writing that ‘he represents a regime that is doomed’.

Dyer went to England on ‘sick leave’ and was then dismissed from the army. In a debate in the House of Commons in July 1920 the government was attacked for sacking the ‘saviour’ of India. One member suggested that Dyer should be sent to Ireland to deal with Sinn Féin. The ultra-conservative Morning Post opened a fund, quickly collecting £26,000 for the retired general. Dyer never regretted his actions. He suffered a stroke in 1921 and died in 1927. Michael O’Dwyer retired in 1919 but remained a ‘die-hard’ in respect of Indian reform. He successfully sued Sir Sankaran Nair for libelling him in a book, Gandhi and anarchy, in 1922. At a meeting of the Royal Central Asian Society in London in 1940, O’Dwyer was shot dead by a Sikh, Udham Singh, who had been wounded at Amritsar.

The massacre of Amritsar was a great incentive to Indian nationalism and led to the complete loss of trust in the British Raj among the Indian population. It was to be another 28 years before independence was finally gained in 1947, when British India sundered violently into modern India and Pakistan.  HI

Pierce A. Grace is Professor of Surgical Science at the University of Limerick.

Further reading:

HMSO, Report of the Committee Appointed by the Government of India to Investigate the Disturbances in the Punjab, etc. (London, 1920).

R. Hudson, The Raj. An eyewitness history of the British in India (London, 1999).

J. Lawrence, Raj: the making and unmaking of British India (New York, 1997).

D. Sayer, ‘British reaction to the Amritsar massacre 1919–1920’, Past and Present 131 (1991), 130–64.

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