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A Dyer Order The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day
By Nick Lloyd (I B Tauris 264pp £19.99)
Along open-topped motorcar slides its way through the bazaar, preceded by an armoured vehicle and followed by a company of Gurkhas and Baluchi soldiers, trotting along holding Lee-Enfield rifles. The car stops. Brigadier Rex Dyer, crustily played by Edward Fox, gets out and strides to a broad but enclosed space known as the Jallianwala Bagh. While his soldiers line up on either side of him, Dyer observes a large, peaceful-looking crowd to whom a Sikh orator is preaching Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violent resistance. Declining to give the crowd a warning, he orders his men to open fire and to keep on firing for a cinematic eternity. He even directs the Gurkhas to aim at a group of people trying to escape over a wall.
In the long catalogue of cinema’s historical distortions, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is not in the Braveheart league of inane offenders. The depiction of the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 is roughly accurate, even though the speakers were less Gandhian and the crowd less pacific than the director made out. The problem is that it’s a scene without a context. There is no indication of what had happened over the previous few days – violent riots in the Punjab, including Amritsar, where government buildings had been looted and burned and several British civilians had been murdered. There is also no reference to the actions of Dyer on the morning of the massacre, when he had toured the city proclaiming in Urdu and Punjabi that the authorities would permit no gatherings of more than four persons. Nor did the film indicate what happened afterwards: Dyer was censured by the governments of India and Great Britain and was forced to retire from the army.
Attenborough’s Amritsar scene is one of the enduring representations of British India, on a par with the scene in A Passage to India when the British in their club become collectively hysterical, wanting to clear the bazaars and ‘flog every native’
in sight following an obscure incident in a cave. Ever since 1919 the massacre has been for many people emblematic of the British Empire. Indian nationalists claimed it was part of a campaign to terrorise the Punjab; post-colonial historians have cited it as an example of the ‘intrinsic violence of British rule’ (though it was not an example but an exception); and in his novel Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie made his contribution to the mythology by arming the Gurkhas with machine guns (that made ‘a noise like teeth chattering in winter’) to mow down the crowd in the Jallianwala Bagh.
Nick Lloyd, a lecturer in defence studies, is determined to combat such interpretations. He is scornful of nationalist historiography and scoffs at the notion that the Amritsar Massacre, in which some 400 people were killed, was ‘a premeditated act of imperial mass murder intended to strike terror into the Indian
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Links wtih literary agents and top publishers population’. Yet he is also critical of those British politicians who found Dyer’s actions indefensible and regarded them as ‘frightful’ and ‘un-English’, the most outrageous act of violence against a civilian population since the Indian Mutiny of 1857–8. As Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill accused Dyer of ‘frightfulness’, meaning ‘the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country’. It was ‘not the British way of doing business’.
The author claims that his book is a ‘new account’, a ‘new history’, the ‘untold story of one fateful day’. Yet in most respects it is a valiant – and perhaps foolhardy – exposition of the case put forward at the time by many of the British in India and by the right wing of the Conservative Party in Britain. These were the people who believed that in 1919 the Punjab was on the verge of rebellion and that British women and children were potentially in as great a danger as they had been in 1857. For them Dyer was ‘the Saviour’, the man who had thwarted a conspiracy to overthrow British rule in India. Lloyd has far greater sympathy for this view than for its more logical rival – that Dyer destroyed the trust many Indians still had in Great Britain and irrevocably alienated their leaders; he certainly shook Gandhi’s belief that India should become a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.
The author unveils a convincing picture of the violent and volatile situation in Amritsar in April 1919. Following the local government’s unwise deportation of two ‘agitators’ on the morning of 10 April, large crowds gathered in the city and tried to break into the civil lines, where most of the British lived. In Amritsar, as elsewhere in the Punjab, a handful of soldiers and policemen were ultimately forced to deter them with gunfire, inflicting a small number of casualties, and Lloyd is probably right to regard this response to the ‘unrest’ as ‘proportionate and reasonable’: the city was out of control and British civilians still in the old town were being killed or beaten up.
By 13 April, however, the violence had subsided. That morning Dyer marched into the city to warn its inhabitants not to assemble; in the afternoon, on hearing that
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