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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Colonial Warfare, pt 11

murder most foul: the Amritsar Massacre

Today's first lesson in colonial warfare is the single worst massacre in colonial history, if a massacre is murder in one time and place.

Why did the British kill so many people?

Politically , as well as economically, the years after World War 1 proved depressing to India's high expectations. Indian soldiers returned from battlefronts to find that back home they were no longer treated as invaluable allies but reverted immediately to the status of "natives." Most of the soldiers recruited during the war had come from Punjab, which, with only 7 percent of India's population, had supplied over 50 percent of the combatant troops shipped abroad.

It is thus hardly surprising that the flash-point of the postwar violence that shook India in the spring of 1919 was Punjab province. The actual issue that served to rally millions of Indians, arousing them to a new level of disaffection with British rule, was the Rowlatt Acts of early 1919. These "black acts," as they came to be called, were peacetime extensions of the wartime emergency measures passed in 1915. Indian leaders viewed such legislation as a sign of British treachery and duplicity, and the abandonment of wartime promises of reform in favour of a new wave of repression.

Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi, the Gujarati who had returned from South Africa shortly after the war started , called upon his country to take sacred vows to disobey the Rowlatt Acts, and launched a nationwide movement for the repeal of those repressive measures. Ghandi's appeal received the strongest popular response in the Punjab, where the nationalist leaders Kichloo and Satyapal addressed mass protest rallies from the provincial capital of Lahore to Amritsar, sacred capital of the Sikhs. Ghandi himself had taken a train to the Punjab early in April 1919 to address of those rallies, but he was arrested at the border station and taken back to Bombay by orders of the governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer.

But the killings were the result of British racial paranoia. It was perfectly acceptable to screw Indian women, but when they touched white women, all hell broke loose.

Amritsar Massacre

It started a few months after the end of the first world war when an Englishwoman, a missionary, reported that she had been molested on a street in the Punjab city of Amritsar. The Raj's local commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, issued an order requiring all Indians using that street to crawl its length on their hands and knees. He also authorized the indiscriminate, public whipping of natives who came within lathi length of British policemen.

On April 13, 1919, a multitude of Punjabis gathered in Amritsar's Jallian wala Bagh as part of the Sikh Festival "Baisakhi fair" and to protest at these extraordinary measures. The throng, penned in a narrow space smaller than Trafalgar Square, had been peacefully listening to the testimony of victims when Dyer appeared at the head of a contingent of British troops. Giving no word of warning, he ordered 50 soldiers to fire into the gathering, and for 10 to 15 minutes 1,650 rounds of ammunition were unloaded into the screaming, terrified crowd, some of whom were trampled by those desperately trying to escape.

"The Indians were 'packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies'; the people 'ran madly this way and the other. When fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for eight or ten minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion".....Winston Churchill

Dyer then marched away, leaving 379 dead and over 1,500 wounded.

Back in his headquarters, he reported to his superiors that he had been 'confronted by a revolutionary army,' and had been obliged 'to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.' In the storm of outrage which followed, the brigadier was promoted to major general, retired, and placed on the inactive list.

''I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.'' ......Dyer's response to the Hunter Commission Enquiry

General Dyer said he would have used his machine guns if he could have got them into the enclosure, but these were mounted on armoured cars. He said he did not stop firing when the crowd began to disperse because he thought it was his duty to keep firing until the crowd dispersed, and that a little firing would do no good.

He confessed he did not take any steps to attend to the wounded after the firing. ''Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there,'' came his pathetic response.

However, the misery suffered by the people was reflected in Rattan Devi's account. She was forced to keep a nightlong vigil, armed with a bamboo stick to protect her husband's body from jackals and vultures. Curfew with shoot-at-sight orders had been imposed from 2000 hours that night.

Rattan Devi stated, ''I saw three men writhing in great pain and a boy of about 12. I could not leave the place. The boy asked me for water but there was no water in that place. At 2 am, a Jat who was lying entangled on the wall asked me to raise his leg. I went up to him and took hold of his clothes drenched in blood and raised him up. Heaps of bodies lay there, a number of them innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I spent the night crying and watching..."

General Dyer admitted before the commission that he came to know about the meeting at Jallianwala Bagh at 1240 hours that day, but took no steps to prevent it. He also admitted in his deposition that the gathering at the Bagh was not a concentration only of rebels, but people who had covered long distances to participate in the Baisakhi fair.

This incredibly, made him a martyr to millions of Englishmen. Senior British officers applauded his suppression of 'another Indian Mutiny.' The Guardians of the Golden Temple enrolled him in the Brotherhood of Sikhs. The House of Lords passed a measure commending him. The Conservatives presented him with a jewelled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab."

What was amazing was that after the wholesale murder of women and children peacefully protesting, he was repeatedly defended in the House of Commons by several MP's, Winston Churchill was one of the few who explained what had happened was pretty much murder and justifying it was wrong.

Churchill's approach was entirely unlike Montagu's. He called for 'a calm spirit, avoiding passion and avoiding attempts to excite prejudice.' Dyer, he said, had not been dismissed in disgrace; 'he had simply been informed that there was no further employment for him under the Government of India.' But the incident in Jallianwallah Bagh was 'an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.' He quietly observed that the number of Indians killed was almost identical with the number of MPs now sitting wihin range of his voice. An officer in such a situation as Dyer's, he said, should ask himself whether the crowd is either armed or about to mount an attack. 'Men who take up arms against the State must expect at any moment to be fired upon...At Amritsar the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.' Thus the general had not, as he claimed, faced a 'revolutinary army.' Another useful military guide, Churchill continued, was the maxim that 'no more force should be used than is necessary to secure compliance with the law.' In the Great War, he and many other members of the House had been British soldiers 'exerting themselves to show pity and to help, even at their own peril, the wounded.' Dyer had failed to follow their example; after the massacre, his troops had simply sung around and marched away. Churchill knew, and many members of Parliament knew, of many instances in which officers, in 'infinitely more trying' situation than the one in Bagh, had, unlike the general, displayed an ability to arrive 'at the right decision.' Then, as if with a stiletto, Churchill knifed Dyer; 'Frightfullness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.'

He twisted the blade. Dyer's most vocal champions agreed with Churchill's stand in Russia. It was compassion and its absence, he said, which marked the difference between Englishmen and Bolsheviks. His own hatred of Lenin's regime was 'not founded on their silly system of economics, or their absurd doctrine of an impossible equality.' It arose from 'the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice...and by which alone their criminal regime can be maintained.' It was intolerable in Russia; it was intolerable in Amritsar. 'I do not think,' he said, 'that it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time upon our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.' He quoted Macaulay: 'The most frightful of all spectables [is] the strength of civilisation without its mercy.' England's 'reign in India, or anywhere else,' Churchill continued, 'has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it. The British way of doing things...has always meant and implied close and effectual cooperation with the people. In every part of the British Empire that has been our aim.' As for Dyer, Churchill himself would have preferred to see the general disciplined. Instead, he had been allowed to resign with no plan for further punishment, 'and to those moderate and considered conclusions we confidently invite the assent of the House.'

But the fact that Dyer was vocally defended indicated how many Britons viewed Indians, as people to be subjugated and controlled. Then murdered when they got too uppity.

posted by Steve @ 8:39:00 AM

8:39:00 AM

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