General Reginal Dyer

General Reginal Dyer Commander of Amritsar Massacre Soon after Dyer's arrival, on the afternoon of April 13, 1919, some 10,000 or more unarmed men, women, and children gathered in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh (bagh, "garden"; but before 1919 it had become a public square) to attend a protest meeting, despite a ban on public assemblies. It was a Sunday, and many neighbouring village peasants also came to Amritsar to celebrate the Hindu Baisakhi Spring Festival. Dyer positioned his men at the sole, narrow passageway of the Bagh, which was otherwise entirely enclosed by the backs of abutted brick buildings. 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. According to official estimates, nearly 400 civilians were killed, and another 1,200 were left wounded with no medical attention. Dyer, who argued his action was necessary to produce a "moral and widespread effect," admitted that the firing would have continued had more ammunition been available. The governor of the Punjab province supported the massacre at Amritsar and, on April 15, placed the entire province under martial law. Viceroy Chelmsford, however, characterized the action as "an error of judgment," and when Secretary of State Montagu learned of the slaughter, he appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by Lord Hunter. Although Dyer was subsequently relieved of his command, he returned a hero to many in Britain, especially conservatives, who presented him with a jeweled sword inscribed "Saviour of the Punjab." The Jallianwala Bagh massacre turned millions of moderate Indians from patient and loyal supporters of the British raj into nationalists who would never again place trust in British "fair play." It thus marks the turning point for a majority of the Congress' supporters from moderate cooperation with the raj and its promised reforms to revolutionary noncooperation. Liberal Anglophile leaders, such as Jinnah, were soon to be displaced by the followers of Gandhi, who would launch, a year after that dreadful massacre, his first nationwide satyagraha ("devotion to truth") campaign as India's revolutionary response. "It was a horrible duty to perform. But I think it was a merciful thing. I thought I should shoot well and shoot straight so that I or anybody else would not have had to shoot again.'' The words of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer himself -- the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which left 379 dead and 1,500 injured in 1919. Deposing before the Hunter commission inquiring into the shooting, General Dyer said his action was meant to punish the people if they disobeyed his orders. He thought from a military point of view, such an action would create a good impression in Punjab. However, what was more damning was his statement, ''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.'' He contended that martial law existed de facto in Amritsar at that time although only demonstrations had been forbidden. He also claimed that his military column had stopped at every important point to announce that all meetings have been banned which were accompanied by the beating of drums. However, when questioned with the help of a map of the city, General Dyer was forced to admit that important localities had been omitted, and a large number of people would not have known about the proclamation. 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. Colum, a scholar who interviewed his widow and consulted his papers, said, "This unexpected gift of fortune, this unhoped for defiance, this concentration of rebels in an open space -- it gave him an opportunity as he could not have devised. It separated the guilty from the innocent, it placed them where he would have wised them to be -- within the reach of his sword.'' However, General Dyer 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. Swinson, an English journalist, described the scene as: ''Hundreds were asleep in the sun, others were concentrating on their game of cards. A number of them had come with their children, three to 12 years old. Some 27,000 odd people had gathered in the Bagh, an open space surrounded on all sides by houses with only four narrow entrances.'' 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 was censured by the Hunter commission for his action. He retired and was sent back to England. However, he continued to maintain that he had done no disservice to the Raj, and what he did was right, for which the British ought to be thankful. In London, the general was given a hero's welcome. Called ''the saviour of India,'' the editor of the Morning Post collected 3,000 pounds to award him for his services. The Tories and a majority of members in the House of Lords rallied to his support. The army counsel which took up the case charged him only for an error of judgement, and recommended his retirement on half pay with no prospects of further employment. A British court even exonerated him of this charge.
Sankalp Unit