Saturday just gone (13th April) marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre. On this day in 1919, thousands of Indians from the city and its environs descended upon the Jallianwala Bagh, a public space, to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, to attend a political meeting in the context of Gandhi’s Rowlatt satyagraha, or simply to rest and relax in the Bagh. The British commander in charge of the local army garrison, General Reginald Dyer, had earlier issued orders prohibiting public gatherings and imposing a curfew on the city. Considering the gathering a direct contravention of his orders, Dyer determined to disperse the meeting with force. Without any forewarning, Dyer’s troops opened fire upon this peaceful and unarmed group of men, women and children. After more than ten minutes of slow, deliberate firing, official figures suggest 379 people lay dead (other estimates are much higher), with three times that number wounded.
The Amritsar Massacre has come to occupy a prominent place in any litany of the violent excesses of British imperialism. At the time, Dyer’s actions were criticised by some (but not all) in Britain as an outright betrayal of British values. Most famously, in July 1920, Churchill recalled what happened as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation … Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things’.
Today, centenary activities have principally coalesced around demands for the current British government to issue an official apology, with debates on this issue in the Lords back in February and in the Commons last Tuesday. This reflects larger, ongoing concerns about how best to contend with Britain’s imperial legacy. Ahead of the debate in the Commons a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson revisited Churchill’s speech, in tones that were reminiscent of David Cameron’s visit to Amritsar in February 2013.
Whilst stopping short of an apology, Cameron expressed ‘deep regret’, drawing upon Churchill’s speech to both condemn the massacre and attempt to recover Britain’s reputation as a benevolent influence upon the world. Both Churchill’s and Cameron’s depictions have been informed by a narrative of exceptionalism, in which British colonial rule is portrayed as kinder and gentler than that practised by other European powers. In these accounts, Dyer’s actions are an aberration, abhorrent to the strong moral basis upon which the empire was built.
In reality, however, Amritsar was no exception, but the most well known example of the ordinariness of colonial violence in British India. Invoking such banality is not to suggest that we should take this violence for granted. Doing so can reduce us to simply reconstructing history for its own sake, rather than reflecting on how events and actions were experienced and justified at the time. At the same time this is not an attempt to excuse what happened, but to better understand the motivations behind such actions.
Rather than focus on the ways in which the massacre subsequently electrified Indian anti-colonial nationalism of various ideological hues and methods, Kim Wagner’s recent book has emphasised the continuities of colonial rule in the violence of 1919. Invoking ‘the spectre of the “Mutiny”’ of 1857, Wagner has revealed how a particular and recurring ‘colonial mindset’ was shaped by the contradiction between ‘white power and white vulnerability’. In fact, Dyer’s actions reflected a common desire to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid ‘losing face’, in the context of a pervasive and imagined anxiety about the latent threat of ‘native rebellion’.
Whether we end up with a formal apology or not, we can be certain that the massacre will continue to figure on any roll call of British colonial violence. This owes much to the consistent depiction of Amritsar and other colonial massacres as exceptional events. However, such interpretations ultimately deserve much closer and more careful scrutiny, in view of both the inescapability of colonial violence and the shared pressures and apprehensions that informed it.
Oliver Godsmark is Lecturer in History at the University of Derby. His research considers citizenship, democracy and territory in late colonial and early postcolonial India. He has considered these issues in his recent monograph and in articles in South Asia and Modern Asian Studies.