Indian History

Apologise for Amritsar? Violence and Memory on the Centenary of the Massacre

The wall with bullet holes at Jallianwala Bagh

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.

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Locating Women in the history of India’s Emergency (1975-1977)

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Image: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a (female) audience in Delhi, 1 March 1977 (Socialist India, March 5 1977)

More than forty years on from India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), we are beginning to understand the many ways in which women supported, resisted and experienced this critical period in India’s history.

Forty-two years ago today, on 21 March 1977, India’s State of Emergency collapsed. The Janata Party, a coalition of anti-Emergency opposition groups, defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress Government at the polls. Gandhi imposed this Emergency in June 1975, responding to rising opposition and a legal challenge to her position. Government censored the press, arrested opposition party members and activists, suspended elections and undertook controversial socioeconomic programmes, including coercive sterilisation and aggressive slum clearance. This is now a well traversed history. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of scholarship analysing these events. But the role of women in relation to all aspects of the regime has not commanded sufficient attention.

This is particularly striking for several reasons. A female leader who drew heavily on gendered narratives like Bharat Mata (Mother India) presided over this regime, mobilising such imagery to defend the Emergency’s legitimacy. In one instance, Gandhi stated:

We felt that the country had developed a disease and if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure… Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step. But we see it worked (Socialist India 15 November 1975).

In 1975 India participated in the UN’s International Women’s Year (IWY) celebrations and the government’s Committee on the Status of Women in India published its report Towards Equality. One of the Emergency’s most infamous policies, coercive sterilisation in the name of family planning, is an issue that has been at the fore of feminist activism and scholarship. Although the Emergency is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the contemporary women’s movement in India, there has been little attention to women’s activism or experiences during it.

My doctoral research revealed the myriad ways in which women were key to the articulation and implementation of Emergency measures. Depictions of women’s support for the regime were integral to pro-Emergency propaganda. The Congress Party used women dominated photographs to represent support for the regime, even describing the Emergency as akin to the IWY, as ‘yet another significant event for the welfare of women in this country’ because of its imposition of ‘law and order’ (Socialist India 21 August 1976). Contrary to such claims, and despite perceptions of the Emergency’s sterilisation policies as a vasectomy programme, my research revealed the negative implications of these policies for women, particularly the impact of the focus on sterilisation on the Mother and Child Health programme. Women were often at the forefront of families’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency’s many coercive measures. As one man put it, because of the financial pressures authorities placed on his family ‘my wife had to get sterilised.’

Women were not simply victims of the Emergency’s repressive measures, nor symbols utilised by the Congress’s pro-Emergency narratives. Women were active in resistance and organised protests against the Emergency. Underground literature reveals glimpses of this recording how in December 1975, Jayawantiben Mehta, Ahilya Rangnekar and Kamal Desai led groups of women protestors in Mumbai as part of an organised Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Documentation from Maharashtra’s prisons shows that state authorities there arrested over 500 women during this period for such activities. Once in prison, women cultivated lively cultures of resistance, continuing to protest and maintaining connections with the underground resistance movement. Those who escaped arrest, such as teacher and later Janata Party Secretary Pushpa Bhave, continued to organise protests and shelter those participating in underground resistance in their own homes.

The Janata Government that took office in March 1977 had the lowest number of women in parliament. As feminist activist and scholar Dr Ranjana Kumari, who was active in underground activism as a student in Delhi, told me in an interview, ‘there were a lot of women who were very, very active’, but ‘they were all pushed aside post-Emergency… so many of them not even recognised, not even written about, it is sad’. This marginalisation of women in post-Emergency politics has contributed to the absence of their voices and stories from this history. My doctoral research begins to address this gap, but forty-two years on, there is still much work to be done.

Gemma Scott completed an AHRC funded PhD at Keele University in 2018. Her research examines the history of India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), focusing particularly on women’s activism during this period and women’s experiences of Emergency measures. In 2015, she was an AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and in 2016/17 she held a Scouloudi Foundation Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is currently working as Engagement, Partnerships and Impact Development Officer at Keele University.

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The #MeToo movement, intersectionality, and its implications for Dalit women

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The phrase ‘Me Too’ originated with Tarana Burke, an African American civil rights activist, to raise awareness of the magnitude of sexual harassment and assault among women of colour.  Yet the recent upsurge in its use, and the face of the Hollywood movement, has been spearheaded by Western (and mostly white) celebrities.

Their campaigning has undoubtedly exposed the severity of sexual harassment in the film industry, but it has raised some troubling questions about the influence of race on perceptions of violence and the granting of support to its victims.

These questions have opened a vital dialogue about the importance of intersectionality in the feminist movement and of making space for women from vulnerable minorities who face discrimination on multiple axes.#MeToo revealed the everyday (and sadly unexceptional) nature of sexual harassment, whilst providing women with a safe platform to voice their experience, without having to disclose explicit details.

Yet for many women, including those living in stigmatised Dalit (‘Untouchable’) communities in postcolonial India, this sort of platform remains largely unavailable. Their low status in the caste system and position within economically impoverished communities exacerbates their vulnerability to severe discrimination. The small distance separating women from their attackers, and from the violent repercussions of men surrounding them, further restricts their ability to seek support and refuge.

Notions of purity are essential to the caste system and rest exclusively on female behaviour, marriage practices and reproduction. Transgressions from social norms frequently lead to the gendered humiliation of Dalit women, which presents a means of collectively punishing the family and wider community. [1] This ranges from verbal abuse and harassment, to violent physical and sexual assault.

The distance separating Dalit communities from caste Hindus and Muslims makes them easily identifiable, and they often become the sites of violence. A letter sent to the secretary of the Home Department of Bombay in 1928 outlines the violence inflicted on a group of Dalits within their own village, as punishment for refusing to continue customary ‘untouchable’ practices. [2]

Historians like Nicholas Dirks have done much to emphasise the role played by colonial administration in the construction of the caste system. Vast ethnographic volumes and official censuses were produced for the colonial government, categorising groups according to their perceived varna status. By doing this, the British imprisoned their Indian subjects into castes, whilst largely granting political representation to higher caste groups that controlled access to material resources. [3]

Historian Rupa Viswanath, in particular, has documented the increasing influence of ‘untouchability’ in the public consciousness since the late nineteenth century. [4] Such narratives demonstrate the historical construction of caste and lend understanding to the problems afflicting Indian society today. The use of caste in the Census of India was withdrawn by 1931, but its rigid hierarchical organisation continues to influence discriminatory practices against lower caste groups. [5] Dalit communities remain bound to the bottom of caste and class hierarchies, separated both spatially and economically from caste Hindu villages.

The denial of basic resources such as water requires Dalit women to leave their homes to provide for their families in a way that upper caste women avoid. [6] Without access to toilet facilities, they are forced to defecate openly, and often at night, away from their homes. The distance this demands leaves them vulnerable to humiliation and harassment from upper caste individuals and groups.

Physical and sexual violence against Dalit women is so common place that it receives very little attention. In contrast, cases involving the rape of higher caste and middle class women, such as the Jyoti Singh case in 2012, are given significant attention in international media coverage. This disparity begs a comparison between the influence of racial and caste prejudice in responses to gendered violence.

Utilising a discourse of human rights legislation, academics are beginning to draw comparative histories that categorise caste and race under ‘descent-based discrimination’. [7] This presents a vital development in widening understanding of caste issues by placing them within a global context.

The persecution women face is exacerbated by patriarchal practices within the home. Dalit men often enforce their own superiority within these rigid social hierarchies by subordinating women in their own communities. In interviews conducted with 400 Dalit couples in Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu, between 2009-2010, over 60% of the women reported high male alcohol consumption and violence. [8]

The complications of reporting sexual violence when it occurs at the intersection of several spheres of loyalty was emphasised in Burke’s original MeToo campaign. African American women were much less likely to report violence committed against them when they risked incriminating men within their already-vulnerable homes and communities. [9] The position of Dalit women presents a similar problem and one that requires a unique human rights discourse.

The rise of international online movements such as #MeToo present a promising shift for women working in established industries. Yet for those trapped at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies, in economically impoverished communities in postcolonial India, the sentiment of the movement is lost. The violence faced by Dalit women is a relentless, everyday occurrence deeply embedded within the socio-religious framework that dominates Indian society.

Raising awareness of the historical context behind contemporary discrimination is vital. However, more needs to be done to make international women’s movements and the contemporary human rights discourse inclusive for those facing violence and persecution under vastly different circumstances.


Frances Hargreaves is an undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia.


[1] Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the politics of modern India (California, 2009), p. 222

[2] Letter available in the India Office Records at the British Library, London. File L/PJ/6/1959.

[3] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 5

[4] Rupa Viswanath, The Pariah Problem (New York, 2014)

[5] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of modern India (Princeton, 2001), p. 16

[6] Aloysius S.J Iruduyam, Jayshree P. Mangubhai and Joel G. Lee, Dalit women speak out: caste, class and gender violence in India (New Delhi, 2014), p.12

[7] Deepa S. Reddy, ‘The Ethnicity of Caste’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 543-584

[8] Nitya Rao, Marriage, Violence and Choice, Gender and Society, Vol. 29 Issue 3 (2015), p. 428


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