British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre a "shameful scar" on British-Indian history, but stopped short of a formal apology. As India marks the centenary of the massacre, perhaps it is time Britain crossed that bridge — it has much to apologise for, especially on account of Reginald Dyer.
Dyer wanted to strike terror "throughout the Punjab" when he ordered troops under his command to open fire on a large gathering at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago on April 13, 1919. The victims of the massacre were non-violent protesters against British martial law and religious pilgrims visiting the site because of the Baisakhi festival. In 10 minutes, 379 (the official British estimate) men, women and children were killed. The British estimated the number of wounded to be "three times as great as the number of killed".
Dyer's answers about what happened that day, contained in the Disorders Inquiry Committee (1919-1920) report, reveal in graphic detail how he went about his "duty". Dyer admitted that it was "quite possible" that he could have dispersed the gathering at Jallianwala Bagh without firing. But, he believed that the people at the gathering would all come back and "laugh at" him and that he would be making a "fool" of himself. Instead, Dyer immediately opened fire at the people present at the gathering, without giving any warning or asking them to disperse. The Committee's Minority Report said Dyer "continued firing till the ammunition ran short", using 1,650 rounds in all.
Dyer went to the Bagh looking for blood. He had time — hours, in fact — to consider what action to take. The report said that from the time he received information about the planned Jallianwala meeting, Dyer "had four hours to think" before he departed for the site of the massacre. He took another half an hour to reach Jallianwala. "It appears that General Dyer, as soon as he heard about the contemplated meeting, made up his mind to go there with troops and fire," said the report.
On the morning of April 13, Dyer had issued a proclamation: "No procession of any kind is permitted to parade the streets in the city or any part of the city or outside it at any time.
Any such processions or gatherings of four men will be looked upon as unlawful assembly and will be dispersed by force of arms if necessary."
The Minority Report estimated that the people who could have heard Dyer's proclamation would have at most numbered 10,000. This in a city which was then estimated to have a total population of up to 170,000. Dyer, himself, admitted that there might have been "a good many" in the gathering at Jallianwala who had not heard the proclamation.
Regarding the days preceding the massacre, former external affairs minister Natwar Singh has written that after Congress leaders Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal were arrested, in early April, the situation was tense in Amritsar. There was a spontaneous unrest and tempers were running high because of the Rowlatt Act. The Rowlatt Act — officially known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, 1919 — was passed in March 1919 and allowed the British government to arrest any person suspected of terrorist activities. Under the Act, the government could detain those arrested for up to two years without trial. It also authorised the police to conduct searches without a warrant. Further, the Act placed severe restrictions on the freedom of the press. Punjab, where there were riots and protests against the Act, was put under martial law.
Dyer took machine-guns with him on that fateful day, but he was unable to use them because the armoured cars would not fit into the narrow entrance leading to the Bagh. It did nothing to dull the savagery that followed. The Minority Report shows that Dyer admitted to ordering his troops to aim their fire where the crowds were the thickest.
And, he got away with it. Natwar Singh writes how Dyer received a hero's welcome upon his return to England after he was asked to resign his command. "General Dyer was vigorously defended by — I say this with shame — the Conservative Party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise," Bob Blackman, a member of Parliament from UK's Conservative Party, said recently in a debate tabled by him in the British parliament on the issue of a formal apology for the massacre.