This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Violent Indian Freedom Movement

(Oct 2008)

Back in the old days when the British Raj ruled, there was a man named Reginald Edward Harry Dyer.

Dyer happened to be a Brigadier (at the time the rank was still called “Brigadier General”) in the British Army. He also happened to be the man chosen to be military dictator of the Punjab province of His Majesty’s Indian colony.

This was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened, because if there was ever a case of the wrong man being in the wrong job at the wrong time, it was Brigadier Dyer.

He was a sick man, was Brigadier Dyer. Suffering from the after-effects of old injuries and illnesses, his naturally violent temper was exacerbated by constant pain and the contempt in which he held the Indians. He was not the sort of person who could be trusted to manage a tense situation without allowing things to explode out of control.

British India had participated in the First World War, sending many thousands of troops to fight in Flanders and Mesopotamia, on the understanding that this gesture to aid the British Empire would be rewarded by at least partial freedom. With hindsight, we might be surprised at Indian gullibility – not for nothing has Britain oft been called Perfidious Albion – but believe they did, and when the promised freedom wasn’t forthcoming, shocked and angered they were. But instead of digesting this kick in the ass, as was their wont, in at least one province, they rose in non-violent rebellion.

Back in 1919, then, the province of Punjab was seething with anti-British sentiment. There were large scale demonstrations, more or less peaceful, and large public meetings demanding what we would now call basic freedoms. The most alarming thing about these rallies, so far as the British were concerned, was that they saw a most unwelcome development: the Hindus and Muslims – historically antagonistic in Punjab, something the British had used to divide and rule over them – united in their determination to oust the colonial masters.    

Meanwhile, the British garrison in Punjab felt isolated and vulnerable, and the propaganda of the so-called Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in their minds, anticipated massacres of British women and children. There were incidents of firing on crowds which were doing no more than (at the most) throw stones, killing many, and there was counter-violence from the crowds, which led to a few British deaths. Alarmed at the British deaths, the Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, declared martial law and called in Brigadier Reginald Dyer to enforce it.

Dyer arrived and promptly made a bad situation infinitely worse.

One of Dyer’s lovely orders of the day referred to a lane in the city of Amritsar where a British woman had been beaten during the demonstrations (she had been rescued and sheltered by local residents, but that didn’t matter to Dyer). Every Indian who went along that lane would have to crawl through on all fours, nose to the ground, as a mass punishment. Floggings and arbitrary arrests were de rigeur for Dyer’s administration.

Meanwhile, this didn’t cool tempers or bring about order – of course.

It came to Dyer’s notice that there was a big public meeting planned on April 13, 1919 in an alleged “garden” (really a large, barren space enclosed by high walls) called Jallianwala Bagh, not far from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It was a meeting and a religious occasion together, for the day marked Baisakhi, the formal advent of spring in the Indian calendar. He sent around public heralds banning the meeting, but the organisers reasoned that non-violent resistance to alien rule involved ignoring unjust orders, so they went ahead with the meeting anyway. It was attended by thousands, the majority of whom were (as they still are today in India) non-partisan, just rubberneckers. Many children came along with their parents, and there must have been the usual sellers of snacks and trinkets and the like as well – as there still are today in public meetings in India.

Infuriated (remember I talked about his temper) by this evidence of insubordination on the part of the contemptible natives, Dyer decided to teach them a lesson. Accompanied by two armoured cars with mounted machine guns, he set out at the head of an infantry column. This column had British officers but the majority of the troops were Indians, while the remainder were Gorkhas from Nepal. (Today, popular mythology loves to pretend that the soldiers were bloodthirsty white British. Not so. Dyer had just 90 soldiers with him: 25 Gorkhas of 1st/9th Gurkha (sic) Rifles, and the rest Pathans and Baloch of 54th Sikhs and 59th Sindh Rifles.)

Arriving at one of the gates of the Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer found that the entrance was too narrow to take in his precious armoured cars, so he couldn’t use their machine guns. Nothing daunted, he took in his men and, without any word of warning, deployed them in two lines and ordered them to open fire on the meeting with their .303 Lee Enfield rifles.

Nobody knows how many were killed at that massacre, for massacre it was. That mass of men, women and children was packed in an enclosed space, with the soldiers between them and the nearest exit, firing into them with the renowned aim of the British Army rifleman of the period. Many died from being shot, many others died from getting trampled by the crowd in the rush to escape, and some died when they jumped into a well to avoid the fusillade. Calmly, Dyer ordered his men to aim where the crowd was thickest, and there is no evidence any of his men, British officers or Indian or Nepali soldiers, attempted to protest his orders.

His force’s ammunition expended, Dyer then withdrew, but ordered that the wounded could not be given any aid or medical help.

You may imagine that this episode raised a storm. While the British in India toasted the Saviour of the Punjab and the Sikh priests of the Golden Temple, toadies to a man, declared him an honorary Sikh, the pressure grew so huge that there was finally an enquiry. At that enquiry Dyer declared he had done nothing wrong and that he would have opened fore with the machine guns as well if he’d had a chance. The enquiry condemned him as well as Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who had backed him to the hilt. 

Enriched by a fund raised in his honour in Britain, but sick and exhausted, Dyer then went home to England. He never really recovered and by 1927 he was dead of natural causes.


Among the survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a boy named Udham Singh. He vowed revenge for that massacre – and, twenty one years later, in London, he kept his word.

While the Second World War hung fire and Hitler planned his Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there was a meeting at the Caxton Hall of the Royal Central Asian Society. Udham Singh was at that meet. He took out a gun and shot dead an old man. That man was Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

The strange thing about this episode was that Udham Singh had, strictly speaking, shot the wrong man. Confused by the similarity of names, he thought he was shooting the (by then 13 years in his grave) Brigadier Dyer. Fortunately for the cause of justice, O’Dwyer was as guilty of the massacre as Dyer himself, so Udham Singh’s act wasn’t a waste. But I remember hearing on Indian television, sometime in the late eighties, an official claim that Singh had “shot the British General dead.” Some people do not want to know the truth, I suppose.

I mention this whole affair just to introduce the reader to the fact that the Indian “freedom struggle” (if anything so disjointed, chaotic and stuttering can be dignified with such a name) was far from the non-violent affair it’s usually claimed to be. There were many, many violent revolutionaries (if they can be so called) against the British, whose activities were mostly marked with a mind-numbing incompetence so incredible that Udham Singh’s case seems to be a shining example of a strike going at least partially right.

Forget about the wrong man getting killed – most of the time the strike didn’t even go through, the “revolutionaries” betrayed by those they were fighting to liberate, and ending in hiding somewhere or more usually in prison exile in the Andaman Islands or hanging from the gallows. There were a few men of principles and courage, foremost among them an Indian Marxist called Bhagat Singh,
who chose to get arrested (and hanged) in order to gain publicity and support for the cause, but the violent revolution by and large spluttered ineffectually on the sidelines, ignored by the populace at large and betrayed at every turn.

By far the most significant of the armed rebellions, though, happened in the Second World War, when Indians serving in the British Army and taken prisoner by the Japanese decided to join a “liberation movement” called the Indian National Army under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose,
who had escaped from British house arrest and reached Japan by way of Afghanistan, Russia and Germany. The Indian National Army never really had a chance; most of the PoWs stayed away from it, and of those who joined, so many deserted at the first opportunity that the Japanese ended up using them as porters and line of communication troops. But the British Army continued to garner masses of recruits from India, not one of whom was a conscript; so much for the idea that the Indians were loath to serve the British. They always did, right from the advent of the East India Company in the eighteenth century.

If the Indian National Army had any lasting effect, it was only in bringing it home to the British that they couldn’t take the loyalty of the Indian soldier for granted any more. This was one of the many factors that led to the decision to quit India.

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