The Daily Parker

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Jallianwalh Bagh, 100 years later

One hundred years ago this hour (Sunday 13 April 1919, 17:37 HMT), Brig. General Reginald Dyer order his men to fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian civilians within an enclosed space from which they had no escape:

On the afternoon of April 13, a crowd of at least 10,000 men, women, and children gathered in an open space known as the Jallianwalla Bagh, which was nearly completely enclosed by walls and had only one exit. It is not clear how many people there were protesters who were defying the ban on public meetings and how many had come to the city from the surrounding region to celebrate Baisakhi, a spring festival. Dyer and his soldiers arrived and sealed off the exit. Without warning, the troops opened fire on the crowd, reportedly shooting hundreds of rounds until they ran out of ammunition. It is not certain how many died in the bloodbath, but, according to one official report, an estimated 379 people were killed, and about 1,200 more were wounded. After they ceased firing, the troops immediately withdrew from the place, leaving behind the dead and wounded.

The shooting was followed by the proclamation of martial law in the Punjab that included public floggings and other humiliations. Indian outrage grew as news of the shooting and subsequent British actions spread throughout the subcontinent. The Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood that he had received in 1915. Gandhi was initially hesitant to act, but he soon began organizing his first large-scale and sustained nonviolent protest (satyagraha) campaign, the noncooperation movement (1920–22), which thrust him to prominence in the Indian nationalist struggle.

The government of India ordered an investigation of the incident (the Hunter Commission), which in 1920 censured Dyer for his actions and ordered him to resign from the military. Reaction in Britain to the massacre was mixed, however. Many condemned Dyer’s actions—including Sir Winston Churchill, then secretary of war, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1920—but the House of Lords praised Dyer and gave him a sword inscribed with the motto “Saviour of the Punjab.” In addition, a large fund was raised by Dyer’s sympathizers and presented to him. The Jallianwalla Bagh site in Amritsar is now a national monument.

At an inquest after the event, Dyer had no remorse for his actions, and volunteered that had he managed to get the tank he had with him into the square, he would have used its cannon to further attack the civilians.

Both the massacre and the inquest were dramatized in the 1982 film Gandhi, which won Best Picture that year.

The Commons debate about the incident that took place on 8 July 1920 offers some context for the current Commons debate about Brexit. Indeed, the massacre and its aftermath should put paid any notions that the United Kingdom has always stood up for human rights, even in the last century, or has a particular sensitivity to its own citizens who come from outside the British Isles.

In the debate, the Secretary of State for War, a Mr. Churchill of some repute, gave the view I should hope all Britons would have had:

If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. I deeply regret to find myself in a difference of opinion from many of those with whom, on the general drift of the world's affairs at the present time, I feel myself in the strongest sympathy; but I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army, for us to take a load of that sort for all time upon our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or other, that this is not the British way of doing business.

Reading through the debate, however, it almost seems as if Churchill were in the minority. He wasn't, but only because the less-racist MPs in the House at that moment largely kept quiet.

The thinking behind Dyer's mass murder led directly to the thinking behind Lord Louis Mountbatten's precipitous and disastrous withdrawal from India in 1947, whose principal consequence has been 72 years of nonstop hostilities between India and Pakistan. And it leads directly to Brexit.

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