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Amritsar, Episode 83 - 07/06/06


Massacre at Amritsar.(Mary Evans Picture Library)

Massacre at Amritsar (cartoon from Simplicissimus 21 January 1920)
(Mary Evans Picture Library)
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In April 1919 brigadier general Edward Dyer ordered his troops to kill unarmed men, women and children close by one of the holiest shrines in India. The event is still known, as the Amritsar Massacre. Hundreds dead. More than 1000 wounded.

The Massacre was a British response to the growing sense of revolution in India. The anti-British feeling among Indians extended from the Indian communities abroad - for example, those in California where the Ghadr Party was founded in San Francisco in 1913 - to the increasing vociferous independence groups throughout the subcontinent.

At the start of WWI, the Indian Revolutionary Committee [Independence Committee] was started in Berlin and Indians volunteered to fight for the Germans against the British. The Germans in return, financed anti-British groups in the hope of turning the Sikh and Ghurkha regiments.

Gandhi had returned, only to find the radicals already wide spread. One example was Annie Besant. She thought the British raj was an injustice and in 1915 started her Home Rule League. She said she wanted to free India from what she called the humiliation of dependency; she took her example from Irish Home Rule politics.

The Punjab, once the most reliable of the provinces, was no longer so. The Provincial Congress met in Amritsar, the centre of the Punjab, and became the focus of political agitation. The British hadn't understood the depth of feeling now running through the Punjab. Tens of thousands attended protest meetings against the Rowlatt legislation restricting public protest. The British in Amritsar called for military reinforcement.

In Delhi, Dyer was ordered to Amritsar to take command. He arrived on 11 April with 475 British and 710 Indian soldiers. Martial Law was declared. The Indian leaders called on people to assemble in, Jallianwala Bagh, a one time walled garden.

Dyer arrived with Ghurkha and Sikh riflemen and two armoured cars. With few preliminaries, he ordered his men to fire. The demonstration was over in minutes - 379 killed and more than 1200 wounded.

HH Asquith called it one of the worst outrages in British history. Yet the public view was that Dyer had saved a second Indian Mutiny.

Later he was forced to resign. The Morning Post newspaper set up a fund for Dyer. It made more than £26,000, one third coming from India where much of the European community seems to have believed that Dyer saved the empire.

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Historical Figure

Annie Besant, 1847-1933

Annie Besant was the sister-in-law to the social reformer and writer, Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901) and sometime wife of his brother, the Reverend Frank Besant. She was a leading member of the National Secular Society, an ardent social reformer and advocate of birth control, theosophy and wrote the Gospel of Atheism, In India, she agitated for independence and was president of the Indian National Congress (1917-1923). Her policy of passive opposition anticipated Gandhi by a couple of years.

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Did You Know...

Gandhi's comment: "We do not want to punish Dyer. We have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produces Dyer."

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Contemporary Sources

In a statement remarkably different from anything else said at the time Lord Montagu, the Secretary of State, declared:

"The policy of His Majesty's Government, with which the Government of India are in complete accord, is that of the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire. I would add that progress in this policy can only be achieved by successive stages. The British government and the government of India, on whom the responsibility lies for the welfare and advancement of the Indian peoples, must be the judges of the time, and measure of each advance, and they must be guided by the co-operation received from those upon whom new opportunities of service will thus be conferred, and by the extent to which it is found that confidence can be reposed in their sense of responsibility."

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