What lessons a massacre 100 years ago has for us today

Jallianwallah Baig, scene of the 1919 massacre

Laid up in sick bed over Easter I was re-reading Draper’s The Amritsar Massacre, not the most comfortable bedtime book I must admit.

I was going to write most people will know of the massacre, but I suspect that is not so so here’s a bit of background.

In 1919 bits of India were still governed by native Indian princes and rulers and the bits that weren’t were governed by Lieutenant Governor’s appointed by the Indian Government, which enjoyed a great deal of independence from the Government in the UK.

After the Great War Gandhi and other educated Indians were peacefully agitating for self-rule.

The Indian Government was worried as for the first time Hindus and Muslims were co-operating in holding days of fasting and prayer when all businesses shut down; effectively a self imposed general strike. In the Punjab, Lieutenant Governor O’Dwyer’s response seems to have been to force shops and businesses to open, he was a man generally regarded by the Indians as harsh. His next step was to order the internal deportation of the “ringleaders” which they accepted, peacefully in accordance with Gandhi’s doctrine.

Not every Indian went along the “peaceful” route however and in Amritsar on April 10, tensions were inflamed and mob attacked Europeans, some of them burned or beaten.

Troops were sent into the city.

Things quietened down, but the new officer commanding, General Dyer seems to have decided that a lesson needed to be taught.

On April 13 therefore he toured the city announcing that all gatherings were banned.

Being told of such a gathering in a garden called the Jallianwala Bagh he descended on it with 50 Indian troops and without giving any warning opened fire, hundreds were killed, although the exact number was never known and hundreds of others were wounded.

It was nothing less than criminal and sent shock waves through both the British in India, the Indians themselves and eventually the Government in London once news got back.

It wasn’t isolated however and Dyer overstepped the mark repeatedly in what looks like a lust for revenge for the beating of the schoolmistress, an innocent white woman.

Dyer was fairly rapidly disgraced, replaced and shot out of active service, his boss the Lieutenant Governor clung on.

What really struck me and what resonates today was the way that populist politicians and especially newspapers hailed Dyer as “Saviour of the Punjab” a man who had saved India from a second revolution.

A fund set up to relieve his impending impoverishment back in the UK was massively oversubscribed. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and Court cases undertaken to clear his and O’Dwyer’s name.

And yet, all those fund subscribers can have known nothing of what really happened, all that popular support for him was manipulated by people with their own agendas and with the passage of time we can see just how awful they now look, supporting a man who was a monster despite believing they were doing the right thing.

Their judgement however was based not on understanding what went on and why but on an emotional knee-jerk reaction to what they were told or read in the press.

It came home to me over Easter because I can see a direct parallel with the pink boat and the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, where a lot of well meaning people are agitating about something of which they have a very incomplete knowledge.

They are being stirred up by others who have an agenda of their own with numerous becoming involved.

When I see primary schoolchildren parroting lines they have been taught about saving the planet, I know they cannot possibly have an understanding of the complexity of the issues involved. Even the majority will lack this – especially if they rely on social media.

Global climate change is a complex business. It takes real effort to understand even a small part of the whole picture. And it doesn’t help when we have politicians falling over themselves to worship the views of a Swedish teenager, but it’s good publicity for them – or am I being too cynical?


  1. I agree. Man’s effect on climate change is a complex business. So is the effect of smoking on our lungs or traffic pollution on our health. Or even town planning on the success of future communities.

    But we know enough, and so do our children, to point out the very real dangers of climate change. Children and adults alike may not understand all the ramifications but they know enough to highlight the problem and demand we do something about it. All credit to their efforts. Keep up the demonstrations kids. You have my absolute support from someone at the other end of the age range.


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