The Amritsar Massacre
One of the common themes throughout the life of the British Empire was its proclivity for taking portions of the civilian population, arming and training them as an Army, and using them to control the remaining civilian population, as well as fight the Empire’s battles in other regions. The British exploited ethnic differences in its many domains in this manner. In India, the British created the British Indian Army, which was commanded by a British officer who reported to the Governor-General of India. The British Indian Army served in many of the wars which were fought by the British during the Pax Brittanica, including the Second and Third Afghan war and the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Following the First World War and the ensuing influenza pandemic many officers of the British Indian Army – both Indian and British – were concerned with the possibility of a revolt within the Indian populace. Gandhi’s demands for protests against British policy were causing unrest across India, especially in the region of Punjab. Telephone and telegraph communications were frequently disrupted and the administration believed that many of these events were the preliminary steps of an organized rebellion. In the early days of April, 1919, several acts of violence against English owned property and upon persons occurred in Amritsar, a city in Punjab, and the administration declared martial law.
Under martial law a public gathering of more than four people was illegal. On April 13, the festival of Baisakhi (a religious and historic festival of the Sikh and Hindu) a crowd of unknown size but at least several thousand gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden in Amritsar. The garden was walled on all sides. At the time all entries but the wide main entrance were locked. A contingent of the British Indian Army was led to the site that afternoon and deployed on top of one of the embankments which walled the garden. Another detachment was sent to block the main entrance, preventing anyone from entering or leaving the garden.
The British Indian Army troops were under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer. Dyer later explained that his direction to block the exit from the garden was justified because he was there not to disperse the Indians under martial law but to punish them for their violation. For the same reason he did not order the crowd to disperse. Instead he ordered his troops to fire into the trapped crowd and they continued firing until most of them were out of ammunition. The official death count reported by the British government was 379. Local Indian authorities and many British witnesses reported it to be well above 1,000, with another 1,100 wounded.
One of the attacks on English persons which preceded the Amritsar Massacre had been on an English schoolteacher named Marcella Sherwood. She had been attacked on the street, stripped naked, and left for dead, before being rescued by the Indian father of one of her students. Six days after the massacre Colonel Dyer decreed that any Indian man traversing the street in which she was recovering must do so crawling on their hands and knees. He explained that since Indians crawled before their god they must do so before her because an English girl to them was, “…as sacred as any god.”