A Britisher in Amritsar

This is the only photograph with which I illustrate this blogpost for reasons which will become apparent below

It wasn’t so much the bullet holes. It was their position. One line of raking fire would have been enough, but there were two of them, there on the battered segment of mud brick wall at Jallianwala Bagh.

One line cuts across at the height of a human heart. The lower one, almost at ground level, marks where the second sweep hit the victims again as they fell. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer wanted to make sure the ‘natives’ were good and dead.

You may not know the name Jallianwala Bagh. Perhaps you will recognise it as The Massacre at Amritsar. Be wary. This is colonial spin. There is a lot of that in Amritsar. Using the ‘Massacre’ title rather than the former local name makes it sound as though this was a wholly military action between two foes (c.f. The Massacre at the Khyber Pass).

It was not.

Our history lessons are censored in Britain, the unpalatable truths of colonial rule omitted. This event at Jallianwala Bagh happened in 1919 – so just misses the popular Great War area of the curriculum. We love teaching our kids about wars we have won, but we almost never consider the aftermath (c.f. the Battle of Culloden). In these murky shadows lurk the worst excesses of colonial history.

So please, please, learn how to say Jallianwala Bagh. It is no more complicated a placename than Achiltibuie or Cirencester. And it is the least we can do, after what happened here, at a peaceful political gathering in a public park on a religious festival in the sacred golden city of Amritsar.

On 13 April 1919, those gathered in the park were debating the arrest of two pro-independence figures. Many onlookers had just attended for the spectacle and as part of the harvest festival celebrations rather than being actively involved. Some women and children were present too. At this point in time the British had not yet accepted that India would become independent. Martial law had been declared but few realised the implication, if they knew at all.

Ordered to dispel the rally, Dyer’s soldiers opened fire on the unarmed population with their Lee Enfield rifles. These Indian Army troops (let that sink in) were ordered to continue to fire into the people trapped within the park walls until ammunition had all but run out. The carnage could have been even worse had Dyer’s armoured cars been able to access the park via its alleys.

These narrow exits soon became blocked by the bodies of panicked civilians, which effectively sealed off the park. This technique of isolating a battleground, learned from Culloden (the battle which ended the last Rising in my native Scotland) and countless other colonial bloodbaths, saves wasting valuable ammunition on those injured, who then slowly and conveniently die of blood loss and shock.

The following day General Dyer wrote: “I hear that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed. My party fired 1,650 rounds…” He might as well have been reporting the ‘bag’ after an afternoon’s partridge shooting in Hampshire.

Estimates of the dead that day vary between 379 and 1000, the lower figure, naturally, being that provided by the British. The dead included over 40 children and a 6 week old baby. These little ones must have been clearly visible to Dyer, who saw only troublesome savages who needed to be dealt with.

There is a good deal of Dyer in my character Lochdubh in Major Tom’s War. To understand how a mindset such as this takes shape from childhood onwards in a man of this era, I urge you to read the chapter which covers Lochdubh’s early years. I have known people like this. They are damaged by their upbringing and their education, leaving them with a deluded self belief in their superiority because of their parentage and upbringing or their wealth and influence.

The monument to this breathtaking atrocity is a towering sandstone shard. Yesterday, when I visited, everything around it was a desolation of broken concrete as major renovations take place. This damaged landscape felt appropriate as I picked my way across to the base, watching where I trod. And through the thick dust and shattered blocks skipped children, hundreds of them, sparkling in their festival finery. One of them was tugging on a kite string and I stood and watched the white paper triangle flit and whirl against an innocent sky.

Jallianwala Bagh is tucked around the corner from the Pool of Nectar and Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Sikh Holy of Holies, which compounds Dyer’s crime. Many families visit both sites on the same day in an atmosphere of festival fun. Many would have been doing just that on 13 April 1919 as they paused to listen to the speakers.

Curious about the solitary, solemn, female Britisher, happy smiling Indian families asked me to pose with them for a selfie in front of that pitted wall. Do they fully understand its significance? I stood and smiled for them in that hellish place, then fled, feeling sick.

A large statue towers over the grim exit alleyway, that of the man who tracked down and executed Michael O’Dwyer, Governor of Punjab, who imposed martial law – but then failed to publicise it – for those three brief and bloody months in 1919.

Udham Singh stalked O’Dwyer right into the Second World War, assassinating him in 1940: all history connects, but we only study the ‘best bits’ which put Britain in the best light, disconnected history in sanitised bubbles. At his trial Udham Singh took on the name Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, which protested the colonial mistreatment of the Sikh, Hindu and Moslem faiths of Punjab. He had had many years with which to plan the execution and his trial.

They still hanged him, of course.

I had to smile and smile for selfies in front of Udham Singh’s statue too.

There is only one possible way to interpret the kind of carnage which occurred at Jallianwala Bagh and that is to use (sparingly) only the accounts of eyewitnesses to the event, both survivors and the Indian Army troops and their officers. I hope this is what they will do there. Anything else risks being spun in one political direction or another and Amritsar has had enough of spin.

The Partition Museum next door makes a sobering pair to Jallianwala Bagh. The two are intimately connected, as Dyer’s actions that day caused the independence movement to consolidate and gain momentum. Quite rightly, no photographs are permitted inside.

I am a storyteller, not a historian. When I try to understand the Partition of India (i.e. the division of India into a smaller India and a new Muslim state, Pakistan, which would later itself divide into Pakistan and Bangladesh) all I can see is evidence of yet more ghastly colonial blundering in a country we despoiled and then abandoned.

My Indian friends, army people in the main, try to be kind when I bring up the subject of Partition. They cite all the benefits of colonisation: education, infrastructure, democracy etc. And all these are real. Let us be clear on this, however: India would have had a future without being colonised by Britain (just as Scotland could have a future independent of her southern neighbour). Impossible now to predict what that future for India would have been, but it was a future nonetheless stolen by Britain, along with the last Maharajah of Punjab, the child Duleep Singh, and his sacred Koh-i-noor diamond.

All the leaders involved in the negotiations – Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten – knew that carnage would ensue in the chaotic aftermath of Partition – and yet they did nothing to prevent it. Eager to ‘get Partition done’ (which has uncomfortable resonance for British politics today) the task was rushed and the impact of the poor decisions made was catastrophic. Rather than allowing time to draw the Partition boundary carefully, Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer, was given inadequate, outdated maps and just five weeks to complete the task. He knew it would be a botched job and afterwards refused his fee, the only honourable act in the whole sorry tale. He fled to England to avoid being murdered in the bloodbath which he, and all of them, knew would follow Partition.

What happened next amounted to the most breathtaking piece of spin of all. Mountbatten and the other leaders opted to delay the announcement of the exact line of the border until after the Independence Day celebrations on 15 August 1947 (so two years too late to be taught alongside WWII – that murky underbelly of war again). This act sought to reduce the very clear responsibility Britain had and for what was to come – and to a degree succeeds to this day.

A few days later after the joy of celebrating freedom has subsided, the border route was announced. Among other brutal political decisions taken, it divided the most powerful Indian state of Punjab into two and separated it from its capital Lahore. This started a mass migration unparalleled in human history for its horror, as Sikhs and Hindus fled south and Muslims, north. People were raped and mutilated and murdered as each heaped blame on the other. Millions died or were displaced. And what do we know about this through the history taught in British schools? Nothing.

One story haunts me still. An exhausted woman walking south handed her heavy toddler to another woman to carry and took her baby in exchange for a moment or two instead. That stranger then vanished, abandoning the precious toddler somewhere. The mother noticed too late and could not find her child but kept the stranger’s baby safe. She survived – but hunted for her own little girl until the day she died.

Governments have a poor track record in terms of apology for atrocity. There can be no more ‘Great’ in Britain as far as I am concerned. Not after this enlightening, sobering and heartbreaking day in Amritsar. We are just another country. And this Britisher, for what it is worth, is deeply sorry.

This overwhelming museum uses powerful eyewitness accounts like this one to good effect. I have walked around Holocaust museums horrified yet dry-eyed. In this museum, where I spent three hours listening to the witnesses, I sobbed. Why the difference? My grandfather Tom’s genes, perhaps. He loved India, was born there. I can feel his hands clenched on The Times as he reads its watered-down accounts of the barbarism unleashed, knowing full well what the reality would be. It is no coincidence, I believe, that Tom died just a few years after Partition. It would have broken his heart.

Vee Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her grandfather Tom was born in India in 1876. She toured Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her unusual fact-based novel Major Tom’s War, now out in Kindle (launched on 13 December 2019 at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival) and in paperback. Major Tom’s War commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War. www.majortomswar.com

Author: veewalkerwrites

Hello new readers. If you enjoy my blog why not try my prizewinning novel of WWI, Major Tom's War? It's available as a revised and expanded second edition in paperback and on Kindle. You can order it via my lovely publisher Kashi House at www.kashihouse.com or from any good bookseller. Ask me nicely and I can send you a signed/dedicated copy for just £12 including UK postage and packing 🙏🌹

9 thoughts on “A Britisher in Amritsar”

  1. Incredibly moving words! Thank you for shining a light on the deceit and hippocracy of the history writers who glorified the actions of the British in India.
    I firmly believe in “Satyamev jayate” – truth shall prevail, but it needs defiant actions and words like yours to overcome the widespread falsehoods that masquerade as the truth.
    Gagan Sandhu .
    Depinder’s sister.


    1. Gagan, I somehow missed your very kind comment. Thank you so much. Meeting the Sandhu family was such a good part of my amazing journey. I so hope to come back one day – am currently four chapters into my next book, set in England, Canada, Australia, Assam, Punjab – and possibly Afghanistan.


  2. Nothing to be thankful pl as we are grateful to you!Incidentally we also visited Ja
    lliawala bagh ,Amritsar in Dec 2019 and were saddened by recalling the incident some 100yrs ago! I will request you to Kindly go through my blog on Amritsar if you find some time on the site-Travel and share!I will appreciate it 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Vee Walker for throwing light on the Jallianwala bagh massacre so very truthfully! The truth prevails finally and it is for everyone to accept it to prevent any recurrences of such inhuman acts against our fellow brothers & sisters!

    Liked by 1 person

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