Two basic questions arise from Dyer’s shooting in Jallianwala Bagh. The first, why did he shoot and the second, why did he shoot the way he did. Dyer confined himself to answering the second question, making only casual observations on the first, although the answer to the second question lies partly in the first. What was Dyer’s intention? Did he go to the Bagh and open fire merely because people had flouted his order banning meetings? The main difficulty in understanding his intentions arises from his inconsistent explanations (the Indian members of the Hunter Committee provoked him to make a number of conflicting statements) and the influence of the laudatory tone of the English press in India.
In his first report (14 April) to the General Staff Division, Dyer wrote, “I realized that my force was small and to hesitate might induce attack. I immediately opened fire and dispersed the crowd.” Dyer prepared this report immediately after the event when the entire episode must have been vividly clear in his mind, and his fear of being attacked was obviously considerable. He carried this argument further in his report to the General Staff 16th (Indian) Division on 25 August. He noted that “the crowd was so dense that if a determined rush had been made at any time, arms or no arms, my small force must instantly have been overpowered and consequently I was very careful of not giving the mob a chance of organising.”
In his statement to the Army Council, Dyer wrote that after he had opened fire, the crowd began to scatter to the various exits. After some firing two groups appeared to be collecting as though to rush us, and on my Brigade Major calling my attention to this I directed fire specially to the two points in question, and dispersed the groups. Briggs also gave the same version. After firing a few rounds the mob split up and two large subsidiary mobs gathered together into the opposite corners of the Bagh. It looked as if they were meaning to rush us. The General Officer Commanding therefore gave orders to direct fire on these two crowds. The mob gradually disappeared.
This, he must have felt, offered some justification for his continuing to fire even when the crowd was still dispersing. This second report omitted passages in the first emphasizing the gravity of the situation, yet before the Hunter Committee he had justified his action in terms of the moral effect it would have not only in Amritsar but all over Punjab. These contradictions would indicate either that he was unsure of his reason for firing or that there was some deeper underlying reason that he was attempting to conceal.
From his point of view, the strongest defence available to him would be to justify the shooting on the grounds of self-defence. To present his case in the most favourable light, we must visualize Dyer facing the dense crowd assembled in defiance of him in Jallianwala Bagh. This crowd is not innocent but hostile consisting of the same people who had committed outrages in the city on 10 April. It is not a “fortuitous meeting” but a planned affair with an organized mob assembled intent on defying authority. Dyer believes that the speakers making seditious harangues in the Bagh are criminal revolutionaries. He realizes that his force is small and that the military crisis has come at last. Dyer orders his soldiers to open fire, the crowd disperses, his force is saved and order is restored to the turbulent city.
Unfortunately, however, the matter is not as clear-cut as this. Dyer’s motives were more complex than a simple desire to preserve his force from destruction. When he appeared before the Hunter Committee, Lord Hunter asked him whether he could have dispersed the mob without firing. Dyer replied: I could have dispersed them for some time. Then they would all come back and laugh at me and I considered I would be making myself a fool.
To be laughed at! For Dyer, this meant he would suffer a great indignity: One which neither he nor the majority of his fellows could bear. George Orwell was well aware of this sensitivity: Every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at and in order to impress the natives he resorts to violence.
His fears of being made to appear a fool were, however, only a consequence of one of the choices available to him; and those choices appeared as the consequence of his authority being directly challenged. He was sure that the people assembled there were aware of the prohibitory order; he knew from his experience in India that orders and warnings of this character pass from mouth to mouth with lightning rapidity in an Indian city. There was a large number of villagers sitting in the Bagh whose presence made the situation sinister. He thought that if he delayed in order to give further warnings, his small force might be swept away and then what would happen to the city? There can be little doubt that he also feared that the European population, including the women and children, would be wiped out if he failed to act decisively.
It would appear then that his immediate object was to disperse the crowd in order to save himself and his force, and the city which for the last two days had been at the mercy of the mob. As one might expect Dyer did not, however, look upon Jallianwala Bagh as an isolated event but as an integral part of the Amritsar disturbances. Three days before, the city had been the scene of widespread violence-five European men had been murdered, a lady missionary left for dead in the street, banks looted and gutted and the post offices burnt. On 12 April, he had received the disturbing news of the cutting of the telegraph line near Harbanspura and the wrecking of Khemkaran. Dyer thought what happened in Jallianwala Bagh-the way he treated the mob, or the mob treated him-was bound to affect his position in the eyes of the people of Amritsar.
Besides the immediate issue of his force’s survival and the importance of Jallianwala Bagh in terms of Amritsar as a whole, Dyer had an additional perception. Wider considerations were also involved. He saw Amritsar against the background of the Punjab-a land which harboured the Ghadrites, large numbers of demobilized soldiers and a proud, brave people susceptible to easy provocation. His decision in Jallianwala Bagh was thus also influenced by his seeing Amritsar as a possible storm centre of rebellion. The Majha Sikhs, an intrepid, impulsive people, were rumoured to be threatening the town, the danda army was preparing to strike and villages had been drawn into the rebellion. Railway lines were being sabotaged, communications disrupted and there was the threat of an Afghan invasion. On top of all this, he had reason to believe that attempts were being made to turn his troops against him. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he thought there existed a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the British in India by force-a definite design and careful planning behind the events taking place. He determined, therefore, to take stern measures with the object of producing a widespread ‘moral’ effect all over the Punjab. He considered the Jallianwala Bagh shooting as absolutely necessary from the military point of view.
Was the situation as grave and exceptional as Dyer claimed it was? Was the crowd armed? No, as Churchill declared, it had no lethal weapons and there was no evidence for its intending to resort to violence. Dyer admitted that he could not say whether there were any sticks with the people. Was the crowd attacking?
Dyer was not being mobbed or hemmed in. Not a stone had been thrown at the soldiers then or during the two preceding days. The city had remained quiet on 11 and 12 April and no untoward incident had taken place to warrant any stern measure. The wrath of the mob appeared to have spent itself by the evening of the 10th. Irving’s order concerning the burial and burning of dead bodies as a result of the firing on 10 April had been obeyed. It would appear thus that Dyer’s plea of self-defence was unconvincing and an afterthought designed to strengthen his defence against the charge of aggression. Dyer said he personally directed fire where the numbers of those trying to escape were thickest. He singled out the “serried masses”.
A local doctor who attended many of the wounded said that most people received bullets in their backs, arms and legs. Dyer did not ask himself, “Am I killing more people than necessary?” As a military commander, he appeared to be concerned merely with the job at hand and that was to disperse the meeting. He felt he could not have dispersed it without firing. O’Dwyer said in his in camera evidence that Dyer could not have done so and if he had thought of doing so then he would be a very sanguine man. Even if it is accepted, however, that firing was necessary, it is apparent that controlled firing or the use of cavalry would have been sufficient. Equally, if Dyer was motivated by ideas of self-defence “for a few moments”, as Thompson says, only a limited number of shots should have been fired. Firing should not have continued for 10 minutes. Edward Thompson recorded an explanation he got from Irving of Dyer’s motive for firing: Dining with Mr Irving when five of us-Mr. Irving, Mr F G Puckle (Finance Secretary, Punjab Government), Sir Abdul Qadir, Mr. Schuyler (an American educational missionary) and myself-were together after dinner, I said to Mr. Irving, ‘I have been wanting to ask you a very improper question. What did General Dyer say to you after Jallianwala Bagh?” He replied, “Dyer came to me all dazed and shaken up and said, “I never knew that there was no way out.” He expressed that when the crowd did not scatter but held its ground he thought it was massing to attack him, so kept on firing. Mr Puckle now said that six months later General Dyer came through his station and dined with him, and told him, “I haven’t had a night’s sleep since that happened. I keep on seeing it all over again.” Dyer’’ telling Irving that he “never knew there was no way out’ does not mitigate his responsibility. While standing on the raised platform, he could see the whole Bagh and it is extraordinary that he should have had the impression that the Bagh had other exits.
Anyway, if the object was that the crowd should disperse then there was no justification for firing towards any other exits. A charitable explanation lies in the possibility that Dyer was unbalanced. Edward Thompson observed that “the Lytton Strachey of 1852 will find an absorbing psychological study ready to his hand” in the reason for Dyer’s firing, but Thompson wrote this mainly on the basis of Dyer’s remark to Puckle, “I haven’t had a night’s sleep since that happened.” Rupert Furneaux has taken a cue from Thompson and stated that Dyer was suffering from arteriosclerosis. When he stood before the crowd, the blood flowing to his brain became congested and he imagined that the crowd was massing to attack him. Furneaux adds that Dyer “may have misjudged the position, thinking that the two waves as they surged back were going to rush him”.
He was fearful that his force might be assailed from behind and he fired. This reasoning would provide for Dyer’s innocence in that he was not aware of what he was doing. Arteriosclerosis causes impaired memory, confused thinking, exaggerated emotional responses, delirium and fearful hallucinations. Furneaux’s explanation, though interesting, suffers from want of precise information on Dyer’s mental state in 1919 and thereafter. He gives no description of Dyer’s mental condition save that he suffered from this particular disease. Dyer’s biographer, Colvin, mentions that Dyer fell down from a horse ride in early 1917, and broke his limbs, and his “lower body was found to be one livid bruise”.
For months, he was unable to walk but he returned to active duty in 1918 after he had “bluffed” the Medical Board. In January 1920, Dyer fell seriously ill in Jullundur after active service on the frontier. He had gout in his head and suffered from pain. At nights he became delirious, but this might have been an effect of the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh (from his remark to Puckle, it obviously disturbed him deeply). His heart was also affected. By early January 1920, he was in a wretched state of health and applied for six months home leave. This was refused him and he was given temporary command of a division-a command which, however, he was unable to take up because he was considered medically unfit for duty.
After removal from active duties in March 1920, his health began to deteriorate ever more rapidly. In November 1921, he was stricken with paralysis and did not recover from it. On 23 July 1927, he died of arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. Towards the end of his life, Dyer was obviously a very sick man, but it would be difficult to say that at the time of Jallianwala Bagh massacre (when he was about fifty years old) he was definitely suffering from arteriosclerosis.
Jallianwala Bagh: A Ground breaking History of The 1919
Author: V N Datta
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 399
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House