(Written by Kamalpreet Kaur)
Every time the British government tries to dodge the issue of a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, life of one man, whose actions have caused so much grief across continents, comes back into sharp focus. Between the titles “Butcher of Amritsar” and “Saviour of Punjab”, Colonel Reginald Harry Edward Dyer remains to date, the most divisive figure of the massacre of April 13, 1919.
Apparently, the extremely divergent views over his action on that fateful day left him an embittered man. Speaking to a reporter after his “voluntary resignation”, he said, “And now, I am told to go for doing my duty – my horrible, dirty duty.” Earlier, he had told the Hunter Commission, probing the massacre, “I did not like the idea of doing it. it was a merciful though horrible act.”
Hundred years on, his great-granddaughter mouths the same lines. Dyer, she says, was a great man who was simply misunderstood. She said she was convinced that there was no need of an apology and that her great grandfather was only doing his duty as a soldier.
Jallianwala is a huge blot on an otherwise decorated service career of Dyer, often referred to as General Dyer. Born in Murree in Pakistan in 1854, Dyer studied at Bishop Cotton School in Shimla until 11. Called Rex, he was called “a wild Indian” by locals when he was sent to Ireland for higher studies.
Interestingly, there was no immediate reprimand for Dyer’s conduct at Amritsar and on the contrary, he was on May 8, 1919, sent on active service in command of a brigade on the (Afghanistan) frontier, and was even congratulated by the Commander in Chief.
Meanwhile, after the clamour for action against him post-Hunter Commission report grew, Lord Montagu, the then secretary for India who chaired the cabinet committee on India Disturbances, sought his removal from the Army. An unwell Dyer was sent back to Britain in April 1920.
However, not all thought ill of him. According to one of Dyer’s biographers, Nigel Collett, who wrote “The Butcher of Amritsar”, “NCOs from all units in Jullundur (Jalandhar) — without an order— on April 6, came together to give a warm send off to the officer they respected”, in spite of the treatment he had been meted by the Government of India. “We trust Sir, that you will understand that we, who would have suffered most had the outbreak spread, are not unmindful of what we owe you,” Collett quotes an English woman, who spoke on behalf of 100 English ladies in Punjab, during her farewell speech at the Jalandhar railway station.
In “Amritsar: The massacre that ended the Raj” by Alfred Draper, Dyer’s bodyguard Sergeant William Anderson narrated how the officer ordered the kneeling soldiers to direct their fire at spots where the crowd was most dense.
When Dyer and his wife Annie Dyer landed in England in the spring of 1920, they were caught in a quandary his actions in Amritsar had left the British government and the Army Council in. An interesting discussion in the British Parliament on May 6, 1920, goes to show how Dyer had become part of the media and political narrative of Britain.
Bishop Auckland MP Benjamin Spoor (by private notice) asked the secretary of State for India whether “his attention has been called to an interview alleged to have been given by General Dyer to a press representative, in which the statement is made that General Dyer has been requested to resign his appointment; whether this statement is correct, and, if so, whether this action on the part of the Government is consequent upon their consideration of the Hunter Committee’s Report?”
Montagu responded, “I am informed that the Commander-in-Chief directed General Dyer to resign his appointment as Brigade Commander in India. The whole matter is now engaging the consideration of His Majesty’s Government. I hope that full documents will be available to Parliament within the next fortnight”.
As the parliamentarians on both side of the Dyer debate raised their points with great fervor, the man in question approached War Office to not only submit his response to the Hunter Commission but also requesting to be allowed to keep his rank.
There is a record of a protracted communication that went on in government departments regarding the matter. In November 1921, the Secretary of State For War prepared the memorandum for the Cabinet.
“… the Army Council have, after very careful and repeated consideration of all the circumstances, definitely decided to recommend that the honorary rank of Brigadier General should be granted.
The gazette notice was deferred, however, as a result of private representation from the Viceroy, who telegraphed in May that he would prefer the announcement postponed.
The Army Council, however, disagreed and said that since the officer is known in India as General Dyer, the grant of the rank of Brigadier General could not cause disturbance in the country.
Collett says, “The scene was set for a bruising confrontation in Cabinet, but at the last minute Montagu was saved the effort of fighting his corner. On November 10, General Sir Claude Jacob, the chief of general staff in India, who was in London, called upon the War Office and discussed Dyer…Jacob was firmly of the view that Dyer should not be granted the honorary rank due to the forthcoming visit to India of the Prince of Wales and the effect that this news might have on his visit.”
Dyer hit headlines again in 1924, when Sir Michael O’Dwyer sued Sir C Sankaran Nair for libel in the court of Mr Justice McCardie in the King’s Bench division on April 30. The five-week long trial saw over a 100 witnesses testify but not Dyer. While summing up the case, the records of which are available with the National Archives, Justice McCardie said: “I express my view that Dyer, under the grave and exceptional circumstances, acted rightly, and in my opinion, upon his evidence, he was wrongly punished by the Secretary of State for India.”
The events at the court room found their way into the House of Commons too. On July 28, 1924, Melton MP C Yate suggested a humble address be presented to His Majesty praying that this judicial opinion be accepted, and that “His Majesty will be graciously pleased to revoke the censure passed upon Dyer after the incomplete executive investigation in 1920.”
O’Dwyer wrote to the Dyers about the outcome of the case, but if it eased his troubled soul was anybody’s guess.
If Dyer was at unease, so are the historians about how to describe him for posterity.
“Dyer’s concept of his duty arose from his fears. He had killed, and forever believed he was justified in killing, to allay them,” says Nigel Collet.
Dr Nick Lloyd, the author of “The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day”, who is also a Reader in Military and Imperial History at King’s College, London, says, “Dyer was a brave, but limited soldier. He went to the Bagh on April 13, 1919 with no clear plan and a lack of intelligence. Once inside the garden, he panicked and fired upon the crowd. Afterwards, he lied about his motivations and argued that his actions were premeditated (when they probably were not)”.
Meanwhile, Dr Eleanor Newbigin, senior lecturer in colonial and post colonial South Asian history at School of Asian Studies (SOAS) University of London, says, “What Dyer did was monstrous. However, he did not act in a vacuum. The political atmosphere of the Imperial rule which allowed officers like him to flourish was equally responsible for it. An apology should come from the government and more and more young people need to know this history so that our future learns from it.”
CEO of Sikh Museum in Derby, Gurmel Singh says, “The Amritsar Massacre on Baisakhi day 1919 was a grave error of judgment on the part of both the then Governor of Panjab Sir Michael O’Dwyer and Dyer. Whilst the regime of the time and sections of the British society exonerated them both for the crime, Punjabis to this day hold them entirely responsible. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre we remember those who lost their lives with sadness, and Shaheed Sardar Udam Singh with honour. And one is left wondering why the soldiers didn’t refuse to carry the order to kill unarmed civilians?”
(Kamalpreet Kaur is a London-based writer and broadcaster)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines