Created: 09 April 2019
That this House has considered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for two reasons, Mr Hanson. First, I have not served under your chairmanship before and secondly, as I will allude to later on, you and I have shared some of the memories of this terrible event.
It is worth remembering what happened 100 years ago—in fact, it began 100 years ago today. Amritsar is a holy city that is immensely crammed, as it was 100 years ago. It is a place where people live on top of one another. Thousands had gathered at the Bagh in the days before 13 April 1919. British Army officers greatly feared an uprising in or around May, which is when the Army changed its positions for the summer months in India.
On 10 April, a protest took place at the home of the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, calling for the release of two independence movement leaders. The protests spilled over, protestors were shot and some were killed. Bear in mind that this is three days before the massacre itself. That sparked rioting, during which British banks and people were targeted and British lives were lost. On 11 April, a British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was attacked and left for dead when cycling home. She was saved by local Indian men who recognised her from the school.
Between 11 and 13 April, civil disobedience and protest rang out across the Punjab. By 13 April, the Army had implemented martial law, and the measures included the prohibition of mass assembly. Any gathering of more than four people could be dispersed by the military. On 13 April, 100 years ago, approximately 15,000 people were gathered in the square. It was a common meeting place for people of all religions. They were not just people of the Sikh faith; there were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, present to celebrate and coincide with the Sikh new year festival of Baisakhi. They were gathered in the square. The crowd was peaceful and unarmed. The location, date and time had been set the day before so citizens could register discontent with the political situation, but on a peaceful basis.
On the morning of the massacre, General Dyer had paraded his troops, flexing his power and authority. With martial law on its side, the Army knew it could break up any large groups. However, the scale of the gathering exceeded the Army’s expectation and it was outnumbered by an astonishing margin. The square where the gathering took place is approximately 200 yards by 200 yards. It is surrounded by high walls and has a deep pit in the space. Those present were hemmed in with no shelter and no means of escape.
On the day, the reports say that the massacre took place with 50 Sikhs and Gurkhas under General Dyer’s command. They shot 33 rounds each; a total of 1,650 rounds. The official estimate was that 379 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured. The reality was that the crowd was so dense that one bullet would kill three, four or even five people as it passed through them. The death toll is therefore believed to be far higher, with more than 1,000 people killed and many thousands injured.
I am sure colleagues will want to relay stories about the massacre. I will talk also about my personal experience, having been to the site. We have to remember this was 100 years ago, when there was no 24/7 news coverage and no mobile phones to take pictures of what had happened and the atrocity that had occurred. It took the British Government until October 1919 to open an inquiry under the direction of the then Home Secretary, Edwin Montagu, led by Lord William Hunter. The inquiry became known as the Hunter Commission, after the Government of India had originally called it the disorders inquiry—talk about an inapt name. The inquiry called witnesses from across the region, which spanned what is now Pakistan, as well as India. At the time, and importantly, those questioned were not put under oath when giving their evidence. In November, after the key eye witness accounts had been taken, General Dyer himself was called to give evidence. For reasons unknown to us—or to anyone—he refused legal counsel or advocacy and represented himself. Almost immediately, he made trouble for himself. Reports of the inquiry suggest that:
“Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’”
That is a particular view.
The report published by the commission found, in summary, that notice to disperse was not issued to the crowd at all, which should have been done by the Army, under its normal terms of engagement, and that Dyer had exceeded his authority—note that he was, temporarily, a brigadier, was really not qualified and had had his own uniform made in his own guise. It also deemed that the time for which the shooting went on, for 1,650 rounds, was an error, although I think that “an absolute atrocity” would be an accurate perspective. The inquiry found no evidence that supported the Army’s theory that a conspiracy was in motion to overthrow British rule in the Punjab.
There have been various different visits to the region since. Her Majesty the Queen visited in 1961, 1983 and 1997. Up until 1997 she made no comment, but in that visit she said in her speech:
“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past—Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”
I think that if Her Majesty the Queen had made that speech later, she would have used different words.
Asquith, leader of the Liberals and a former Prime Minister, said it was
“one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”,
and I agree with him. Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for Air at the time, said:
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1729.]
If they had had more ammunition, they would probably have carried on shooting.
General Dyer commented—though I cannot give the date—that,
“I did not know the city very well. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more especially throughout the Punjab…I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed.”
That he shot people in such a fashion condemns him out of his own mouth.
He then apparently commented to women at the consulate that evening:
“I’m for the high jump but I saved you women and children.”
No one was under threat. It was a peaceful religious gathering, and we should hang our heads in shame at what was done in the name of Britain.
General Dyer went on to receive a hero’s funeral. He gave the order to shoot, and in my judgment, having read about this topic, he was unfit to hold the position he held. He showed no remorse at any stage for the deaths he had caused, or the damage he had done to the Indian people and to India-UK relations. He remarked to his underlings at the height of the firing:
“Do you think they’ve had enough? No, we’ll give them four rounds more.”
That was outrageous. In spite of that, General Dyer was vigorously defended by—I say this with shame—the Conservative party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise. However, during debate in the Commons, Asquith made his appropriate comments.
At the time of the massacre, O’Dwyer was the lieutenant general of Punjab, and it was understood that General Dyer was his man in the military. Dyer did his bidding and followed his orders closely. A theory has been repeatedly floated that O’Dwyer approved the order to open fire, and was the chief architect of the plan. O’Dwyer, like many of his ilk, was paranoid about a plot to overthrow British rule in the region. The regional British rulers were convinced that the increasingly popular independence movement would involve violence against Brits on a large scale, and would lead to humiliation for the empire—note that the commission found that suspicion without merit and completely untrue.
In March 1940, O’Dwyer was shot by Udham Singh outside a Westminster venue. Singh had been at Amritsar that fateful day, and the story goes that he himself had been shot and wounded. That led to a life of activism that resulted in him fatally shooting the man who, alongside Dyer, many in the Raj held responsible for the massacre. Udham Singh was hanged for taking his revenge.
You and I visited the site of the massacre in August 2016, Mr Hanson, and prior to seeing it at first hand, I expressed ignorance about what had happened there. Nothing can prepare people for seeing the site and imagining what it must have been like for the 15,000 people trapped within that arena—literally in a shooting gallery—by the soldiers who were present. The atmosphere must have been incredible; it must have been horrendous for the people who suffered that massacre. Remember, not only were they shot: some threw themselves down the well to try to escape the bullets, and many were crushed to death while trying to get down that well and out of the troops’ firing line.
Mr Hanson, we saw at first hand the museum that is being created on the site of the massacre, and the fact that India will never forget. We owe it to the victims and their families to never forget what happened in our name. I hope that there will be an apology from the British Government, not just an acceptance of a terrible crime. When the Minister replies, I look forward to him not explaining away what happened, but apologising for our involvement and for what was done in our name. That would be a start; it would clear the air. Equally, I hope that Ministers will go to commemorative events in India: one is to be held later this month, but I particularly hope that Ministers will attend in July, when I understand the museum will be formally opened.
Those who follow these things will know that I have asked for an apology before. I signed two early-day motions—413 in October 2017 and 1868 in November 2018—and last night I tabled another one, 2281, calling on the British Government to apologise and to attend the commemorative events. I encourage colleagues from across the House to sign that early-day motion to demonstrate our cross-party support.