British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British military action known as the Amritsar Massacre or the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was so atrocious that it can be singled out as the event that did the most to spur the Indian independence movement.

Summary of Event

Historian Alfred Draper titled one of his books Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj. The book’s subtitle is correct, for it was this incident that galvanized Indian sentiment to terminate British rule (the raj) in India. Britain had ruled India for two hundred years, and India was considered the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. Under British rule, Indians had viewed the world through British spectacles. For the average Indian, there were two major powers in the world: Great Britain and Russia. Other European powers, except for Germany, a trading partner, were not relevant, nor was the United States. Massacres;Amritsar Amritsar Massacre (1919) Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919) India;Amritsar Massacre [kw]British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar (Apr. 13, 1919) [kw]Massacre Indians at Amritsar, British Soldiers (Apr. 13, 1919) [kw]Indians at Amritsar, British Soldiers Massacre (Apr. 13, 1919) [kw]Amritsar, British Soldiers Massacre Indians at (Apr. 13, 1919) Massacres;Amritsar Amritsar Massacre (1919) Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919) India;Amritsar Massacre [g]India;Apr. 13, 1919: British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar[04720] [g]South Asia;Apr. 13, 1919: British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar[04720] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr. 13, 1919: British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar[04720] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Apr. 13, 1919: British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar[04720] [c]Independence movements;Apr. 13, 1919: British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar[04720] Dyer, Reginald Edward Harry O’Dwyer, Sir Michael Kitchlew, Saif ud-Din Satyapal, Dr.

In spite of this worldview, disenchantment had developed among Indians by the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1857, the Indian Mutiny Indian Mutiny (1857) had exposed the exploitation of British rule, and Indian society was combating philosophical and religious encroachment from the West. Revitalization movements developed to counter Christian and Western ideas. One reaction was the elimination of the Brahmo Samaj Brahmo Samaj movement, which had combined Christian doctrine and practices with Hindu philosophy. This was replaced by the Arya Samaj, Arya Samaj or Society of the Aryan People, which not only emphasized a return to Aryan foundations but also included personal relationships that were merged with Hindu traditions to develop a sense of superiority.

Events after World War I, however, altered the British-centric view held by Indians. The change was so rapid that within three months after the war, British prime minister H. H. Asquith stated that Indian questions would have to be approached from a new angle. Events in the world contributed to the loss of awe for British power. Stirrings of nationalism in Asia and the defeat of Russia by the Japanese showed that Europeans were not invincible. The Russian Revolution resulted in the collapse of a great reactionary power and of prewar ideas of world political relations. Also, the emergence of the United States and President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points emphasized rights rather than the British idea of concessions.

The changes were not merely in attitudes or worldview. An educated leadership had emerged in India, many of whose members had attended university in London and had been influenced by the political philosophies of John Locke and Karl Marx. It was these men, who included Jawaharlal Nehru, who would later provide political leadership to the country. More immediate, however, were the treatment of and attitudes toward the British after the war. At the outset of World War I, the Indian people displayed an outburst of loyalty to the British, but this feeling diminished after the Allied victory.

A social gap had always existed between the British and the Indians, and this gap increased as changes took place in the personnel who made up the Indian Civil Service Indian Civil Service (ICS). The old component of the ICS had stayed on during the war, while younger people had served in the military, with the result that by the end of the war, India was ruled by an old and tired bureaucracy. Furthermore, the Indian Civil Service lacked the ability it had in early years; it lost its prestige, and the quality of its recruits decreased. Those in the ICS saw themselves as rulers of an inferior people and perceived themselves as fulfilling the “white man’s burden” by administering to incompetent heathens.

The Indian contribution to World War I, World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];India especially from the Sikhs Sikh soldiers, World War I of Punjab, had been enormous. Sixty thousand men had been recruited from Patiala, and Sikh soldiers had fought on all fronts. Fourteen of the twenty-two military crosses awarded for gallantry during the war went to Sikhs. Nevertheless, British police and local officials treated the Sikhs like rustics. When Sikhs faced discrimination in Canada and the United States, the British government did not come to their aid. Tales of discrimination and humiliation meted out to Sikh soldiers in Canada and California filtered back to villages in Punjab, and the Indians came to believe they had been betrayed by their British rulers. In spite of the sacrifices and support they had given to the Allied cause in the war, they did not receive promised reforms.

Dissatisfaction became rampant among the Indian overseas community in Canada and the United States. As a result, the Ghadr Party was formed in North America. The party sent money and fighters to spark an uprising in India. Although the uprising did not materialize, the group’s activities were worrisome for the British administrators. In 1919, the harvest in Punjab was poor, land prices were high, productivity in the canal colonies decreased, and the cost of living rose. Not only were general economic conditions worsening, but the oppressive Rowlatt Acts Rowlatt Acts (1919) were introduced in February of 1919 and passed in March.

The Rowlatt Acts were two laws that empowered police to arrest and search people without warrants and empowered the government both to detain suspects without bringing them to trial and to try people before special courts with neither juries nor rights of appeal. Interestingly, wild stories spread about what the laws allowed authorities to do. It was said that the laws enabled a policeman who coveted a man’s wife to get the husband out of the way, that a bride and bridegroom had to be inspected by a British doctor before they could get married, and that the family of someone getting married would have to pay the government a sum of money equal to that spent on the wedding. The uneducated masses believed these rumors. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an Indian politician who resigned from his post in protest, stated in his letter of resignation, “In my opinion a government that passes such a bill in times of peace forfeits the claim to be called a civilized government.”

The passage of the Rowlatt Acts energized the independence movement. At that time, Sir Michael O’Dwyer was the British lieutenant governor of Punjab. O’Dwyer was a brilliant academic and a good sportsman who had entered the ICS full of confidence and imbued with the conviction that the British had the divine right to rule India. Pugnacious and outspoken, he openly expressed his disdain for and distrust of educated Indians, who in turn came to detest and distrust him. Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer came from a family with a long line of associations with India. His family had lived through the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the events were still in their memory, as was the fear of a fresh uprising. After graduating from Sandhurst, Dyer saw several military campaigns; he was a swashbuckling character who had done well in fights and brawls.

In April, 1919, O’Dwyer and Dyer were the principal British players in Punjab as Mahatma Gandhi Gandhi, Mahatma led Indian agitation against the Rowlatt Acts. In fact, it was the oppressiveness of the Rowlatt Acts and Gandhi’s agitation against it that propelled Gandhi from his role as an obscure politician into national prominence. Protests in Punjab were conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner until police actions caused problems in Amritsar. Peaceful demonstrations had been led by a Hindu and a Muslim in a show of unity that surprised the British. One leader was Saif ud-Din Kitchlew, a Kashmiri Muslim who had been at the University of Cambridge with Nehru. Kitchlew had a Ph.D. from Münster University and was considered pro-German. He was an eloquent speaker and supported home rule for India. The Hindu leader, Dr. Satyapal, was a medical doctor from a middle-class family and a progressive nationalist who believed that Indians should gain political freedom through peaceful and constitutional means. Although reserved, he was a good orator.

When the police arrested Kitchlew and Satyapal and whisked them away to Dharamsala, the news of their capture spread throughout the city, and crowds protested the action. The mob got out of hand, and in trying to disperse the crowd, the police killed six people and wounded more than thirty. As a result, the mob assaulted non-Indians and set fire to English-owned banks, a church, and other establishments. Marcia Sherwood, Sherwood, Marcia an Englishwoman and doctor who had spent fifteen years helping the people of Amritsar, was caught in the mob and beaten. This event resulted later in General Dyer’s infamous “crawl order,” which required every Indian passing the spot where Sherwood had been assaulted to crawl along the street. Three British soldiers were stationed on the spot to enforce the order.

On April 12, 1919, when Dyer arrived in Amritsar from Jullundur with troops and armored cars, he was greeted in the bazaar by crowds shouting anti-British slogans. When he received information that telegraph cables had been cut and railroad tracks had been tampered with, he declared a state of emergency, which made all meetings among Indians illegal. The local Congress party had already called a meeting for April 13 at the Jallianwala Bagh (an area that served as Amritsar’s public square) for the Baisakhi fair, and Sikhs were there to celebrate the birth anniversary of their Khalsa, the Sikh soldier-saint brotherhood. Many were unsuspecting villagers who came from outlying areas and were not aware of the events that had preceded their arrival at Amritsar. Dyer believed it was best to use quick and strong force on such occasions, so when he heard of the meeting at the Jallianwala Bagh, he marched troops to the scene.

The Jallianwala Bagh was a walled-in area of seven hundred by four hundred feet; it had only one entrance, a passage about seven and one-half feet wide. A large crowd of people had gathered within the walls; estimates of its size range from fifteen thousand to fifty thousand. A meeting was going on, and pictures of Kitchlew were prominently displayed. Speeches and poetry were read, and the group passed a resolution calling for Kitchlew’s release. At around 5:15 p.m., troops under Dyer’s command surrounded the gathering. Seeing the soldiers, people rose to leave, but Hans Raj, a revolutionary leader, urged them to remain, arguing that the government would never fire on them.

Hans Raj was wrong. Dyer ordered the soldiers to shoot, and they fired a volley of shots into the crowd. Hans Raj was still encouraging people to stay; he was shouting that the bullets were “only blanks” when he fell. As people in the crowd fell dead and wounded, others made desperate attempts to escape, but they were trapped by the high wall surrounding the area. The only exit was blocked by soldiers firing at them. Some climbed into a well in which they later drowned. Dyer ordered the soldiers to continue firing and to aim where the crowd was the most dense. There was no escape. In all, the soldiers fired some 1,650 rounds into the crowd, killing 379 and wounding more than 2,000. Cries of agony could be heard long into the night as the wounded lay dying among the corpses. It was not until the next day that Dyer allowed anyone to help the wounded and attend to the dead.


Following the massacre, the British introduced repressive measures that came to be known as “Dyerarchy,” in reference to the lawlessness of the British administrators. These measures did not impose excessive physical pain or loss of money on the Indians; rather, they served to humiliate. An Indian meeting a white person was required to bow. Electricity was cut off in the Indian quarters, and a rigid curfew and other restrictive measures made normal existence impossible for the Indians. In the meantime, police had the power to round up suspects at will and seemed motivated to obtain convictions at any cost. Indians were flogged without trial, and bicycles, carts, and vehicles not owned by Europeans were confiscated. The courts tried three hundred men, summarily sentencing fifty-one to death and others to imprisonment. Lahore, Kasur, Gujranwala, and most of Punjab suffered under martial law. In seven weeks, twelve hundred Indians were killed and thirty-six hundred were wounded.

Public opinion was divided: The British community stood behind Dyer, and Indians were confused over what they saw as a change in British justice and administration. On April 19, when Dyer saw Sherwood in the hospital, in pain and her life in the balance, he was outraged and issued the infamous crawl order. The summary court decisions that followed destroyed the little faith many Indians had left in British fairness. Punjabis were confused, for they had believed that the British, in spite of their faults, ruled with a semblance of fairness, yet they had witnessed the opposite. The punishments meted out to Indians were not countered by higher British officials, and this surprised and bothered many Indians, especially those in the middle and upper classes who had grown up with a respect for English justice and fair dealings.

Further publicity followed when Satyapal and Kitchlew were tried for revolutionary plotting against the British. The trial did much to destroy British credibility and galvanized public opinion against Dyer’s and O’Dwyer’s actions. Nobel Prize winner Sir Rabindranath Tagore wrote to the British viceroy and relinquished his knighthood, and Mahatma Gandhi returned medals he had received in honor of service to the British. The events aroused little interest in Britain, but in India they exposed to the Indian people the racist attitudes of the British.

The Hunter Committee, composed of both English and Indian members, was formed to investigate the disturbances in Punjab, and during his testimony before the committee, Dyer displayed a callous attitude. After the hearings, on a train journey to Jullundur, Dyer talked freely about teaching the “bloody browns a lesson.” He did not know that the man in the bunk above his was Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru, Jawaharlal who was educated at Harrow and Cambridge and was the future prime minister of India. Nehru was appalled by Dyer’s callousness, and his previous admiration for the British changed to animosity. Dyer was censured by the committee and subsequently relieved of his command.

The matter of Dyer’s actions in India was debated in the British House of Lords and the House of Commons. Dyer was censured by the House of Commons but vindicated by the House of Lords, a finding that had an adverse effect on British-Indian relations. In the meantime, O’Dwyer continued to proclaim his and Dyer’s innocence. Eventually the matter went to court, and O’Dwyer came out victorious. Dyer had been in poor health during much of his time in India, and he died on July 23, 1927. A Sikh by the name of Udham Singh Udham Singh assassinated O’Dwyer on March 13, 1940. For this action, Udham Singh became a hero among the Sikhs.

Among the many results of the Amritsar Massacre was Gandhi’s rise to national prominence. Gandhi inspired many Indians to fight the British when he visited Punjab and encouraged patriots to be nirbhai (fearless). He was also instrumental in the decline of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, a group that espoused Western ways, and in the creation of the Central Sikh League, Central Sikh League a group more aligned with revolutionary ideology.

Tensions between the British and the Indians increased following the massacre. The British feared the Indians and looked on their actions with suspicion, as they had after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when the British almost lost India in an uprising of Indian soldiers. From the Indian point of view, the myth of British fairness and honor was destroyed. Even Indians who had previously been loyal to the British Empire suffered and were victimized by O’Dwyer, who claimed that he had saved the Empire when in fact he had alienated some of its most loyal supporters, especially the Sikhs, who had been crucial in maintaining British rule in India. Massacres;Amritsar Amritsar Massacre (1919) Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919) India;Amritsar Massacre

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colvin, Ian. The Life of General Dyer. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1931. Biography provides good insight into Dyer’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Draper, Alfred. Amritsar: The Massacre That Ended the Raj. 1981. Reprint. London: Ashford, Buchan and Enright, 1990. Provides a well-researched and detailed account of the massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kulke, Hermann, and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Comprehensive history of India since ancient times. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the period of British rule, including the Amritsar Massacre and the Indian struggle for independence. Features illustrations, glossary of Indian terms, chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singh, Khushwant. The Illustrated History of the Sikhs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Authoritative account of Sikh history provides an excellent summary of the Amritsar Massacre and subsequent events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spear, Percival. “The First World War and the Great Leap Forward.” In A History of India. Vol 2. 1965. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Chapter within an excellent history of India during the modern period provides a good context for understanding the massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tinker, Hugh. “The Rise of Modern Social, Religious, and Political Movements.” In South Asia: A Short History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. Offers an excellent explanation of the cultural conflict faced by Indians as they dealt with Western dominance. Chapter appears in a volume widely recognized as one of the most authoritative accounts of South Asian history available.

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