20 February 2013


The Amritsar massacre of 1919 is rightly remembered as one of the great outrages of the British empire in its twilight years. Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the local British army commander in the northern Indian city, nervous that the natives were restless and thinking they needed to be taught a lesson, ordered his troops to fire live rounds from rifles and machine guns into an exuberant but unthreatening crowd celebrating a Sikh festival. By the time Dyer’s men had exhausted their ammunition, at least 400 and perhaps as many as 1,000 of the revellers had been shot dead, with thousands seriously wounded.

It was not the only crime of empire or even the greatest – but it was the most brutal and public of the immediate post-first-world-war years, and the news of it, transmitted through the mass-circulation press, horrified Indian and most informed British opinion (to say nothing of the anti-imperialist Americans). Not so the British government, then a Conservative-Liberal coalition led by David Lloyd George, which procrastinated while inquiries and disciplinary procedures dragged on, eventually, more than a year afterwards, when it had no other option, putting up Winston Churchill, the most right-wing Liberal of the day, to explain in the Commons that it had decided that the massacre was a bad thing.

He did so reluctantly but well, against the protests of the Tories and their supporters in the press: it was the only time in the interwar years that Churchill did not take the most reactionary line available on India. The diehard Tory Morning Post, lately distinguished by publishing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as documentary evidence of the conspiracy behind Bolshevism, put the hat round after Dyer was disciplined to make sure he had a bounty when he got home, and Dyer remained a hero of the diehards until his death in 1927. Rudyard Kipling, who was of course much more than a diehard, said that Dyer had saved India.

In the circumstances, I think that anyone associated with the Tory party should be grovelling whenever they go to India. “I renounce my party’s despicable history, its tame press and the horrors of British imperialism” was not, however, the message that David Cameron gave when he sort-of apologised (by saying that it was rather awful but Churchill had said sorry already) this week.

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