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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

Gandhi and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and Beyond

Tuesday 23 April 2019


by Pravat Ranjan Sethi

Before the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh tragedy, Gandhi had not at all visited Punjab. The mass murder, however, changed him everlastingly. It transformed him from a British Empire loyalist to a relentless opponent of British rule. 

The first major national campaign organised by Mahatma Gandhi was in opposition to the Rowlatt Act, which harshly limited civil liberties. This movement began with an all-India hartal, observed on Sunday, April 6, 1919. Although he had once been an admirer of the British Empire, the political and social campaigner, Mahatma Gandhi, was moved to express his complete estrangement from ‘the present Government’ by the ‘wanton cruelty’ and ‘inhumanity’ shown by Dyer and others in the Punjab. Amritsar polarised British and Indian opinion and created a sore that still has the power to cause controversy and embarrassment over 60 years since British power in India finally came to an end. During a visit in 2005 the then British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, expressed his shame and sorrow for the ‘slaughter of innocents’ at Jallianwala Bagh.

The Amritsar massacre has become, in some ways, a necessary myth in Indian nationalism, providing legitimacy to those who would inherit the Raj, while at the same time undermining those attempts to portray British rule in a sympathetic and progressive light. It came with a stellar cast of heroes and villains, and a long list of ‘martyrs’ who, it was claimed, died to free India from imperial rule. Furthermore, it was not just the events in Amritsar that have become part of this story.

Since 1920 at least 14 books and a handful of articles have been written on the Amritsar massacre. The biographies of the key actors, from Brigadier General Dyer to Mahatma Gandhi, also discuss the incident at length. Although the factual details have generally been accepted, their interpretation has been fiercely contested and there has been extensive discussion on two main questions: why Dyer ordered the firing and whether he was justified in doing so. Views have been polarised, often reflecting the ideological position of the writer, with Indian nationalists criticising Dyer for his brutality, but those sympathetic to the Raj, such as Ian Colvin and Arthur Swinson, defending Dyer and claiming that by the firing he saved India from a repeat of 1857, and that his actions were necessary and justified. As is perhaps to be expected, most writers have taken a dim view of Dyer. Although disagreeing on his exact motives, all stress both the extreme violence of the shooting and the innocence of those at Jallianwala Bagh.

In 2005 Nigel Collett published The Butcher of Amritsar, the first biography of Dyer since 1929. Collett argued that understanding the massacre was dependent upon appreciating Dyer’s difficult and complex personality. He believed that Dyer ordered firing at Jallianwala Bagh ‘not because he was callous or bloodthirsty’, but because he interpreted the violence in Amritsar and the gathering of the assembly in the Bagh as a ‘challenge to his way of life and everything he thought it stood for’. He believed that he was facing a violent revolt, perhaps a repeat of 1857, and that he must fire to ‘save’ India and the European community.

On October 16, 1919 the Congress began to gather evidence for what would become the Report of the Commissioners appointed by the Punjab Sub-Committee of the Indian National Congress, which was published in two volumes on March 25, 1920. The Congress Inquiry aimed to give a ‘voice to the victims of the repression’ and was written by a team of investigators that included Gandhi. The fact that it was written mainly by Gandhi, who had played such an important role in mobilising popular feeling against the British, also calls into question its reliability. Although Gandhi defended the report, claiming that it was prepared ‘with a view to bringing out the truth and nothing but the truth’ and that there was not a single conscious exaggeration in it anywhere, this should be treated critically. The evidence gathered by both the Hunter Inquiry and the Indian National Congress, although limited in some respects, provides a mine of useful information and form the basis for any understanding of what occurred in 1919. They can be consulted alongside a wealth of other source material that is available on the disturbances, which is held at a variety of archives and libraries in both the United Kingdom and India. The India Office Collections in the British Library, London, holds much relevant material, including the papers of a variety of British officials, ranging from the Viceroy and Secretary of State for India, to minor members of the Indian Civil Service and Indian Army. Other collections are available in the Imperial War Museum and The National Archives in London. There is a mass of government reports and other official data available at the National Archives of India in New Delhi, and some subsidiary material in the Punjab State Archives in Chandigarh. It is hoped that by consulting a wider range of sources of previous histories of this period, a more reasoned and accurate portrayal of these important events can be written.

As time went by this approach would become, as Peter Robb has noted, ‘protected by precedent’. It would guide the Government of India through the first non-co-operation campaign of 1920—22 when the consistent desire to avoid making Gandhi a ‘martyr’ put great strain on the patience of many Europeans in India, who were anxious to deal strongly with any threat and who were contemptuous of the strained policies of Chelmsford’s successor, Lord Reading. A turning-point in the Raj was marked on August 20, 1917, which may not have immediately devolved power to local Indian elites, but it was only the beginning of a lengthy period of consultation. Montagu’s visit to India was a major part of this process.


So wrote Philip Mason in 1954, seven years after India had gained her freedom, in his widely read two-volume work, The Men Who Ruled India. His words were wistful, full of nostalgia for the empire ‘seven thousand miles across the sea’ and amazement that it had ever existed at all. Mason’s view that the British had had a positive impact on India and deserved to be remembered with pride and sympathy has been echoed by those who had been part of the Raj and fervently believed that they had, in the words of one memsahib, loved India: ‘Did we British bleed India for what we could carry away?’ she wrote, ‘Or did our men give their health—their lives for her? ...Well, whatever else we did, we loved her.’

In the Punjab the state of affairs was very critical. It was true that there were disturbances on the part of the people, but the measures adopted by the Government to check the disturbances were too severe. By the spring of 1918 the months of hard work, endless discussions and rounds of meetings were coming to a conclusion. Montagu’s trip to India and the consultation process that he began provided much of the groundwork for the report that he co-authored with Chelmsford, which was eventually published in June. On the 100 years of Jallianwala Bagh massacre a strong contingent of British MPs across political parties and British PM Theresa May finally came out with “we deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused”.


Arnold, D., Gandhi, London, 2001.

Barrow, Sir G., The Life of General Sir Charles Carmichael Monro, London, 1931.

Brown, J.M., Gandhi’s Rise to Power: Indian Politics1915-1922, Cambridge, 1972.

——, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, New Haven & London, 1998; 1989.

Collett, N., The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer, London, 2005.

Colvin, I., The Life of General Dyer, Edinburgh & London, 1929.

Fischer, L., The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, London, 1997.

Kitchlew, T., Saifuddin Kitchlew, Hero of Jallianwala Bagh, India, 1987.

Woodruff, P., The Men Who Ruled India,The Guardians, London, 1971.

Pravat Ranjan Sethi is presently working as Guest Faculty on the subject of History at Delhi University. He can be contacted at pravatjnu[at]

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