Monday, August 14, 2017

The Butcher of Amritsar - Nigel Collett

Sagar bought this book with some difficulty to research the life and times of Gen Reginald Dyer aka The Butcher of Amritsar who earned great infamy by his act of firing upon an unarmed and peaceful crowd at Jallianwala Bagh on flimsy reasons and killed over 379 people (at conservative estimates - other estimates are over a 1000). The book is written with great detail and traces Dyer's family history and his childhood and sets up the grand climax in a way that we understand why he did what he did.
Rupa, 574 p, Rs. 296
Dyer's family came to India when the British Raj was finding its feet in these parts. His grandfather John Dyer was an officer with the Calcutta Residency and was involved in fighting off pirate ships. His father settled down near Simla and set up a beer manufacturing company which was successful. Reginald Dyer was born in India and spent the early years here. For some reason his father sent him and his older brother to distant Ireland, a journey they made all alone. In the strife torn Ireland where the boys were exposed to frequent violence between Protestants and Catholics, Reginald or Rex Dyer found himself being picked upon by others. He however fought back and established that he was not a person to be trifled with. Quiet, shy, reserved and rather a loner, he was also brave and a fighter, with a quick temper. After his studies he went  to military college and secured admission into the military afterwards.

Posted in India he found a girl Annie from a family which was well-to-do but which for some reason did not approve of him. In the early years he was shunted off to vague postings, training in distant colleges in Chakrata or on the western Frontier. His career slid back and he found little action or opportunity to prove his mettle. The scientifically oriented Dyer spent much time inventing a range finder for the military and improvised it many times with a fair amount of success. He missed many opportunities of growth by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he was hugely popular with his junior officers and the local soldiers. He could speak their languages and supported them fully. Perhaps he understood their predicament which was what he was going through.

Dyer's regiment went to Hong Kong to counter the Chinese uprising. There was little to show there except for guarding the prison inmates. Then to Persia where he makes a series of uncalled for moves which do not show him in great light. He does not reveal his true intentions and does things he is not asked to do. Dyer takes risks and is a bit of a maverick. It is clear that Dyer has his own understanding of the situation and his own solutions and once he has them, does not listen to any other opinion. The Persian campaign ends without too much glory for him. However one thing stands out - Dyer has incredible tenacity and once he sets his sight one anything, no hardship could deter him. Blessed with enormous energy he could also motivate his troops to follow him in the harshest conditions and give him all they had. He also led from the front, bravely and courageously and never took a step back. He was a strategist and enjoyed his time in action. As a leader of men, Dyer was good.

As the Commander in Charge of Jullundur Dyer was not directly involved with the riots of Amritsar that took place on April 10, 1919. The local administration did not handle the rising discontent in Amritsar well by spiriting away two leaders, Satya Pal and Kichlew, cancelling Gandhi's speech and firing upon protestors resulting in deaths. This led to a violent reaction from the crowds which resulted in burning down of three banks, several English offices and deaths of bank managers and other Englishmen. One British citizen Miss Sherwood got badly assaulted and was left to die but was rescued by locals. Fearing the uprising to become more violent the local administration called for help. No further violence is reported - though telegraph and railway lines etc were being cut. For some reason, without any direct orders, Dyer decides to come to Amritsar and take charge of the city with his regiment. He assumes complete control from the existing weak administration. Dyer comes to the city on the 11th April, one day after the violence of 10th April.

A quick tour of the city and a march. Then he makes a proclamation that no meetings are allowed and force would be used if orders were broken. The proclamations are however not done effectively enough and certainly not in areas where it should have been made. It is also the time of the Baisakhi festival where many out of towners come to Amristar for shopping or trade. At 4 pm the local meeting takes place in Jallianwala Bagh. Some 20000 people are inside the bagh they say. Dyer comes with fifty of his men and orders them to fire with no warning given to the crowd who are peacefully listening to a speaker. The soldiers fired 1650 rounds into a mass of men, women and children and were egged on by Dyer to shoot into the thickest part of the crowd many times. People died in piles of twelve high - women and children included - as they tried to escape the relentless fire, jumped into and drowned in a well that was in the bagh. Blood, flesh and bodies lay all around. The firing continued unabated for 15 minutes, stopping only to reload, and Dyer ordered them to stop only after they have almost exhausted their supply, saving just enough ammunition to cope with any resistance on the way back. No help was offered to the dying and the dead. The fact that he had also put the town under curfew from 8 in the evening made it difficult to people to rescue the wounded. People lay wounded overnight, some over two days, and died in the bagh with no help from the authorities. None made any effort to help or offer medical help. The authorities did not even bother to visit the bagh after the incident. The numbers varied between 200 and 1500 and have been agreed at about 379 by the commission. In short, the crowd, peaceful and unarmed, were fired on relentlessly and killed like animals. That this person evaded jail and lived a free life with minimum punishment and even was hailed as a hero by the British shows the injustice of it all.

Not satisfied that this was enough, Dyer also enforced a crawling order in the street where Miss Sherwood was assaulted. Anyone who had to walk on the street had to crawl the length on their bellies. which meant that those who lived in the street also could not come out for the whole week - or they had to crawl. This inhuman and degrading rule meant that the police wuld beat anyone crawling if they found any sign of the body rising above the ground. Dyer also made a rule that everyone should salaam him as his car passed them in the town and if they did not they would be summoned to the Ranbagh camp and made to learn how to salaam over the length of the day in the hot sun. Six young men were caught ad publicly flogged until they repeatedly lost their consciousness on charges of having assaulted Miss Sherwood - with no proof at all. Clearly Dyer wanted to show who was the boss. He had no regard for civilian life. The press was cut off so the otuside world did not know of the incident until much later.

After the firing incident there was no remorse nor any sign of helping the innocent locals. Dyer said that the injured could have gone and applied  for help in hospitals if they wanted - fully knowing their condition and knowing that a curfew was on. Dyer was seen as the saviour of Punjab by the British and the suppressor or a second mutiny. Terse messages giving incomplete information were sent by Dyer and the other authorities in Amritsar to their superiors. No information on why he chose to fire, what the provocation was, whether a clear proclamation was made, whether any warming was given before firing, why the firing continued for so long on an unarmed crowd, and why no relief was provided after the firing - all critical aspects. For days and months Dyer got away with the thought that he was the saviour of Punjab and many complimented him on his good work as well.

Dyer was sent to Thal In Afghanistan to rescue some posts from German interference and he did a splendid job of it in the harshest conditions - perhaps buoyed by the Amristar incident and the good words he heard about his action. After a highly successful campaign in Thal Dyer returned - a brave and courageous son of Britain. But by then details of the Jallianwala bagh story were out and questions were now being asked about why he did what he did. In an enquiry by the Hunter Commission he pretty much said that he wanted to teach a moral lesson to all those who were conspiring against the British and he felt that it was his duty to use the force he did to teach the lesson.

As the enquiry began in the right earnest and questions were asked Dyer's health started failing. The case grew bigger and bigger and claimed his career and his reputation. He lost his rank and barely made it to England, ill as he was and so was Annie. The newspaper Morning Post and several of his supporters fought tooth an nail to make him a hero and saviour with no thought about the dead or the way they have been killed. Enough that they feared a rebellion, a repeat of the 1857 mutiny, a conspiracy that was not proven and there had been riots earlier. To link it to an imagined conspiracy and to come down on a crowd that was unarmed, uninformed and peaceful, was not discussed. Dyer however got to use his rank, though he was taken off service and sent off on half pay. He slowly lost his health and died. To his death he claimed that he had done no wrong and he would have done the same thing again and again. He somehow believed he was saving the empire. However Dyer did suffer from memories of that fateful day from the day it happened until his death.

Dyer was a complex human being - almost abandoned as a child, picked upon, neglected. He was a paradox, kind and supportive of his military juniors on one side and extremely hard on the other. He was prone to take his own decisions based on his understanding of the situation and then would manipulate his way to get what he wanted. His lack of success and recognition by his superiors for much of his career might also have made him more eager to prove himself. Somewhere on the return to Jalandher from a trip to Delhi where he and his family faced some hostile crowds, he seemed to have made up his mind that a mutiny was rising. His mind to fire he said, was made up in all of three seconds. Initially he tried to cover himself up by saying that he feared that the large crowd might attack his small posse of armed soldiers, but nothing supported his immediate call to fire and to continue to fire despite no sign of any violence or aggression from the people in the bagh. The British Parliament seemed to be unanimously behind the man as the case presented by Edward Montagu against him was shredded to pieces. To the end his wife Annie fully supported him and his actions, many Britishers and women in India felt that he had saved them by his actions. A fund was raised to help him financially by the Morning Post and it collected 25000 British Pounds.

The book is exhaustively researched and quotes from letters and official correspondence many times. Nigel Collett describes each part of Dyer's life with great detail, including incidents, people and situations. The young boy catching snakes a kid, shooting a bird and hitting a monkey (which upset him so much that he stopped shooting game), the fight in the boarding school in Ireland, the harsh terrain and opposition in Afghanistan and Persia, his obsession with the range finder, make him an interesting but rather isolated character. However it does not give much perspective from the side of the victims, nor does it delve deeper into the story of Hans Raj who supposedly was a British double agent and who supposedly called for the meeting at the bagh to set it up for the firing. It does however paint Dyer's picture well.

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