Massacre that shamed Britain – and the assassination carried out as revenge
The British Army officer knew what he was going to do even before he reached Jallianwala Bagh – a large, flat, walled garden in the heart of Amritsar, the holiest city of the Sikhs.
“My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car – if my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately,” Brigadier-General Reginald “Rex” Dyer said later.
Dyer had come to bring the city to heel. Increasing anti-colonial activity in the province had alarmed his boss, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer. Dyer would restore order.
Up to 20,000 people were inside – some Indian nationalists protesting against war taxes and the forced conscription of soldiers, others celebrating the city’s Sikh Baisakhi festival – by the time his column arrived on April 13, 1919, exactly 100 years ago on Saturday.
Getting out of his vehicle, Dyer was met by an irritating sight. The alley leading to the gardens was too narrow for his cars.
Abandoning them and blocking the exit, Dyer ordered his riflemen to unsling and march inside.
It all happened so fast. As soon as his men were in place, Dyer gave the order and whistles rang out. His men took aim, squeezed their triggers and fired. No order to disperse was given, the targets had no chance to flee.
One of Dyer’s fellow officers, Sgt Andrews, described the scene. “The whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground, a flutter of white garments,” he said.
“Dyer seemed quite calm and rational.”
Men and children collapsed clutching their faces and chests, a red mist collected over the places where they fell.
Indian eyewitnesses gave disturbingly similar accounts: “At first the soldiers fired high, but the sahib ordered them to fire straight and low… All fire was directed towards people who were running away.”
Bodies piled up near the perimeter wall. Some people jumped into a well in the middle of the Bagh.
Retired Sikh soldiers, who had fought with the British during the Great War, shouted for people to lie down, but their voices were drowned out by gunfire and screaming.
Wherever there was hope, there was death. The broad trunk of a peepul tree became a shelter for dozens. Dyer directed his men to aim at it and splinters flew with blood and flesh.
The shooting lasted ten long minutes, during which time the soldiers fired 1,650 rounds. British authorities said 379 were killed but Indian sources put it nearer to 1,000.
The death toll would have been so much higher if the entrance to the Bagh had been wider. Dyer would have used the machine guns on his cars if he could.
Though Winston Churchill would describe the events as “monstrous”, Lt-Gov O’Dwyer not only approved of the shootings, but spent much of the rest of his life praising his brigadier-general.
The youngest victim was a baby of six months, the oldest, a man in his eighties. Scores bled out during a long night of curfew, when no medical help was forthcoming.
My teenage grandfather, Ishwar Das, was in the garden on the day of the massacre, sharing a picnic with friends on Baisakhi, the busiest religious holiday in Punjab’s calendar.
He left minutes before the shooting and remembered passing Dyer’s column.
According to legend, a young, low-caste orphan named Udham Singh was one of the injured. He was driven mad by the sounds of the dying.
As dawn broke, he supposedly picked up a handful of blood-soaked earth, smeared it across his forehead and vowed no matter how long it took, no matter where it took him, he would kill those responsible for this outrage, with as little mercy as they had shown his people.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold and Singh waited 21 years for his. He travelled the world learning all he could from the enemies of the British Empire.
He made his way to Africa, learning about false documents, and to America, where he learned how to change his identity and appearance.
In Eastern Europe he consorted with anti-colonials and in Russia fell in with the Bolsheviks. He courted the Germans in the run-up to the Second World War.
The enemy of Singh’s enemy was his friend, and he needed as many friends as possible.
On March 13, 1940, he was finally ready. Singh pulled a sober yet smart suit out of his wardrobe as the snow fell on London. He had to be an invisible man, a ghost.
The meeting at Westminster’s Caxton Hall was due to start at three. Singh was one of the last to squeeze in.
He was just feet away from his target, sitting with his back to him. With Dyer dead, this was the man who dominated his thoughts – untouchable O’Dwyer within touching distance at last.
Singh popped a sweet into his mouth and waited. As the applause died down, he crept forward, his hand extended.
By the time O’Dwyer saw the gun it was too late. He turned, but the gun was almost touching his back when it went off.
The bullet bored through his 75-year-old body, shattering a rib and hitting heart and lung.
O’Dwyer didn’t have time to fall before he was shot again, the second bullet following a path almost parallel to the first.
He crumpled and fell to the ground. O’Dwyer rolled on to his back, staring blankly at the ceiling.
Members of the audience jumped on Singh and subdued him. He was sitting calmly when police arrived.
“You will be detained pending further enquiries,” the detective superintendent told him.
Singh looked him straight in the eye, his smile unnerving, saying: “It no use, it all over”. Nodding to O’Dwyer’s body he added: “It is there.”
- The Patient Assassin – A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj, by Anita Anand, is published by Simon & Schuster and priced at £20
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