Mar 102019

For some reason, the UK Government seems deeply reluctant to investigate Russia’s apparent interference in the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum. Usually, a foreign power trying to destabilise a country would provoke immediate national security concerns.

In February, Parliament’s DCMS Committee repeated its “call to the Government to make a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics. We want to find out what was the impact of disinformation and voter manipulation on past elections including the UK Referendum in 2016 and are calling on the Government to launch an independent investigation.”

In January, the US Senate report Putin’s asymmetric assault on democracy in Russia and Europe: implications for US national security, criticised “the way in which UK campaign finance laws do not require disclosure of political donations if they are from “the beneficial owners of non-British companies that are incorporated in the EU and carry out business in the UK”.”

This opacity, the report suggests, “may have enabled Russian-related money to be directed with insufficient scrutiny to various UK political actors”.In a court case a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister’s legal representative, Sir James Eadie, told the court that “The true position is the Prime Minister is entirely well aware of the notorious facts … of the well-publicised facts: Electoral Commission findings, the facts of an appeal, police investigations, ICO, DCMS committees. All clear, publicly done and properly done. And it’s perfectly obvious that the Prime Minister has decided to carry on and that Parliament is proceeding and that everyone is proceeding on that basis.”

Of course, there is nothing new about this rather British preference to turn a blind eye towards serious crimes and misdemeanours affecting the lives of many. There was another infamous example 100 years ago.

India’s contribution to the Second World War

Although they are rarely mentioned in British history, hundreds of thousands of Indians fought in Europe in the British army in World War I. Over 1,000 died at Gallipoli and nearly 700,000 fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

India also supported Britain in cash and kind, to the tune of some £50 billion in today’s money. India suffered high taxation to support the war, accompanied by high inflation. In return, Britain had promised to deliver self-rule progressively to India at the end of the war.

Rowlatt Act

However, after the war, the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1918 were very far from this. A hundred years ago today, on 10 March 1919, it also passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919. This unpopular Act became known as the Rowlatt Act, after Sir Sidney Rowlatt, the British judge who was the president of the Rowlatt Committee which recommended it.

The Act effectively authorised the Government to imprison any person suspected of terrorism living in British India for up to two years without a trial, and gave the imperial authorities power to deal with all revolutionary activities. It reimposed all the wartime restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly (which had been lifted after the Armistice).

“The Act granted the authorities the power to arrest Indians on mere suspicion and to try them in secrecy without a right to counsel or a right of appeal.”

An era of darkness: the British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

On 30 March and 6 April 1919, Indians went on strike throughout Punjab, shutting down normal commerce in many cities, including Amritsar. Without violence or disorder, they expressed their dissatisfaction with Britain’s betrayal.

On 9 April, the British arrested two nationalist leaders who had addressed protest meetings. As news of their arrests spread, the people of Amritsar pushed their way to police headquarters to protest. Some threw stones at the police who barred their way. The police retaliated by opening fire, killing 10 demonstrators.

In the riot that followed, five Englishmen were killed and a woman missionary was assaulted.

Amritsar, April 1919

Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, c1919

By 11 April, 600 soldiers arrived in Amritsar to restore order. The following day, their commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer arrived. By then, the city was calm and any demonstrations or protest meetings were peaceful.

Nonetheless, Dyer issued a proclamation on 13 April forbidding people to leave the city without a pass, to organise demonstrations or processions, or even to gather in groups of more than three. However, unaware of the proclamation, some 10-15,000 people from outlying districts gathered in Amritsar the same day to celebrate the major religious festival Baisakhi.

They had assembled in an enclosed, walled garden called Jallianwala Bagh. It was a popular spot for public events but was only accessible through five narrow passageways.

When Dyer heard of this meeting, he took a detachment of soldiers in armoured cars equipped with machine guns. Although it was clear that the people were unarmed, Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on them without any warning. They continued to shoot for 10 minutes until all their ammunition was exhausted.

Seeing that the exits from the Jallianwala Bagh were blocked, many sought refuge from the bullets by jumping into a well in its centre. According to a plaque by the well, 120 bodies were found in it.

Afterwards, Dyer forbade his soldiers to give any aid to the injured. He ordered all Indians to stay off the streets of Amritsar for twenty-four hours, preventing relatives or friends from bringing even a cup of water to the wounded, who were writhing in agony calling for help.

The massacre and Dyer’s evidence to the subsequent Hunter Commission which was set up in October 1919 to investigate it were depicted in the Richard Attenborough film Gandhi. Officially, 379 people were killed and 1.137 injured. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1,500 injured, with approximately 1,000 dead.

Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”. Major General William Beynon and Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab Michael O’Dwyer approved of his actions. The Lieutenant-Governor requested that martial law should be imposed on Amritsar and other areas, and this was granted by the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford.

Dyer became known in India as “The butcher of Amritsar”.

Tagore’s reaction

News of the massacre was suppressed by the British Government. Nonetheless, it reached Rabindranath Tagore on 22 May 1919.

Seeing the inaction of the British Government, and after being prevented from arranging a protest meeting in Calcutta, he decided to write to the Viceroy of India on 31 May 1919, returning the Knighthood he had been awarded by King George V on 3 June 1915.

Your Excellency,

The enormity of the measures taken by the Government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with a rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India. The disproportionate severity of the punishments inflicted upon the unfortunate people and the methods of carrying them out, we are convinced, are without parallel in the history of civilised governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers—possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons. This callousness has been praised by most of the Anglo-Indian papers, which have in some cases gone to the brutal length of making fun of our sufferings, without receiving the least check from the same authority—relentlessly careful in smothering every cry of pain and expression of judgement from the organs representing the sufferers. Knowing that our appeals have been in vain and that the passion of vengeance is blinding the nobler vision of statesmanship in our Government, which could so easily afford to be magnanimous as befitting its physical strength and moral tradition, the very least that I can do for my country is to take all consequences upon myself in giving voice to the protest of the millions of my countrymen, surprised into a dumb anguish of terror. The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.

These are the reasons which have painfully compelled me to ask Your Excellency, with due reference and regret, to relieve me of my title of Knighthood, which I had the honour to accept from His Majesty the King at the hands of your predecessor, for whose nobleness of heart I still entertain great admiration.

Rabindranath Tagore’s letter to the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, on 31 May 1919

Britain’s response

Details of the massacre did not emerge in Britain before December 1919. On 20 July 1920, the fate of General Dyer was debated in the British Parliament. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, opened the debate with an explanation of the three options available to the Government:

  1. remove [the officer] from his employment or his appointment, relegated to half pay, and told that he has no prospects of being employed again. … The officer in question has no redress. He has no claim to a court or inquiry or court martial.
  2. retire an officer compulsorily from the Service, or imposing on him some reduction or forfeiture in his pension or retired pay. In this case the officer is protected … by the fact that it is necessary for three members of the Army Council to approve the proceeding, and by certain rights of laying his case before them.
  3. Honour, liberty, life are affected. Cashiering, imprisonment, or the death penalty may be involved, and … the whole resources and protection which judicial procedure, lawful tribunals, and British justice accord to an accused person are brought into play.

In Dyer’s case, he was removed from his appointment by the Commander-in-Chief in India; passed over for promotion; was informed that there was no prospect of further employment for him under the Government of India; and that, in consequence, he reverted automatically to half-pay. The Army Council had chosen the first option.

Churchill then explained the facts:

The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it … stopped only when it was on the point of exhaustion, enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on its return journey. If more troops had been available, says this officer, the casualties would have been greater in proportion. If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. … I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time on our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.

Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War – UK House of Commons, 8 July 1920

Churchill personally would have wished that General Dyer had been “placed compulsorily on the retired list”. However, he recommended (and the House of Commons confirmed) the decision of the Army Council as it was clear that “General Dyer’s conduct has been approved by a succession of superiors above him.” Although he was censured by the House of Commons, he was exonerated by the House of Lords and allowed to retire on a handsome pension. Rudyard Kipling hailed Dyer as “The man who saved India.”

Fund-raising for Dyer

The conservative, pro-Imperialist Morning Post newspaper (which subsequently merged with The Daily Telegraph) launched a fund to raise money for Dyer. When he arrived in Britain after his exile from India, he was presented with over £26,000 (equivalent to over £250,000 today).

In contrast, after many months of fighting for justice, the families of the victims of the massacre were given 500 rupees each (equivalent to £1,450 today) for each human life.

Several years later, on 13 March 1940, Udham Singh, who had been serving water to the crowds in Jallianwala Bagh before Dyer and his troops opened fire, assassinated Michael O’Dwyer in Caxton Hall in London. Historians now believe that O’Dwyer had ordered Dyer to carry out the massacre.

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote later that “This cold-blooded approval of that deed shocked me greatly. It seemed absolutely immoral, indecent; to use public school language, it was the height of bad form. I realised then, more vividly than I had ever done before, how brutal and immoral imperialism was and how it had eaten into the souls of the British upper classes.”

Brexit and the British elite

A century later, it would appear that the British elite are applying similarly brutal and immoral tactics in forcing a hard Brexit on an unsuspecting British public. They seem to be somewhat nostalgic about Britain’s imperial past.

As Alternative War author James Patrick noted on Friday:

You know, over the centuries Britain has built up quite a horrific Karma account. The world’s a small place with a long memory and the bill has come due.— James Patrick 🐐 (@J_amesp) March 8, 2019

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