Gen Dyer Gave Order to Open Fire Out of Fear: British Historian

A reconstruction of India’s past is going on, says British historian Kim A Wagner on nationalism in India.

4 min read

Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam

British historian Kim A Wagner, who is visiting the ongoing Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, speaks with The Quint’s Nishtha Gautam about his book Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre, nationalism in present-day India, and the Kohinoor.

What is your version of what happened in Amritsar, because Indians tend to see it very sentimentally.

I have tried to step away from the overly political context, which is either a version that is somewhat nostalgic about the empire or about the glorious actions of people like Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh. If you go to Amritsar, that’s pretty much the framework in which it is depicted. So I try to step and peel back some of those layers and look at what the primary material at that time said and see if I can write a type of history from a more balanced and nuanced fashion.


Do you think that your book is going to create an alternate narrative that is in contradiction with what we have in India?

I don’t really have any aspirations beyond providing a different narrative. Actually, at Jallianwala Bagh in 13th of April the kind of political speeches that were made, which we have, they talk about the government. For instance, in Jallianwala Bagh there is a Martyrs’ Well and the sign says that the bodies of 120 people were pulled out of this well but there is no historical evidence for that. And I am trying to be as sensitive as possible in terms of not offending people’s sensitivities, but at the same time if there is no historical evidence, I have to conclude that it didn’t happen.

You have mentioned in your book that General Dyer’s decision to open fire was out of fear largely.

The depiction of General Dyer in Gandhi movie, is of sort of stone faced, almost a caricature of a colonial officer, who is in complete control of his emotions and acts out of some kind of callous blood thirst. And that simply doesn’t help us understand the violence thats is embodied in one person. And as we can tell from the many different accounts that Dyer gave, he did not perceive a peaceful crowd in front of him. It was a peaceful crowd but he thought they were rebels. His whole approach to what he was doing at Amritsar was a situation of war. He acted on those calculations which was fearful and based on misconception and misreading of the situation.


How do you compare that situation with modern day situation in Kashmir where protests sometimes turn violent and the security forces resort to use weapons which cause grievous bodily harm inflicted on the protesters?

I try to avoid making too overt comparisons with present-day events but it’s quite clear that you have these kinds of clashes that had taken place in West Asia as well. You can see that the kind of the logic of the violence enacted by the State forces follows very similar patterns. Which is often about exemplary violence. To some extent, it doesn’t really matter who gets hurt, as much as it sends a clear message that the authorities are willing to take whatever means necessary to quell disorder. So there is the very obvious element of collective but also not very discerning violence.

What is your assessment of nationalism in present day India? 
I think Modi inaugurated a new museum at the Red Fort which has 1857 and Jallianwala Bagh and Subhash Chandra Bose and I’ll be curious to see what those exhibits are about. But you can see there is a reconstruction of India’s past that is turned into an essentially political project, which is what the commemoration is. And there is the whole pantheon of national heroes, that goes back to the Rani of Jhansi, Mangal Pandey, which is used for various purposes in different contexts. It crystallises particular political messages, and then they embody them in people.

What would be your final message through this book about the history of Indian freedom struggle as we Indians understand it?

I believe that nobody has proprietary right to history, at least this is what I keep telling myself as an academic. I am not asking people to accept everything that I say, but at least be open to possibilities to look at things with a different perspective. And now when in this time there are increased calls of apologies for Amritsar massacre, I think people could at least make some effort or be open to looking into what happened at a deeper level.

Is an apology coming at all?

An apology from an Indian perspective will only make sense if the Amritsar massacre is seen as the symbol of oppression of British rule more generally. And a British government will only apologise by saying this is not representative of British government, that this was just one ‘rotten apple’, that General Dyer was a rouge officer. And that the massacre in no way reflects the British rule.

On asking if at all any apology will be accompanied by the return of art work such as Kohinoor, Wagner said that the return of the actual items is not as important as the debate about the legacy of the empire. This, for him, is far more valuable in terms of establishing a more nuanced and complex appreciation of the past.

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