‘Time to apologise now’

Some wounds just do not heal. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a watershed that defined how Indians looked at the British colonial administration thereafter, says Nigel Collett

Roopinder Singh  

What was the man who perpetuated the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh 100 years back like? Nigel Collett’s The Butcher of Amritsar is a full-length biography of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. This book is quite in contrast with Ian Colvin’s favourable biography The Life of General Dyer (London: Blackwood, 1929). Collett speaks on General Dyer and how he changed the course of history. Excerpts from an interview:

As we look back a century after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, what is your opinion of General Reginald Dyer as a person?

He was a strange character. He was often someone who never fit into anything. He was estranged from most of the society he lived in — British as well as Indian. He was a lonely, independent man who made up his mind based on bad appreciation of the situations he found himself in. On many occasions, he came to wrong conclusion, which he then stubbornly acted on, against advice from everyone. The most extreme example was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

He was not an easy man to know, particularly for the people who he felt had crossed him. Most of us are driven by fear. He had seen what he thought was a threat to his family and his way of life in India. The Empire, in countries like Ireland before, had seen societies dissolve. I think he was frightened that this would be the way it would go in India, too. He, therefore, made up his mind that he would do his best to make sure it didn’t. By killing people in the Jallianwala Bagh, he believed he was sending a message to Punjab, and the world, and that he would manage to put a finger in the dyke. He was a wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time.

What would prompt a career officer in the British army to order a massacre of the civilian population?

It is almost unthinkable. When I wrote the book, I tried to consider all people I’ve ever met in the army who would do that. Although I’ve met many people who would support Dyer’s action, I’ve never met a man who would have actually ordered such an act, stood there, and done it so personally.

It was not typical, not something which was legal in the army. He knew he had transgressed — both morally as well as legally. He had mentioned to a few people he expected to be punished for it immediately afterwards. 

How has the response to the book been?

It has lasted well. There have been several books since then, but I don’t think anybody has overturned what I found about what he did and my interpretations of Dyer. People have different interpretations of the massacre but my interpretation of him as a man has, so far, suffered little. I am glad the book has been received so well in India. I did a tour of the country. I was welcomed in most places, and had an amazingly good time talking about it.

The interest shown in India to the book was much more than in England where people didn’t know the man. Of course, in India, he is an anti-hero, a figure in history. I felt I had somehow contributed and I was trying to do that.

Were any lessons learnt from the massacre?

There are overall lessons you can draw — moral lessons about what empires do to people, and what happens when you put anybody in the position of authority that isn’t controlled. This can allow them to misinterpret the authority in the way Dyer did. 

To me, lessons from the massacre have been twofold. First of all, the military one. It taught the British army what happens when people go beyond the bounds of duty and behave in that fashion. The British army very quickly clamped down on any such further repetition. There are always abuses, but it took steps to make sure that taking such an action wasn’t going to be so easy in future.

More to the point is the lesson that when such an incident is allowed to happen,  is not dealt with properly, the people who suffer from it are not recompensed or acknowledged, it does a lasting damage to  relationships. The relations between Britain and India never recovered from the incident. Once this sort of thing happens, which has horribly always happened in history, you need to do something to make up for it. That wasn’t done.

There have been demands that the British government should apologise for the massacre. What do you think about it?

In the past, I thought there was no point in one generation apologising for previous generations because where do you stop with that? But following the line I’ve just taken, I concluded several months ago that in this case, there’s a real practical reason for making an apology.

Although Dyer decided to do this himself, it was his own volition, no one ordered him to do it, but he was still a British Army officer. He was representative of the British government. And they had at least the vicarious responsibility for what he did. And so they owed, some form of recompense, an apology at the time. The effect (of the massacre) has been long lasting. The effect of an apology would be the last to make it possible to go forward and put this terrible event behind us. So this time I really do believe that an apology would be a good idea.

Controversies over what happened are still going on, and the neocons in King’s College, London, are still fighting back and trying to pretend it was all exactly what Dyer said. That there was a rebellion, and all he did was his duty. This seems to me to reinforce the need to actually put a stop to it, apologise now.

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