I Kept On Firing Until The Crowd Dispersed: General Dyer on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Far from being punished for his heinous crime, General Dyer is accorded a hero’s welcome when he returns to England

April 26, 2019 Updated 13:55 IST
2019-04-25T13:06:09+05:30
I Kept On Firing Until The Crowd Dispersed: General Dyer on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Panorama of Jallianwala Bagh (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"When did you get information that a meeting would assemble at the Jallianwala Bagh?" William asked.

"I was in the city at the time," the General replied. "I cannot quite say what time it was. It may have been from one-thirty to two o"clock."

His Lordship placed his pince-nez over the ridge of his nose just above his nostrils, staring down at the written statement submitted to his committee by the General.

"I see in the report you say that at twelve-forty p.m. whilst yet in the city, on my way to the Ram Bagh, I was informed that in spite of my stern proclamation a big meeting would be held at the Jallianwala Bagh at four thirty p.m. that afternoon!"

"Yes, that is correct." 

"On the assumption that that is correct I want you to explain why you did not take measures for preventing the crowd from assembling at all at the Bagh."

A murmur passed through the assembled crowd. The General shifted his eyes evasively before responding.

"I went there as soon as I could. I had to think the matter out. I had to organise my forces and make up my mind as to where I might put my pickets. I thought I had done enough to make the crowd not meet if they were going to meet. I had to consider the military situation and make up my mind as to what to do, which took me a certain amount of time. I had warned them all day, that is, up to the time I went to Ram Bagh."

"When did you first receive definite information that a meeting was being held at Jallianwala Bagh?"

"About four o"clock."

"From Mr Rehill?"

"Yes."

"When you received that information, what action did you take?"

"I marched off through the city."

"Had you with you picketing parties?"

"I had the picketing parties for marching off, and all marched off together."

"And your special party consisted of twenty-five rifles of the Gurkhas and twenty-five rifles of the Baluchis?"

"There were forty other Gurkhas."

"And you also had two armoured cars?"

"Yes."

"As I understand, you proceeded to the Jallianwala Bagh at a usual pace?"

"At an ordinary walking pace."

"You did not consider any necessity for proceeding with any extra expedition?"

"No Sir."

"As you marched, the parties that were with you all dropped out?"

"They all dropped out, as they marched along. Some had to go in one direction and some in another. As we marched they took the most convenient road and they left us."

"As nearly as you can recollect, at what time did you reach the Jallianwala Bagh?"

"I should think about five or five-fifteen perhaps. I could not say." He looked around at the high walls of the large room, as though hoping to find a clock.

"When you arrived at the Jallianwala Bagh, what did you do?"

"I deployed my troops right and left of the entrance."

"You entered by the narrow entrance that leads into the Jallianwala Bagh. I think you left your motor cars behind?"

"I left the motor cars behind."

"Did you have the Gurkhas, who were armed, with you?"

"They all came in and went to the Bagh."

"You had forty Gurkhas and two columns of twenty five men each, these fifty men being armed with rifles? That is on the high ground, on the north side of that rectangular space that goes by the name of Jallianwala Bagh?"

"Yes."

"That is a very wide piece of ground, and has very few exits?"

"I think three or four exits. There is one wide exit."

"When you got into the Jallianwala Bagh what did you do?"

I opened fire."

"At once?"

"Immediately. I had thought about the matter, and it did not take me more than thirty seconds to make up mymind as to what my duty was."

"As regards the crowd, what was it doing at the time?"

"Holding a meeting. There was a man in the centre of the place standing on something raised. You could see him above the crowd. His arms were moving about. He was evidently addressing a meeting."

"How far was the nearest man in the crowd from you?"

"When I entered first, about eight or nine yards off the wall. He ran away to the right, and there were a good many others who ran away and climbed over the wall there."

"Do I understand where you stationed armed soldiers there is a small ridge? Where was the man who was addressing the crowd standing?"

"He was absolutely in the centre of the section, as far as one could judge; may be within fifty or sixty yards from me. He seemed to be surrounded by them, but most of them were on the further side."

"So far as you know, was there any crying except this man"s addressing the crowd?"

***

"How many people were there in the crowd?"

"I then estimated it at five thousand. I heard there were many more."

"On the assumption that there was a crowd of something like five thousand and more, have you any doubt that many of these people must have been unaware of your proclamation?"

The General cleared his throat against his fist before answering: "It was being well issued and news spread very rapidly in places like that under prevailing conditions. At the same time, there may have been a good many who had not heard the proclamation."

"On the assumption that there was that risk of people being in the crowd who were not aware of the proclamation, did it not occur to you that it was a proper measure to ask the crowd to disperse before you took to actually firing upon them?"

"No, at the time it did not occur to me. I merely felt that my orders had not been obeyed, that Martial Law was flouted, and that it was my duty to immediately disperse it by rifle fire."

"Before you dispersed the crowd, had the crowd taken any action at all?"

"No Sir. They ran away, a few of them. When I began to fire in the centre they began to run to the road."

"Martial Law had not been proclaimed before you took that step, which was a serious step. Did you consider about the propriety of consulting the Deputy Commissioner who was the civil authority responsible for law and order?"

"There was no Deputy Commissioner there to consult at the time. I did not think it wise to ask anybody further. I had to make up my mind immediately as to what my action should be. I considered it from a military view that I should fire immediately, that if I did not do so, I should fail in my duty."

"When you left the Ram Bagh, did it occur to you that you were going to fire if you found an assembly there?"

The General did not reply immediately. He sat in stony silence for fully a minute before saying, "I considered well the nature of my duty."

"Did not you think it proper to have a civil representative with you before you took that action?"

"I had a police officer with me."

"Who was that?"

"Mr Rehill. Mr Ploomer."

"As I understand Mr Rehill and Mr Ploomer came on the scene after you actually fired?"

"I think Mr Rehill was there actually while the firing was going on."

"During the whole time?"

"I do not know whether he was there the whole time."

"Before firing, did you ask Mr Rehill whether in his judgment it was necessary to fire?"

"No Sir. My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car — if my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately."

"In firing was your object to disperse the crowd?"

"Yes."

"Any other object?"

"No sir. I was going to fire until they dispersed."

"Did the crowd at once start to disperse as soon as you fired?"

"Immediately."

"Did you continue firing?"

"Yes."

There was an audible gasp that echoed through this crowded room in response to that single word. His Lordship waited for silence to be restored, sitting with eyes lowered, hands clasped tightly on the long table that separated the Committee from everyone else. The folds of his black robe pinched against the table"s edge as he hunched forward, leaning heavily on his elbows, asking in a voice strained thin by incredulity:

"If the crowd was going to disperse, why did you not stop firing?"

"I thought it my duty to go on firing until it dispersed. If I fired a little, the effect would not be sufficient. If I had fired a little I should be wrong in firing at all."

"How long did the firing go on?"

"It may be ten minutes; it may be less, calculating from the number of rounds that we fired."

"Could you say whether there were any sticks with the people?"

"I cannot say that. I assume numbers had sticks. I knew they were going to be armed with sticks."

"Have you ever, in your military experience, used a similar method of dispersing an assembly?"

"Never, Sir. It was an exceptional case."

"What reason had you to suppose that if you had ordered the assembly to leave the Bagh they would not have done so without the necessity of your firing, continued firing for a length of time?"

"Yes, I think it is quite possible that I could have dispersed them perhaps even without firing."

"Why did you not adopt that course" His Lordship asked, shaking his head, more in wonder than horror, as he asked the question.

"I could not disperse them for some time," the General answered, speaking slowly, sounding distracted as he stared over the heads of the judges, "then they would all come back and laugh at me, and I considered I would be making myself a fool."

 A wave of startled comment greeted this remark, and the clamour became so loud that His Lordship was obliged to rap his gavel before continuing his interrogation.

"After the firing had taken place I think you returned with your troops to the Ram Bagh?"

"Yes."

"And on examining the ammunition, you discovered that one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds had been fired?"

"Yes."

"Do you know the casualties imposed by the firing?"

"No. I formed a rough estimate from the number of rounds. I calculated that number to be three hundred. There would be more than that of casualties."

 "You know that the casualties were something between four hundred and five hundred."

"Yes I have seen it in the papers. I divided all my rounds by five--" He paused and touched his fingertips to his lips, staring vacantly at the ceiling, mumbling, "I am in doubt whether by five or six--to arrive at the number."

"I understood that the shooting that took place was individual shooting, and it was not volley shooting?"

"No, there was no volley shooting."

"The crowd was very dense?"

"It was very dense."

"It was unlikely that a man shooting into the crowd will miss?"

"No, according to the circumstances of the case," the General replied, shaking his head, sounding bewildered. "They were running, and I noticed only a certain number of men were hit. In the centre of the section, the crowd was very dense and therefore if a man directed his fire well he should not miss."

 "So that it is not impossible that the number of deaths may have been four hundred or five hundred from the number of rounds that were fired?"

"Quite possible," the General conceded.

William grimaced. One Indian member of the press jumped to his feet, shouting, "Frightfulness! Prussian butchery!" Two British guards moved swiftly to either side of the bespectacled young man, who waved his finger frantically towards the unmoving back of the General, and continued to hurl high-pitched expletives as he was jostled and dragged from the room.

This is an extract from Stanley Wolpert's fictionalised account entitled  Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, published by Penguin Books India, 1988. The extract is from a section entitled Lahore: November 19, 1919 and deals with the Committee of Inquiry into the Amritsar massacre which condemned the conduct of General Reginald Dyer. William Hunter, Lord Hunter, KC, DL (1865-1957) was a Scottish advocate, judge and Liberal Party politician who chaired the Committee. This extract has been reproduced here with the kind courtesy of the publisher. Excerpt taken from Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, published by Niyogi Books.

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