David Cameron visited the city of Amritsar in India’s Punjab region last week. It is the site of a infamous massacre carried out by British colonial forces on 13 April 1919.
Cameron was the first British prime minister to visit the site but he refused to apologise. He said it was wrong to “reach back into history”.
That is because to reach back into the history of British colonialism is to expose a regime of repression, humiliation and divide and rule.
The British ruling class reaped huge benefits from India.
Winston Churchill said that holding onto India was the difference between Britain being a first or a third rate power.
They were determined to crush the growing movement against British rule not least because the First World War had been ended in Germany by revolution.
On 6 April 1919 the British Raj, fearing uprisings and “terrorism”, enacted laws that gave the police and army powers to imprison Indians without trial or evidence.
In Amritsar on 10 April the military fired into a demonstration demanding the release of two leaders who had been arrested.
The shots killed several demonstrators and sparked militant protests that resulted in the deaths of five Europeans.
Banks, government buildings and the railway station were attacked and set on fire.
The military fired into the crowds that refused to disperse, killing around 20 people.
Despite the ban on protest, the demonstrators stayed on the streets and proclaimed unity between Sikh, Muslim and Hindu.
They drank water from the same cup as part of their defiance.
Fear spread through the Raj as the movement for independence grew bolder and appeared to be healing the carefully nurtured religious divisions.
On 13 April 20,000 people gathered in Jallianwala Bagh gardens in the centre of Amritsar.
This was an act of rebellion and to celebrate the predominantly Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. They heard speakers against British colonial rule.
British Brigadier-General Reginald EH Dyer led 90 soldiers into the gardens. Without warning or an order to disperse Dyer ordered the soldiers to shoot into the densest part of the crowd.
The gardens were surrounded by houses and buildings and had a few narrow entrances.
Over 1,000 people died from gunshot wounds and the crush as people tried to get through the exits.
Some 120 bodies were pulled out of the well in the gardens. People had dived in to avoid the bullets. Shooting continued for almost ten minutes.
After the killings he imposed martial law in Punjab, with the full support of his superior, Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer—who also backed him over the shooting.
But the massacre sent shockwaves across the empire. Even among Britain’s rulers it was controversial. While the official inquiry unsurprisingly backed Dyer, he was later sacked.
Dyer told the inquiry that he had “to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.” The British press praised him as the “saviour of India”.
Revolutionary independence activist Udham Singh assassinated O’Dwyer in London in 1940 in retaliation for the massacre.
The Amritsar massacre was not a mishap but one of countless atrocities. But the mass movement of protests and strikes that swept the country represented the beginning of the end for British rule in India.
The British ruling class was forced to grant independence in 1947.