Michael O'Dwyer - Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

In December 1912, while Lord Hardinge of Penshurst was Viceroy, O'Dwyer was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, a post which he held until 1919. When he assumed charge in May 1913, for which he was knighted with the KCSI in the King's Birthday Honours on 3 June he was cautioned by the Viceroy that "the Punjab was the Province about which the Government were then the most concerned; that there was much inflammable material lying about; which required very careful handling if an explosion was to be avoided". O'Dwyer was appointed a GCIE in the 1917 King's Birthday Honours list on 4 June 1917.

It was during O'Dwyer's tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Punjab that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred in Amritsar, on 13 April 1919. According to British estimates, 379 unarmed civilians were killed by Gurkha troops under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. Some estimates are greater, with more than 1500 casualties.

O'Dwyer and several other senior officials and military officers supported Dyer initially in his attempt to restore order, based on the limited information they had received at the time. Riots had begun three days earlier, soon after O'Dwyer's expulsion of two Indian nationalists, Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satyapal, from Amritsar. Five Englishmen had been murdered and an Englishwoman left for dead, and banks and public buildings had been looted and burnt. However, after more complete information of the action was obtained and it transpired that Dyer's order to begin shooting had been motivated not by immediate self-defence but partly by a desire to intimidate the population of the Punjab, O'Dwyer was unusual in refusing to withdraw his support. Several commentators, most notably Raja Ram, have claimed the massacre was premeditated by officials including O'Dwyer. However, other historians such as K. L. Tuteja reject Ram's position, arguing that Ram's "contention is not fully convincing because he failed to adduce sufficient evidence in support of his argument." O'Dwyer had contended, without evidence, that Dyer's violent suppression of the civilian demonstration was justified because the illegal gathering was part of a premeditated conspiracy to rebellion, timed supposedly to coincide with a rumoured Afghan invasion.

Although O'Dwyer had implemented martial law in the Punjab, he denied responsibility for the consequences on the grounds that the government had relieved him of its general implementation. However he could not disclaim responsibility for the decision, after severe rioting in Gujranwala, to send an aeroplane to bomb and strafe the area. During the course of the operation, at least a dozen people, including children present, were killed.

The next year, on 24 June 1920, the opposition British Labour Party Conference at Scarborough unanimously passed a resolution which denounced the 'cruel and barbarous actions' of British officers in Punjab and demanded their trial, the dismissal of O'Dwyer and Chelmsford, and the repeal of the repressive legislation. The delegates rose in their places as a tribute to those killed at Jallianwala Bagh. After the Punjab disturbances, O'Dwyer was relieved of his office. Subsequently the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, condemned O'Dwyer's severity, including his policy of communal punishment. However, when in 1922 Sir Sankaran Nair attacked O'Dwyer personally in his book, Gandhi and Anarchy, O'Dwyer sued him successfully for libel and was awarded £500 damages.

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