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The Butcher of Amritsar, by Nigel Collett

What changed a shy boy into the man who ordered a massacre? Nicholas Fearn uncovers the truth about General Dyer

On 13 April 1919, General Reginald Dyer dismissed his middle ranking officers and took personal charge of a body of men. He chose from the troops at his disposal those he thought would harbour the least compunctions in shooting unarmed Punjabi civilians: the Nepalese Gurkhas and the Baluch from the fringes of far-off Sind. Before leading them into the city of Amritsar, he remarked to his Brigade Major: "I shall be cashiered for this probably, but I've got to do it." His "horrible, bloody duty", as he called it, consisted of ordering his soldiers to open fire without warning on a peaceful crowd in an enclosed public square. The General directed proceedings from the front, pointing out targets his troops had missed, and they kept shooting until they had only enough ammunition left to defend themselves on their way back to base. While Dyer made his escape, a curfew ensured that the wounded were left to linger until the following morning without treatment. In an act of what the appalled Winston Churchill termed "frightfulness" and what today would be called state terrorism, nearly 400 had been killed, including 41 children and a six-week-old baby, and around 1,000 injured.

Nigel Collett's biography is a thorough reconstruction of the events and a convincing study of their perpetrator. For all its premeditation, the Amritsar massacre was the result of a man's inability to control himself. Like other stories of "True Crime", Collett's begins with a shy, insecure boy who later finds a capacity for violence and a dangerous temper. Dyer declines to hunt for pleasure in sympathy with the prey, yet he is ruthless in man-to-man combat. Defending his Burmese bearer from a beating on board a steamer, he ends up laying out most of the crew with his fists. He gained the love and respect of many of the colonial troops under his command, especially the Sikhs, and resigned from his officers' club when it refused to end racial segregation. However, Brigadier-General Villiers-Stuart, the Inspector of Infantry in India, described him as "an excitable lunatic" who did little during his time as a garrison commander except that "he used to drive about the mountain roads around Abbottabad with a car full of ladies of the station, his great delight being to frighten them by dangerous driving at which he was an expert. The man was insane."

Collett's is a heavily detailed treatment and serious to the point of dryness, but the material means he cannot help Dyer coming across like Stephen Fry's General Melchett. At the official inquiry, he explained: "I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and [the Indians] would realise that they were not to be wicked." Of the fate of the injured, who had lain 10 deep in places, he remarked "the hospitals were open... The wounded only had to apply for help."

Dyer - and many of his contemporaries - believed that he had nipped a second Indian Mutiny in the bud and prevented far more suffering than he had caused. He had seen service in the Third Burma War of the 1880s, in which villages were shelled from naval launches and civilians who aided the enemy risked summary execution. During the Great War he was charged with policing the Afghan frontier for German spies, though his fury at the local tribes led him to an unauthorised annexation of part of Persia that was hastily reversed upon his departure. The horrors of the Burma War came from treating a political opponent as a common criminal. The defining error of the frontier conflict was the reverse in a region where banditry and raiding were a way of life and not an act of agitation that could be countered by diplomacy. Dyer, like his Empire, learned his political lessons a cycle too late - just as our own government once denied political status to IRA members and now refuses to withdraw it from a rump of drug dealers and bank robbers. In the Punjab of 1919, sedition laws were causing the problem they were designed to prevent. In April a campaign of civil disobedience in Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple, turned into riots in which several Europeans, including women, were pursued through the streets and beaten to death or burned alive. However, the city was calm when Dyer formed his plan of punishment.

After Dyer was pensioned out of the army, the Morning Post newspaper began an appeal for their "hero" that eventually raised over £26,000 from a grateful public. The news of the crime was received very differently among Indians, who were also incensed by the General's notorious "crawling order". In the street where a female missionary had been left for dead, Dyer decreed that between 6am and 8pm Indians could only proceed on their bellies and elbows and were to be beaten if they raised a buttock. This effectively placed the street's inhabitants under house arrest. When informed of this Dyer harrumphed and said that they could go out at night - forgetting that his curfew order meant that they faced far more severe punishment should they try to.

In this way was the goodwill of the Indians squandered, by a series of outrages that ensured that the indigenous elite would seek fulfilment in a government of their own race rather than the administration of the invader. With its close commentary on the inquiry that followed the massacre, this biography functions as an appeal hearing for its subject. However, the verdict remains unchanged and helps retire the notion that the end of the Raj was anything but a good thing.

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