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Response to Review of The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day

It was with resignation, yet not surprise, that I read Kim Wagner’s polemic against my book, The Amritsar Massacre: The Untold Story of One Fateful Day. His piece is entirely typical of the outrage, intolerance and hysteria shown to anyone who dissents from the cosy view of what he himself calls ‘Indian national myth’ in today’s South Asian history departments. Wagner accuses my book of being a ‘complete whitewash’, ‘outdated’, ‘distasteful’, ‘deeply problematic’, of containing ‘poor scholarship’, of being ‘callously jingoistic’, ‘deeply flawed’, having ‘empirical ineptitude’, and of being ‘narrow and highly selective’. Apparently, he didn’t like it.

Wagner repeatedly attacks me for not swimming with the tide, for having a different view than people like himself, for being out of step with the mainstream. Quite. It is not the duty of historians to consolidate and repeat the prejudices of a current generation, but to investigate the past objectively and honourably. That Wagner can only respond to challenging new research with insults and disparaging comments indicates how prejudiced and reactionary he is; part of an academic clique that is not committed to uncovering the truth about Indian history, only reinforcing a highly dubious orthodoxy. Wagner allies himself with those who have for 60 years legitimised and defended the power of the winning side, the Congress Party, in India, and demonised anyone who dissents from this. That Wagner has absolutely nothing to say about the violence directed against the Indian people by the successor state since 1947, including the massacre at the Golden Temple in 1984 and the introduction of a form of martial law far worse than anything seen in 1919, tells us everything about his political sympathies as well as his selective historical amnesia. Wagner is the reactionary defender of an out-of-date ideology, not me.

Wagner is beside himself that I have looked at members of the ICS in India in 1919 and argued that their story deserves to be told; that by and large they did their jobs with competence and responsibility throughout a very difficult period. This is, to him, both ‘outdated’ and ‘distasteful’ (irrespective of whether it might be true). It is certainly the case that my ideas are unfashionable (at least within certain history departments), but it does not follow that they are wrong. The ICS are worthy of study and should be treated with respect and objectivity. Simply casting them into the historical wilderness without any form of investigation – other than to repeat the old myth about ‘imperial terrorism’ – is itself highly politicised, narrow-minded and deeply biased. Because it has simply been assumed that these people have no story to tell, they have been airbrushed from history in a determined campaign of censorship. My book is the only account to look at what they actually did, without pre-judging them. Furthermore, the contention that my book is nothing more than a highly politicised whitewash is simply not true. It was, in some respects, written as a reaction to earlier works (for example by B. G. Horniman, Raja Ram and Helen Fein) that were grossly inaccurate and highly politicised themselves. To imply, as Wagner does, that previous works on the subject were not politicised is absurd: writing on Amritsar has been highly-politicised since 1919. Had they not been so, there would have been no need for my book (which, in any case, is based on a far greater range of evidence than any previous history).

Wagner’s criticism of my interpretation of Dyer’s actions in the Jallianwala Bagh is similarly flawed. It is true that Dyer claimed 5,000 people were present in the Bagh, but this does not – as Wagner breathlessly claims – invalidate my argument. My research has indicated that there were probably many more people (upwards of 20,000) present. Nevertheless the point in question is that even if only 5,000 people were there, this was still at least five times bigger than Dyer had expected, hence his surprise at what he found. Before going to the Jallianwala Bagh, Dyer had been told that a crowd of 1,000 people had gathered and then decided to take only a small party of soldiers with him. In any case, the claim that the Jallianwala Bagh was about panic, surprise and some kind of mistake is supported by a wealth of other evidence, including Dyer’s lack of intelligence, the unique location and size of the Bagh, the evidence of witnesses who spoke to Dyer in the days afterwards, and so on. Not everyone will accept this interpretation, but it is, in my opinion, far more likely – certainly when compared with the old idea that Dyer knew exactly what was going on and everything went according to his grand design. Wagner’s contention that my work is a poor version of the 1929 biography of Dyer is thus based on another misunderstanding. Ian Colvin defended Dyer because he believed his actions were correct. I make no assumption. I claim that Dyer did not know what he was doing, panicked and then lied about it afterwards. This is a completely different explanation – something that Colvin would have fervently disagreed with – the subtlety of which seems to have been lost on Wagner.

Another criticism made in the review is my reliance on material gathered during the official inquiry into the disorders (the Hunter Committee) which is unreliable and should therefore be discounted. Again, this is a response typical of those who have not read the Hunter Report or delved into the seven huge volumes of transcripts compiled on the disorders. This was demonstrably not some sort of official whitewash (a point dealt with at length in my book), but an open inquiry where nationalist lawyers – some very hostile to the British – were able to question officials and officers at will; even Gandhi thought their questioning was at times too severe. This resulted in a number of bitter stand-offs and arguments that have been recorded for posterity, thus providing an invaluable source that provides a full range of views, both pro- and anti-government. That Wagner, like generations of Indian historians, has never bothered to read these papers, says much about his lazy assumptions and casual arrogance. When this report is used in conjunction with a variety of other sources, which I have done, a much fuller picture of the disorders of 1919 can emerge. My book is the only one to draw from all seven volumes of material, making it the most comprehensive and detailed history of the disorders ever written. Simply ignoring a mass of evidence because you have deemed it unreliable is arrogant and dangerous. Denouncing those who take the time to look at it is even worse. Wagner’s attitude is the grossest form of academic apartheid, flying in the face of scholarly inquiry and openness.

A related point in the use of language. Wagner criticises my failure to reference an article by Ranajit Guha, and also decries my use of allegedly Raj-era terms in my book. The reason why I did not reference Guha was very simple. Nothing that Guha has written has been of any use in addressing the questions my book seeks to answer: how and why crowds formed in 1919; how the British responded; and in what ways the Government restored control. No amount of post-colonial theory can answer these questions, only extensive research in the archival record. The point here is that, no matter what descriptions were used by the British (or by me), there were mobs and violent rioters in 1919. They burnt banks, ripped up telegraph poles, wrecked railway lines, and killed Europeans in racially-motivated murders. These agitators, those who urged crowds to violence or committed it themselves, were wholly responsible for the bloodshed that followed, not the British. To deny this, or to hide behind theoretical deconstructions of language, is both pointless and factually incorrect.

The British did not imagine the crowds in Amritsar or think they were worse than they really were. They did not suffer from some kind of mass hysteria or information panic. They encountered violent crowds and had to deal with them as best as they could. Yet armchair historians like Wagner still noisily pontificate on how the British should have responded, as if their views can tell us anything. Wagner’s piece is part of a long-running effort to whitewash or ignore the level of violence directed at the European community in India in 1919. As such he confuses victims with aggressors and acts as an apologist for that violence. Whatever terms I use have been based upon eyewitness accounts, statistical data, and more importantly, actual evidence of what those crowds did. Wagner’s criticism is typical of a narrow mindset that still believes in the mythical ‘non-violent’ freedom struggle and is resistant to anyone who examines the swathe of violence it produced. Again, this is not history, it is politically-motivated censorship.

Readers will have noticed that Wagner's piece is peppered with personal insults and slanders against me. This is staggeringly unprofessional. He accuses me of being ‘nostalgic’, of having some kind of defective ‘moral compass’ (?), of being ‘highly politicised’ and of not being a South Asian expert. He also claims that, because the bibliography does not contain a reference to one article and three recent works, it is ‘woefully inadequate’. These criticisms are, frankly, ridiculous and reeking of desperation. He seems to suggest that military historians, or those who dare to examine the legal and military aspect of crowd control, should rethink their ‘moral compasses’ – a statement that reveals how immature and biased he is; as if those who disagree with him are somehow immoral. He even finds time to pour bile on my choice of dedication. It is unfortunate and regrettable that Wagner should have to be reminded that a dedication is a personal choice of the author and is not subject to any form of politically-correct vetting. Wagner has absolutely no right to criticise this. It is highly-offensive and grossly-disrespectful to do so. Such personal slanders are deeply shameful and thus totally unworthy of inclusion in a civilised piece of academic discourse.

My book does not sit comfortably within South Asian historiography. It is a challenge to that historiography. Indian nationalists and their post-colonial supporters in western universities have had their ideas unchallenged for too long. Time will tell whether other historians and readers treat this book with the same level of selectivity, narrow-mindedness, intolerance and hysteria that Wagner has shown.