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Rose Deller

April 11th, 2019

Book Review: Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre by Kim A. Wagner

1 comment | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Rose Deller

April 11th, 2019

Book Review: Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre by Kim A. Wagner

1 comment | 9 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

13 April 2019 marks 100 years since the Amritsar (or Jallianwala Bagh) massacre, which remains one of the most controversial acts of colonial violence in the history of the British Empire. In his new book Amritsar 1919: An Empire or Fear and the Making of a Massacre, Kim A. Wagner offers a meticulously researched account of the events leading up to the massacre as well as its aftermath. The book vividly and emotively captures post-war Amritsar, the horrors of the massacre and the violent humiliation inflicted through British colonial retribution, writes Thomas Gidney.

Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre. Kim A. Wagner. Yale University Press. 2019.

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The Amritsar (or Jallianwala Bagh) massacre in 1919 remains to this day one of the most controversial events in the history of the British Empire. Officially, 379 Indians were shot dead or trampled, with over a thousand more injured. It is an episode that has been remembered through different media, but most prominently depicted for Western audiences in the 1982 film biopic Gandhi. The events of 13 April 1919 have been contested ground regarding the need for Western states such as Britain to apologise for colonialism, especially after David Cameron visited the site of the massacre in 2013 and fell short of offering an apology. A similar gesture was made this week by current Prime Minister Theresa May, who called the event a ‘shameful scar’ on Britain’s history in India, but again failed to provide a formal apology.

Published on the centenary, Kim A. Wagner’s new book, Amritsar 1919, jumps into one of the most contentious frays of colonial history with a meticulously researched work that aims to contextualise the massacre. The book focuses on the days leading up to the events at Amritsar, with the intention of capturing the British and Indian mindsets that led to ‘disturbances in the Punjab’ and the ensuing slaughter. Coming hot on the heels of his previous publication on the 1857 Indian Revolt, Wagner portrays how the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ was lodged in the British colonial imagination in 1919. A toxic combination of racism and mutiny paranoia, coupled with miscommunication, all contributed to heightened British anxiety towards Indians ‘agitating’ for Home Rule.

In capturing the paranoia of the Raj, Wagner explains how the actions of 1919 were also informed by similar bouts of anti-colonial nationalism in 1907, as well as the Ghadar mutiny of 1915. With the end of World War One, the sense of disappointment and betrayal among Indians was palpable, as long-awaited reforms were instead met by the detested repression of the Rowlatt Acts. In the ensuing protests, tensions become increasingly heightened as the colonial state escalated its suppression, leading to a bloody riot three days before the massacre in which numerous Indians (the numbers remain unknown), as well as five Europeans, were killed. Wagner’s attention to the riot in the first half of the book aims to show the mentality behind colonial retribution. The British would later seek vengeance through grandiose statements of collective punishment both through the massacre and the humiliation of making Indians crawl on the ground on which a British woman was beaten during the riot.

Image Credit: Panorama of Jallianwala Bagh memorial (Bijay Chaurasia CC BY SA 4.0)

Many of the details of the riot are emphasised by Wagner, highlighting the different spaces around Amritsar. The photos and diary record he has collected allow Wagner to evocatively recreate the sights and even the smells of Amritsar, from the polished European residences of the civil lines to the small, winding and insalubrious streets of Old Amritsar. These two worlds collide at the intersection of the railway bridge that the Indian protesters tried to cross to secure the release of two arrested nationalist leaders. This transgression of the segregated space was punished by rifle fire, turning an already angry protest into a violent riot.

The near-microscopic lens used to analyse the build-up to the massacre makes Amritsar 1919 something of a microhistory. This allows Wagner to cover the events leading up to the massacre in minute detail. Though significant nationalist leaders such as Gandhi had a prominent role in the anti-colonial agitation, a micro-historical approach has allowed Wagner to emphasise the significance of local leaders such as Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. The protesters in Amritsar had quickly broken with Gandhi’s notion of Satyagraha, or ‘peaceful resistance’. The significance of local figures was also true of the British administration in Amritsar, with the Punjab governed more directly from ‘the man on the spot’ rather than following regulations from New Delhi.

That ‘man on the spot’, General Reginald Dyer, the instigator of the massacre, is followed more closely in the second half of the book. His decision to take what he called ‘decisive action’ raises questions as to whether Dyer’s actions were the result of one hot-headed British officer or whether they represented a norm in British Imperial rule. Many British historians have been fast to point out that Amritsar was one bloody episode in two centuries of generally benevolent administration. Wagner, however, firmly concludes that Dyer was not an exception to the British rule, instead finding precedent in many previous incidents of colonial retribution.

This focus on Dyer means the book is heavily reliant on government sources, especially the reports conducted by the investigative commission into the massacre, as well as diaries kept by British residents of Amritsar. Much of the Indian perspective comes from the figure of Hans Raj, an Indian revolutionary turned British informer (under torture), making his testimony suspect. Conversely, the Indian National Congress’s investigation is a major source for much of the Indian perspective. Wagner himself admits some of these issues with his sources, especially as the British commission often mitigated the scale of the massacre, whilst the Congress investigation wished to highlight it, offering very different perspectives. However, this is a very real and broader issue in the study of Indian colonial history, whereby official British documents remain considerably more accessible than Indian documents. This is true even when conducting archival research in India, which Wagner has done extensively.

The contention over the details of the massacre, which began in the months following it, is still alive today. The number of deaths is still hotly contested, as is what has become of the space where the massacre occurred. The once empty plot of land has been turned into a shrine of martyrdom commemorating India’s freedom struggle, rather than a memorial to the individual victims whose names are not mentioned. Yet many of the Indians who died on 13 April 1919 were not necessarily Swadeshis (freedom fighters), but ordinary people, bystanders enjoying a religious holiday. Their murder would become the symbolic platform over which Indian nationalists would make the case for independence.

In conclusion, Amritsar 1919 is a well-documented addition to Wagner’s growing canon on colonial violence. The book is easily accessible to readers, whilst covering important academic topics within the field of imperial history. Wagner is a talented writer, and he emotively captures a picture of post-war Amritsar, the horror of the massacre and the violent humiliation inflicted by British colonial retribution.


Thomas Gidney is a PHD student at the IHEID Graduate Institute in Geneva. His research focus is on India’s historic ties to international organisations and British India’s membership of the League of Nations.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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Rose Deller

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