THE year 1919 was a turbulent and blood-spattered year in the history of British colonial rule in India. Inebriated by the victory of the Anglo-French-led coalition against Kaiser’s Germany and the Ottoman Empire in the WWI, the British rulers in India unleashed brutal repression to crush the Indians’ freedom struggle.
This gory year also saw the horrifying massacre of more than 400 Indian men, women and children in the Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar in the Punjab on April 13, 1919, by a British-officered military detachment commanded by the notorious Brigadier — General Rex Dyer. With Martial Law clamped on the Punjab by its sadist Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who hated all educated Indians and relished inflicting the vilest humiliation and atrocities on the locals, the bloody year 1919 also witnessed the ruthless bombing of the small town of Gujranwala, barely 60 miles from Lahore, by three war-planes of the nascent British Royal Air Force the next day after British guns had mowed down unarmed Indians in the killing field of Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar.
With Martial Law slapped on the Punjab, every newspaper in the province was placed under pre-censorship and Governor O’Dwyer’s military hatchetmen bludgeoned any journalist who dared violate the Martial Law edict. But news of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre spread like wildfire through the gossip grapevine and it triggered public agitation all over the Punjab against the British atrocity. On April 14, 1919, Gujranwala, which at that time had some 30,000 inhabitants, reacted strongly to the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. Angry Indian protesters set fire to the local railway station, the telegraph office, the district court, a Government rest house and a part of an Indian Christian Church. A British officered police posse fired on the protesters and there were some casualties.
Punjab’s Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, consulted his Martial Law aide, Brigadier-General Rex Dyer, in Amritsar (who had a day earlier killed some 400 Indians and injured 1200) and he advised that owing to overstretched troops’ deployment in the trouble-hit towns in the province, the Royal Air Force unit based in Rawalpindi be ordered to bomb the Indian agitators in Gujranwala at once. Rex Dyer proposed that the aerial bombardment of Gujranwala be conducted under the command of a R.A.F. World War I veteran, Captain D.H.M. Carberry, who shared Dyer’s contempt for Indians.
In 1919, the Royal Air Force, which had grown out of the fiery womb of WWI and gained in experience from combat with the more powerful German warplanes, was comparatively a small element in the British Armed Forces. But briskly it was becoming a useful weapon for the defence of the British Empire. General Rex Dyer’s instruction to Captain Carberry were to bomb or machine gun any crowd seen moving from the villages to Gujranwala. Leading a unit of three BE2c aircraft, Carberry dropped three 20-pound bombs over the village of Dhulla and then fired 50 rounds from his machine gun in a low-flying attack on a crowd of 150 Indian villagers said to be moving towards Gujranwala. Carberry dropped bombs on other nearby villages and machine gunned 200 people on the outskirts of Gujranwala. According to two British journalists, Anthony Read and David Fisher, who did research on the secret British records of the 1919 Martial Law operations in the Punjab in the Public Record Office in London and wrote in 1997 a book on India’s freedom struggle entitled The Proudest Day (Jonathan Cape, London), Carberry dropped four bombs in the centre of Gujranwala and fired between 100 and 150 rounds at crowds in the streets.
The British Deputy Commissioner of Gujranwala, Col. A.J. O’Brien reported to the Governor that 11 persons were killed and 27 wounded in the attack on the town by Carberry’s bombers. Betraying his penchant for shedding Indian blood, Carberry claimed that he saw no one innocent in the Indian crowd in Gujranwala from an altitude of 200 feet and he had to machine-gun them so that if a few were killed, the crowds would not gather and go to Gunjranwala to do damage there. Carberry’s argument was in line with General Dyer’s rationale for his massacre of Indians. Governor O’Dwyer and his military hatchetman, Rex Dyer deliberately concealed from the British Government in London many of the horrendous atrocities they committed during their rule by Martial Law in the Punjab in 1919. They told Whitehall that the death toll in the Jalianwala Bagh massacre was around 200 (although in point of fact it exceeded 400 killed). Even the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, was not given the full facts by his bloodthirsty Punjab Governor and his India-hater Dyer.
Despite press censorship in the Punjab, the Bombay Chronicle, edited by a fearless British Editor, B.G. Horniman, who was a close friend of Mr. M.A. Jinnah, fully exposed the Martial Law atrocities in the Punjab in his paper. The British-led Bombay police immediately deported him to London where Horniman stirred a Press storm over the gory repression in the Punjab. The British Government in London set up an Inquiry Committee headed by Lord Hunter, a former Solicitor-General of Scotland, with four British and three Indian members, and it held hearings in New Delhi and Lahore in October-November 1919.
O’Dwyer and Rex Dyer justified their atrocities on the Indian population, including the fiendish humiliation to which they were subjected by the tyrannical duo and their minions (such as crawling by Indians on the street on seeing an oncoming Briton). A British Cabinet Committee accepted the findings of the Hunter Committee; O’Dwyer and Dyer were relieved of their posts by way of indictment. The House of Commons condemned Dyer but the House of Lords by majority vote, said Dyer was treated unjustly. In April 1940, a Sikh from Amritsar, Udham Singh, who was injured in the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, shot dead Sir Michael O’Dwyer in a public meeting in London and he smilingly went to the gallows at Pentonville.