Dwyer, Dyer and Nair
And the aftermath of the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre
If one person had to be picked as a main cause for the British Empire’s collapse in India, that would be none other than the irascible Col Dyer. Strange is fact that he is popularly known as General Dyer, when he was nothing more than a Colonel (he held a temporary Brigadier Gen rank though) and was a person born and bred in India (spending only 12 years of his early life abroad), not England. Reginald Edward Harry Dyer will always be listed in the history of the peoples of the world as the butcher of Amritsar, never as the savior of Punjab as the so called enlightened lot in the blighty felt in those days. But then again in the large scheme of things, one will also recall that he reported to Michael O'Dwyer, the governor general of Punjab. And after the story unfolded, one person took up the cudgels to wage a legal battle against O'Dwyer, fighting it in the lion’s den, i.e. the hallowed British courts. He was doomed to fail and that person was none other than our esteemed Chettur Sankaran Nair. Let us try and figure out the curious entanglement that these three characters from India’s history, got into and in the course of retelling that story, get a little deeper into their lives.
Most Malayalees visit the Gururvayoor temple every year, and as usual, I could not miss noticing the 30’ tall Deepasthambham (tower lamp) at its entrance, donated by Sankaran Nair. To condense his life into a few paras is tough, to say the least, but I will make an attempt to be concise, for after all, we have to know a man to understand his actions. We shall continue on to do the same with the other two villains before they all converge to a fateful day and later flare out in separation, to a conclusion.
How Dyer found his way into the British Indian army is itself a curiosity, for he had originally joined up to study and become a surgeon. Perhaps that would have been better in posterity, but then again, he must have decided to go with his mother’s wishes, since his father would have wanted him to become a brewer and look after their many breweries in the hills. The Dyer family had started with the EIC as early as the 1820’s and spent most of their lives in India. They had certainly done well in business and Reginald or Rex as he was called at home was the 6th and youngest of Edward’s and Mary Passmore’s (Mini) sons. Their lives traversed Simla, Solan in the hills and locales such as Muree in the Punjab. The large family was brought up under Mini’s iron rule and Rex was born in 1864, a few years after the mutiny of 1857 which had drawn taut lines between the natives and the ruling British moving the administrative powers from the EIC to the British crown.
|Col Reginald Dyer|
Dyer was fluent in Hindustani and was brought up like a pukka sahib of India, learning hunting, riding and all those things the upper crest British had time to partake in. It is said that he hated hunting after seeing a monkey he had shot suffer. He studied at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, and was motoring on, quite happy in India when his father for some inexplicable reason decided to send him and his brother Walter, not to England, but to Ireland in 1875 for continuing studies at the Middleton College. Life proved tough and the two brothers who landed up like bumpkins wearing sola topis and kukris, were bullied by the local boys. Reggi or Rags as he was then known, settled down quickly with his brother, though in the midst of a virtual civil war in Ireland. Both brothers later joined the medical college and Rex took up boxing to excel at it, though hating dissection. Eventually he appeared for the army entrance examination, passing it with high marks on the second attempt (falling ill the day before the initial attempt). All records show that Rex had a tough time in England, never fitting into the formalities required for the life there and missing India.
He was continuously faulted for his inability to pronounce words with the right accent and being unfocussed. After graduating from the RMC Sandhurst in 1885, he joined the Queen’s corps and was deputed to Burma to fight in the 3rd Burma war, after a stint in Belfast. Perhaps he picked up the methods of employing extra force from his C in C Gen Roberts who commanded the forces. His return from Rangoon to India on a steamer, resulted in his involvement in a mysterious fist fight which left a number of Burmese battered by this powerful boxer. Dyer stated that it was in support of one of the Burmese who was being picked on by the others, and indicated a good amount of pent up anger and frustration in the man. The case which followed, was referred to military headquarters. Dyer went back home at long last and his father helped him write a proper report about the event after which the whole file got quashed. But it was a pointer to things to come. Dyer’s rise continued but he ended up getting estranged from his family, especially his mother who was a somewhat haughty upper class type of person, when he chose to get married to his commanding officer’s daughter Annie Ommaney in 1889. Annie and Dyer were to remain steadfast partners till the very end of his life. He was in that way quite different, quite complex perhaps, sticking out like a sore thumb in British parties, but a great supporter of equality, once even resigning from a club which refused entry to a native officer. By 1915, he had become a colonel and the next year an acting Brigadier general.
Events and days were moving rapidly against the British, the native population was becoming restive, so were the small numbers of British ruling the masses. It was clear that a large scale uprising would happen sometime, and the officers could only imagine what could happen to them when the natives in massive numbers rebelled. A whole lot of them noted in their memoirs of this gnawing fear coursing through their veins, making them irritable, restless and at times, terrified. All they needed to look at were the days in Kanpur and the Sepoy mutiny when their lot were strung up or crucified, and women violated. For them it was difficult to accept that their superior race would have to face such an eventuality. And they spent years after year living through that nerve jangling period, thinking about it, Rex Dyer included.
Chettur Sankaran Nair on the other hand, was born in 1857, the year of the mutiny or one of the first wars of Independence. He belonged to Mankara in Palghat and his ancestors had been through difficult times, having to flee the marauding Mysore armies of Tipu Sultan. The event always crossed the minds of succeeding generations, and colored his feelings against the methods used on the sometimes rebellious Moplahs of Malabar. Much later he was to confirm it by professing tough action against them in 1921 and totally disagreeing with the INC support for Khilafat. His father was a Tehsildar and his uncles also worked in administrative positions of British local governance. In fact his father Ramunny Panikkar was initially a clerk working for H V Conolly at Calicut, before becoming a Tehsildar. Nair lived a structured and charmed life, rising rapidly through the system to positions never held by another Indian.
When he was appointed as advocate general, the British made it clear that he was the ablest man the British can ever find in all of India. After a brilliant career in law, he rose to the advocate general position, he became the INC president, later authoring the Malabar marriage act thereby bringing an end to Marumakkathayam or the matrilineal society of Malabar, even though he himself was the karanavar or titular head of his Chettur thrawad. He presided as one of the Judges on the much talked about Ashe murder case, became a member of the Viceroys council and had no qualms writing occasional notes of dissent against British policy, which you may be surprised to note, the British had to accept due to the soundness of his legal and practical arguments. On a lighter note, he was one of those rare persons the caustic tonged VK Krishna Menon admired and respected. As a statesman, he found fault with what was wrong, and did not differentiate with either the British or Gandhi, and his book Gandhi and Anarchy, detailing his qualms against Gandhian methods of non-cooperation and support for Khilafat was to prove an end to his relationship with the Congress and scuttle further presence in the upper echelons of a soon to-be independent India. But he was a patriot to boot and a brilliant lawyer, a person on whom a few books have been written, which I perused but cannot be reproduced in brief here.
Sankaran Nair studied initially at Angadipuram and Cannanore, before graduating from the
He presided over the INC meeting in Madras in 1887 and was an active congressman becoming its president soon after. Between 1900 and 1921, he was mainly a political worker, sporadically working in the courts. But by then, he had moved to his well-known Palms Bungalow on Poonamalee road, and his group of lawyers were known as the Egmore clique. Bashyam and Mani Iyer headed the Mylapore clique whereas Ramarao and Parthasarathy formed the Triplicane clique. These three constituted what was informally known as the three inns of the Madras court! He also found time to join the Madras artillery corps. Sankaran Nair was to make a name finding fault with the commonly accepted practice of ICS governance and the preference for upper castes, particularly Brahmins in administration. He writes quite a bit about this in his autobiography, as to how the early North Indian congress councils were full of chaste Brahmins who would always drift off to eat sitting apart from people of lower castes, during meetings.
There is so much more in the story of Sanakaran Nair, but I guess now Is not the time for such matters, for it is time to go to the Punjab, a province which was annexed by the EIC only in April 1849 after the second Anglo Sikh war. Incidentally did you know that until the third decade of the 20th century, if one had to go from Madras to Delhi by train, they had to transit Calcutta? This GT express originally started running in 1929 between Peshawar and Mangalore and took about 104 hours, one of the longest train routes. The route was later altered to connect Lahore to Mettupalayam, which was the alighting point to reach Ooty. Anyway, we were talking about Punjab, where by 1907 one could witness a lot of unrest. Large numbers of people were unhappy with the colonization bill and Land alienation act since land could be appropriated by the British if a person had no heirs after death and later the British could sell it to anybody else. Lala Lajpat Rai led the revolts against these moves, and was successful in getting the colonization bill repealed. The world war followed with a number of Punjabis fighting for the British, but gaining nothing. A large number died in an influenza pandemic which followed.
In March 1919, the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act or the Rowlatt Act of 1919 was passed which extended emergency measures of indefinite detention and incarceration without trial in response to the perceived threats of terrorism from revolutionary nationalist organizations. Incidentally this had been in force (Defense of India act) since the world war, and was just being extended. This unpopular legislation provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless ‘in camera’ trials for proscribed political acts. The accused were denied the right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial. In effect it was a situation with 'No Dalil, No Vakil, No Appeal’ i.e., no pleas, no lawyer, no Appeal. People rose in protest, Gandhi leading it with Satyagraha movements. Hartals followed, proving to be successful. In Punjab it was a critical issue for there were many protest movements brewing up. As a preventive measure arrests of two popular leaders Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were ordered in April 1919 by O’Dwyer the governor general of Punjab. This was to start a series of actions resulting in the involvement of Dyer and a terrible massacre of many innocent people. But before we get there, who is this O’Dwyer? Many people in India are still confused between O’Dwyer and Dyer. They are different people, with the latter - a military man reporting to the former an administrator. Let’s take a look at that man and his life in India.
Michael Francis O'Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab from 1912 until 1919. An Irishman, one of 14 children from a rural family, was born around the same time as Dyer, in 1864. By 1882 he had passed the ICS entrance exams and in 1884 was posted as AC of Shahpur in Punjab. Following a relatively quiet period where he mastered some languages, he went on get appointed to the Punjab–North West Frontier boundary commission. During this posting he had additional responsibility as political resident of the notoriously violent NWFP. By 1908 he had moved to Hyderabad as acting resident and it was in 1913 that he succeeded Sir Louis Dane as lieutenant-governor of the Punjab. It was to become his last posting in India, during a period when he proved to be totally against organizations such as the INC.
As you would see, his period of governance also overlapped the world war, an event which was detrimental to many of his actions. As a zealous recruiter, he organized for many a Punjabi to join the war effort. But some of the early returnees were to spell doom for him, such as those who were behind the Ghadar movement which professed an end to British rule in Punjab. The defense act allowed him to stifle the early Ghadaris and he went on to recruit even more Punjabi soldiers, over half a million of them for the rest of the war. But it appears that Punjab was like a boiling caldron politically, and having its lid closed. An explosion was imminent. O'Dwyer was determined that he was not going to lose control in a repeat of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. He had concerns about German and Bolshevik agents inciting a rebellion in the province, but he was convinced that the real danger came from Indian nationalists, whose protests were becoming more vocal and violent. Dwyer announced to the Lahore council that ‘a day of reckoning is in store for them’. He was also concerned that the revolt was imminent, especially as this was a time when British troops typically withdrew to the hills for the summer.
Hearing about a protest Satyagraha in the offing, Dwyer had decided to act. Gandhi had been detained and prevented from entering Punjab and Satyapal and Kitchlew had been arrested and moved to Dharmasala. On 10th April 1919, crowds gathered at a bridge leading into the Civil Lines where the British commissioner was quartered, demanding a release of the two leaders. Unable to hold the crowd back, the military picket panicked and began firing, killing several protesters. The shooting of protesters resulted in a mob acting in revenge. As it transpired, a British electrician, two railway workers and three British bank employees were beaten to death.
Later, one Miss Marcella Sherwood, who supervised the Mission Day School for Girls was assaulted by the mob in a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan on the 11th. Sherwood was rescued by locals and moved to the Gobindgarh fort. Railway lines were destroyed, telegraphic posts and lines cut, and government buildings burnt as the mayhem continued. Retaliatory shooting at crowds from the military several times during the days resulted in some eight to twenty deaths. As Amritsar burned, a train bound for Peshawar containing Gurkhas armed only with Kukris unexpectedly rolled in. 50 of them were quickly issued .303 rifles from the fort. Later another train with and Baluchi and English reinforcements came in. Tragically these Baluchis and Gurkhas were to serve a big part in what transpire next. It was into this messy situation that Col Dyer was moved to from Jalandhar, in order to decisively take over control of the situation.
Although he arrived in Jalandhar as a temporary Brigade General of the 45th Infantry Brigade, he was not to know what monstrosity in store for him a later. He was leading a peaceful life, wife in tow, and in fact he proved to be adept at fancy dress fooling some officers into first thinking he was a German officer and later as a Baluch officer. It was during this period that he resigned from the Jalandhar club as it would not grant admittance to a native officer, in protest. Back in Jalandhar, Dyer and Annie were quietly dining but some hours earlier they had received a message of the events and commotion in Amritsar, from Lahore. He had sent all available troops already to Amritsar. It was a very hot summer in Punjab and it was only the next afternoon that Dyer decided to motor down to Amritsar and take personal charge of the situation there, accompanied by Briggs and Southey. Dyer had another reason to delay actions, he was actually suffering from arteriosclerosis (thus being more deliberate before moving quickly) and this added to his already short temper, when in pain. Reaching at night, he was briefed on the attack and about Miss Sherwood’s distress.
Dyer toured the city, empowered the police superintendent and moved to the railway station to ponder over the next steps. He then issued a proclamation ordering a total curfew and a threat of firing on any kind of crowd which assembled. By dawn he had moved to Rambagh, and had at his disposal, 475 British and 710 native soldiers as well as two armored cars and several machine guns.
Meanwhile Dyer got word from Shimla as Lt Gen Dwyer had reported to them and the word was ‘if troops were to be used and they were forced to open fire, they should make an example’. As all this was going on, Hans Raj, an aide to Dr. Kitchlew and an unsavory character was busy arranging a public protest meeting at 430PM the following day in the Jallianwala Bagh, now a plot of empty ground with just a well, a pepul tree and the relics of a shrine.
Sunday morning dawned and Dyer warned his soldiers not to take it out personal against any natives. They then took out a march and read the proclamation of curfew at 19 different points in the City. Curiously it was not read at the Jalianwalah Bagh or the Golden temple where the crowds were expected to be the biggest. By afternoon the Bagh started to fill up, what with many people in the city for the Biasaki celebrations. A plane flew overhead and some people scattered in panic fearing bombing, as Dwyer had ordered, in another incident. At about 4PM, Dyer heard about the meeting, and proceeded to the location with his troops. Interestingly Dwyer had earlier that afternoon preemptively proclaimed martial law in Lahore and Amritsar. Did he actually also order Dyer to do what he was going to do? We will get to that later as we sift through the ashes.
Dyer, Briggs and Anderson drove to the Bagh accompanied by 25 Baluchi’s armed with rifles, 25 Gurkhas also similarly armed and 40 Gurkhas with Kukris (carefully selected so they would not hesitate to fire on the Punjabis). The armored cars followed. Dyer, Briggs and Anderson stationed themselves at the very back. The formation now moved into the bagh, leaving the armored cars on the street as there was not enough space for them to drive through.
Without any warning, the troops took firing positions and Dyer gave the order to fire. Hans Raj first told the crowd that the Sarkar would not fire, then he entreated them not to flee stating that the shots were blanks, before bolting. It was utter chaos. The troops fired volley after volley, in total 1650 shots into the 5,000 odd crowd. As records indicate, some 379 died, including women and children. Over a thousand were injured. Dyer emotionless, directed the troops to direct fire where the crowd was the thickest, for some 10 or so minutes. The resulting massacre was according to the callous Dyer, ‘a lesson which would be felt throughout India’. He did nothing to help anybody, even the injured and dying, after the shooting.
Dyer filed an arrogant and remorseless report after the event, never once thinking he would be questioned and Dwyer immediately replied – ‘your action correct and the Lt General approves’.
Shops remained closed the following days, and Dyer threatened the owners with force and guns upon which they reopened. Something had flipped Dyers mind completely for his next steps were baffling, he issued a series of humiliating orders, forcing anybody who met an European to salaam him in respect, forcing people to crawl through the Kucha Kurrichhan alley, all bicycles were confiscated, and 93 native lawyers were forced to work as coolies and watch floggings. Many young men were flogged for assaulting Miss Sherwood. Colonel Dyer later explained the crawling order to a British inspector: "Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too."
The event involving Sherwood, was in hindsight, what brought Dyer to the breaking point. In fact she had ventured out alone in the middle of a riot, got hit a few times and was brought to the ground in the melee, not sexually assaulted, stripped or raped as was widely rumored. But then Col Dyer probably recalled the mutiny where ‘delicately nurtured white women’ had once been assaulted. His Annie was in the vicinity and this could happen to her too. A terrible fear gnawed his heart of this very possibility and he had to act before it was too late, he had to nip any possibility of a mass riot in the bud. It had nothing to do with any kind of insurrection against the crown.
O’Dwyer stated ‘the Amritsar business cleared the air, and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere, and one regrets there should be it was best at Amritsar. Speaking with perhaps a more intimate knowledge of the then situation than anyone else, I have no hesitation in saying that General Dyer's action that day was the decisive factor in crushing the rebellion, the seriousness of which is only now being realized’.
I will not dwell too much on the event and its aftermath any further, for there is so much of detail available in the public domain. While most of the British in India including people like Kipling were supportive of Dyer’s actions, Indian politicians and statesmen were in uproar. Even Churchill mentioned it to be a sinister & monstrous event as Americans condemned it. The Hunter Commission was appointed and Dyer still refused to accept the weight of his actions saying ‘I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself’. As this continued, Dyer, seriously ill with jaundice and arteriosclerosis, was hospitalized.
Legal and Home Members on the Viceroy's Council ultimately decided that, though Dyer had acted in a callous and brutal way, military or legal prosecution would not be possible due to political reasons. However, he was finally found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved of his command on 23rd March. The British meanwhile collected a large purse of close to 28,000 pounds to allow Dyer a happy retirement. It is said that Dyer did not sleep a single night after that event and died a broken man in July 1927. Miss Marcella Sherwood for one, later defended Colonel Dyer, describing him "as the 'saviour' of the Punjab and returned to continue her missionary work.
O’Dwyer cooperated with the subsequent inquiry established under Lord Hunter and, in a series of forthright statements, supported Dyer's actions. Dyer was censured and ordered to resign; and although O'Dwyer remained in India, his career was effectively over.
And now for the final part. Sankaran Nair resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council in protest against the conduct of the Government even after Annie Besant and CF Andrews begged him to stay as the Indian representative within the council. He continued in the Secretary of State’s Council and moved to England. It was largely due to his insistence that a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the events of 1919 and the guilty officials, civilian and military, were punished. ‘As far as it lay in my power’, said Sankaran Nair, ‘I was determined to prevent another Jalianwala Bagh in India ’. Sankaran Nair however could not see eye to eye with Mahatma Gandhi and wrote a book called Gandhi and Anarchy, where he detailed his hesitation in supporting Gandhian methods. In it he also wrote the so called libelous statement: "Before the Reforms it was in the power of the Lieutenant-Governor (i.e. Dwyer), a single individual, to commit the atrocities in the Punjab we know only too well”.
O’Dwyer who felt that he and Dyer had been thrown under the bus, was incensed by Nair’s words- But when they were made by a man who was a member of the Government of India - the authority to which I was directly subordinate at the time of the events in question and who had, as he claims special inner knowledge not available to the general public, I could not pass them by.
The British and Indian government tried hard to get the two dueling parties to compromise, in fact they even provided confidential information to Nair to fight his case. After all they did not want all kinds of information hitting the press wires and incensing the public even further.
The case is an interesting study by itself and I will therefore not talk too much about it, but just that it was stilted against Nair all the way. As Collett explains ‘In court, Nair found himself at a very great disadvantage. In the England of 1924 there were few who were prepared to support his view that Sir Michael O'Dwyer had been repressive tyrant, and those who were had little public standing. Only one Englishman was on Nair’s side as a witness and his evidence did not amount to much. Nair’s legal team was forced to fall back on depositions legally sworn by over 120 witnesses. Only one juror supported Nair, the Hon Harold Laski. Sir Michael O'Dwyer won his case, and was able ever thereafter to maintain that he and Dyer had been vindicated in a British court. Nair had to not only pay a fine of 500 pounds but also bear the court costs of around 7,000 Pounds. But the Nair case inflicted great damages on the British establishment, public outcry became even more strident and Justice McCardie had to bear the brunt of it, and as days went by took to occult and gambling, finally committing suicide.
Michael O’Dwyer, as you will recall was assassinated by Udham Singh (Alias Mohammed Singh Azad) in 1940 in retaliation for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. Singh said, ‘I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him’.
Nair returned to Madras in 1924, deciding to take a back seat from then on seeing Gandhiji in the ascendance. He did put in a final word though ‘Thanks to Gandhi, India has become a world's problem, that is his greatest contribution’. He spent many of his last years with KPS Menon, his son-in-law, in Ceylon continuing his yoga practices and immersed in religion. In 1934, hearing of his son-in-law Kandeth’s demise, he rushed from Madras to Madanpalle and on the way met with an accident fetching him a serious head injury. He passed away a month later, in May 1934.
He was loud, he was brusque and he was rough. That perhaps made his life amidst an overbearing British bureaucracy, bearable. But he had a sense of humor, look at the following incident which transpired after he had resigned from the viceroy’s council and you will understand the man.
Sankaran Nair had resigned in disgust from the viceroy's executive council and during the final interview, Lord Chelmsford asked if he could suggest somebody as his successor. Pointing to his peon, Ramprasad, Nair said, “He is tall, he is handsome, he wears his livery well and he will say yes to whatever you say. Altogether he will make an ideal member of the council”.
The Muree brewery which Dyer’s father started still brews beer in Pakistan. In 2013, Murree Brewery opened a franchise in India to a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, allowing the brewing, bottling and marketing of the beer in India.
Read Part 2 Hans Raj - The British Approver ...here
Armies of the Raj: From the Mutiny to Independence, 1858-1947 - Byron Farwell
The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer - Nigel Collett
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre - Savita Narain
The Amritsar Massacre, 1919 Tim Coates
Autobiography of Sir C. Sankaran Nair
Gandhi and Anarchy - C. Sankaran Nair
A short life of Sir C. Sankaran Nair, C Madhava Nair
Sir C. Sankaran Nair – KPS Menon
India as I know it - Michael O'Dwyer
The O'Dwyer v. Nair Libel Case of 1924: NIGEL A. COLLETTIndia's Prisoner: A Biography of Edward John Thompson, 1886-1946 - Mary Lago