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Churchill's Debate - House of Commans: Jallianwala Bagh
Posted by Preet Mohan S Ahluwalia Send Email to Author on Thursday, 7/12/2001 12:16 PM MDT

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Unrest in India erupted into open violence. In April 1919, under order of General Dyer, troops opened fire on a crowd at Amritsar, killing 379 unarmed civilians and wounding over a thousand. The Commander-in-Chief in India recommended that Dyer should be ordered to retire, and the matter came before the Army Council for review. The Council accepted the recommendation, as did the Cabinet.

There were two distinct groups hostile to this decision. One supported Dyer vehemently, and considered that he had been harshly treated. The other argued that sterner penalties should be imposed upon him. Churchill's speech in defence of the Cabinet's decision - one of his most effective in this Parliament - was often quoted against him in the 1931-1935 debates on the Government of India Act.


July 8, 1920
House of Commons

I will deal first with the action of the Army Council, for which I accept full responsibility. The conduct of a military officer may be dealt with in three perfectly distinct spheres. First of all, he may be removed from his employment or his appointment, relegated to half pay, and told that he has no prospects of being employed again. This may be done to him by a simple administrative act.

It is sufficient for the competent superior authority to decide that the interests of the public service would be better served if someone else were appointed in his stead, to justify and complete the taking of such a step. The officer in question has no redress. He has no claim to a court of inquiry or a court martial. He has no protection of any kind against being deprived of his appointment, and being informed that he has no further prospects of getting another. This procedure may seem somewhat harsh, but a little reflection will show that it is inevitable.

There is no excuse for superior authority not choosing the most suitable agents for particular duties, and not removing unsuitable agents from particular duties. During the War, as every Member of the Committee knows, hundreds, and probably thousands, of officers have been so dealt with by their superiors; and since the War, the tremendous contraction of the Army has imposed similar hardships on hundreds, and possibly thousands, of officers against whom not one word of reproach could be uttered, and whose careers in many cases have been careers of real distinction and of invariable good service....

I now come to the second method. The second method is of a more serious character, and it affects, not the employment of an officer, but his status and his rank. Here it is not a question of choosing the right man for a particular job, but of retiring an officer compulsorily from the Service, or imposing on him some reduction or forfeiture in his pension or retired pay....

Coming to the case of General Dyer, it will be seen that he was removed from his appointment by the Commander-in-Chief in India; that he was passed over by the Board in India for promotion; that he was informed, as hundreds of officers and have been informed, that there was no prospect of further employment him under the Government of India; and that, in consequence, he reverted to half-pay. These proceedings were brought formally to the notice of be retired from the Army, and by a telegram from the Commander-in-Chief in India, which similarly recommended that he should be ordered to retire.

However we may dwell upon all this, one tremendous fact stands out - I mean the slaughter of nearly 400 persons and the wounding of probably three or four times as many, at the Jallian Wallah Bagh on 13th April. That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.

There are certain broad lines by which, I think, an officer in such cases should be guided. First of all, I think he may ask himself, Is the crowd attacking anything or anybody? Surely that is the first question. Are they trying to force their way forward to the attack of some building, or some cordon of troops or police, or are they attempting to attack some band of persons or some individual who has excited their hostility? Is the crowd attacking? That is the first question which would naturally arise. The second question is this: Is the crowd armed? That is surely another great simple fundamental question. By armed I mean armed with lethal weapons.

At Amritsar the crowd was neither armed nor attacking. [Interruption.] I carefully said that when I used the word "armed" I meant armed with lethal weapons, or with firearms. There is no dispute between us on that point. "I was confronted," says General Dyer, "by a revolutionary army." What is the chief characteristic of an army? Surely it is that it is armed. This crowd was unarmed. These are simple tests which it is not too much to expect officers in these difficult situations to apply.

These observations are mainly of a general character, but their relevance to the case under discussion can be well understood, and they lead me to the specific circumstances of the fusillade at the Jallian Wallah Bagh. Let me marshal the facts. The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.

It stopped only when it was on the point of exhaustion, enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on its return journey. If more troops had been available, says this officer, the casualties would have been, greater in proportion. If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally when the ammunition had reached a point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away.

I deeply regret to find myself in a difference of opinion from many of those with whom, in the general drift of the world's affairs at the present time, I feel myself in the strongest sympathy; but I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time upon our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or other, that this is not the British way of doing business.

I shall be told that it "saved India." I do not believe it for a moment. The British power in India does not stand on such foundations. It stands on much stronger foundations.... When one contemplates [these] solid, material facts, there is no need for foolish panic, or talk of its being necessary to produce a situation like that at Jallian Wallah Bagh in order to save India. On the contrary, as we contemplate the great physical forces and the power at the disposal of the British Government in their relations with the native population of India, we ought to remember the words of Macaulay: "and then was seen what we believe to be the most frightful of all spectacles, the strength of civilisation without its mercy."

Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it. The British way of doing things, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, who feels intensely upon this subject, has pointed out, has always meant and implied close and effectual co-operation with the people of the country. In every part of the British Empire that has been our aim, and in no part have we arrived at such success as in India, whose princes spent their treasure in our cause, whose brave soldiers fought side by side with our own men, whose intelligent and gifted people are co-operating at the present moment with us in every sphere of government and of industry.


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