Remembering the Amritsar Massacre: A Bloody Step Toward Indian Independence

World War I brought India one step closer to demanding its independence from Great Britain.

Indian regiments sailed overseas and fought alongside their Canadian and Australian counterparts. (If you visit the memorial gateway at Ypres, you will see how many of them died in defense of the empire.) Indian nationalists loyally supported the British government during the war, fully expecting that British victory would end with Indian self-rule on the dominion model.

Instead of self-rule, India got repressive legislation. The Rowlatt Acts, passed by India’s Imperial Legislative Council in March, 1919, continued the special wartime powers of the Defense of India Act. The new act took powers originally intended to protect India against wartime agitators–including the right to imprison those suspected of “revolutionary conspiracy” for up to two years without trial–and aimed them at the nationalist movement.

Indian members of the legislative council resigned their seats in protest. Mahatma Gandhi took the protest further, declaring a national day of work stoppage in the first week of April as the first step in a full-scale campaign of non-violent, non-cooperation against the so-called “Black Acts”.

The first implementation of the new laws occurred on April 10 in the Sikh city of Amritsar. The government of the Punjab arrested Indian leaders who had organized anti-Rowlatt meetings and deported them without formal charges or trials. When their followers organized a protest march, troops fired on the marchers, causing a riot. Five Englishmen were killed and an Englishwoman was attacked. (She was rescued from the rioters by local Indians.)

Brigadier General Reginald Dyer was called into Amritsar to restore order. The situation called for diplomacy and good sense. Dyer used neither. On April 13, he announced a ban on public gatherings of any kind. That afternoon, 10,000 Indians assembled in an enclosed public park called Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate a Hindu religious festival. Dyer arrived with a troop of Gurkhas and ordered them to block the entrance to the park. Giving the celebrants little warning and no way to escape, he ordered the soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowd. They fired 1650 rounds in ten minutes, killing nearly 400 people and wounding over 1000.

In Britain, Dyer was widely acclaimed as “the man who saved India.” The House of Lords passed a movement approving his actions. The Morning Post collected £26,000 for his retirement and gave him a jeweled sword inscribed “Saviour of the Punjab.”

The government of India censured Dyer’s actions and forced him to resign his commission, but did nothing to stop local officials from continuing to inflame public opinion. In the Punjab, which remained under martial law for months following the Amritsar massacre, government officials acting “in defense of the realm” repeatedly humiliated and offended the people under their rule with actions such as making Indians crawl through Jallianwala Bagh.

Instead of “saving India”, Dyer accelerated Indian nationalist activity. Many Indians who had previously been loyal supporters of the Raj now joined the Indian National Congress, India’s largest nationalist organization. Bengal poet Rabindranath Tagore resigned the knighthood he had received after winning the 1913 Nobel prize for Literature. Motilal Nehru, president of the Congress and father of the first president of independent India, declared that “all talk of reform is a mockery”. Attempts to become equal partners within the Raj were almost over. Soon the push for independence would begin.

Narrow entrance into Jallianwala Bagh


A Love Letter to Independent Bookstores


I’ve never seldom, met a bookstore (or book-selling venue) I didn’t like. I will happily browse through a big box store, a used bookstore, or the odd shelf of books in a flea market stall. In a strange town or foreign city, a bookstore visit will always make me happy, even if most of the books are in a language I can’t read. I’ve never come away from a library sale without an armload, or in the case of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference annual book sale, several canvas bags full.* But independent book stores have a special place in my heart.

Heritage Books in Springfield, Missouri, was my first bookstore crush. It was a small store in a strip mall within walking distance of my house. In retrospect I realize that the selection was both small and eccentric, but at the time it seemed as bounteous as the Strand Bookstore in New York, which boasts eighteen miles of books. In some ways both the smallness and the eccentricity were to my benefit as a novice book buyer. On those rare occasions when I had some money to spend on a book, I gave in to the delights of serendipity, finding books I didn’t know existed.

Today I live in Chicago, which is home to fabulous independent bookstores. Once again, I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of my favorite stores: the very academic Seminary Coop Bookstore and its more commercial sibling, 57th Street Books. I browse. I chat about books with booksellers. I eavesdrop on the bookish conversation of others. I check to see if my own books are on the shelves. I check to see if my friends’ books are on the shelves. I attend an occasional reading when the stars are in alignment. I resist the temptation to buy books I don’t need, because at this point I already own several hundred books I have not yet read. And I give in to the temptation to buy more books because with bookstores it’s a case of use them or lose them.

In the United States, the last Saturday of April is Independent Bookstore Day–a nationwide party for book lovers. (If you’re reading this the day it comes out, that’s tomorrow.) If you’re lucky enough to have an independent bookstore near you, stop by and show them some love. Me? I’ll be heading to 57th Street Books and the Seminary Coop with a wish list and an eye for a serendipitous find.

*Held each year on the weekend around Columbus Day. It’s a dangerous event. See you there?

The Women Who Wrote the War


Women in the newspaper business had the same experience of women in other walks of life in World War II: vacancies filled by men who left for the front created opportunities for women. Women reporters made the leap from the society pages to to the front page. Women worked as copy editors and typesetters. Some ran presses. By 1943, newspaper staffs in smaller American cities were fifty percent female. And a small number of American women, less than a hundred total, found their way to the front as war correspondents.*

Before I picked up Nancy Caldwell Sorel’s The Women Who Wrote the War, I knew the names of precisely two female war correspondents who worked in World War II: photographer Margaret Bourke-White and journalist Martha Gellhorn.** And I didn’t know much about either of them.

Sorel tells the stories of the well-known and the obscure. She places them in the context of their female predecessors, and considers how their experiences in earlier wars trained them for World War II. (Martha Gellhorn wasn’t the only woman to report on the Spanish Civil War.) She looks at their lives as well as their reportage. She shows how they got around the barriers the army placed in their way: because they were barred from official press briefings until very late in the war they found and told stories of heroism and heartbreak outside the battlefield, creating a richer picture of the war as a whole for people back home. Some of them went on to report aftermath of the peace.

The Women Who Wrote the War is a delight to read. Obviously there’s more than one way to look at women and war.

*If you know of a book about the role played by women in the newspaper business outside the United States during the war, let me know.

**I learned about Gellhorn while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent Spain in Our Hearts—which is about the Spanish Civil War, not World War II.