You've probably seen the film Gandhi and you likely think that you know all about the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. After all, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 academy award winning film did an incredible job of recreating every detail of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordering his Gurkha and Sikh troops to open fire on a peaceful crowd listening to a nationalist speech. Right? Well, professor Kim Wagner of the University of London Queen Mary wants to undo the mythology that surrounds this event.
Critiquing both Indian nationalist narratives and Raj nostalgia, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (Yale University Press, 2019) puts this act of colonial violence in its proper historical context. Based on meticulous archival research and presented in a lively and engaging style, Wagner argues that this massacre was not an aberration from an otherwise just and well-managed British colony. Rather, the massacre was part of a longer history of violence that includes the suppression of the Thugee, the brutal crushing of the 1857 mutiny, and a series of other violent events. Indeed, Wagner sees British violence as central to the imperial project. The book also explores the afterlife of the massacre, including popular British support for the disgraced Dyer and the uses of the event by the Indian nationalist movement. Considering President Trump’s recent pardoning of a Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes, our discussion of Amritsar 1919 resonates with current events.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford, 2018). When he’s not reading or talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.
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