Wagner’s considerable research and diligence in putting together this account is admirable. But at places, such as in the narrative of the clashes on April 10, more rank-and-file Indian voices would have ensured better balance: it was after all inept handling and arbitrary shooting that angered the mob, unarmed and peaceful to begin with, resulting in the five graphically detailed European deaths. Wagner’s more level treatment of the aftermath of the massacre itself brings out the prejudices that fuelled the debate – between civilians and the Army, Liberals and Conservatives, Commons and the Lords – on what to do with Dyer: whether to regard him as “the butcher of Amritsar” or indeed the “The Man Who Saved India” for the empire. In the process he effectively unmasks Winston Churchill who disingenuously resorted to British exceptionalism – blaming Dyer for a “monstrous” act – while distancing the larger colonial enterprise from men like him.
Making historical and scholarly (as opposed to political or emotional) sense of this tragedy is one of the principal intentions of Wagner’s study. Both parties thought their actions legitimate. But how did a massacre resemble justifiable military action for the Raj’s officials?..Wagner’s nuanced book explains the inner workings of both sides. The Indians were certainly the victims: despite their violence on the eve of Jallianwala Bagh, bricks and sticks ought not to have provoked any government to prepare air power against the people it governed.
Wagner’s style is coolly forensic and scholarly. He sets the massacre in its full historical context, and with massive research into a wide range of primary sources—almost every sentence is footnoted — gets as close as we are ever likely to get to the truth of what happened in Jallianwalla Bagh. In the process, he demolishes a large number of myths that have grown up around the event, both imperial and nationalist...Books such as Amritsar 1919 and The Patient Assassin are now more important than ever because they help us to understand why Indians — like so many other peoples around the globe — often have such bitter memories of British rule.
The story of the massacre has been told many times, but rarely with such narrative vigour and moral passion as by Kim Wagner in this centenary account. He quotes at length from Dyer’s own evidence to the commission of inquiry led by Lord Hunter, who had been solicitor general for Scotland in the Asquith government. Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’
One must recall that Wagner teaches imperial history – a highly politicised area of intellectual enquiry where there’s little sympathy for Britain’s colonial exploits. He harps on about "racialised" violence, spaces and logic in ways not always helpful... Wagner’s text would have been improved by more colour. He mentions Dyer was born in India, but not that his Irish family ran the Murree brewery. He records that Gerard Wathen returned to England to run the Hall school, but not that this was in London where it continues to this day as a successful preparatory school. Such slight observations might have lifted a thorough and readable academic exercise into something more universal.
In less skilled hands this spare-no-detail approach might well have suffocated readers, but the book is written with a humane commitment to the truth that will impress. Wagner seeks to establish what happened on the day of the massacre and why, dedicating entire chapters to each of the preceding three days. Wagner’s explanations are dispassionate and he adds that “to explain is not to justify”. He says that his book will appeal neither to Raj nostalgists, nor to Indian nationalist mythologists.