Fear is the key

The Butcher of Amritsar by Nigel Collett has created quite a stir in Britain and in India, too. The first major dispassionate biography of General Reginald Dyer, after a family sponsored one in 1929, this 575-page book is well researched with 142 pages devoted to the appendix, chapter notes, bibliography, index etc.

Lt-Col Nigel Collett had served in the British Army. He was posted abroad for most of his career and commanded troops from various nations. He first got hold of Dyer’s book Raiders of the Sarhad while serving in the Army, but it was only in 2000 that he came back to the book and its author while preparing a dissertation for a course in biography at the University of Buckingham.

Three years later, he had the manuscript ready. It took him another year to find a publisher and for the book to come out. The following are the excerpts from an exclusive interview with Roopinder Singh:

The title of your book is quite strong. Did you face any opposition to it in the UK?

I think that the mass murder of so many people is butchery and the title is appropriate. Nobody knows Dyer in the UK now and there was no opposition to what I have written in the UK.

However, during his time, sadly, an overwhelming majority of people supported him and believed his version. I think that many of the British in Punjab at that time were quite happy at what he had done, and that in fact is one of the most horrifying things. I don’t support any conspiracy theory but they couldn’t conceive that a British officer could carry out the kind of atrocities that the Germans had carried out in Flanders, France, during World War I.

If there was no conspiracy, there was certainly complicity?

Yes, I would go along with that. He found support in India, in England, and even in a court of law in a defamation case he brought about against Sir Shankaran Nair who had written about Dyer’s role in Amritsar in his book Gandhi and Anarchy, besides the House of Lords. Dyer won the defamation case and his supporters could maintain that he was vindicated by a British court of law.

What drove Dyer to what he did at Jallianwala Bagh?

What drove him was fear that the entire society he was a part of, everything he held on to, what the Raj had acquired in the past 100 years, everything he held dear, including his wife, Annie, was under threat. I believe he was traumatised by the whole thing. In a military report, he says: "We can not be very brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear."

Do you think that Dyer really thought that there would be a 1857-like situation all over again?

Yes, I think there was a deep psychological problem that a lot of British in India at the time believed there could be recurrence of the mutiny and of what they called "dishonouring their women". This comes forth in official documents and archived material.

Was Dyer really the buff honest soldier who "did his duty as he though it fit"?

No. This was a myth perpetuated by him, his wife Annie and his supporters. Raiders of the Sarhad is dishonest, and the facts in it do not conform to the log books of the period preserved in England.

How was it that you wrote such a voluminous book, whereas most people would like to write smaller ones?

My publisher in England encouraged me to cut it down. I do think that it is a bit long and Dyer's mid-life is a bit tedious, but my feeling is that it is important enough to justify treating his life properly. To cut his life is to reduce the explanation. Also, I had found out so much more about him that needed to be on record so that people could make use of this one, so I decided to go the whole way, even though I realised that the book, as a work of art, was maybe not quite as good as it could have been.

Was the research difficult?

Dyer’s wife had destroyed his letters and diaries after he died, but I found material in London and New Delhi.

So much has been written on Dyer. Why did you want to write another book on him?

Actually, there is only one book— The Life of General Dyer by Ian Colvin, a right wing reporter for The Morning Post, which was published in1929. The paper had established a fund in support of Dyer. Colvin wrote the book that established the Dyer legend. It was sponsored by Dyer’s wife, and Colvin's facts were tilted. He put into it what was good and left out the bad. It wasn't inaccurate but it created a picture that wasn't whole. Since then, the only things that have been written about Dyer have been as a part of a story, so nobody really has ferreted out the life of Dyer as a whole. So this is actually the first one since 1929.

What was the experience of writing the biography of Dyer like?

It was not a biography that I enjoyed writing, but he was a character worth writing about.

Has the lesson of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy been learnt?

No, not always. The British learnt it in North Ireland, but not in Iraq. Army officers in Britain are studying the book to see what shouldn’t be done.