The hideous story of Jallianwala Bagh has been told often and well...Yet no one has told it quite like Wagner, a professor at Queen Mary University of London. He calls his book 'a microhistory of a global event', and he is true to his word. Local events from March 30 to April 30, 1919 are examined and parsed into a narrative as he assembles an elaborate forensic jigsaw. 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’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.
This month marks the centenary of the massacre, and a slew of new books mark the occasion. Few are likely to be half as good as Kim Wagner’s brilliantly clear and authoritative analysis of the massacre ... 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.
The Amritsar massacre was probably the most murderous single act in the history of the British Empire. The facts are not in doubt, but its meaning remains hotly disputed ... As Winston Churchill commented at the time, the slaughter might have been a 'monstrous event', but it was also without parallel 'on the modern history of the British Empire…an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.' Recent historians have taken the same line. Amritsar 1919 aims to show how profoundly misleading Churchill’s interpretation was. Mr Wagner maintains that Dyer acted as a loyal servant of a colonial administration founded on terror and violence ... Mr Wagner argues his case fluently and rigorously in this excellent book. The centenary would be as good a time as any to apologise for Amritsar. In Mr Wagner’s telling, such contrition might apply to many other acts of cruelty and violence visited upon Britannia’s imperial subjects.
Amritsar 1919 chronicles the run up to Jallianwala Bagh with spellbinding, almost minute-by-minute focus. The devil is in the details, and only through their mastery can the combined effects of the mutiny’s decadeslong shadow, mutual misapprehensions and otherwise reasoning men in the wrong place be grasped. Mr. Wagner’s achievement is one of balance—of minutiae and sweep and, above all, of perspective. E.M. Forster observed in A Passage to India (1924): “It is impossible to regard a tragedy from two points of view.” Mr. Wagner does so without sacrificing moral clarity or verve.
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 ... Wagner’s central purpose is to demonstrate that brutality was the driving principle of the Raj. There was, he says, nothing exceptional about Dyer and nothing extraordinary about what he did at Amritsar. The bigger fish he has his sights on here is Churchill and the subtle and effective speech by which he helped the government home in the furious debate of 8 July 1920 ... All the same, I think Wagner is too ready to dismiss Churchill’s argument about the exceptionalism of Amritsar ... Wagner really only manages to make his thesis stand up by failing to pay much attention to Dyer himself. For Amritsar was unique in its horror, in the innocence of the victims and the number of them, and in the dead-eyed callousness of the perpetrator. To put it as simply as I can: no Dyer, no massacre.