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The DIB and Century Ireland

13 April 2019

On the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre read the DIB entry on Sir Michael O'Dwyer who was Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab in 1919, written by David Murphy.

Sir Michael Francis O'Dwyer (1864–1940), Indian civil servant and lieutenant-governor of the Punjab (1913–19), was born 28 April 1864 at Barronstown, Co. Tipperary, sixth son among fourteen children of John O'Dwyer, owner of a small estate, and his wife Margaret, daughter of Patrick Quirk of Toom, Co. Tipperary. Two of his brothers became Jesuit priests, while two others served in India. His initial education was at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, King's Co. (Offaly), and in 1882 he passed the entrance examination for the Indian Civil Service. During his probationary period he studied at Balliol College, Oxford (1882–5), where he obtained a first in jurisprudence. He passed the final ICS entrance exam in 1884 and travelled to India in 1885, where he was posted as the assistant commissioner at Shahpur in the Punjab. 

In 1896 he was made director of land records and agriculture projects in the Punjab, and in 1897 he was put in charge of the land settlement projects in the Alwar and Bharatpur states. He spent a period of leave in Ireland and Russia, where he passed an interpreter's exam, and was then appointed by Lord Curzon to the Punjab–North West Frontier boundary commission (1899–1901). This position was a dual appointment and he also served as political resident in the notoriously violent ‘unadministered tracts’ of the North West Frontier Province. He had proven himself in a number of difficult postings and was obviously destined for high office when he was appointed (1901) revenue commissioner of the province. In 1908 he was created a CSI and became acting resident in Hyderabad. This was followed by a posting as agent to the governor general of Central India (1910–12). Throughout his early service in India, he had become a popular figure among the rural communities in which he often worked, while he had also shown himself to be extremely hostile to the aspirations of the Indian National Congress. He succeeded Sir Louis Dane as lieutenant-governor of the Punjab in 1913 and served in this capacity during one of the most volatile periods in the turbulent history of the province. He was created a KCSI in 1913. 

The first few months of the first world war saw the return of thousands of Sikh emigrants from America, Canada, and the Far East. They had been influenced by various political ideologies and this new-found political sophistication manifested itself in the Ghadr movement, which pressed for an end to British rule in the Punjab. O'Dwyer oversaw the introduction of new legislation designed to crush the Ghadr movement while he also gave the police more men and resources. Having stifled insurrectionary activity, he reorganised the recruiting structure for the Indian army in the Punjab and ultimately over 500,000 Punjabis enlisted during the course of the war. In 1916 he was made a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, and he was created a GCIE in 1917. 

By the end of the war, however, the Punjab had reached political boiling point and O'Dwyer was increasingly determined that he was not going to lose control in a repeat of the sepoy rebellion of 1857. He had concerns about German and Bolshevik agents provocateurs inciting a rebellion in the province, but he was convinced that the real danger came from Indian nationalists, whose protests were becoming more vocal and violent. Against a backdrop of disturbances all over India, and also in Burma and Cairo, he became a champion of the Rowlett acts, a series of anti-insurrectionary measures. Yet violent protests continued and he subjected the members of the Lahore council to a harangue in March 1919, concluding ominously that, for those who continued to protest, ‘a day of reckoning is in store for them’ (Draper, The Amritsar massacre, 48). 

O'Dwyer's career in India was ultimately overshadowed by the events at Amritsar in April 1919. Following a series of riots in which several Europeans had been killed the local military commander, Brig.-gen. Reginald E. H. Dyer, declared martial law in Amritsar and banned any further political meetings. On 13 April he was informed that a meeting was in progress at the Jallianwala Bagh and he went there with troops and an armoured car. He found a large crowd assembled, estimated variously at between 5,000 to 20,000 people. Some had indeed gathered for a political meeting, but many were there to visit a local shrine. Without issuing any warning, Dyer ordered his troops to fire, and in a prolonged period of firing they expended 1,650 rounds. 379 people were killed and over 1,200 were wounded. The victims included men, women, and children. On receiving Dyer's initial report, O'Dwyer telegraphed back: ‘Your action correct and the lieutenant-governor approves’. He cooperated with the subsequent inquiry established under Lord Hunter and, in a series of forthright statements, supported Dyer's actions. Dyer was censured and ordered to resign; and although O'Dwyer remained in India, his career was effectively over. He served on Lord Escher's committee on the Indian army (1919–20), but he was becoming noted for his opposition to the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms, a stance that put him at odds with the long-term policies of the government of India. 

In 1924 he sued Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair for libel due to statements made in Nair's book Gandhi and anarchy(1922); he was awarded £500 in damages. He retired from the ICS in 1925 and returned to England, where he remained a prominent spokesman on Indian affairs, often writing articles on India for the newspapers. In 1925 he published India as I knew it, 1885–1925, in which he gave his own account of events at Amritsar and his views of government reforms in India, and he continued to champion Gen. Dyer. He also studied his family's history, and published The O'Dwyers of Kilnamanagh (1933). 

His actions made him the focus of attention of a young Indian nationalist, Udham Singh, who had been present as a child at Amritsar, and arrived in England in 1933. When O'Dwyer attended a combined meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asia Society at Caxton Hall in London (13 March 1940), Singh was present and shot him dead. His assassination caused widespread shock, and Singh was convicted and hanged; his remains were returned to Amritsar in 1974 and he became an honoured Sikh martyr. A memorial plaque was later placed to O'Dwyer in the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, Warwick St., London. 

He married (1896) Una, daughter of Antoine Bord of Castres, France. They had one son and one daughter. There are substantial collections of his papers in the PRO, London, and the Oriental and India Office collections in the BL. 

O'Dwyer was one of the most controversial Irishmen ever to serve in India. A pugnacious opponent of Indian nationalism, he was acutely sensitive to India’s religious and social tensions, and argued that an independent India would result in sectarian disputes and violence. Despite his many worthwhile insights on Indian society, he continues to be associated with one of the worst atrocities committed against civilians during the early twentieth century. 

Burke, Peerage (1912), 2377; Sir Michael Francis O'Dwyer, India as I knew it, 1885–1925 (1925); id., The O'Dwyers of Kilnamanagh (1933); Times, 14–16 Mar. 1940; Annual Reg., 1940, 409; WWW; Rupert Furneaux, Massacre at Amritsar (1963); Alfred Draper, The Amritsar massacre: twilight of the Raj (2nd ed., 1985); T. G. Fraser, ‘Ireland and India’, Keith Jeffery (ed.), An Irish Empire? Aspects of Ireland and the British Empire (1996); John F. Riddick, Who was who in British India (1998), 275–6


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