(This interview was done in 2005)
We cannot we brave unless we be possessed of a greater fear... My duty and my military instincts told me to fire.
~ August 25, 1919, draft report on Jallianwalla Bagh by General Reginald Dyer
What makes an outstanding biography? Can a writer ever be objective about a larger than life historical figure he is attempting to render? To what extent should a biographer identify with his subject?
Hong Kong-based British author Nigel Collett's 2005 biography of Gen. Dyer, The Butcher of Amritsar (Rupa & Co.) forces the reader to tussle with these core issues. What propelled the man who fired on an unarmed Indian crowd at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919? Did his massacre of over 200 innocent people prove the moral bankruptcy of the Raj, as Gandhi and Nehru contended?
Reading through Collett's 592 well-researched pages, we glean insights into Dyer's complex personality. As a self-opinionated individual sensitive to slights because of a stutter, prone to mould facts to inflate his own myth as a defender of the British Empire.
Could this stem from a fear of the collapse of all he held dear? Was he moulded by his military campaigns, especially the Persian one Dyer glorified through his book, The Raiders of the Sarhad (1921)? How accurate was Ian Colvin's official Life of Dyer, largely dependent on the widowed Annie Dyer's accounts?
Collett's meticulous book is rounded out by detailing Jallianwala Bagh, the stance of Sir Michael O'Dwyer (then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab), the Hunter committee proceedings, the House of Commons debate, the public subscription for Dyer, a totally muddle-headed 1921 Globe article by Dyer, and the essence of his last years.
On the surface, Collett appears to share some common ground with Dyer. With 20 years in the British army, Collett commanded the Gurkhas in Hong Kong for almost decade from 1985. On retirement, his bonding with his ex-soldiers propelled him to set up a company dedicated to finding jobs for ex-British army Gurkhas, principally with shipping companies. He shares Dyer's flair for languages, especially Nepali and Baluchi.
In Bangalore on a 2005 book tour that also took him to New Delhi, Chandigarh and Mumbai, Collett was preparing for a Raj Bhavan launch. He took time off to demystify Dyer and share the making of the book.
Excerpts from an interview.
What kind of an Indian reception have you received so far?
In Delhi, some felt I was trying to whitewash the Raj and blame it all on Dyer. A reasonable point of view. Others complained of my lack of emotion in the book. That's because I wanted readers to have their own final say on Dyer from the facts.
I gather it was during your MA in Biography from the University of Buckingham in 2001 that you decided to do a dissertation on Dyer. Could it be because you share so much in common?
Yes, there were much that echoed in his life and mine. The service abroad with non-English troops chimed within me in my unusual army career. Commanding Gurkha soldiers was one of the joys of my life. I served in the desert, like Dyer did. I was with Pakistani Baluch troops in Oman in 1981. My interest in Dyer was originally the Baluch aspect. I also read Dyer's book on the Sarhad campaign in Persia, a romp, a Boy's Own story. I thought it was the key to Amritsar, to the kind of man Dyer was.
Was it tough researching him?
There were almost no primary sources, hardly anything handwritten. It would seem as if Annie destroyed his diaries and letters, perhaps because she deliberately set about creating this picture of him as a hero. I found a few certificates, photos and press cuttings that the family had auctioned to the British National Army Museum.
What aspect of Dyer interested you originally?
I was more interested in him as a soldier, having come to him through Persia. I found new stuff that had not been dug out before. The historians who wrote about Jallianwala Bagh, for instance V.N. Datta, had never looked at Persia. A long way off their radar.
To me, Annie Dyer's version of events through Colvin was puzzling...
Colvin's Life of Dyer was widely circulated. At the Morning Post, this rightwing, diehard journalist was called the conscience of the Conservative Party. By omitting facts, he created a picture that wasn't true...
Your book gave me a picture of the man that resonated with his final action at Amritsar...
What persuaded me Dyer wasn't a bloodthirsty bully was the fact that he went to his grave worrying about whether he was right or wrong. That caused controversy in Delhi. People weren't willing to believe he wasn't a monster. That's as close as I can get to the truth until we can come up with his diaries.
Since all history tends to be coloured by the narrator, how did you go about rendering Dyer with objectivity?
I got very emotionally involved. I was devastated by the Indian National Congress report, especially the heartrending witness statements. I wanted to understand Dyer as a soldier might. That's partly why I went into his military career so much.
As a soldier, do you have a special perspective as a biographer?
I'd ask: What did he feel his place in the world to be? How does the soldier view others? The reports of how the soldiers adulated Dyer are inexplicable to a lot of people. That would be a key to the man.
The technical log sheets helped me to understand the significance of his Persian campaign. In his book, he maintained he'd done something marvellous, while his careful log sheets indicated the opposite.
As an individual, how would you judge Dyer?
I confess I didn't like him. I couldn't warm to him at all. Personally, if I'd met him in the officer's mess, I wouldn't have enjoyed his company.
What qualities did you like in him?
His regimental soldiering. I liked his relationship with his men. Dyer loved junior officers. But he left middle-ranking officers like the majors behind at Jallianwala Bagh. He didn't want people who might be a deterrent, who might judge him when he did something stupid. If you can't trust senior support staff, that shows insecurity.
But I think he was completely politically muddle-headed. He was stubborn and disobedient. A loose canon. Very difficult to deal with.
In the light of your bonding with the Gurkhas, you must have longed for more details about Dyer and his troops...
Yes, I did. Perhaps the hockey he played. Or more about a photograph in his possession of an unnamed person, who looked like a Sikh officer.
(The Hindu Literary Review, 2005)