Sir Michael O'Dwyer
|Born||28 April 1864|
|Died||13 March 1940 (aged 75)|
|Cause of death||Assassination|
|Resting place||Brookwood Cemetery|
|Alma mater||Balliol College, Oxford|
|Employer||British government of India|
|Organization||Indian Civil Service|
|Spouse(s)||Dame Una O'Dwyer|
|Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab|
May 1913 – 1919
It was during O'Dwyer's tenure as Punjab's Lieutenant Governor that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred in Amritsar, on 13 April 1919. As a result, his actions are considered one of the most significant factors in the rise of the Indian independence movement led by General Mohan Singh and Baba Kharak Singh. O'Dwyer endorsed Reginald Dyer's action at Jallianwala Bagh, making it clear that he felt Dyer's orders to shoot at the crowds was correct. He subsequently administered martial law in Punjab, on 15 April, and backdated it to 30 March 1919.
In 1925, he published India as I knew it, in which he wrote that his time as administrator in Punjab was preoccupied by the threat of terrorism and spread of political agitation.
In 1940, in retaliation for the massacre, O'Dwyer was assassinated by the Indian revolutionary, Udham Singh.
Early life and education
Michael Francis O'Dwyer was born on 28 April 1864 in Barronstown, Limerick Junction, County Tipperary, to John, a landowner of Barronstown, Solohead, and Margaret (née Quirke) O'Dwyer, of Toem; both County Tipperary, Ireland. He was the sixth son in a family of fourteen children, and brought up without any feeling for Irish nationalism or support for the Young Ireland Movement. At the age of seven he was sent to be schooled at St Stanislaus College, Rahan, County Offaly.
Later, he attended Mr Wren’s educational crammer school in Powis Square, London and subsequently passed the open entrance competition for the Indian Civil Service in 1882. After completing two years of probation at Balliol College, Oxford, he passed the final examination in 1884 in fourth place overall. At the time, the ICS examination was highly competitive with no more than 1200 ICS officers in office at one time, and he was likely influenced by the reputations of the likes of John Lawrence, one of the first British civil administrators in India. In his third year he obtained a first class in jurisprudence. Philip Woodruff has written of O'Dwyer's upbringing:
Michael O'Dwyer was one of the fourteen children of an unknown Irish land-owner of no great wealth, as much farmer as landlord. He was brought up in a world of hunting and snipe-shooting, of threatening letters and houghed cattle, where you were for the Government or against it, where you passed every day the results of lawlessness in the blackened walls of empty houses. It was a world very different from the mild and ordered life of southern England...One gets the impression [of O'Dwyer when at Balliol] of a man who seldom opened a book without a purpose, whose keen hard brain acquired quickly and did not forget but had little time for subtleties.
In 1882 in Ireland, his family home was fired upon by Irish Nationalists and the following year his father died following a second stroke. Of his siblings, two served in India and two became Jesuit priests.
In 1885 he travelled to India as an ICS officer and was first posted to Shahpur in Punjab. He distinguished himself in land revenue settlement work, and in 1896 was made director of land records and agriculture in Punjab. Subsequently he was placed in charge of the settlements of Alwar and Bharatpur states.
After a year and a half of travels around Europe and Russia, he was selected by Lord Curzon for a significant role in the organisation of the new North-West Frontier Province and its separation from Punjab. From 1901 to 1908 he was revenue commissioner, from 1908 through 1909 he was acting resident in Hyderabad and from 1910 to 1912 he was agent to the governor-general in Central India.
In December 1912, during Lord Hardinge of Penshurst's tenure as Viceroy, O'Dwyer was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. When he assumed charge in May 1913, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India and was cautioned by the Viceroy Penshurst that "the Punjab was the Province about which the Government were then the most concerned; that there was much inflammable material lying about; which required very careful handling if an explosion was to be avoided".
First World War recruitment
O'Dwyer worked closely with the military authorities and sought the aid of local rural Punjabi leaders to organise a centralised system for the recruitment of soldiers for the First World War effort, in exchange for compensation, including major land grants and formal titles. As a result, most of the recruits were drawn from rural areas of the Punjab, ultimately leaving a number of families without their breadwinners. Those that returned from the war aspired to a reward and a better life. This co-operation between the civil and military leaders and the leading rural Punjabis, as later described by the historian Tan Tai Yong, laid "the foundations of a militarized bureaucracy in colonial Punjab".
Of the Indian recruits for the War from the whole of India, the 360,000 from the Punjab were more than half. In 1917, O'Dwyer's efforts in recruiting Punjabi men for the war effort earned him appointment as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Indian Empire, when India's Viceroy was Lord Chelmsford. However, during the war there was also a growing home rule movement.
Defence of India Act 1915
He played a significant role in persuading the British government in India to pass the 1915 Defence of India Act, which gave him considerable powers. Passed on 18 March 1915, the Act allowed special tribunals for revolutionary crimes to take place, without possibilities for appeal.
From mid-March 1919, under O’Dwyer's orders, the CID in Amritsar kept a close surveillance of two Gandhian non-violent Indian nationalists, the Muslim barrister Saifuddin Kitchlew and the Hindu physician Dr. Satyapal. O'Dwyer subsequently summoned them both to Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving's house in the Civil Lines on 10 April 1919, from where they were arrested and secretly escorted to Dharamasala, at the foot of the Himalayas to be kept under house arrest. As the news of the arrest became widespread, supporters began to gather near Irving's home and what initially began as a peaceful attempt to make enquiries ended up in a violent clash. On 13 April 1919, a meeting was called to take place at Jallianwala Bagh, to protest over the arrest.
It was during O'Dwyer's tenure as Lieutenant Governor of Punjab that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre occurred in Amritsar, on 13 April 1919, three days after the onset of the riots. According to British estimates, 379 unarmed civilians were killed by Gurkha troops under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. Some estimates are greater, with more than 1500 casualties. O'Dwyer was informed of the event at 3 am the following day. When he received Dyer's initial report, O'Dwyer gave permission to General Beynon to send a telegram to Dyer which stated "your action correct and the lieutenant-governor approves".
O'Dwyer and several other senior officials and military officers supported Dyer's actions both initially when only limited information was received and later when more detailed information of the scale of the killings became available. Subsequently, martial law was imposed on 15 April and was back dated to 30 March. As a result, his actions are considered one of the most significant factors in the rise of the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. On 21 April 1919, in Dyer's defence, O'Dwyer stated to Viceroy Chelmsford "the Amritsar business cleared the air, and if there was to be holocaust anywhere, and one regrets that there should be, it was best at Amritsar".
One theory surrounding the Massacre, as described by Pearay Mohan and historian Raja Ram, is one of a "premeditated plan" conspired by O'Dwyer and others, including a young Punjabi youth Hans Raj. Other historians including Nick Lloyd, K. L. Tuteja, Anita Anand (journalist) and Kim A. Wagner have found this theory lacking evidence, and that neither was there a conspiracy or that Hans Raj was an "agent provocateur".
O'Dwyer had contended without evidence that Dyer's violent suppression of the civilian demonstration was justified because the illegal gathering was part of a premeditated conspiracy to rebellion, timed supposedly to coincide with a rumoured Afghan invasion.
Although O'Dwyer had implemented martial law in the Punjab, he denied responsibility for the consequences on the grounds that the government had relieved him of its general implementation. However he could not disclaim responsibility for the decision, after severe rioting in Gujranwala, to send an aeroplane to bomb and strafe the area. During the course of the operation at least a dozen people, including children present, were killed.
The next year, on 24 June 1920, the opposition Labour Party Conference at Scarborough unanimously passed a resolution which denounced the 'cruel and barbarous actions' of British officers in Punjab and demanded their trial, the dismissal of O'Dwyer and Chelmsford, and the repeal of the repressive legislation. The delegates rose in their places as a tribute to those killed at Jallianwala Bagh. After the Punjab disturbances, O'Dwyer was relieved of his office. Subsequently, the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, condemned O'Dwyer's severity, including his policy of communal punishment. O'Dwyer's response to the Amritsar troubles was that, that "what comes of having that Jew in Whitehall", referring to Montagu.
O'Dwyer vs Nair trial
In 1922, Sir Sankaran Nair referred to O'Dwyer in his book, Gandhi and Anarchy, stating that "before the reforms it was in the power of the Lieutenant-Governor, a single individual, to commit the atrocities in the Punjab which we know only too well". O'Dwyer subsequently successfully sued Nair for libel and was awarded £500 damages. Heard before Justice McCardie in the Court of King’s Bench in London over five weeks, beginning on 30 April 1924, it was one of the longest civil law hearings in legal history. O'Dwyer saw the trial as a way of providing justifications for Dyer's actions at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
O'Dwyer, aged 75, was shot dead at a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society (now Royal Society for Asian Affairs) in Caxton Hall in Westminster, London, on 13 March 1940, by an Indian activist, Udham Singh, in retaliation for the massacre in Amritsar.
O'Dwyer was hit by two bullets and died instantly. Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, was presiding over the meeting and was wounded. Zetland, recovering from his injuries, later opted for early retirement from his position of Secretary of State for India and was succeeded by Leo Amery as Secretary of State for India. Udham Singh made no attempt to escape and was quickly apprehended. O'Dwyer was buried in Brookwood Cemetery.
At his trial, Singh told the court:
"I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to wreak vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What a greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?"
Personal and family
O'Dwyer's wife Una (née Bord) was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in her own right in the 1919 Birthday Honours, in which their daughter, Una Mary O'Dwyer, was created a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1933, he published The O'Dwyers of Kilnamanagh: The History of an Irish Sept, a historical and genealogical treatise detailing the O'Dwyer (Ó Duibhir) noble family who had commanded the area around Thurles from the pre-Norman era until losing their castles and land during the Cromwellian confiscations of the 17th century. It was republished in the 21st century with the title The History of the O'Dwyers.
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