Tue 20 October 2020

On the centenary of the horrific expression of British brutality in India, the British Government still appears unwilling to formally apologise for the killings in Jallianwala Bagh.

The Government has to consider the “financial implications” of making a formal apology for the Amritsar Massacre – which occurred 100 years ago today – according to a foreign office minister, who feels “reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past”.

The Amritsar Massacre in 1919 resulted in the death of hundreds of peaceful protesters in Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab, India. Under the command of the British Army’s Colonel Reginald Dyer, 50 Sikh and Gurkah soldiers fired 1,650 rounds into the crowd of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, who had gathered in the walled garden on the day of the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi.

In the days before the killings, most of the Punjab was put under martial law by the British, with the rights of Indians severely restricted. Gatherings of more than four people had been banned.

Dyer’s brutality was widely condemned at the time and is regarded as the beginning of the end of British rule in India.

Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for War at the time, called it a “monstrous event”.

Not enough of us are willing to engage with our unedifying past and the legacy of the British Empire.

Chris Law MP

In the centenary year of the massacre, MPs have again called on the Government to issue a formal apology – something which, beyond expressing regret, it has never done.

In a debate on the issue in Parliament this week, Mark Field, Minister for Asia and the Pacific, said it is “work in progress and I cannot make any promises”.

“I have slightly orthodox views on these matters; I feel a little reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past,” he said.

“Obviously, any Government department has concerns about making any apology, given that there may well be financial implications to doing so. I also worry a little bit that we debase the currency of apologies if we make them in relation to many, many events.”

Although he feels “that we perhaps need to go further,” Mr Field said that “the best way to honour the memory of the people who suffered and died in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago is for us all to do our best to build a new partnership between the UK and India that will work for both our countries, and to recognise that such a partnership can be an important force for good in the world at large.”

Jallianwala Bagh today. Photo by Hardeep Matharu

Prime Minister Theresa May said this week that the massacre was “a shameful scar on British Indian history” which was to be deeply regretted.

In 2013, her predecessor David Cameron was the first serving Prime Minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He also described it as a “deeply shameful event in British history”, but stopped short of an apology.

He later said that the British Government had “rightly condemned” the massacre at the time but that he did not “think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for”.

Apology and Education

In October 1919, the British Government launched an inquiry into the Amritsar Massacre. It found no evidence to support the theory that there was a conspiracy in Punjab to overthrow British rule. Dyer had committed a “grave error”, it said.

The man himself never showed any remorse and faced no official consequences.

“It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more especially throughout the Punjab,” he said. “I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed.”

Some in the media and political establishment at the time defended Dyer as a ‘hero’. Rudyard Kipling felt he “did his duty as he saw it”.

MP Preet Kaur Gill said both a formal Government apology and public education on the British Empire is required.

Speaking in the parliamentary debate this week, she said: “The apology should mark the start of learning: to teach our children about the massacre in history lessons in our schools and to learn about the context of the British Empire, which through imperialism and colonialism had exploited and subjugated people around the world.”

She referred to a YouGov poll in 2016 in which 44% of people said they were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism – more than double those who said it is something to regret.

“By othering or writing certain people out of British history – casting them simply as pawns or as a means to an end rather than individuals with their own histories – can we really be surprised that hate crime continues to exist or that racism continues to fester?” she added.

With the UK leaving the EU, amid the radicalisation of right-wing extremists and the pompous rhetoric about the rebuilding of the British Empire, we need a meaningful acknowledgement of the horrific legacy that Empire left behind.

Alison Thewliss MP

“The question therefore remains whether an apology without a genuine understanding of the past can ever provide the closure that so many Sikhs need.”

Pat McFadden MP said arguments against a formal apology for the massacre missed the point.

“Some people ask why we should apologise for one atrocity, when there have been many more in history,” he said. “‘Why should we judge the past by the standards of today?’ The crucial point is that this massacre was widely condemned at the time… what kind of argument says that, as we cannot do everything, we should do nothing?”

The rhetoric around Empire has to be put into context – especially at this critical juncture for Britain, according to MP Alison Thewliss.

Jallianwala Bagh today. Photo by Hardeep Matharu

“At this particular time in history, with the UK leaving the EU, amid the radicalisation of right-wing extremists and the pompous rhetoric about the rebuilding of the British Empire, we need a meaningful acknowledgement of the horrific legacy that Empire left behind,” she said.

“Everybody should learn in school of how the peoples of the Empire were treated… if we allow notions of empire to go unchecked and unchallenged, we fail to acknowledge the pain of that past – the pain for countries all around the world, but particularly in this case for the people of India.”

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Virendra Sharma MP agreed: “This is not just an act of flagellation; it will help British people to understand better our own place in the world, and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It means that we will know our own history, and how we are seen by people in other cultures and countries.”

“Despite the enormity of this deplorable incident, too few of us in the UK are aware of what happened at the Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago,” Chris Law MP added.

“Not enough of us are willing to engage with our unedifying past and the legacy of the British Empire.”

Mr Field concluded the debate by emphasising Britain’s positive relationship with India, which “is why I think the Prime Minister made New Delhi her very first port of call after her appointment, and why she was so pleased to welcome [India’s] Prime Minister Modi to London last year,” he said.

“Importantly, our modern relationship with India is focused on the future.”

That modern relationship is also a complex one.

In 2014, it was revealed that a British SAS officer had advised the Indian authorities on removing armed Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in 1984 – another massacre in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Sikhs and Indian soldiers died. Documents released by the Government showed that the plan, known as Operation Blue Star, was carried out with the full knowledge of the Thatcher Government.

The continued relevance of British colonialism should be debated, not only today – on the 100th anniversary of the horrific events at Jallianwala Bagh – but for many days, months and years to come.


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