Sadiq Khan, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and now the first Asian-origin Mayor of London, has categorically asked the British government to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, in which 379 innocent Indians were killed on the orders of General Reginald Dyer, a British army officer. Khan was speaking to media persons in Amritsar on Wednesday, as part of his six-day mission to India and Pakistan.
“I’m clear that the (UK) government should now apologise, especially as we reach the centenary of the massacre,” Khan said, on a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial to pay his respects. “This is about properly acknowledging what happened here and giving the people of Amritsar and India the closure they need through a formal apology.”
For many, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a reminder, and to some extent symbolic, of the horrors perpetrated by the British colonialists. The resulting shock and anger after the incident propelled the Indian independence movement to new heights with the Non-Cooperation movement. Unfortunately, the British government has made no effort to issue a formal apology for the incident.
In February 2013, former British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, acknowledged the monstrosity of the event and paid tribute to the victims, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology.
“In my view, we are dealing with something that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time,” Cameron said. “So, I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.”
“I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened,” Cameron added. He described the shootings as a “deeply shameful event.” Well, if it is a shameful incident, why doesn’t the representative of an institution that essentially condoned Dyer’s action, apologise for its past transgressions?
Well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? The man responsible for the massacre faced little to no punishment for his monstrous actions. In fact, on his return, General Dyer was presented with a gift of £26,000, a significant sum in those days, from a fund set up by the Morning Post, a pro-imperialist newspaper, which later merged with the Daily Telegraph.
However, there are few academics, who take Cameron’s position on the matter. “It is meaningless to apologise for what you have no control over. It would make sense if the Congress apologised for 1984, Modi for Gujarat, Blair for Iraq. It was a good move for Cameron not to apologise fully — that would’ve seemed very cynical when you’ve arrived with a trade delegation. But what Cameron can do is teach the British more about the empire,” said noted historian William Dalrymple to the Times of India, a couple of years ago.
It’s hard to place propriety (“very cynical”) over the indelible mark this incident left on the national psyche. Admittedly, an apology isn’t likely to present India with any tangible gains, but it would be a gesture of real import and, as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor once argued, have a “cleansing effect”.
An apology will offer a real acknowledgement of the crimes committed in the name of the British Crown.
“If hundred years later, a member of the royal family were to come to Jallianwala Bagh and express remorse and contrition for that horror, and by extension all the horrors the 35 million people who died in famines and all the things that the British were responsible for during their rule, it would be a tremendous gesture and would have a wonderfully cleansing effect,” Tharoor said.
In fact, the British government should take inspiration from their German and Canadian institutional counterparts. The sight of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt getting down to his knees in Warsaw ghetto and apologizing for the crimes of Nazi Germany in December 1970 was incredibly moving.
Even though as a member of the Social Democrat party, Brandt had nothing to do with the horrors of Nazi Germany, he felt an apology was due. A similar example is of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologised in the nation’s parliament for turning away a ship full of Indian refugees in May 1914.
Institutions must take responsibility for their actions. Even though Cameron or any British politician isn’t responsible for the horrors of colonialism, it was in the name of the institutions they represent that perpetrated and condoned such acts. An apology would be a real acknowledgement by the British government of the horrors committed in its name, allowing all sides involved to move on from the incident.