The prolific Sikh community in the UK has renewed its demand before the British Parliament, to tender an immediate and unconditional apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, before its centenary on April 13.
Also known as the Imperial Apology, the call for it has resonated from a trifecta of sources—relatives of over 600 unarmed martyrs who were fired point blank under then General Brigadier General Dyer’s orders on the fateful day, as well as the UK-based Sikh Federation, and Members of the Indian Parliament including Shashi Tharoor, from the Indian National Congress, and Akali Dal’s Prem Singh Chandumajra.
Jallianwala Bagh Shaheed Parivar Samiti president Mahesh Behal announced that the Samiti will not settle for anything less than a full apology from British Prime Minister Theresa May. Her predecessor, David Cameron, while calling the event “deeply shameful” also defended the lack of apology, during his visit to Jallianwala Bagh in 2013. In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II also visited the memorial to pay her respects, but carefully avoided making an actual apology.
In December 2017, however, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan urged the British government to make the gesture during his own visit to Amritsar. “I am clear that the government should now apologise, especially as we reach the centenary of the massacre. This is about properly acknowledging what happened here and giving the people of Amritsar and India the closure they need through a formal apology,” he is reported as saying by the BBC.
“It is not enough for the UK government today to be supporting and promising funds for a monument in central London to mark the Sikh sacrifices for the freedom of Europe and denying the worldwide Sikh community a full apology for the 13 April massacre that came within months of the Great War,” Amrik Singh who chairs the Federation was reported as saying by the Times of India last year.
Efforts to shore up support for the Sikh cause
According to the report, Sikhs in the diaspora approached political leaders in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia and a number of African nations to lead the call for a full apology and turn up the pressure on the UK government at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held last April.
In 2015, Shashi Tharoor’s arguments during the Oxford Union debate on postcolonial reparations was the first time a case was made for more than an apology to India over its colonial past. In February 2019, Tharoor along with Akali Dal MP Chandumajra demanded in Lok Sabha that the House should collectively demand an apology from the British for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh at Amritsar.
Yet, the apology continues to elude and there is sufficient reason to believe that even hundred years on, the UK may not apologise for the historic massacre of hundreds of Indian civilians, mistaken for armed rebels, who had congregated peacefully in the gardens to observe the Baisakhi festival.
The Lok Sabha, in February, passed the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The Act provides for the erection of a National Memorial in the memory of those slain or wounded in the 1919 massacre, and created the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, to manage the memorial. The Trust also renewed the call for an apology before the 100th anniversary this year, saying it would be befitting.
However, the centenary commemoration of the massacre will be anti-climactic, owing to mismanagement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the current chairperson of the Trust, which functions under the central government. Notably enough, the Centre has failed to plan any major event to commemorate the centenary on April 13.
“We couldn’t pay attention towards the event as we have been busy in preparations for the Lok Sabha elections for the past several days,” said Rajya Sabha member and Punjab BJP president Shwait Malik, who is a trustee of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Trust that manages affairs of the historic garden situated near the Golden Temple. Another trustee and Rajya Sabha MP cited probable interference with the EC’s model code of conduct.
Are apologies empty symbolic gestures?
In 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proferred a full apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident in 1914, where 350 Indian migrants were starved of food and water for two months, denied entry, and ultimately sent back to their ship.
Acknowledging responsibility for the first time, Belgium also apologised on Thursday, April 5, for kidnapping thousands of mixed-race children from Congo between 1959 and 1962 and placing them in Catholic schools and orphanages, in a move to address the legacy of its brutal 80 years of African colonisation. This came over a year after the United Nations Security Council published a report on how “endemic” racial discrimination was in Belgium’s institutions.
Such apologies without reparations, while pointless and frivolous to some, are not entirely unprecedented and have a certain symbolic value in the victims’ healing process. But, that’s probably about it.
Critics have argued against the postcolonial apology, which hands over the microphone to the transgressor, who may sanitise the narrative of colonial torture from their elevated speaking position.
Many others regard the admission of guilt as the first step toward reconciliation that can heal centuries worth of trauma, offer closure, and pave the way for radical redress and material reparations. Meanwhile, noted historian William Dalrymple believes that war crimes must never be forgiven or forgotten.
Britain’s pending apologies
According to a recent poll by YouGov, most Britons are generally proud of their colonial past and the British empire, while most students aren’t aware of the habitual theft, racism, cultural destruction, slavery, and genocide engendered by imperial policies, which caused millions of famine deaths in British India, the functioning of brutal detention camps in occupied territories, and massacres of civilians by imperial troops.
In fact, the direct correlation between Winston Churchill’s policies and the famine that claimed more than three million Indian lives in 1943 was mapped in a study that sought to prove the origins of the disaster for the first time. In this light, an apology, if it did arrive would not amount to more than an empty symbolic gesture.
The one time Britain did apologise for its colonial wrongdoings was after a lengthy campaign following the intervention from The Hague tribunal.
Expressing “sincere regret” for the torture and abuse of Kenyans by British colonial officers in the 1950s, Britain also announced a compensation package worth $31 million to be divided between 5,200 Kenyan victims, marking the settlement of a landmark legal case initiated in 2009, by a Kenyan trio who suffered beating, rape, and castration under the colonial rule. The verdict came just eight months after the British government affirmed that it had nothing to apologise for, and that it was willing to face down its former colonial subjects in court.
It opened the door of possibilities for former colonies including Yemen, Cyprus, and Malaysia to receive due reparations besides an official apology. Several Caribbean nations are also agitating for apology, calling upon former European colonisers to engage them in dialogue for reparation for centuries of slavery, pilferage, and appalling atrocities.
History on trial
Many critics object to this generational gap which deems any apology for the crimes of one’s ancestors redundant, when tendered a century after the deed.
This article in The Conservation, however, argues saying, “while the current generation did not actually commit the crimes, many within it still reap the rewards of a world in which white Europeans and the descendants of white settlers remain disproportionately privileged in comparison to the peoples they once conquered. As such, the privileged among the current generation acquire guilt by virtue of the fact that their favourable position in the contemporary capitalist system has its roots in empire.”
Two and a half million Indians, for example, fought for British forces in the Second World War, by the end of which £1.25bn of Britain’s total £3bn war debt was owed to India—merely the tip of the iceberg, that was India’s colonial exploitation by the British. It still hasn’t been paid.
Contemporary privilege aside, the Indian Penal Code alone gives India plenty of grounds to demand an apology for. Written by British jurist Thomas Babington Macauley, the colonial environment gave the empire the “perfect field for experiments in rationalizing and systematising the law. The colonies were passive laboratories.”
The Economic Times notes, “Laws controlling sexual activity were an important part of this. There was a practical reason for them—the fear that uncontrolled sexual activities could weaken the soldiers on whom British rule depended. The British passed laws to regulate brothels, until the influence of missionaries forced them to close them altogether. But when it came to same sex activity the only option considered was total prohibition.”
So when Justice Indu Malhotra said while delivering the historic verdict repealing the colonial era-Section 377, that “history owes the LGBT community an apology,” she is referring to centuries of socio-cultural and economic damages passed down by British institutions, for which an apology is the least Britain can offer.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.