There are many ways in which we use the words, ‘I am sorry’ in our everyday lives. We say ‘I am sorry’ when we hear that a friend has lost a parent, a rather inadequate way to express our sympathy but most commonly used nonetheless. ‘I am sorry’ trips off our tongues when we can’t make it to a cousin’s birthday party, and indicates that we would have loved to come if it had been at all possible. ‘I am sorry’ is the standard response when we break the neighbour’s flower vase or window pane, to express contrition for something that is fairly and squarely our fault, and to indicate that we are ready to make reparation for the loss.
And yet, as the words of the song go, sorry ‘seems to be the hardest word’ when an apology is called for the most. It is when we have hurt someone very deeply that we find it most difficult to summon up words of remorse. It is when our actions have caused irreparable damage that contrition is often the hardest to express. It is when the sin is unforgivable that forgiveness is so hard to ask for. (Just ask Narendra Modi.)
Over the last week or so, the media have been full of reports of David Cameron and the apology that never was. Should the British Prime Minister have apologised for the British imperial government’s decision to open fire on peaceful protestors at Jallianwala Bagh, which resulted in the death of 379 people while more than a thousand were injured? Yes, the incident occurred in 1919, decades before Cameron took office, but as a representative of Britain, did it behove him to say sorry for what had been done in the name of the British people?
As it turned out, Cameron steered clear of the ‘s’ word. Instead he wrote in the visitor’s book, “This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the the time as ‘monstrous’. We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering, we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”
Even if you gloss over the fact that it is hardly politic to invoke Winston Churchill – who was adamantly opposed to granting India independence and who famously referred to Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘
– at the site of one of the greatest atrocities perpetrated by colonial Britain, Cameron’s comment falls well short of a full-throated expression of regret. But the Prime Minister remains convinced that this was the right thing to do.
“In my view,” he said, “we are dealing with something that happened a good 40 years before I was born... So, I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that you can apologise for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.”
So, is it really necessary, or even helpful, to reach back into history and apologise for wrongs that happened a century or more ago. Well, the Americans, great proponents of what they term ‘closure’, certainly think so. Which is why in 2009, the US Senate passed a resolution apologising for slavery. So, if US representatives can apologise for the collective guilt that all White Americans bear for the enslavement of the Blacks, then why can’t the British government, in the person of the British Prime Minister, apologise for the crimes of colonialism? Even the former German chancellor, Willy Brandt, went on his knees at a Warsaw memorial to the victims of the Holocaust to express contrition 40 years after the event.
So, even if Cameron could not say ‘I am sorry’ in the sense of ‘I have broken your vase and it is entirely my fault’, why not just say ‘I am sorry’ in the sense of ‘I am sad to hear of the tragic passing of your father and I feel for your loss’? But for some reason, the British Prime Minister, who has apologised for everything from the Hillsborough disaster which left 96 people dead 23 years ago to the killing of a Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane in 1989, thought that apologising for the deaths of hundreds of innocents at Jallianwala Bagh was a step too far.
As someone who says ‘sorry’ almost reflexively – even when it is patently the other person’s fault – I find that a bit hard to comprehend. After all, nobody asked David Cameron to travel to Amritsar, visit the memorial to the victims, lay a wreath, and write a comment in the visitors book. It was his decision to visit Jallianwala Bagh, to reach into the past and examine wounds that had lain long buried. And when you have gone that far, why stop short of an apology which may actually help heal some of these wounds? When you use words like ‘deeply shameful’, regret is implicit in them. So, why shy away from voicing it?
There is nothing quite as disarming as a heartfelt apology. When someone says ‘I am sorry’ with patent sincerity, it is hard not to forgive, whether it is a spouse, a parent, a child or a nation that is expressing regret. But sadly, Cameron failed to do that. I can only hope he’s sorry now.
From HT Brunch, March 3
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