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The UK must apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre

Apart from the horrific killings and their cover up, the impact of the massacre on the economy and social fabric of Amritsar and many of the cities of undivided Punjab also needs to be considered

analysis Updated: Feb 22, 2019 14:14 IST
Kishwar Desai
Kishwar Desai
A scene of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Amritsar, 1999. The apology for the massacre should have come in 1919 itself , when the issue was discussed in the British Parliament(Hindustan Times)

According to some, an apology which comes 100 years after the incident is mere tokenism .

Countless reasons have been given not to apologise, for instance : the Jallianwala Bagh massacre apology should have come in 1919 itself , when the issue was discussed in the British Parliament. Or it should have been offered when the Queen visited the Bagh in 1997.

Or, whose feelings will an apology assuage , when both those who suffered and those who perpetuated the oppression upon them, are no more?

These are commonly quoted arguments, but they fall flat when one examines the circumstances which existed in Punjab in 1919, and the shocking cruelties which continued even after the killings. It is clear that those who have not apologised may not be aware of the truth of what happened 100 years ago. Nor are they aware that the narrative, being increasingly told from the Indian perspective, is very disturbing.

The UK should apologise because its government had at one time reduced the people of Punjab to the status of slaves—who could be humiliated — to force the realisation upon them that they were an inferior race and could not be the equal of the British in any way. This was despite the fact that Punjabis had demonstrated their loyalty by giving the most number of soldiers to fight in World War I.

One of the reasons for a poor understanding of the tragedy is that immediately after the massacre, many of the official documents were suppressed, and official hearings were held in camera. Then, to make matters worse, all the government documents, correspondence and private papers till 1947 were taken back to the UK, just before independence. This meant that unless Indian scholars had the resources to work to gather all the material, it would be difficult to get access to evidence which could put Britain in the dock .

Consequently, most literature published in the UK around the massacre focused on one man, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. The Empire was able to systematically dismiss the killings as a misjudgment on his part. Even then, justifications were given for Dyer’s actions and this old narrative continues in the new books coming out the UK during this centenary year. Indeed there is a constant attempt to whitewash —and recently a British TV channel actually asked me if there was a “Raj nostalgia” in India!

It is obvious from the documentary evidence which has emerged in the past few decades that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a planned murder of innocents.

Apart from the horrific killings and their cover up, the impact of the massacre on the economy and social fabric of Amritsar and many of the cities of undivided Punjab also needs to be considered. Many urban centres were destroyed for decades. Thousands of households were left without an earning male member, as a majority of those who were massacred and others who were imprisoned and tortured, were still young. This led to a destruction of Amritsar’s thriving economy and arrested the growth of the educated middle class. Punjab was where the Lieutenant Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer unleashed his particularly cruel brand of Martial Law punishments following the massacre — in order to suppress any so-called rebellion.

Due to the prevalent racist attitude at the time, we know the names of the handful of British who died in the troubles of 1919, but we still do not have a complete list of all the thousands of Indians killed. .

Not just for the massacre, the British must apologise for allowing so many of their British subjects to be obliterated so ruthlessly in 1919.

And finally, the UK should apologise as India is now an equal partner, fast becoming a super power, with a strong sense of dignity. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre may have been a part of the overall repressive colonialism existing at the time, but it is an extremely important symbol, as it brought momentum to the freedom struggle.

One can only urge the UK to acknowledge that this new self-reliant India has a deep wound which needs to be recognised.

Kishwar Desai is an award winning author and columnist. Her new book, Jallianwala Bagh, 1919, The Real Story, has just been published

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 22, 2019 14:13 IST