Clamour for Jallianwala apology grows, scepticism too

Vikramdeep Johal

Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, August 26

With less than eight months left for the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the voices seeking an apology from the UK Government are getting shriller. However, doubts are being raised over whether Britain will say sorry, and if it does, how sincerely or otherwise will that be.

“With a Conservative government, as is currently the case, it seems very unlikely that an official apology will take place,” says Dr Kim A Wagner, Senior Lecturer in British Imperial History, Queen Mary, University of London. According to him, most British politicians regard the Amritsar massacre as an isolated event and an anomaly that does not represent what British rule in India was like. “In contrast, Indian politicians such as Shashi Tharoor perceive the massacre as a symbol of the iniquities of the Raj more generally, which is why it makes sense to ask for an apology within a South Asian context. But I don’t see how anything good can come from such divergent standpoints,” Wagner adds.

The historian, whose book ‘Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre’, will be released early next year, says if at all Britain relents, its statement will be “equivocal and carefully worded… This is a wound that I feel should not be healed, lest the apology becomes the history we remember.”

“An empty apology without any understanding is meaningless,” says Kishwar Desai, Chair, The Arts & Cultural Heritage Trust (TACHT), and an architect of the Partition Museum in Amritsar. She is a member of the Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee, which plans to spread awareness about what exactly happened in 1919.

“Only by explaining to the present generation of politicians, through a special exhibition, will there be any remorse. If they do not know what happened, it is unlikely that any apology will be forthcoming,” she says.

Committee members Lord Meghnad Desai and Lord Raj Loomba are requesting for a debate on the subject next year in the House of Lords — “to set the record straight”. The House of Commons had censured General Reginald Dyer, perpetrator of the carnage, during the debates in 1920, but the House of Lords had approved of his actions. “So, it is important that the House of Lords rectifies its stance,” says Kishwar Desai.

According to Britain-based author Saurav Dutt, a formal apology is a must to counter the apologists involved in “blasé revisionism”. “We have less than a year to push for an apology, but even if efforts fail, then at least UK schools and curriculums should reflect what the Raj was really all about. Even that would be considered a victory,” he says.

Political push in India, Britain

  • Late last year, Virendra Sharma, Punjab-origin Labour MP from Ealing-Southall, had initiated an online petition, seeking an apology from the British Government for the 1919 carnage. It received 2,725 signatures (including 145 from his own constituency) in the stipulated six months, well short of the 10,000 needed to elicit a government response.
  • In March this year, Sharma asked UK Prime Minister Theresa May in Parliament whether she would support his campaign to “properly remember the Amritsar massacre across the UK.” She had promised to reply in writing, but is reportedly yet to do it.
  • Congress MP Shashi Tharoor narrated an account of the Amritsar massacre during the Auckland Writers’ Festival in May, prompting a listener to hand over a note to him. It read: “I am British born and I am sorry.”
  • In 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologised in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident – two years after its centenary.
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