When Archbishop of Canterbury Reverend Justin Welby prostrated himself like a penitent before the Jallianwala Bagh memorial on Tuesday, he unwittingly resembled the hapless Amritsar residents who were forced to crawl in Kucha Kaurianwala a century ago. It was in this narrow street that Marcella Sherwood, a British missionary, was attacked on April 10, 1919. The incident was a major trigger for the massacre that was perpetrated by Gen Reginald Dyer three days later. Almost a week after the bloodbath, Dyer enforced the dreaded crawling order. This was his brutal way of sanctifying and sanitising the lane where an Englishwoman, and that too a servant of the Church, had been assaulted. This disturbing episode, dwarfed in history by what happened on April 13, 1919, did not find a mention in the Archbishop’s condolence message. It is anybody’s guess whether he considers Dyer’s warped sense of ‘sacred’ duty unchristian or not. However, Reverend Welby has emulated another missionary, CF Andrews, who was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi and is regarded as among the first Englishmen to apologise for the massacre.
In the Jallianwala centenary year, the Archbishop has done what the British monarchy and successive governments have stopped short of doing — saying sorry and seeking forgiveness. He has admitted that it was ‘deeply humbling’ and a matter of ‘profound shame’ for him ‘as a British Christian to visit this place that witnessed such an atrocity.’ His stance has rekindled the demand for an official apology from the British Government. Then Prime Ministers Theresa May and David Cameron had referred, respectively, to the ‘shameful scar’ on British-Indian history and a ‘deeply shameful act’. Queen Elizabeth, who had visited the memorial back in 1997, had called the incident a distressing example of ‘our past history with India’.
The Church’s response, as articulated by the Archbishop, has come rather late in the day, but it can’t be dismissed as insignificant. The apology won’t go in vain if it can help in bringing much-needed closure to the tragedy. Hopefully, Reverend Welby will extend the condemnation to all unpardonable crimes committed in the name of the Crown and the Cross.