Why David Cameron should have apologised for the Amritsar massacre

By Simon Barrow
February 21, 2013

Prime Minister David Cameron, in defending his decision to refuse an official apology for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India (known popularly as the Amritsar massacre), declared that it would be "wrong" to "reach back into history" and apologise for the misdemeanours of British colonialism.

His judgement in this matter is sorely mistaken. Historical honesty and the cleansing of memories is crucial to building genuine relationships on the basis of justice and integrity.

It is good that Mr Cameron visited Amritsar, laid a wreath and signed a book of condolence. But describing the calculated slaughter of what the official inquiry by the Indian National Congress indicated to be over 1,000 unarmed people (many of them women and children), with 1,500 - 1,800 injured, as a "deeply shameful event" hardly goes far enough. Further than the Queen's quaintly English "distressing" in 1997, but clearly insufficient.

The Prime Minister quoted (the then Liberal) Winston Churchill's assessment of the massacre as "monstrous". But he ignored the fact that Conservative politicians and newspapers, including one that subsequently became part of the Daily Telegraph, vigorously defended "Butcher of Amritsar" Brigadier Reginald Dyer. Today the Daily Mail continued the tradition by seeking to re-write the historical record in claiming that the leader of the British Indian Army unit acted out of "panic" rather than "malice" and by citing (along with other papers) the earlier, flawed record of 379 killed.

Mr Cameron was also wrong to suggest that the massacre really had nothing to do with the state, and that therefore the government had nothing to apologise for. Leaving aside the fact that the armed forces are servants of the Crown and the through that institution the government (the army came into existence with the United Kingdom in 1707, and was administered by the War Office from London at the time), both the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab and the Viceroy of India told the Brigadier unambiguously, "Your action is correct".

Moreover, Rudyard Kipling claimed that Dyer was "the man who saved India". After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre he started a benefit fund which raised over £26,000 pounds - a considerable sum in those days. The money was presented to Brigadier Dyer when he settled in England on his retirement.

There has been no restitution to those impacted by the slaughter, however, and to this day Britain still holds onto colonial plunder such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond, while prematurely cutting aid in a way that will impact the poorest in India, even though 1.6 million children died there in 2011/12; a quarter of all global child deaths.

The British state and authorities therefore have much to apologise for in the matter of Jallianwala Bagh -- as indeed for the Bengal Famine of 1943, when the UK government’s inaction allowed up to four million people to starve to death.

Similarly, it should be noted, Mr Cameron made no comment on the 300 people killed when Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. But then a major part of his trip has been to sell weapons to the Indian government.

I have personal feelings about all of this, because I have Sikh friends and lived in the predominantly Punjabi area of Southall in West London for nearly six years in the 1980s. They deserve better.

Likewise, Sunil Kapoor, whose great grandmother was only 18 and pregnant when her husband, Vasu Mal Kapoor, was shot dead at Amritsar, said: "When we heard that Prime Minister Cameron was coming here and there was a possibility of his apologising, we hoped that our wounds would heal. But our hopes are shattered. It seems he came here on a political visit, not to pay tributes to the martyrs. Clearly he wanted to impress the Punjabi voters in the UK and he has the upcoming British elections in mind. It is not a big deal that he came here. But it would have been a big deal had he apologised here."


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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