London mayor Sadiq Khan at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial. | Narinder Nanu / AFP
On a visit to India earlier this week, London mayor Sadiq Khan called for Britain to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – the killing of over 1,000 peaceful protestors by the British Army in a walled public garden in Amritsar in 1919. Khan is not the first to make such a statement. In October, the Labour Party MP for Ealing-Southall, Virendra Sharma, had submitted an “early day motion” calling on the British government to formally apologise in Parliament and commemorate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre with a memorial day.
Calls for an apology for what is widely regarded as one of the most barbaric attacks on Indians by the British colonial administration come every few years. Each time a head of government or the queen visits, the question of whether they will or will not apologise gets aired. In recent years, prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron and the queen have all visited the memorial at Jallianwala Bagh and expressed sorrow, even shame, but not apologised.
And they were right not to. Apologising for historic wrongs is an empty gesture. And apologising for historic wrongs that the people on whose behalf you are apologising do not even know about is a bit of a joke.
Should Britain apologise for Jallianwala Bagh, most of its population is likely to say “sorry for what?”
Why only Jallianwala Bagh?
Besides, the history of the empire is strewn with bodies. The question could be asked – why only Jallianwala Bagh?
After all, if we are talking massacres, the British colonial administration oversaw millions of starvation deaths from the 1860s onwards. These thoroughly avoidable deaths were the result of state policy. In years when there was sufficient rice to continue exports to Britain, colonial administrators ideologically wedded to the idea that market forces would solve the problem, that providing relief work promoted laziness, and the Malthusian theory that famines are a way of population control, caused millions to starve to death in eastern and southern India. Winston Churchill – who had excoriated Colonel Reginald Dyer, on whose orders soldiers had opened fire at the crowd in Jallianwala Bagh – pursued the same policy in 1943. Grain exports to Britain continued while over 3 million people died, most of them in Bengal.
Simply because there is no memorial to those millions dead, and their deaths are not directly linked to the movement for independence, does not make them less historically significant. In today’s parlance, they would be termed genocides.
Understanding colonial history
Yet, the past cannot be undone. But it can be understood.
British universities have produced some of the most interesting recent histories of the empire. But the majority of Britons who study history only in school have little opportunity to benefit from their understanding. Despite changes to the school curriculum in 2014, students in Britain learn very little about colonialism and the empire, not least because the segments on colonialism are not mandatory. Like other countries, school history lessons are used to fortify national myths. Hence, the great age of the Tudors and Britain’s heroic role in the World Wars and in the defeat of fascism remain the focus.
But even in teaching the wars, the fact that 2.3 million Indian soldiers fought or served on the British side, that 89,000 of them died in the Second World War, is not something that figures in school history lessons. Why would this part of the story, which locates British Asians within the grand national narrative, and contributes in principle to national cohesion, be ignored? Could it be because by acknowledging that colonial subjects died for Britain, more uncomfortable questions about the empire might pop up?
An apology for Jallianwala Bagh – one terrible event – also skirts more uncomfortable questions about the nature of colonialism and of the British Raj. It gives the appearance that one event was an aberration. It is, in short, a cop out.