During a visit to Amritsar in February 2013, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron described the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as a “deeply shameful event in British history,” insisting that “we must never forget what happened there”. However, he stopped short of offering an apology for the events of April 13, 1919, when hundreds were killed and more than 1,200 injured after British troops led by Reginald Dyer opened fire on a peaceful gathering.
Mr. Cameron insisted that the incident had happened decades ago and offering an apology was not the right thing to do to. Winston Churchill too had described the incident as “monstrous” but failed to deliver an apology.
Mr. Cameron’s critics contrasted his stance on the massacre with his apology for the killing of 13 protesters in Northern Ireland by British troops on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972.
And just months after Mr. Cameron’s visit came an acknowledgment of Britain’s culpability in another colonial-era atrocity: the crackdown on the ‘Mau Mau’ uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, for which thousands of men and women brought claims for mistreatment against the British government.
In June 2013, the government said it would pay £19.9 million in compensation to more than 5,000 Kenyan claimants, while the then Foreign Secretary William Hague said the government “seriously regrets that these abuses took place”.
Six years on, as the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre approaches, some are hopeful that an apology from the U.K. could be on the cards. Last year, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he would give consideration to the “profound” suggestion by the chair of a parliamentary committee that the U.K. should mark the anniversary by seeking forgiveness from the Indian people for one of the “worst crimes of the colonial period”.
A similar government response followed a debate in the House of Lords this February instigated by Lord Raj Loomba, a cross-bench peer and member of the Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee (chaired by Sardar Balbir Singh Kakar).
He was joined by Lord Desai, Lord Bilimoria and other peers of Indian and non-Indian origin from across the political parties in their push.
“The chances are 50:50,” Lord Loomba told The Hindu. “They are reflecting on it.” However, he warned that the British government could be more reluctant to offer the apology because of concerns around compensation calls that had been made by some in India.
“There are questions about the compensation given at the time and whether it was adequate but now there are a lot of questions of how this would work — there are no records of descendants, so it is not necessarily practical to do so. By focussing on compensation, you could be losing sight of what could happen.”
He believes the apology would have significance well beyond India. “It was such a tragedy which actually changed the direction of British rule in India and as a result of that the collapse of the whole Empire.”
The centenary is also set to be marked by events up and down the country. The Manchester Museum is hosting an exhibition in tandem with the Partition Museum in Amritsar to explore “what we remember, how we remember it, and what we have forgotten, in India and the U.K”. Other exhibitions are set to take place in the London Nehru Centre and in Birmingham.
However, Lord Loomba and others such as Labour MP Virendra Sharma believe there is also a longer-term need to raise public understanding in the U.K. of what had happened, including in the school curriculum. The British curriculum’s treatment of darker parts of British history such as colonialism and slavery has faced criticism, with the Labour Party calling for a much greater focus on them.
“I certainly think there has to be much more that is done to raise awareness about the massacre,” says Lord Loomba. “Especially in the younger generation who know pretty much nothing about it but even [among] people my age, they know it happened but little more than that. It was not only a tragic event. It was also an event that changed world history.”
Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London correspondent.