Jallianwala Bagh Massacre: 100 Years On and Still No Apology
13th of April this year sees the 100th anniversary of what is known as the Amritsar Massacre of 1919.
Under the rule of the British Raj, India had critically sacrificed heavy resources towards war effort, and much Indian blood had already been spilt in the fight against global fascism. India had been given promises of eventual autonomy.
The war was over and so was the sentimentality that saw the Sikh regiments of the British Army referred to as ‘Lions’ for their bravery on the battlefield. Internal struggles gained traction under the Empire with India, much like the rest of the world, trying to crawl out of the human suffering exacerbated by the war.
The British feared the rise of revolutionary independence movements, especially from the state of Panjab with its history of resistance to the British presence in the region. It expanded on previous draconian powers of unfettered detention and passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919. Several leaders of the Independence movement were subsequently detained with no charge and no trial. This was seen as an unnecessary act of aggression against the Indian people. In the face of growing civil unrest the Lieutenant Governor of Panjab Michael O’Dwyer, took this approach further and banned public assembly, greatly limiting civil liberties and antagonising the movement.
April 13th 1919 - It was the day of the Vaisakhi festival, a celebration of the spring harvest and also the most auspicious day in the calendar of the Sikh Religion.
The ban had not been made clear to the public, however, and many were gathered in the popular gardens near to the sacred site of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Some were there as part of a growing movement protesting the act and demanding the release of their leaders. However, many families had simply wandered into the area, which was especially busy due to the festival.
Tensions had been growing in Amritsar in the previous days, and upon learning of the gathering General Dyer and his regiment of riflemen blocked off the narrow exits to the gardens and opened fire into the unarmed crowd.
The soldiers had been instructed to keep firing until all their ammunition had been expended, saving only enough to facilitate their safe exit. They fired with no warning, there had been no requests for the crowds to dissipate; the clear aim was “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience”, according to General Dyer himself.
Some reports suggest that 1650 rounds of ammunition had been fired, and others put the death toll of Panjabi citizens at over 1,000, with countless more injured. This number included men, women and children; with bodies infamously piling up in the nearby water well as victims desperately attempted to escape the carnage. A 6-week old baby was even recorded as one of the fatalities.
Back in Britain, Churchill described the attack as “monstrous” and Asquith as “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history".
More recently, the Queen, during a visit to Amritsar in 1997, described the massacre as a “shameful scar on British-Indian history”, and David Cameron similarly in 2013 as “deeply shameful”. However, no official apology has ever been received.
In view of the issue being debated in the upper and lower chambers this week; 80MPs wrote to the home secretary Jeremy Hunt demanding a “full and unequivocal apology” citing the “lasting pain both in India and among UK citizens with family roots in India”. Theresa May in response could only muster up how “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused”.
Despite official narratives of condemnation at the time, there was a large part of society that defended General Dyer’s actions, in the aftermath of the massacre. The House of Lords hailed Dyer and Rudyard Kipling famously defended him for doing “his duty as he saw it”. No justice was achieved and Dyer simply retired to live out his life without any consequence.
This callousness and normalisation of extreme violence does indeed have consequences, however, on both sides. Not only was this atrocity pivotal in forcing many Indian moderates towards the push for Independence, it did nothing but anger those already part of the revolutionary movement; provoking further violence.
Udham Singh had been at the Jallianwala Bagh that day and escaped with his life. On 13th March 1940, he found his way to Caxton Hall, London, where Michael O’Dwyer was speaking at a meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society. As the proceedings were coming to an end, Singh rose from his seat and shot O’Dwyer twice, killing him almost immediately.
In custody, he referred to himself as “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad”, the first three words reflecting the major religious communities of Panjab (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh respectively), with ‘azad’ meaning freedom; reflecting his anti-colonialist stance. Before being put to death Singh spoke of his mindset: ”He wanted to crush the spirit of my people… I have seen my people starving in India under British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty.”
Whose patriotic duty was more misguided? How much has even changed today? The Government stance of avoidance and passing of responsibility for reckless action is still reproduced and embraced for a number of issues. How much does an apology cost really?
“It would go a long way towards bettering people-to-people contact among our two nations if a strong message of reconciliation is delivered,” according to Navjot Singh Sidhu; a minister within the Panjab Government.
Apparently, an apology could have financial implications and “we debase the currency of apologies if we make them for many events”, according to Minister of State at the Foreign Office, Mark Field.
In reality, the cost is that the massacre is legitimised. The cost is that without taking responsibility for its violent history Britain nurtures its propensity to commit further reckless action in the future. The cost is that those in distant lands, as well as those of different backgrounds here in the UK, are devalued and dehumanised further. The issue is that this has not been an act of violence in isolation within history.
For all the judgement of the actions of those who thought they were doing their duty, there has to be responsibility taken for causation. These are the tangible steps of justice towards breaking the cycle of violence. An apology will not only benefit the awareness of the one wearing the boot, but also the psyche of the one who has been living underneath it. An apology is not enough for an entire colonial legacy, but it is a crucial start.