Jallianwala Bagh was an atrocity of Empire. But the wrong kind of apology is not worth having


11 April 2019

On 13 April 1919, tens of thousands of Indians gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a square in Amritsar, Punjab. They were there to celebrate a religious festival and peacefully protest against new laws imposed by the British banning freedom of assembly and protest, laws they had introduced in many parts of India in fear of an increasingly unified movement for independence.

Troops under the command of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer blocked off exits, open fired and massacred at least 500 unarmed men, women and children within minutes, wounding three times as many. It was a bloodbath.

“It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd,” Dyer later wrote, “but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

A 'monstrous' event

100 years on there is a renewed effort to urge the British government to apologise for the atrocity. Theresa May declined the opportunity in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, expressing “deep regret” but stopping short of a formal apology. Yet despite the obvious case for an apology, it's not quite as simple as it first appears.

In February this year the House of Lords held a brief debate over the question. Speaker after speaker quoted the condemnation of the massacre by then secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons on 8 July 1919:

“That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

This week foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted “Churchill called it monstrous, David Cameron said it was shameful. It was both – one of the most appalling episodes in British history.” And finally a new cross-party letter addressed to the foreign secretary calls for an apology, citing Churchill once again.

Yet if Churchill – a man who blamed the Bengal famine which killed around 2 million Indians not on his own actions but on the Indians who “breed like rabbits”; a man who said “I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” – can be the figurehead of an apology, then is it an apology worth having?

As Kim Wagner, author of a new book about Jallianwala Bagh, argued at an event at SOAS recently, Churchill was not denouncing the violence of the British empire, he was reclaiming the moral high ground of the British Empire, to dismiss Dyer as a bad apple. In 1919 as now, condemning the massacre in a way that makes it sound like a one-off excess becomes a way to reaffirm the idea that Britain and its empire were – predominantly – a force for good in the world.

From empire to security

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre laid bare the violence inherent in imperial conquest and the posturing that the British were ever a benign coloniser.

But to truly address the legacies of this event, the British government would need to face up to the continuities between Empire and Britain’s global role today. In the same House of Lords debate in February, Baroness Goldie summed up for the government by describing today’s aid spending as a form of memorial for the massacre:

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said very poignantly that the best memorial to the victims of Jallianwala Bagh would be for Britain to fearlessly speak out for people who cannot do it themselves, vociferously insisting on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. I totally agree and I add that the UK’s substantial development budget is a key component. More than 50% of the DfID budget is spent in fragile and conflict-affected states and our cross-government work on tackling insecurity and instability is supported by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which is supporting and delivering programmes in more than 70 countries....

All this work fosters environments in which atrocities such as Jallianwala Bagh are less likely to take place.

We’ve written a report on the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. It is one the British government’s most secretive funds, using over £500 million of the UK aid budget to back military and security projects in countries Bahrain, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq and Nigeria - countries with some of the world’s worst security forces today.

There are definitely better ways to memorialise a massacre.

As the debate about how to understand Jallianwala Bagh continues, the real question is: will it take another 100 years for the British government to come to terms with the true nature of its bloody empire, and its ongoing legacies today?


An exhibition, ‘Jallianwala Bagh 1919: Punjab under Siege’ runs from 11 April to 2 October 2019 at the Manchester Museum, It is co-curated with the Partition Museum, Amritsar.

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