A total of 1650 bullets were fired and official records peg the injured and death counts to approximately 1600 people. And then you have an absolutely remorseless General Dyer speaking the way he did as below in November 1919. 100 years on and we are still wondering when that elusive apology will come from the United Kingdom. This ghastly incident has left scars on the Indian psyche which exists even to this day. 100 years of Jallianwala Bagh massacre gone by is not helped by the fact that Winston Churchill & David Cameron have both been reluctant to apologise for the same over the years.
“At that time it did not occur to me. I merely felt that my orders had not been obeyed, that martial law was flouted, and that it was my duty to immediately disperse it by rifle fire…If my orders were not obeyed, I would fire immediately. If I had fired a little, the effect would not be sufficient. If I had fired a little, I should be wrong in firing at all.”
- General Dyer speaking to the Hunter Commission about Jallianwala Bagh massacre
It’s not about waking up the skeletons in the closet or carrying out a media gimmick by highlighting the UK’s stand on the issue. The year is 2019 and today UK is reeling with the Brexit crisis and indeed a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the tragedy. Let’s quickly revisit why the Jallianwala Bagh massacre happened.
Indians were demanding the release of Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal, Satyagraha practitioners. Protests were on at the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar. A few people in the crowd were killed by a military firing in response. Incidents of arson were reported across the city in response to these killings as the British troops tried hard to quell the discord. A day later, Marcella Sherwood, a missionary from UK was rushing to school to close shutters to shield her pupils. En route, she was manhandled, stripped and badly beaten by a mob. A group of Indians rescued her. But this unfortunate incident was creating a monster in the British ranks. A meeting was planned to discuss the Rowlatt Act (permitted trial without jury of certain cases/suspects) and the protests against it at the Jallianwala Bagh.
April 13, 1919 – one of the darkest days in Indian history
Jallianwala Bagh massacre is approximately spread across 7 acres surrounded by 10 ft. high walls. The British troops blocked the only open exit of the Bagh at that time and opened fire without any warning whatsoever at the hapless gathering. Dyer remarked that he wanted to punish this gathering for flouting the martial law and teach them a lesson for their disobedience.
When confronted with the fact that he did not provide any medical attention to the wounded, Dyer replied the military situation did not allow that. He further defended his refusal to help the wounded by saying, “It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there.”
General Dyer escaped any legal action due to legal restrictions and a larger consensus from the British community supporting his actions. Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’ Dwyer was assassinated by in 1940 by Sardar Udham Singh in London as a retaliatory act for his role in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The Government of India erected his statue at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre earlier this year in March in his honour.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt last year stated that the government is considering an apology for the century old tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh massacre. A parliamentary committee suggestion to consider apologising to India for the heinous act is underway. Several other reports, though unofficial, suggest that the prospect of an apology looks slim.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that the UK had duly apologised for the Bloody Sunday of 1972 and even announced a compensation for the 1950 Mau Mau uprising victims and dependents to the tune of 19.9 mm pounds.
Why should the UK apologise?
Somehow, absolutely nothing associated with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre comforts an Indian. It’s like a battle scar, a wound from a duel or a niggle we have just not come to terms with. The closure to the tragedy never happened. And as Kishwar Desai puts it, the Indian narrative of this incident is disturbing and unsettling. For the sheer magnitude and the cascading effect of the tragedy across generations, the UK needs to apologise. Putting the historical lid on the issue will be a disrespect to India and especially so to Punjab. A state that contributed the most loyal soldiers to the British for the World War 1 deserves much more.
Why is UK taking so much time to apologise?
Literature on the subject suggests that somehow everything about the incident was pinned onto General Dyer’s indiscretion. And quite comfortably, the UK washed their hands off it. All official records and documents were taken to UK post-1947. It would require considerable efforts and leverage to extract these documents and construct a plank for the UK to be humbly apologetic. A lot of books have been published on the issue detailing Dyer’s statements to the Hunter’s Commission on the issue, the backdrop of the event and why Dyer was successfully made the target of all the outrage. Yet, the lack of enough material on the issue has derailed the opinion-shaping on the issue.
India definitely deserves an apology! A news report mentioned how there were calls in the UK of giving more real estate to the tragedy in the school textbooks. This could help build public consciousness on the issue. As a nation we need the event to have a comfortable closure in the minds of all the Indians. Everyone who perpetrated the killings and the ones who were in that tragedy have passed away. Yet, hindsight can hurt and morally the UK is duty-bound to issue an apology. If they could do so for the Bloody Sunday or for the Mau Mau uprising, this was the darkest chapter they were apart of. Own up, UK!
UK will officially regret, not apologise
Come April 9, 2019 and there is a scheduled debate on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The word is that the UK will officially issue a statement of regret but not apologise. Further, the Foreign Secretary of UK Jeremy Hunt is slated to travel to India to issue an apology. It remains to be seen when that happens.