On April 13 this year, India and Indian expatriates were to globally gather to commemorate the centenary of the Jallianwala massacre. On 13 April, 1919, exactly hundred years ago, during British rule, Jallianwala Bagh located in Amritsar, India became the scene of a genocidal attack whose savagery shook the conscience of the nation and of the civilized world who heard about it. British troops commanded by Colonel Reginald Dyer ruthlessly fired shots into a civilian crowd of Indians gathered to celebrate spring’s arrival. Hearing that a civilian crowd had assembled defying his ban on assembly, Dyer in a shocking abuse of power led his troops into the park and after blocking the main exits, ordered them to ceaselessly shower bullets on the crowd. The casualty was horrendous – hundreds dead and hundreds more wounded.
Celebrated as a hero by Imperialists, it took a year for Dyer to be censured in July 1920 by the House of Commons and compelled to retire. Even after his death, however, apologists including Rudyard Kipling continued to generously justify Dyer’s brutality as a call to “duty.” Others hailed him as Punjab’s “savior.” While a few of the contemporary and later British political leaders took courage to condemn the attack, no formal apology was ever rendered.
As with families, a nation’s history has to be re-lived (not merely revisited), and while there is no need to rewrite one’s past, it is worthwhile to examine and concede one’s wrongs. Ever willing to eulogize their glorious past, nations and leaders are unwilling to concede their wrongs.
Following World War II, the Nuremberg trials that exposed the wartime crimes of German leaders making them legally and financially culpable for their actions, set a welcome precedent for holding accountable the perpetrators of inhumane treatment of people. Signed in 1952, the reparations deal between Germany and Israel too, constituted a landmark in settling victims’ claims. Even with Nuremberg’s model to guide them, erstwhile colonies unfortunately remained passive permitting erstwhile colonial powers to largely evade both moral censure and reparation responsibility.
Some welcome progress in recent years did occur in judicial claims seeking redress for brutal oppressions advanced by former colonial subjects. Though mostly without reparation, apologies for wrongs committed were offered among others, by Germany to Namibia in 2004, Japan to South Korea in 2010, and by the Dutch to Indonesia in 2011. A seismic shift occurred on June 6, 2013 when in a historic first, the British Government officially expressed “sincere regret” and announced a compensation package for abuse committed by British colonial officers against Kenyan victims. Though historic, this gesture lacked grace, as it did not come voluntarily but in response to a court settlement of the legal case initiated by Kenyans.
While skeptics question the need for apologies dismissing them as window dressing or ego-massaging, there is unquestionable worth in two nations getting together to put out the fires of the past and seek to heal on the basis of common decency. A colonized and brutalized people, Indians like the citizenry of other British and European colonies, and much like the African American community seeking reparation for slavery in the U.S., expect a modicum of decency from civilized nations in squarely addressing the atrocities of the past. An apology formally conveyed and accepted, and more importantly, rendered with genuine remorse, can go far in healing the once occupied nations.
For those among us who witnessed, and others who through their ancestors have relived, the mind-blowing humiliations of British rule, an apology for a blatant act of mass murder offers a genuine path to self-worth recovery. Indian and Western fans of the British Empire who revel in the ‘Splendor That Was Raj’ have to step out of their mythical dream to fully embrace the Raj’s cruelty and criminality. At its peak, the British presumably controlled a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s total land area. But that control did not come harmlessly. In fact, it caused severe emotional suffering and economic degradation. Post massacre at Jallianwala, for instance, the cruelty and humiliation did not end. Instead, to teach a lesson to the populace, people were ordered to crawl on all fours through the city streets. Refusal to do so met with brutal beating and public flogging.
Amid mounting pressure by British Peers of Indian-origin, the British House of Lords (which had refused to sanction Dwyer a hundred years back) consented on Feb. 19 to debate the massacre but sadly, the issue of apology remained unresolved. With the centenary of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath on April 13, 2019, it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to shed false pride and to offer truly repentant and healing words and a full-blown apology to the victims and their successor families. A hundred years late, but such a contrite gesture would still be welcome and timely.
Neera Kuckreja Sohoni