The Jallianwala Bagh massacre saw British troops fire on thousands of unarmed people in Amritsar on April 13, 1919. Recently the country marked the 100th anniversary of this terrible tragedy, possibly one of the worst atrocities of British colonial rule. And yet no apology has come from Britain. And perhaps never will!
Nanak Singh, who survived the massacre of April 1919 writes: ‘At Dyer’s command, those Gurkha troops, gathered in a formation tight, my friends. Under the tyrant’s orders, they opened fire. Straight into innocent hearts, my friends. And fire and fire and fire they did, some thousands of bullets were shot, my friends. Like searing hail they felled our youth. A tempest not seen before, my friend.’ Now, cast your mind back, close your eyes and imagine; Nanak Singh almost recreates that moment: Thud, thud and thud! After this searing experience, barely 22 and left for dead, he crawls back to life to become one of the best-loved Punjabi writers; penning 59 books. An irony of many parts.
Meanwhile, Sergeant W.J. Anderson who witnessed first-hand the brutal massacre writes, “When fire was opened the whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground, a whole flutter of white garments, with however a spreading out towards the main gateway, and some individuals could be seen climbing the high wall. There was little movement, except for the climbers.” Sergeant Anderson was the bodyguard of Brigadier General R.H. Dyer, who gave that infamous order to shoot at sight. This barbarous act was not an arbitrary step taken by Dyer, he was within his right to do so, under the notorious Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, also called the Rowlatt Act, a legislation that sanctioned the use of emergency measures for indefinite detention, incarceration without trial and judicial review.
In public debates in India the demands for an apology from Britain have grown and Britain over the years has made a series of gestures to acknowledge that this massacre was monstrous (Winston Churchill in 1920 termed it monstrous). Since then, in 1997 Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath at the site, Prime Minister David Cameron in 2003 called it deeply shameful and Prime Minister Theresa May as recently as 2018 said it was a shameful scar on British-Indian history. Yet the word “apology” has never been uttered; to wrench a “sorry” from Britain, a one -time imperium is perhaps a word too far.
Before we get to that, an extraordinary event took place recently when the main protagonists (two generations removed) faced off each other, not with pistols drawn, but to relive that tragedy, a 100 years on, through poetry readings and some lively discussion. Nanak Singh’s grandson, Ambassador Navdeep Singh Suri, and Sir Sidney Rowlatt’s grandson, Justin Rowlatt sat on the dais to give us renditions of the poem Khooni Vaisakhi as well as to tell us how far removed Imperial Britain was from its realm, the jewel in the crown, the Indian people. This poignant poem by Nanak Singh takes us back to that horrifying afternoon of April 13, 1919, as the troops massed and fired mercilessly on a crowd that had gathered there not to start a rebellion but to celebrate Vaisakhi, a summer festival. Dyer and Rowlatt and the entire British establishment thought otherwise. They were convinced this was an uprising as deadly and serious as the 1857 mutiny, when British India was on the verge of collapse. A tragedy, my reader, deep and dark, mired in misconceptions and fear: A tragedy, my reader, which could have been averted if only the occupier and the occupied understood each other.
Back to why an apology will never come?
“Never” is a word to be used sparingly and with trepidation. History is replete with strange twists and turns. But it is history that is at the heart of this obdurate refusal to say sorry. In Britain, the understanding of colonial history is shallow, but rich in English history. Schoolchildren are taught about King Harold, the Stuarts, and the Tudors and the great wars, but the Amritsar massacre is but a minor footnote. The British public is unaware of what happened in India (at least the current generation) despite its great love for the country. And as we saw, Britain felt then and even now that the Rowlatt Act was justified. This is what High Commissioner Dominic Asquith said recently: “You might want to rewrite history, but you can’t.” Easily said, but does that go far enough?
When asked this question, Ambassador Suri handled it with aplomb and finesse: “What is worth an apology if it is a wrench, it should come spontaneously from within, as an expression of remorse.” He then added tellingly: “Remembrances, my friend, are as important as apology. How many of us, Indians, know our history, my friend!”
Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.