On 13 April 1919, a British general ordered his army to open fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, killing hundreds of Indians and scripting one of the most shameful tales of oppression and atrocities in the history of British India. One hundred years later, a British Prime Minister accepted the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was indeed “shameful”, and expressed “regret”, though did not offer a formal apology.
On Wednesday, while describing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as a “shameful scar” on the British Indian history, PM Theresa May stopped short of a formal apology sought by a cross-section of her MPs in previous debates in Parliament.
At the start of her weekly questions in the House of Commons, Theresa May issued a statement in which she reiterated the “regret” already expressed by the British government.
The massacre took place at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on a Baisakhi day, one of the main Sikh festivals, in April 1919. The British Indian Army troops, under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, opened fired at peaceful protesters holding a demonstration.
British government records say 379 people, including women and children, were killed and nearly 1200 were injured.
“The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh of 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history. As Her Majesty the Queen (Elizabeth II) said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, it is a distressing example of our past history with India,” May said in her statement.
“We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused. I am pleased that today the UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora make an enormous contribution to British society and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish,” she added.
The statement came a day after British MPs debated the issue of a formal apology for the massacre to mark its centenary this Saturday.
After May issued her statement, Opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said those who lost their lives in the massacre deserve a “full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place”.
Foreign Office Minister Mark Field had earlier told MPs that he agreed with the argument to raise the issue of going further than the “deepest regret” previously expressed over the killings.
“I feel that we perhaps need to go further… I have now been persuaded – not just by this debate – to take a different approach,” the minister said, adding that the government had to also consider the “financial implications” of any apology for events of the past.
“These issues are an important way of trying to draw a line under the past. Therefore, this is work in progress and I cannot make any promises,” he said.
The debate was tabled by Conservative Party MP Bob Blackman, who opened proceedings with a strong sentiment of “shame” as he called on the British government to apologise.
“General Dyer was vigorously defended by – I say this with shame – the Conservative party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise,” Blackman said, in reference to the British general who had ordered the shooting at a Baisakhi gathering in Amritsar 100 years ago.
“As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April 1919, it is clear that there needs to be a formal apology from the United Kingdom government that accepts and acknowledges their part in the massacre,” said Indian-origin Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill.
“This is the right time for the (British) Prime Minister to publicly apologise,” added fellow Labour MP Virendra Sharma.
In India, the Punjab Assembly had in February this year unanimously passed a resolution to mount pressure on the Centre to seek a formal apology from the British government “for one of the worst ever bloodbaths in the world”.
The resolution said “an apology for the massacre would be a befitting tribute to the martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh during its centenary year”.
“It was a dastardly act perpetrated upon the innocent people who had converged at the Jallianwala Bagh on the fateful day of Baisakhi on April 13, 1919, to protest against Rowlatt Act of the Imperial rulers,” it said.
(With agency inputs)