Do apologies matter? Particularly if conveyed years, even centuries after a grave injustice had been committed, when direct survivors or witnesses are no more? Is saying sorry enough for as horrendous a crime like the Holocaust? Expressions of apology as a form of business of political correctitude appear to be phoney because it is sometimes less in terms of contrition and more on mollifying ruffled feathers. Can apologies made by the successors of the perpetrators to the succeeding generations of those affected heal a scar like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre? Perhaps yes, not because we are imbued with a sense of history as such, but because we are saddled with an inheritance of colonial shame, the collective burden of which transmutes into our collective existence, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Sometimes apologies are expressed in the form of concrete reparations and definitive proposals. The payments that were made by the German government to Jews as reparation for the Nazi Holocaust, mainly in the form of transfers to Israel, and estimated to be in the order of 80 billion Deutschmarks; the demands made by members of the Australian Aboriginal community for compensation and for a National Day of Apology for the so-called ‘stolen generation’ of aboriginal children; the compensation of $122 million awarded by the US Supreme Court to the Sioux Indians for the occupation by whites in the late nineteenth century of the gold-rich Black Hills area that had previously been reserved to the Sioux under the terms of a treaty; demands that Japan should pay compensation to ‘comfort women’ abducted from other East Asian countries (especially Korea) and forced into prostitution by the Japanese military, giving rise to official apologies and the creation of an Asian Women’s Fund to offer compensation to the women involved.

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, recently described the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar in 1919 as a “shameful scar” on British Indian history, but stopped short of a formal apology sought by a cross-section of MPs. Her statement was an instance of too little, too late.

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth travelled to India in what the New York Times called “an act of contrition” for Britain’s colonial past. Almost as an act of ritual, the Queen laid a wreath at the memorial at Jallianwala Bagh, stood in silence for a brief moment, and, even more briefly, bowed her head. She had not made any comment on the incident during her state visits in 1961 and 1983, but she spoke about the events at a state banquet in India on 13 October 1997 ~ “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past. Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness”.

Both Winston Churchill and former Prime Minister H. H. Asquith openly condemned the attack without mincing words. Churchill referred to it as “monstrous”, while Asquith called it “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”. It was after Churchill’s scathing speech in the House of Commons debate that the MPs voted 247 to 37 against Dyer and in support of the Government. Churchill was firm in his belief that what happened at Jallianwala Bagh was without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire: “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’ Acutely aware that the horrendous act was a blot on the so-called British “civilising mission”, he clarified that ‘this is not the British way of doing business.’ In his reckoning, ‘frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.’

What may yet rankle is that despite the official rebuke, many Britons “thought him a hero for saving the rule of British law in India” with many hailing Dyer as “the Saviour of Punjab”. Rudyard Kipling while sending a wreath to Dyer’s funeral in 1927 declared that he “did his duty as he saw it”. Michael Francis O’Dwyer, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab in India from 1912 to 1919, under whose tenure the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had occurred and who is believed to have been the mastermind, called it a “correct action” . Dyer, as much reviled as he was praised, stirs up strong passions, much like Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist from Sunam who, on 13 March 1940, at Caxton Hall in London shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre.

In his magisterial biography of Dyer titled The Butcher of Amritsar (2005), Nigel Collett, a former Gurkha officer, showed how prejudice and fear led to politically disastrous decisions and how the British administrative system proved wobbly, cruel and unjust. Collett was at pains to remind us how no one was punished for the massacre and how Dyer, instead of being tried for murder, was made only to sacrifice his career. The paranoia that haunted them since 1857 persisted well into 1919 and afterwards. O’Dwyer was loathe to any reforms designed to give Indians a greater share in their own government and it was his alarmist call for emergency legislation leading to the Rowlatt Act, or the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, that led to its passage in 1919.

This had precipitated large-scale political unrest throughout India. in the first months of 1919. Apart from assuming direct control of India in 1859, the Crown, now wary of sedition and conspiracies, seized the opportunity offered by the First World War to introduce the Defence of India Act in 1915, a piece of legislation that gave the government unfettered powers of preventive detention, to imprison people without trial, and to restrict speech, writing and movement. The support that Dyer received from a large section of people in Britain was a critical factor in the transformation of key leaders of the Indian National Congress, in particular Mahatma Gandhi, from loyal subjects to ‘implacable’ nationalists. The rancour and bloodbath of Indian independence and Partition nearly thirty years later could well be the ripple effect of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. It became a rallying point for anticolonial grievances that led to the unification of Congressmen under Gandhi’s leadership much to the chagrin of the colonial power.

Bill Clinton apologised for slavery, Tony Blair for the Irish famine, the Pope for the Crusades, and Australia declared a “National Sorry Day” for the shabby treatment meted out to Aborigines. India’s stridency in seeking a fuller, more sincere British apology is rooted in a sense of generational hurt. The memory of ‘national humiliation’ is a strong element of national rhetoric.

Iandia will never run out of reasons to feel aggrieved ~ the drain of wealth during the Raj, the loot and plunder of Indian artefacts such as the Kohinoor diamond, our huge territorial loss due to the Radcliffe Line, the historical baggage of its shoddy demarcation and finally the horrors of the Bengal famine and the Partition besides the hideous Amritsar massacre. If Britain ever comes to apologise for having to preside over some of the worst calamities, such as the Bengal famine or the Partition, it can to an extent make amends by applying an emollient.

(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)