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Why seek apology from a de-fanged empire

Last week while on a visit to India, British prime minister David Cameron expressed regret, short of an apology, on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of over 500 unarmed Indians by the British imperial forces on the orders of Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, then holding the rank of temporary Brigadier General, on the Baisakhi day in 1919. Cameron, justifying his expression of regret, not apology, said, ‘We are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.’

Cameron in fact became the first serving British prime minister to visit the scene of the massacre, which changed the make-up and momentum of the freedom movement. The British premier after visiting Golden Temple in Amritsar, went to the neighbouring public park, bowed his head at the memorial and entered in the visitor’s book, ‘deeply shameful event’.

The inability of the visiting prime minister to use the word apology disappointed relatives and families of those who fell to the British bullets. The demand for the apology from Cameron brought back memories of a poem – Shakti aur Kshama (Strength and Pardon) – read in the Hindi text at the high school.

Penned by India’s most celebrated anti-imperialist and nationalist poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, the poem has a very pertinent stanza which could be referred to David Cameron’s regret. It goes like this, Kshama shobhti us bhujang ko, Jiske paas garal ho; Uska kya jo dantheen, Vishrahit vineet saral ho. Loosely translated, the lines would mean, when a serpent that has venom, teeth and strength forgives, there is grace in its forgiveness, there is magnanimity. But when a serpent that has no venom and no bite claims to forgive, it sounds like hypocrisy and amounts to hiding its defeat with noble words.’

The British Prime Minister was on a visit to Amritsar essentially to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple, the most holy pilgrimage for the Sikh community, which today enjoys both financial and political primacy among the emigrant communities. The visit was planned with an eye on the Sikh vote and no wonder Cameron wore a blue patka (bandana) and had a saffron saropa (stoll) around his neck giving a loud message to the Sikh community in Britain.

Cameron carefully crafted his words to explain his visit to the highest temple of Sikh community. He said, ‘In coming here, to Amritsar, we should also celebrate the immense contribution that people from the Punjab play in Britain – the role they play, what they give to our country. What they contribute to our country is outstanding. It is important to understand that, to pay respect to that, and to seek a greater understanding of the Sikh religion. And that is why the visit to the holy temple, the Golden Temple, was so important.’ For the consumption of British Prime Minister’s poll strategists, one of the most important days in the annual Sikh calendar is Baisakhi, which marks beginning of the harvest season.

It was on this day that the last Guru, Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa Panth in 1699. The Jallianwala massacre also took place on the same Baisakhi day, 120 years later when on 13 April 1919, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had gathered at the Bagh after the customary visit to the nearby temple.

Some anti-imperialist leaders chose the occasion to address the gathering. At 4:30 pm, General Dyer arrived with a group of 65 Gorkha and 25 Baluchi soldiers, with 50 of them armed with rifles. The General had also brought two armoured cars mounted with machine guns; which were parked at the entrance as they were unable to enter the park through the narrow entrance.

Dyer – without warning the crowd to disperse – blocked the main exits and ordered the soldiers to fire. He explained later that this act ‘was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.’ While refraining from apologising for an act committed eight decades earlier, Cameron decided to depend on the words of Winston Churchill, who had told the House of Commons on 8 July 1920: ‘That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragic occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population.’

Cameron, however, must understand that for the Indians, Churchill too doesn’t qualify as an anti-imperialist, having resisted country’s independence tooth and nail. He once famously said, ‘Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. All Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have swee t tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles.’

It was left to Clement Richard Attlee, the Labour leader, who replaced Churchill as prime minister following the 1945 elections to start the process of decolonisation leading to India’s freedom in 1947. Cameron being a Conservative Party leader himself could not have given precedence to a Labour Attlee over a Tory Churchill. However, nearly a century later does an apology from Britain really going to matter.

As Dinkar wrote, Sahansheelta, kshama, daya ko; Tabhi poojta jag hai, Bal ka darp chamakta uskey Peechhey jab jagmag hai. Meaning, ‘Tolerance, forgiveness and clemency, Are respected by the world; Only when the glow of strength, From behind them is unfurled.’ The sun has set over the British Empire.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is consulting editor, Millennium Post
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