Repentance at last?

An apology for Jallianwala Bagh massacre remains awaited

One hundred years on since the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on that Visakhy day and British Empire's legacy lives on largely unrepentant, albeit sometimes concerned and showing some remorse, but officially retaining diplomatic stiff upper lip.

From Winston Churchill, when he was Secretary of State for War, to Stanley Baldwin, who was soon to become Prime Minister, there were expressions of excessive use of force, even un-British display of tackling an explosive law and order situation, but never an outright admission of moral lapse amounting to willful defence of imperial power. (Nobel poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling, cousin of Baldwin, however, maintained a discreet silence on the issue for a long time).

Even in more recent times British monarch, Queen Elizabeth during her 1997 visit to India to celebrate the 50th year of the country's independence skirted the issue by simply laying the wreath and making a bow at the massacre memorial and describing the event as a tragic episode.

David Cameron during his visit as Prime Minister in 2013 just expressed profound regret at the 1919 event and wrote: "This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as 'monstrous'. We must never forget what happened here." But he stopped short of making an apology.

Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather was killed in the massacre said: "I am not satisfied because he (Cameron) did not meet the descendants. If you feel shameful, why not make an apology? For 94 years, we are waiting for justice," he had said. This year in 2019 itself the issue has been raised by Indian origin community leaders at private group meetings in the UK but the issue remains unresolved as the nation at large is immersed in grappling with Brexit.

An apology may appear unpalatable to some but the idea is not so fanciful. Willy Brandt as Chancellor of (West) Germany apologised to Israel over the Nazi Holocaust. The Vatican too apologised to the Jews in 1998 and repented for the Roman Catholic Church's silence during the Holocaust years. Almost in a similar vein, President Bill Clinton apologised to Africa for historic wrongs such as slavery.

Back in 1919, the imposition of Martial Law in Punjab in the immediate aftermath of Jallianwala massacre was accompanied by press gag under which publication of Lahore's daily Tribune was suspended and its Editor Kalinath Ray was jailed for two years. Bombay Chronicle Editor BG Horniman was 'deported' from the city while its reporter Gobardhan Das was jailed for two years.

A year later, Churchill's response to the event was cool and considered, admitting frankly that an 'unarmed' crowd was fired upon killing 397 people and wounding over 1,200.

"The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When the fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion," Churchill stated according to parliament's Hansard record.

Churchill described the 'slaughter' of nearly 400 persons a 'monstrous' event which was 'not the British way of doing business.' But the idea of an apology was unthinkable then.

During all the parliamentary debates in that turbulent era, Kipling though lionised by the press and the public maintained a curious silence on the issue, perhaps avoiding any open clash with cousin Stanley Baldwin. But in later years Kipling made his sympathies known with tributes to the massacre man General Dyer. Kipling's final tribute with definitive words of edification simply said: "He did his duty as he saw it." The tribute was inscribed on the card accompanying Kipling's wreath at the funeral service for General Dyer at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

The man in the eye of the storm or indeed the man who created the storm – Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer who carried out the massacre of the innocents on that harvest festival Vaisakhi day April 13 – though idolised by vast sections of British press and public, was retired without any promotion. Hailed as the man who "Saved India", a large benefit fund amounting to over 26,000 pounds sterling was raised for the ailing veteran. But he remained officially as mere Colonel till the end of his life in 1927, thanks to the Commons vote which overruled the Lords support.

Kipling must have darkly watched the downhill slide of General Dyer and the failure of the efforts of his friend, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, Lieutenant- Governor of Punjab in 1919 under whose jurisdiction General Dyer carried out the operation. There is precious little doubt where Kipling's sympathies lay. Praising Kipling for his 'political foresight', O'Dwyer quoted his idol: "Asia is not going to be civilised after the method of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old … She will never attend Sunday School or learn to vote unless she uses swords for voting tickets."

In his obituary tribute to Kipling, O'Dwyer wrote: "As might be expected from the poet of our empire he lamented the steady surrender of our position and responsibilities in India, having little faith in 'Pagett, MP' and still less in the capacity of the Indian intelligentsia to govern with the pen and the tongue martial peoples who regarded those weapons with distrust or disdain.

"More than once in recent years I urged him to come forward and expose the dangers of the policy of surrender, arguing that his name and authority would compel people to think. His reply was to this effect: 'I have been forty years before my time in uttering the warning. For over thirty years I have been trying to hammer into the heads of certain British public men the elementary facts about India. I have had no success.'

Clearly, Kipling and O'Dwyer were on the same wavelength – and so utterly on the wrong side of 'political foresight.' Neither of them could imagine India becoming the world's largest, thriving, and resilient voting democracy.

O'Dwyer, though, came to a bloody end at a meeting of the East India Association and the Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall in London on 13 March 1940. He was shot dead, just a month short of the 21st anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, by Udham Singh who had taken the name of Ram Muhammad Singh Azad, symbolising the unity the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and the execution of earlier martyrs Bhagat Singh and his comrades Rajguru and Sukhdev in 1932.

O'Dwyer's assassin, Shaheed (martyr) Udham Singh was hanged in London's Pentonville Prison on July 31, 1940, and was buried in prison grounds. His remains were exhumed in 1974 and repatriated to his native village Sunam in Punjab. After cremation, his ashes were scattered in the River Sutlej.

(Subhash Chopra is the author of 'Kipling Sahib – the Raj Patriot' and 'India and Britannia' among other writings. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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