Jallianwala Bagh: Of Imperial Splendor and an Apology

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San Francisco – On April 13, 1919 in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, thousands of Indians assembled to celebrate spring’s arrival and to welcome the New Year. Walled on all sides, and with few exits that were accessible, British troops entered the park and commanded by Colonel Reginald Dyer, ruthlessly fired shots into that unsuspecting crowd of Indian civilians.

Deeming the assembly unlawful and in contravention of his poorly publicized ban on assemblies, and determined to teach the natives a lesson, Dyer entered the park with his troops. After blocking its main exits, and perching his troops on higher ground, in a shocking abuse of power he ordered the troops to ceaselessly shower bullets on the crowd.

1919 Jallianwala Bagh Martyr Well 1

The salvo lasted ten gory minutes, ending only when allegedly they ran out of bullets. All through, the troops under Dyer’s orders, directed their bullets especially to the few open exits from where people sought to flee. In the stampede that followed, the young and the vulnerable were crushed even as bodies were dropping dead on top of each other. Dozens jumped in to a deep well hoping to save their lives and drowned. The casualty was horrendous with hundreds dead and hundreds more wounded. The incident’s savagery shook the nation’s conscience and of the civilized world who heard about it.

Lauded as a hero by the Empire’s supporters, especially the House of Lords, it took a year for Dyer to be censured in July 1920 by House of Commons and forced to retire. Even after his death, apologists including Rudyard Kipling continued to justify Dyer’s brutality as a call to “duty”, while others hailed him as Punjab’s “savior”. One would imagine that in the succeeding ten decades, the generations of British leaders that followed would find it in their hearts to apologize for the heinous unprovoked genocidal attack.

1919 Jallianwala Bagh fired at from here 4

On April 13, 2019, which is just around the corner, India and Indian expatriates globally will commemorate the Jallianwala massacre and will seek to heal. As with families, a nation’s history has to be re-lived (not just revisited), and while there is no need to rewrite one’s past, it is worthwhile to examine and concede one’s wrongs. Sadly, nations and their leaders, ever ready to eulogize their glorious past, are unwilling to concede their wrongs and tend to shove them under the rug.

Post Second World War, the Nuremberg trials, which exposed the wartime crimes of German leaders making them legally and financially culpable for their actions, set a welcome precedent for holding accountable the perpetrators of inhumane treatment of people. Signed in 1952, the landmark reparations deal between Germany and Israel opened a pathway to settling victims’ claims. In the years to follow, even with Nuremberg’s model to guide them, erstwhile colonies remained passive – causing erstwhile colonial powers to largely escape scrutiny and accountability for their criminal excesses, and evade moral censure and reparation responsibility.

In recent years fortunately, momentum did pick up in judicial claims put forth by former colonial subjects and their descendants seeking redress for violent oppressions. Though mostly without reparation, apologies for wrongs committed have come for example from Germany to Namibia in 2004, from Japan to South Korea in 2010, and from the Dutch to Indonesia in 2011. A seismic shift occurred on June 6, 2013 when in a historic first, the British Government officially expressed “sincere regret” and announced a compensation package for abuse committed by British colonial officers against Kenyans. Though historic, this gesture lacked grace as it did not come voluntarily but in response to a court settlement of a legal case initiated by Kenyan victims.

While skeptics may question the need for apologies and dismiss them as window dressing, there is unquestionable worth in two nations getting together to put out the fires of the past and seek to heal on the basis of common decency. A colonized and brutalized people, Indians like the citizenry of other British and European colonies, expect a modicum of decency from civilized nations in squarely addressing the atrocities of the past. An apology formally conveyed and accepted and with genuine remorse underlying it can go far in healing the occupied nations.

1919 Jallianwala Bagh Wall with bullet holes 2

For those among us who witnessed and others who through their ancestors have heard the mind-blowing humiliations of British rule, an apology for a blatant act of mass murder is not a superficial ego-fulfilling desire but a genuine path to recovery of self-worth. Fans – Indian or Western – of the Glorious British Empire who revel in the Splendor that was Raj have to step out of their mythical dream to fully embrace the Raj’s venality and criminality. At its peak the British controlled a fifth of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s total land area. But that control did not come spontaneously or gently. Instead it caused immense pain and suffering,  and severe emotional and economic degradation. Post massacre at Jallianwala, for instance, the cruelty and humiliation did not end. Instead, to teach a lesson to the populace in Amritsar city, people were ordered to crawl on all fours through the city streets. Refusal to do so met with brutal beating and public flogging.

Amid renewed calls and mounting pressure by Indian-origin British parliamentarians and Indian community leaders globally, the British House of Lords (which had refused to sanction Dwyer a hundred years back) on February 19 agreed to briefly debate the massacre but other than some stirring speeches the issue of a formal apology remained unresolved.

With the centenary of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh bloodbath approaching on April 13, 2019, it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to shed false pride and to offer truly repentant and healing words to the victims and their successor families. A hundred years late, but such a contrite gesture would still be welcome and timely.

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Neera Kuckreja Sohoni has a Ph.D. in economics and is a published author.

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