Vol. XLIII No. 16 April 21, 2019

A 100 Years after Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, India Still Awaits British Apology

Tikender Singh Panwar

A PEACEFUL demonstration against the Rowlatt Act at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, turned into a site of massacre by the British government, killing more than thousands of protestors including women and children. A hundred years from then, the British government still fails to render an apology for one of the most heinous crimes it had ever committed.

Following a call given by Mahatma Gandhi, scores of Indians including the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs made peaceful demonstrations at Jallianwala Bagh on the Baisakhi day of 1919 when Brigadier Dyer of the British government cordoned the garden and made his force shoot at defenceless, unarmed people till their ammunitions got exhausted.

Though the deposition of Reginald Dyer before the Hunter Commission and the comments of Lieutenant Governor, Michael O’ Dwyer said that it was intended to teach Indians ‘a moral lesson’ and to instil fear; it achieved exactly the opposite.  Jallianwala Bagh massacre had a tremendous impact on the freedom movement. Bhagat Singh who was just 12-years-old, took the sand soaked with blood of the Indians killed at the garden and kept it with him to remind him of the ruthlessness of the British government. The Congress held a session in Amritsar in December 1919 and pledged to continue the struggle.

Hundred years from the fateful day, the Indian government still remains eluded of the customary observances of the incident. The Indian community in the United Kingdom, however is up in arms with the British government demanding an apology. Scores of organisations including the Indian Workers Association have unleashed a campaign 18 months ago with two major demands.   

      The first is a demand of apology from the serving prime minister of Britain to India for the massacre and the second is to teach the colonial history of the Britishers in the Britain school curriculum in its real merits.

Though some of the schools run by the Asian communities in Britain teach colonial history, it is insufficient, feels Jogender Bains, general secretary of Indian Workers Association, one of the groups that is spearheading the campaign.

The campaign began with an online petition in the United Kingdom which was signed by over 1,50,000 people. This was followed by leaflet distribution, public meetings, radio and television debates and also lobbying MPs of the British parliament.

The purpose of bringing all the communities together was quite successful. People owing a common heritage and legacy from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are amongst the main organisers of the campaign.

On April 10,  77 members of the British parliament (House of Commons), wrote a letter to Jeremy Hunt, MP, secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, London, to tender an apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The letter states, “we cannot turn back time or erase the past, but we can take steps to recognise what happened and to respond in a way that befits a modern relationship between two countries which today enjoy normal and positive diplomatic relations”. The letter also mentions the visit of David Cameron the then Prime Minister of Britain to the site of Jallianwala Bagh in 2013. He had described the events as “deeply shameful”, but stopped of an official apology.

Back in England, there has been an unprecedented cross-party support for the demand in the debate in Westminster Hall held on April 9.  Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour party, while participating in the debate demanded an unequivocal apology and nothing less.

Various MPs, academicians, writers, film makers, etc took part of the campaign. Some of the parliamentarians; Chris Williamson, Virender Sharma and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, member of parliament from Derby North, Ealing and Southall and Slough respectively have been active in the campaign.

Major organisations of Britain, which are part of the campaign include Indian Workers Association, South Asian People’s Forum UK, Derby Trades Union Council, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Welfare Centre- Leicester, Derby Stands up to Racism, Mandela Centre Derby, Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Centre Birmingham, Nationalist Socialist Workers Union, Marx Memorial Library, Liberation, Voice of Women-Southall, etc.

 On April 13, a conference was held in London to reiterate the above demands and was supported by  artists, writers, women activists, lawyers, local community groups etc.

The Indian community in England, however find the stance of the Indian government on this issue to be reprehensive. They demand that it should pass a resolution in the Indian Parliament seeking an apology from the UK prime minister.

They opine that the opportune time is now, not just because it is rightfully desired or because 100 years is too long a period but because the Britain, at present is at the crossroad, owing to its quagmire over Brexit. The terms of Brexit are still not settled and there is another section of the people in England, who are demanding a new referendum on Brexit itself.

Given this situation, the Britain is searching for allies in the geo-political environment and the two major allies which England is looking at are the US and India. India has a large trade potential which is of great concern to the UK.

It is only imperative for the incumbent government to create an atmosphere in the country revising the Jallianwala Bagh spirit, not just because it is an opportune time, but also because it is linked to the basic spirit of India’s nationalism- resistance against imperialism and unity in diversity. Indian nationalism that was professed during the freedom movement, which was not for one religion’s superiority over another, but for a composite and secular India.

Bringing facts to the fore, after the murder of  Michael O’ Dyer, on March 13, 1940, the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab had ordered the marching of troops to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and it took two days for the UK police to find out the name of the culprit, Udham Singh, as he proclaimed his name as Ram Mohammad Singh. Thus, signifying the spirit of India and its nationalism.

Unfortunately, the last five years of the BJP rule forgot to even observe centenary of the massacre. Rather, the BJP government, deliberately did not adopt such a resolution for observing programmes that could have generated a spirit of nationalism in the young minds of the country. Prime Minister Modi happens to be the chairperson of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust. Some of the trustees that includes former chief minister of Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal, has stated that they are not aware of centenary events at the Jallianwala Bagh.   

On February 10, 2019, MB Rajesh, CPI(M) MP from Kerala who had visited the site, wrote to the PM about the sorry state of affairs of the Jallianwala Bagh site and asked the PM to ensure that the site is properly maintained. He alleged, that due to paucity of funds some of the light and sound systems were not working. This is indeed shocking that a monument of such international relevance is being crippled because of lack of funds.  

Not a surprise that the Jallianwala Bagh trust has not met even once in the year 2018 to take stock of the situation. This amply shows what kind of interest the BJP government has towards such a historic site.

The CPI(M), which passed a resolution in April 2018, in its 22nd party congress for organising variety of events and programmes throughout the country, organised series of events in this regard. This was done to revisit the lessons of the struggle and to understand the people’s resolve to free India from the colonial yoke.

The 17th Lok Sabha once it gets constituted in May 2019 must, as one of its first major initiatives pass a resolution seeking an apology from the British prime minister, thus, mounting pressure on the UK government to acknowledge the havoc they have done with their past colonial rule.