The Speaker
Thursday, 13 June 2024 – 06:02

The Amritsar Massacre: 100 years on

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Today marks the centennial of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Amritsar, India, which saw the merciless killing of hundreds of Indians celebrating the Sikh festival of Baisakhi at the hands of the British Indian Army.

Over 300 people died according to official British accounts, although the Indian National Congress claim the actual death count was over 1000.

The massacre gave a significant impetus to the Indian independence movement and convinced many Indians that British rule over India must end.

Today, the atrocity has regained the attention of some in British political circles with Theresa May describing the event as “deeply shameful”, however, did not apologise.

But with Brexit still in the process of being negotiated after several extensions, it will ensure both politicians and the country understand and acknowledge their past transgressions, especially if they wish to cement key trade deals and relationships that will be necessary for the future.

On April 13, 1919, a British General, Reginald Dyer, announced to the city of Amritsar that meetings of more than four people were no longer allowed to be held, despite Baisakhi taking place – a harvest festival celebrated annually by Sikhs.

Later that day Dyer was notified of a mass gathering of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and proceeded to investigate the nearly 20,000 people with his soldiers who he then ordered to shoot the crowds.

Reports from that day even suggested he was prepared to use armoured machine guns on the crowd, but the small entrance to the Bagh stopped him from doing so.

Ten minutes of continuous shooting led to between 300-1000 men, women and children dead, with many more injured, displaced or jumping into nearby wells to avoid the wrath of British bullets.

The event shocked the Indian nation and galvanised the independence movement across the country which highlighted to many, India and the world, the nature and extent of the British Empire’s tyranny.

Survivors of the massacre, as well as their descendants, have continued to speak of their horror and how it has affected their lives.

And so, it seems apt to offer those suffering from the massacre’s effects a sincere apology.

Not only can victims finally gain closure from a bloody massacre which is prevalent in the hearts and minds of many Indians today, but gives the British a chance to finally see the Empire’s ugly side and acknowledge the event is equally their own history as Indian history.

Yet after 100 years, many Brits are alarmingly unaware of the atrocities caused by their ancestors.

Conservative MP Tom Loughton’s response to Jeremy Corbyn’s comment on the need to teach children “true” history of the British Empire, revealed some still believe the Empire has done nothing but good.

He said Corbyn was more interested in “talking down” Britain and not highlighting the “immense amount of good we have done in the world over many centuries”.

But surely teaching about the British Empire to schoolchildren is key and necessary for the country’s future.

Students already learn key topics in British history like the World Wars and English Monarchy – but the full extent of the British Empire have conveniently been left out.

What is the effect of this today?

When asked if the British Empire was a good thing, a YouGov poll revealed 43% of respondents said ‘Yes’, with only 19% saying ‘No’.

If people are not taught about their history to the fullest extent then any regret or apology made by one country to another is completely empty.

In 1997, fifty years after Indian independence, Queen Elizabeth II visited the Jallianwala Bagh, now turned into a memorial and described the event as a “distressing example of difficult episodes” of British history, according to the New York Times.

Both David Cameron and Theresa May have described the event as a “deeply shameful” moment in British history, however, all three have fallen short of an apology.

Cameron even defended his decision not to offer an apology, stating: “The right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened”.

But how is this enough for two countries to move on from an event that was one of the pinnacles of grave malfeasance in British colonial history?

Whilst it is true the current generation of Brits are not responsible for their ancestors’ wrongdoing, the effects of that wrongdoing are still being felt today, with survivors of the massacre still hurt by what happened.

Therefore, it is time Britain apologises for its colonial atrocities.

Merely stating regret, especially if the feeling of regret is not felt among the British population, is not enough – it comes off as half-hearted and unsympathetic.

Had people been educated about both sides of the British Empire, then maybe an apology would have been more likely and poignant.

The recent events in Brexit further perpetuate the notion Britain is a strong country with endless foreign connections, and so it will not be at a disadvantage when leaving the European Union.

However, if it wants to make use of historical ties with former colonies for trade talks and closer partnerships, it needs to grapple the fact that some parts of history should never be denied and that educating about the Empire can inform people of the world they live in.

An apology will pave the way for a future where no one side harbours resentment for the other.

It would finally offer closure for a country still battling the scars of its colonial past, whilst opening the eyes of another who has – for far too long – been in denial of the horrific moments in its history.

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