Ahead of the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday, 10 April, expressed regret for the massacre, saying, “We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.”
“Jallianwala Bagh tragedy is a shameful scar on British Indian history,” May said.
May’s latest remarks comes a day after the UK government made it clear that while they feel regret for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, they would not be issuing an apology for it as was expected, reported PTI.
During her address, May indicated that over the years, the India-UK relationship has improved significantly and said, “The Indian diaspora make an enormous collaboration to British society.”
This was also reiterated by Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn. However, he added that the people in India deserved a “full, clear and unequivocal apology.”
The massacre dates back to 13 April 1919, when General Dyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, closed the exit gates on a Baisakhi gathering inside the Jallianwala Bagh and ordered indiscriminate firing on the crowds trapped inside.
Thousands of people were killed and thousands more injured in the massacre.
As the 100th anniversary of this massacre draws near, the UK parliament held a debate on the topic in the British House of Commons, called by Conservative MP Bob Blackman. While Blackman said that he hoped to see an apology from the British government, Mark Field, UK Foreign Office Junior Minister, said that he was reluctant to apologise for something that had happened in the past.
“It’s not appropriate for me today to make the apology that many members would wish to come. I have slightly orthodox views. I feel a little reluctant to make apologies for things that happened in the past,” he said.
He also said that apologising for multiple events could debase the “currency of apologies”, adding that there were governmental concerns about issuing an apology. “There are concerns that any government department has to make about any apology, given there may well be financial implications to making an apology,” he said.
However, Field did say it was a shameful incident. “It was a shameful episode in our history and one that we deeply regret to this day,” Field said.
MPs Demand Apology
However, many of the MPs present at the Westminster Hall debate demanded an apology from the government. Some of those who had visited the location in India also offered their own apologies, The Times of India reported.
Blackman, in his speech, told the MPs that “India will never forget. We owe it to the victims and their families to never forget what happened in our name… I hope we see an apology from the British government… It makes me sad and ashamed that this was done in our name… it is time we own up to it and that we made an apology and suitable reparation,” reported Hindu Business Line.
Virendra Sharma, an MP from Ealing Southall, called the government’s approach to the incident “confused”. “I am disappointed,” he said.
MP Khalid Mahmood stated that an apology would provide closure to India and allow relations between the two countries to move forward, The Times of India reported.
Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, said that an apology should mark the beginning of a larger effort to raise awareness about the incident and British colonisation and its effects, the Hindu Business Line report said.
“We need to teach this in history lessons so that British children learn about the context of the British empire which had subjugated people around the world. We need to teach our children about the backdrop of what Commonwealth is and means,” Gill said, reported The Times of India.
One MP also questioned how the UK could project itself as a protector of human rights when it had itself failed to acknowledge its own crimes and apologise for them.
The MPs have now written a letter demanding a formal apology, which will be sent to the Prime Minister, Theresa May. Indian-origin peers Lord Meghnad Desai and Lord Raj Loomba, in their capacity as members of a newly-formed Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee (JBCC), had also written to Theresa May calling for a formal apology, PTI reports said.
A Possible Shift in the Future
In his speech, Field said, “In the intervening years, we have learnt lessons. Everything that we do today is in order to try to prevent such tragedies occurring again elsewhere in the world.”
He added that the best way to mark the centenary and the issue of an apology was still a matter of “active debate” and a “work in progress” among ministers and senior officials.
He stressed the importance of a partnership between India and UK, pooling their strengths.
“I believe that the best way to honour the memory of the people who suffered and died in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago is for us all to do our best to build a new partnership between the UK and India that will work for both our countries, and to recognise that such a partnership can be an important force for good in the world at large,” Scroll.in reported.
“Something is holding us back fulfilling the full potential of the flourishing relationship (with India) and I do accept that it (Jallianwala Bagh) perhaps grates particularly strongly,” he added, PTI reported.
He also said that the debate had compelled him to take a message back to Downing Street that more than an expression of regret was required.
(With inputs from PTI, Scroll.in, The Times of India and The Hindu Business Line.)