Zimran Samuel and Krishnendu Mukerjee reflect on the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh

On 13th April 1919, 100 years ago today, British troops fired, without warning, on a large gathering of unarmed Indians, in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. The gathering was in protest against the Rowlett Act, which allowed for the trial of political prisoners without a jury. Official estimates put the death-toll, including children, at 379, but eye-witness accounts put those killed at over 1000, with a similar number injured.  The killings, known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, was a blow for the Sikhs who had loyally fought and died in the British army, during the First World War and remains a source of anger even today.

On the 10th April 2019, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister expressed ‘deep regret’ for the massacre. Her predecessor, David Cameron expressed similar regret on his visit to the Punjab in 2013. However, neither Prime Minister felt it necessary to apologise for the needless loss of life, nor provide any proper inquiry into why it was allowed to happen in the first place. One of the ironies of the massacre was that General Dyer, who ordered the killings, remained unpunished after a show-inquiry. However, Udam Singh, the Indian revolutionary who shot and killed the then Lieutenant Governor, Michael O’Dwyer, because of this support for Dyer, was given the death penalty in 1940.

In 2017, evidence emerged that Margaret Thatcher’s government had given active support to the Indian government during the 1984 Amritsar massacre, in which hundreds of Sikhs died at the Golden Temple. Demands for full disclosure and inquiry by members of the British-Sikh community go unheeded. Disclosure of Britain’s involvement in the torture of Mau Mau rebels in Kenya only came about after litigation, whilst it was public pressure that led to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry about the killings in Northern Ireland. 

Britain has a brutal colonial past, but it continues to play a role in funding and assisting of serious human rights violations abroad from funding detention centres in Libya to allowing the use of British arms in the bombing of Yemen.

As the current Brexit impasse demonstrates, Britain is no longer the economic or political power that it once was. It does however, have an opportunity to re-invent itself, as a country which fully acknowledges its colonial past and thereby stops history repeating itself through its actions abroad. In order to do this, it needs to provide full disclosure, set up inquiries, make apologies and where necessary pay reparations and prosecute offenders.

The Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who had received a knighthood in 1915, returned it in protest at the Jallianawala Bagh Massacre. In a letter to the then, Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, he stated:

“The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings”.

Britain should be less concerned about glorifying its ignoble past, and more about providing global responsibility in its future.

Jallianwala Bagh