Sunday 24 February 2013

British Apology for old Carnage?

David Cameron paid his respects at the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar.
He said, ‘This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous. We must never forget what happened here.’
In contrast, on a visit to Amritsar in 1997, Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip had said that the shooting toll was ‘vastly exaggerated.’ There was no apology, but David Cameron was the first UK Prime Minister to express regret.

Picture this. On Baisaki, the Punjabi festival on April 13, 1919, about 20,000 people gathered at Jallianwala Bagh. Protesters defied a ban on public meetings and gatherings ordered by the British rulers. As speeches denounced the British, Brig-Gen Reginald Dyer decided to crack down on them. He lined up riflemen, Gurkhas and Baluchi troops, at the Bagh as the gathering watched. Within 30 seconds after full deployment, Dyer ordered firing. There was no warnings, no shots fired overhead. 50 Lee Enfield bolt-action rifles were aimed directly at protesters. In all 1,650 rounds fired. Troops didn’t stop firing until they exhausted their ammunition. Historians differ over how long the shooting lasted. Some say six minutes, others say 20 minutes. Official death toll given was 379 and 1500 wounded. Indian historians put the toll at about 1,000. The Bagh, a park is the size of three football fields, surrounded by tall houses. The Bagh had only two narrow entry and exit points. British forces blocked one, the other, a narrow iron gate, was locked. After the firing stopped, Dyer refused to help the wounded. 120 bodies were later fished out from a well in the complex.

Dyer justified his conduct saying the meeting was illegal and his men were outnumbered. A court of enquiry ruled against him. Relieved of his command, he was forced to resign.

David Camerons’s comment at Jallianwala Bagh revives the old debate on the politics of remorse. On asked why he didn’t apologize. He said, ‘I don’t think the right thing is to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened….to show understanding for what happened. That’s why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to learn lessons….to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.’

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