‘After 100 years, saying sorry would be little more than a hollow gesture’

London mayor Sadiq Khan looks at the bullet marks on a wall during a visit to Jallianwala Bagh
in Amritsar on December 6, 2017.
London mayor Sadiq Khan looks at the bullet marks on a wall during a visit to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on December 6, 2017.


AN OFFICIAL apology for the Amritsar massacre is something some Indians have been seeking from the British government since 1919.

The most recent voices have come in the form of Indian writers Arundhati Roy and Shashi Tharoor, and also the London mayor, Sadiq Khan.

On the centenary of the incident this weekend, it’s worth considering the merits and the politics of such a request.

In some ways, we can see an apology as an attempt by the former colonial power to distance itself from its previous stance of superiority. An apology by its very nature, is an attempt to draw a line; after all, it was 100 years ago. It would be a sign of Britain’s desire to enter into a relationship of equals.

An acknowledgement might also free India from the burden of victimhood. Once due attention has been paid, it would allow both nations to adopt a forward-looking perspective less tinted by the ghosts of the past.

However, apart from the abstract, I am not convinced an apology would serve any useful purpose. This is partly because apologising on behalf of someone else is a Christian idea – that somehow we can pay for the sins of others. In Hinduism, only the people directly involved in the sin can redeem themselves.

The apology would also be layered with politics. Conceding there was an error of judgement leaves the British establishment in an awkward position diplomatically. Conversely, ignoring this demand also leaves Britain open to the charge of arrogance and heartlessness.

Personally, I don’t know what an apology achieves. Who exactly is apologising and for what? Does anyone in Britain have the legitimacy, the authority, to apologise for what occurred before their grandparents were even born? Should – and can – we hold future generations responsible for our mistakes today?

Instead, both sides have settled – unofficially – for a half-way house where Britain uses the word ‘regret’ which acknowledges a failure but shunts off individual responsibility. Any apology without responsibility is tokenistic and, therefore, ultimately redundant.

Despite this, other Indians have even raised the question of reparations.

This, too, is an oversimplification. What price do you put on a life? Should it differentiate between people working and not working; men and women, babies, toddlers and children? The very thought of putting some kind of monetary figure on life is abhorrent. The implication that if the British apologise and pay money then everything will be forgiven is offensive to all victims.

In reality, an apology and reparations, after a century, would be little more than hollow and superficial acts of diplomatic palliation or political assuagement.

  • Dr Roshan Doug is a reader in education at the University of Birmingham.