Of Jallianwala Bagh and Bloody Sunday

Bullet holes are marked on a wall near the Jallianwala Bagh Martyrs’ Memorial in
Bullet holes are marked on a wall near the Jallianwala Bagh Martyrs’ Memorial in Amritsar.

by Amit Roy

IF THE British government can offer a formal apology for ‘Bloody Sunday’, why can’t it do the same for Jallianwala Bagh?

On the face of it, there are similarities between the two atrocities – British troops shooting dead unarmed civilians.

On June 15, 2010, the then prime minister David Cameron offered a heartfelt apology for Bloody Sunday in the Commons.

The event occurred on January 30, 1972, in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland, when British soldiers from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, shot 28 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment. Fourteen people died – 13 were killed outright,
while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers, and some were shot while trying to
help the wounded.

Cameron’s apology followed the publication of a judicial inquiry by Lord Saville.

The prime minister said that “the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”

Cameron said Saville found “that, in no case, was any warning given by soldiers before opening fire.

“Some people wonder whether, nearly 40 years on from an event, a prime minister needs to issue an apology. Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the
government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”

There is focus on Jallianwala Bagh this week because Saturday (13) marks the centenary of the massacre in Amritsar when Brig Gen Reginald Dyer ordered his (Gurkha) soldiers to fire on an unarmed protest gathering, killing anywhere between 379 (official figure) and 1,000
(unofficial figure) Indians. He also prevented help being given to the wounded, but many were dragged away and died from their injuries.

The massacre sealed the fate of the British Raj in India.

In 1997, the Queen and Prince Philip paid their respects by visiting Jallianwala Bagh, but they said nothing (though he caused controversy by saying he had served in the navy with Dyer’s son and wondered if the casualty figures weren’t somewhat exaggerated).

Cameron, probably the most pro-Indian prime minister Britain has had, visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013 – three years after his Bloody Sunday apology – and called the massacre “a deeply shameful event in British history”.

He then explained why he had decided against issuing an apology: “In my view, we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So, I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what
happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.”

My personal view is that making the current generation of Britons apologise for the sins of the past is not fair. But it doesn’t seem fair either that there should be a UK government
apology for Bloody Sunday, but not for Jallianwala Bagh.

If Cameron can say “sorry” for Bloody Sunday in the Commons, Theresa May should be brave enough to do the same for Jallianwala Bagh. This could be part of her legacy. She should not leave any expressions of “deep regret” for the tragedy to one of her ministers.