IF THE GOVERNMENT cannot make up its collective mind on Brexit after three years, perhaps it is not surprising that ministers are still “reflecting” on whether or not to issue an apology for the Amritsar massacre after one hundred. That was the verdict from the government benches during a recent debate on the subject in the House of Lords, ahead of the centenary on April 13th.
On that day in 1919, General Reginald Dyer ordered 50 men under his command to fire into a crowd of people at Amritsar, the spiritual home of Sikhism, in north-west India. In just ten minutes his troops fired 1,650 rounds, killing at least 370 and wounding over 1,000. Whereas the general claimed he was forestalling an insurrection, those gathered in the public garden of Jallianwala Bagh were in fact unarmed, listening peacefully to some speeches.
The massacre shattered any lingering moral claims that the British might have had to rule India. Winston Churchill, colonial secretary at the time, called it a “monstrous event”. Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath there in 1997. In 2013 David Cameron, then the prime minister, visited Jallianwala Bagh and wrote in the visitors’ book of the “deeply shameful” event . The government has promised to mark the centenary in the most “respectful” way, but an outright apology looks unlikely. It wants to avoid opening a can of worms that could see it compelled to apologise for other colonial outrages.
That may cause surprisingly little indignation in India. Not much fuss is being made over the centenary in the city itself. Insofar as the term “Amritsar” marks a harrowing episode in the history of India, these days it tends to recall the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Families of Hindu Punjabis who fled Lahore via Amritsar suffered great depredations on the way. A museum devoted to preserving the memory of partition opened in 2017.
Some, like Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a historian at Ashoka University, are actually irritated by the notion that Britain might apologise for the incident. It would be good for the British to remember that Dyer’s actions constituted “a national tragedy of enormous proportion”, says Mr Mukherjee. Yet Amritsar was just one example of British misrule. Mr Mukherjee warns that “you could make an apology about this specific incident without acknowledging a broader reality—which would be of no help.”
With national elections set to start on April 11th, Indians have more pressing matters in mind. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, controls the story of Indian nationalism these days, and has little use for the history of the anti-colonial struggle (which his own heroes, the first Hindu nationalists, largely sat out). The Congress party, now in opposition, would traditionally stoke the embers of the anti-British campaigns, which it led. But it is trying hard to appeal to new voters, desperate for jobs and otherwise far from the memory of the freedom struggle.