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It’s well past time the government apologised for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre – and learned its lessons for today

Continued avoidance of the murders at Amritsar in 1919 is unacceptable and insulting to the memory of the victims and their families, argues CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

ONE hundred and four years ago on April 13 1919, the British army murdered many hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar to protest against repressive laws and arbitrary arrests of independence activists. 

The troops had bottled thousands of people in a dead end so that they could not escape, before they were mercilessly gunned down.

Without any warning or provocation, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire indiscriminately at the unarmed and defenceless crowd, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. 

There are differing reports on the exact number of casualties, but an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people died and more than 1,500 were wounded, including at least 42 children, of whom the youngest was only seven months old.

The murders sparked widespread outrage and condemnation across India and the world, and marked a turning point in the Indian independence movement, but the British government’s reaction was equivocal.

The commissioners’ report of 1920 on the massacre found that the killings were not merely the result of indiscriminate fire. Instead, the British army officer responsible, Dyer, had intentionally paused and redirected his troops’ fire at the most densely packed groups of fleeing civilians. Dyer himself admitted that the crowd was not even warned before shooting began.

Rather than express contrition or back down from his aggression, Dyer then instituted an order forcing Indian men to crawl 200 yards on their bellies if they wished to move along a particular street and had Indians publicly whipped if they came too close to a police officer.

Despite outrage in India and in Britain, only two days later empire troops committed further atrocities against Indians protesting against the first massacre, using explosives and machine guns to kill another 39 people.

Dyer was never disciplined for his actions. Instead, he was allowed to resign and retire with a pay-off that would be worth more than £1 million today.

Britain notionally changed its policy to require troops always to use minimal force against civilians, but continued to disregard the policy when it suited Britain’s imperial priorities, for example during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

The murders of Jallianwala Bagh were not an anomaly. Instead, they formed part of a chain of genocide and murder that not only characterised the history of the British empire but were used to underpin it.

Almost two million Africans died during transportation as slaves to British colonies in the Americas. As many as 29 million died under British rule in India as the empire exported food to Britain while Indian people starved. 

Up to 100,000 died in concentration camps in Kenya as the country rose up against British rule.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was not an isolated incident but an intrinsic element of the brutal and oppressive colonial system that exploited and oppressed millions, in India and other colonised nations, for centuries.

Well-known academic and author Michael Parenti said that empires are routinely presented as disinterested institutions that bring peace, order and prosperity — some mythical Pax Britannica — but that the reality is one of brutality and the trampling of the wellbeing and aspirations of conquered peoples.

The history of the British empire is one of oppression, exploitation and murder as the authorities prioritised its interests above the lives of those they occupied. 

That oppression and determined misrepresentation is still at work today and still seen in the British government’s stance on the Amritsar murders.

More than a century later, with the empire gone and a supposedly more enlightened age under way, the British government has still not apologised for the murders at Jallianwala Bagh — an atrocity that even Winston Churchill described as “unutterably monstrous.” 

As Arundhati Roy has stated: “The bullet holes in the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh monument are a reminder of the monstrousness of which we are capable. They are also a reminder that in this country justice is a negotiable commodity.”

In a time where reparations for the evils of empire and slavery are widely advocated, there is simply no excuse for the government not to formally and unconditionally apologise for that crime and others it committed to maintain its hold on empire. 

Pride, obstinacy, or the desire not to force Britons to acknowledge the history of an empire that is still presented in rosy terms as an overall good — whatever the government’s excuses for not doing so, they are inadequate.

Continued avoidance is unacceptable and insulting to the memory of the victims and their families. The refusal to properly apologise is a symptom of the British government’s determination, not just to avoid accountability but to dodge the obvious conclusion to be drawn from a proper examination and acknowledgement of this country’s imperial past and the atrocities that underpinned it: that Britain continues to act as an imperialist power and to inflict horror and death on people who differ from the supposedly superior white, Western culture.

A sincere and unconditional apology from the British government is long overdue and necessary for healing the wounds of the past and fostering a relationship of mutual respect and trust between the two nations. It is the least that is expected of a government that has learned from its past sins, but it remains withheld.

And to add further injury to insult, it seems that the British government refuses even to apply the lessons of the horror of Jallianwala Bagh and other atrocities to its actions today. 

Instead of honouring and enabling legitimate democratic protest, the government is rapidly moving toward greater repression.

The British government of today continues to attack our civil and democratic rights. Laws waging war on our right to protest are already far advanced. 

Well before those laws are in place, lawful and peaceful protests are frequently marked by often-brutal policing, while government figures and their spokespeople talk of using the armed forces to destroy the effectiveness of peaceful resistance and industrial action.

It is time — indeed very far past time — for the government to formally apologise for the murders and wounding of innocent civilians at Jallianwala Bagh and the countless other atrocities it perpetrated against occupied peoples.

But an apology is not enough. The government needs to honour the memory of the victims of its crimes by putting right the wrongs it continues to perpetrate and indeed escalate against people trying to organise and peacefully defend their rights and freedoms and those of others.

As we remember their deaths 104 years ago, I honour the memory of the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs and their spirit. I will continue to organise and challenge in Parliament for the government to do the right thing in apologising for its atrocities. 

But more than that, we must all challenge the government’s continued determination to oppress and exploit those who are standing up for their rights and freedoms, in this country and elsewhere.

Claudia Webbe MP is the member of Parliament for Leicester East. You can follow her at www.facebook.com/claudiaforLE and twitter.com/ClaudiaWebbe.

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