The 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on 13 April this year, marks a watershed moment in Indian history. Over 1000 innocent men, women and children were killed in cold blood on this day at Jallianwala Bagh, a public garden in Amritsar. The decision to kill these innocent civilians was taken by the British officer, Colonel Reginald Dyer, who later testified that he considered it his “duty to fire on them”.
The issue of the cold-blooded killings are relevant as the world marks this tragic anniversary. The Massacre threw a spotlight on the human rights of Indians in British India. The nature of the crime horrified even the British political class. In a debate on this Massacre held in the British House of Commons in 1920, Sir Winston Churchill, whose animosity towards India’s freedom struggle is well documented, called the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre “a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.
India’s national poet, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, who had been knighted by the British for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, renounced his knighthood. In his letter of 31 May 1919; conveying his decision Tagore spoke of the “dumb anguish of terror” and “humiliation” felt by India’s traumatized population, who had suffered “degradation not fit for human beings.”
The consolidation of national sentiment in India to outlaw mass atrocity crimes found expression after the United Nations was established in 1945. India co-sponsored the negotiations leading to the first United Nations treaty outlawing such crimes, the Genocide Convention of 1948.
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre served to consolidate anti-British political sentiment in India. The British victory in the First World War had been made possible by the support extended by India’s political leaders to the British war effort. As Mahatma Gandhi, who was in London in August 1914, wrote to the Secretary of State for India, this support was “an earnest of our desire to share the responsibilities of membership of this great Empire, if we would share its privileges”.
As part of the sharing of responsibilities, India would volunteer more than 1.3 million soldiers and give more than £146 million (worth almost £10 billion at today’s exchange rates) from her revenues to the victorious British war effort. Almost 70,000 Indian soldiers who died during the war are commemorated at the India Gate War Memorial in New Delhi. However, the British refusal to grant self-governing Dominion status to India fell far short of the privileges of the British Empire that Mahatma Gandhi had referred to.
Instead, the bestiality of the killings in Amritsar became a bloody symbol of the betrayal of Indian expectations. It catalyzed the growing participation of millions of Indians in the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, beginning with the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920 and culminating with India’s independence on 15 August 1947.
Today, the Massacre remains a festering sore hindering the development of contemporary relations between independent India and the United Kingdom. The Massacre has been called “a notorious episode in the history of British colonialism in India” in a British Parliamentary Report prepared this year for discussions on the centenary of the tragedy.
Successive British governments since 1919 have refused to tender a formal apology to make amends for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, despite calls to do so by scores of British parliamentarians.
On 10 April 2019, British Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre during Prime Minister’s Questions in the British Parliament. Mrs May said “we deeply regret what happened, and the suffering caused”. However, she stopped short of tendering an official apology for Britain’s role in causing the Massacre.
Britain has prioritized engaging with an emerging power like India to offset the political and economic implications of it leaving the European Union. This objective could be handicapped by the absence of a formal British apology for the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
Script: Amb. Asoke Mukerji, Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations