Punjab’s pain, India’s agony, Britain’s unrepentance

The U.K. needs to build on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s repentant gesture at Jallianwala Bagh

September 23, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:29 am IST

I happened to be in Amritsar for some research work on the day of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Jallianwala Bagh in early September. I actually bumped into him and spoke to him briefly in the hotel lobby. He came across as affable, kind and humble. He was ready to talk to a stranger like me.

Gesture of atonement

His presence in Jallianwala Bagh, on September 10, as we remember the 100 years of the massacre this year, is momentous. What he did inside the premises of the Bagh was even more dramatic. He lay down flat to pray in front of the memorial and said he was “personally very sorry”. This was no publicity stunt. It requires courage to do that.

The Archbishop further added, “I have no status to apologise on behalf of the UK, its government or its history. But I am personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity.” He said, “Coming here arouses a sense of profound shame at what happened in this place. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied.” No words could be more appropriate, well-timed and consoling.

As head of the Anglican Church of the world, the Archbishop, Justin Welby, commands a worldwide status. But he also has a special place in Britain. A post granted by the Queen, he crowns the British monarch and holds a significant position in the hierarchy of the British state. In his statement on the Amritsar massacre, he said he was not speaking for his country, but the Anglican Church. As the senior most churchman in a Christian country, his words do matter.

In the light of the descendants of the victims appealing for an apology from the Archbishop to assuage their “hurt feelings against the British atrocities”, the Archbishop’s repentant gesture seeks to lend a healing touch to the echoes of the dead. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is one of the most horrific acts of violence in modern history. The impact of General Dyer’s cold-blooded, rational shooting of hundreds of innocent lives, on April 13, 1919, with 1,650 gunshots continues to torment. We still have not got over it. Many may never. Not just confined to Punjab, the pain of the carnage forms the collective agony of entire India. The Archbishop did more than what anybody in his position could possibly do. Predictably, his visit brings to the fore once again the age-old hyper-sensitive question of the U.K. taking responsibility for its own imperial past and violence. This is the unresolved and controversial historical issue of colonial injustice and apology. The Queen did not apologise. Prince Philip did not. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to India in 2013 did not. The current British High Commissioner in 2019 did not. The list goes on and each time a British dignitary comes to Amritsar, it feels like scratching a scab on the wound. A perpetual wound. The city of Amritsar continues to grapple with the legacy of Dyer’s savagery. The ensuing military violence echoed across the Punjab.

Contours of imperial violence

Dyer’s monstrous act was principally a racially motivated onslaught, which formed the core of imperial violence. He ordered the troops to fire without warning and continued even when he could see that people were running for their lives. In his evidence to the Hunter Committee, he persisted, “… I had committed a just and merciful act.” Dyer regretted nothing, and made no attempt to conceal anything. After the firing, there was no provision for the relief of the wounded. When questioned, the unrepentant Dyer said, “It was not my job.”

Dyer’s brutality was justified in the racial climate of those times. He was celebrated as a hero in certain British circles. The Dyer Fund was set up for his survival back in England. What is appalling is that the colonial monstrosity continued even after April 13, 1919 in Punjab. Martial law was imposed from April 15. The British held summary trials, tortured prisoners and executed Indians. Punjab, which provided the largest number of recruits during World War I, was rewarded with such type of terrible punishment and brought under a rule of terror. Punjab could never be the same again.

On April 19, Dyer promulgated the “crawling order” on a street in Amritsar where a lady missionary, Miss Sherwood, had been attacked. The order instructed people to crawl on all fours through the lane. They were tied to flogging posts and flogged with several stripes. Dyer’s excessive use of racial force was designed to, in his own words, create a “wide impression” and “moral effect”. He had the backing of Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India.

The shrieks of the victims of the massacre continue to hound the legacy of the British empire. They echo as haunting cries of a victimised generation of a community whose trauma has not been fully addressed. The shrieks have now turned into a seething rage. This is not just a matter of apportioning blame and instilling guilt on the British Empire and its after-effects and holding it culpable for its unwarranted monopoly on violence against the colonised. It is also about introspection, acknowledgment and responsibility that would facilitate healing and restitution. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s compassionate gesture is certainly a symbolic sign of reconciliation and empathy. The people of India demand that the British government takes the “historic step” towards tendering an apology. Is it not time for Britain to acknowledge the inconvenient truth and trauma of colonial and racial violence? Perhaps, the Archbishop’s initiative marks a new beginning.

Nonica Datta teaches history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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