April 13 marks the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, a grotesque slaughter of innocents in Amritsar (Punjab, India) that epitomizes the British colonial enterprise throughout India. Some of the men, women, and children who were killed in the garden (bagh) that Sunday had come to Jallianwala to celebrate Vaisakhi, a festival marking the first day of spring harvest. And some of the victims were simply there to walk through the gardens on a Sunday. But most of the people were there to continue discussions regarding the future of their political freedom.
After the Rowlatt Act passed on March 18, 1919—legislation that allowed the British Raj to imprison any person suspected of terrorism or sedition for up to two years without trial—the people of India became extremely agitated about their waning liberties. On April 6, the British faced the organized and nationwide response to this act: a hartal, or strike, where Indians suspended all business. The British response to the hartal was to arrest organizers. On April 9, they arrested two freedom fighters in Amritsar—Dr. Satya Pal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew. On April 10—as Gandhi was arrested in Palwal on his way to Amritsar—demonstrations broke out in several cities (Lahore, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, and, of course, Amritsar—which at the time was a city of 150,000) to demand that the British dismiss the Rowlatt Act. The British began firing on April 10 to subdue the protests. British officials declared that these rounds were “justified” in their disorderly inquiry committee reports.
On April 13, without warning, the British Army fired 1,650 rounds in 10 minutes. The British claimed there were 379 deaths resulting; the Indian count was 1,500. If we take the latter to be truth, then what the British did that Sunday is equivalent to murdering 10 rugby teams every minute for 10 minutes.
At the time, the garden had only one exit. It was enclosed on three sides with red brick walls. At the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, the British Army turned it into an execution chamber. The only other escape route was to jump to certain death in the garden’s well. In a panic, 120 people chose the well over the bullets.
The people in Jallianwala Bagh were trapped, like 21st-century students in an American classroom or minorities in a religious space.
100 Years Without Apology
A century later, Theresa May expressed “deep regret” over the massacre. It’s not easy to apologize for a crime against humanity. It requires an admission of guilt, an expression of remorse, and an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. For Udham Singh, a boy who was orphaned by the massacre, even 21 years without an apology for this crime was too long. He avenged the death of his parents on March 13, 1940, by shooting Michael O’Dwyer—the lieutenant governor of Punjab during the time of the massacre—at Caxton Hall in London. May’s recent description of the massacre as a “shameful scar” on British-Indian history did nothing to heal century-old wounds like Singh’s.
Furthermore, a formal apology to the victims and their families has yet to be made for this crime. At the time, Winston Churchill referred to it as a “monstrous event”—but he also described Indians as “a beastly people.” In 1997, the queen of England paid her respects to the lives lost in 1919 with a 30-second moment of silence. The official international position on the massacre was summed up in the Queen’s rhyme: “We must learn from the sadness, and build on the gladness.”
In 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron echoed the queen’s 1997 statement by saying that it is not “right” to “to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for.” The fact that he was born 40 years after the event was also cited as a reason to dismiss the need for an apology. However, as someone who walked through Jallianwala Bagh for the first time—76 years after the 1919 massacre—I can personally attest to the fact that the image of countless dead bodies still haunts the grass below the pink flowers that continue to grow in the garden.
Like the queen, Cameron tailored his response to the Jallianwala massacre by taking the virtuous position of looking forward. But moving forward with no practice of repair to such a heinous crime is, arguably, an easier thing to do for the party who caused the suffering than the sufferer. And for the British’s sunsetless empire that was able to make a global industry out of causing suffering, it is likely the weight of guilt did not bear too heavily—if at all—on their collective consciousness.
An apology is the first step. And people who will not apologize will not entertain steps to remediating an injustice. Reparations have been helpfully established by the modern world to effect restorative justice, but it is a tool trapped behind a locked door until British leadership accepts responsibility. Eventually the United Kingdom will have to confront its past. When that day presents itself, the immediate next steps will be available. The research work is already done.
According to senior economist Utsa Patnaik’s 2018 calculations, Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period between 1765 to 1938.
This staggering theft wasn’t a product of purely fiscal relations. Siphoning such a vast amount of cash from a country that was a leading exporter prior to the arrival of the British required an extreme amount of repression.
The event of 1919 in Amritsar is just one example of that repression. There are many more events that resulted in the murder of countless Indians in their own country. The closest one to my family was Amritsar, but there was also the Kanpur massacre in 1857, the 1872 massacre of Namdharis at the request of L. Cowan in Malerkotla, and the 1943 Bengal famine.
Events like these keep people in fear. And it is easy to take things from people who are scared for their life. Moreover, forcing people to live in a state of fear is forcing upon them
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.