It has been 100 years since one the darkest chapters in British history. It is by no means one of the worst things that Britain has ever done; it is simply one of the better documented instances of British colonial callousness. A formal apology could perhaps never really absolve Britain entirely anyway. ‘Sorry’ is a reasonable response when you’ve stepped on someone’s toe by mistake, or realising under accusing glares from your querulous friends, that you forgot to place the coaster under your mug again. This does not mean that we ought to relieve Britain of its responsibility to maintain congenial relations with her former colonies, especially when she may return cap-in-hand for trade deals upon leaving the European Union. Apologising would have at least acknowledged and validated the sentiments of our ex-compatriots, as well as confused British Indians who are often used by the British establishment as the immigrant success story to be weaponised against other minority groups, and therefore detract attention away from institutionalised racism. Instead, it seems that Britain’s stiff upper lip has got the better of us again.
The ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude, which has intercepted our human intuition, gagged our emotional perceptivity and prevented our recovery from trauma, has not served the people of this country, nor her former colonies. But perhaps, it is time to not simply go on as before, but to take a moment to stop, think, learn and heal. Earlier this year, Lord Loomba raised the debate in the House of Lords to discuss what Her Majesty’s Government is preparing to do to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre. For reasons of arrogance and barely concealed prejudice, the Amritsar massacre is one that particularly makes the House of Lords wince, and stops David Cameron just short of apologising. As pointed out by Lord Bilimoria, “[David Cameron] said that it was a “deeply shameful event”, but he did not apologise. It is not too late. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did just that in 2016, when he apologised for Canada’s actions in the atrocities a century earlier, when the Indian immigrants on the “Komagata Maru” were denied permission to land in Vancouver, thereby sending many of them to their deaths. Why can Britain not do this?” In fact, David Cameron, who couldn’t formally apologise for Amritsar, managed to give a formal apology in the Commons on the day the Bloody Sunday report was published, acknowledging that all those who died were unarmed when they were killed by British soldiers. To brush history under the rug, to encourage the cognitive dissonance and collective amnesia around the British empire, will perpetuate the fantasy of the empire’s civilising or enlightening motivations, and will continue to play a role in our current affairs, social politics and international relations.
‘One hundred years’ sounds like a long time when considering the density of our collective, global history. After all, the human spirit is a wild, undulating force which endeavours to fill the expanse of what is unknown to it, and in 100 years we can do so much. We are always on the precipice of learning something new, yet more often than not, give meaning to our empirical understanding of the world with what we have learnt from the past. This is a chance to navigate away from our more despotic tendencies. To mark 100 years of one of the instances British soldiers shot into an unarmed crowd for King and Country, it would have perhaps been an opportunity to address the issue of the autonomy of our armed forces, and the need for disclosures on military activity carried out on our behalf that should not be considered ‘classified’ or ‘sensitive’ information without due reason.
We have been acquainted with the Middle-East in our living rooms with scenes of dilapidated buildings behind a pale yellow filter of sand, arid expanses of nothingness, empty streets, hospitals of bloodied children and the constant, perpetual pandemonium of bombs. Amidst this chaos, where the number of deaths and casualties may sway you to audibly tut your disapproval between mouthfuls of your ready-meal, you are also invited to pick a side. This small glimpse that we are allowed, is an almost theatrical reality of war, enshrined by our own narratives of our superior sense of law and order, our gift of democracy. As said in an article by The Guardian, “we can see how the question of whether British soldiers committed crimes in Iraq, and the scale on which it happened, has been largely displaced by outrage over attempts to investigate them. In the media, rhetoric has shifted radically – from horror at the alleged crimes of British soldiers, to outrage against human rights lawyers pursuing such allegations.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the British public was so shocked at the news of the massacre, which even promoted Churchill (who was hardly an ally to Indians, or even the British working class for that matter) to give a speech in the Commons the same evening to condemn the act. The British public’s shock really stemmed from being privy to a relatively small, inadvertent, disclosure of the horrific and barbaric scene behind the gaudy veil of opulence that was presented by the representatives and conspirators of the British empire; this includes the monarchy whose implication in the inhumanity and barbarism of the empire cannot be glossed over, no matter how many more ”King’s Speech’ type films are made.
Things have changed since 1919. South Asians and Indians have made Britain their home and many of us have never even known life in our ancestral homes. But, for those who think a formal apology would not serve any purpose today, Baroness Verma says,”we share a history but our reflections are through very different lenses”. To apologise for the Amritsar Massacre would have meant that we were ready to cut ties with the legacy of the empire, like a gangrenous foot that threatens septic shock. But we aren’t. To apologise would be to admit that our politicians can make decisions which are either criminal or a breach of human decency. It would be to admit that history taught in schools has kept most of its population stupefied in its hubris. It would have meant that we wanted to learn.