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History repeats itself, in stopping short

Feb. 20: British Prime Minister David Cameron today joined a fair queue of compatriot eminences to hang their heads at the ringside of a most ignoble theatre of Empire but return without shaking it in regret.

Over nearly a century now British protagonists have approached the 1919 massacre ground of Jallianwala Bagh thumbing the thesaurus for an appropriate word to pick. “Sorry” has not been among them.

The feisty imperialist and then secretary of war, Winston Churchill, described Brigadier General Reginald Dyer’s shoot orders on the unarmed Baisakhi-day gathering as a “monstrous event”. His disapproval seemed to stem not so much from the hundreds dead and injured as from his considered view that the slaughter did not represent “the British way of doing business”.

Around the time Churchill made his annotation on that disgraceful chapter of British dominion over India, Dyer, though relieved of charge, was being feted as a hero on his home island; among the tributes he was showered with was a 26,000 pound sterling purse. Fifty of those crowns had come from Rudyard Kipling, who called Dyer “the man who saved India” and initiated collections for his homecoming prize.

It took more than three quarters of a century after Churchill’s remark for Jallianwala Bagh to receive august notice from the lapsed colonials. And when it came, it carried a grudging, almost sceptical, tone.

In the course of a chaotic afternoon’s passage through Jallianwala Bagh during her October 1997 visit, Queen Elizabeth II all but rebutted the enormity of the wound and conceded the humbly offered visitors’ book no more than a rushed signature: “Elizabeth R” is what she unintelligibly scribbled on it, the capitalised R for Regina, queen.

David Cameron makes chapattis at the Golden Temple community kitchen in Amritsar. (PTI)

She had arrived in Amritsar equipped suitably of description and dress. She had called the 1919 carnage a “distressing, difficult episode” and wore an elaborate chiffon ensemble in shades of saffron, deemed the colour of sacrifice by her hosts. But as she passed the confined lane that Dyer had led his killer column through, she glanced at a memorial plaque that said nearly 2,000 had died on the Brigadier General’s orders. The imperial eyebrow instantly arched under the orange hat. “Are you sure that many were killed?” QE II asked Sukumar Mukherjee, then secretary of the Jallianwala National Memorial Trust, almost affronted. “That number might have included the injured,” she pronounced, crossly, and waddled on without allowing Mukherjee the opportunity to explain, much less contest.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, following a few steps behind, pointedly told one of his chaperones, on the authority of a conversation with Dyer’s grandson, that less than 200 had been killed.

The British inquiry into the incident put the number of dead at 379, with hundreds of others injured. The Indian National Congress, which conducted a probe of its own, claimed the number of dead to have been well over 1,500, with many more unaccounted for.

“The issue is not about numbers,” grumbled one of the memorial’s custodians as the royals ended their 18-minute stay on the Jallianwala complex. “It is the manner in which the gruesome horror and the grief was sought to be belittled.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, too, visited Amritsar and called the 1919 bloodbath “profoundly shameful”. But he wasn’t Prime Minister at the time, which makes Cameron the first serving British head of government to pay tributes at the Amritsar altar.

Cameron walked an extra step over the Queen’s effort, jotting a para-long observation in the visitors’ book, but in essence he had given no more away than his predecessors. He borrowed from one of them, minted a platitude of his own and offered a formulation that avoided being described as an apology.

“This was a deeply shameful act in British history,” Cameron wrote. “One that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous. We must never forget what happened here and we must ensure that the UK stands up for the right of peaceful protests.”

He later told accompanying journalists he hadn’t felt the need to apologise because the event had happened “more than 40 years before I was born. I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history seeking out things for which to apologise”.

A Cameron aide had rightly presaged his Prime Minister would not go beyond the essence of what the Queen had held out at the site a decade and a half ago: what happened was appalling, but let’s leave it at that.

Political apology has a chequered history of intents and purposes. Often, they tend to be motivated by desperation to brush wrongdoing under the carpet and move on. Such as George Bush Jr.’s regret for the torture chambers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. “What took place in that prison does not represent the America I know,” Bush had said, seeking to assuage outrage.

It achieved the opposite with many who perceived it as Bush’s way of brushing aside the violations. (And isn’t there a canny resonance between Bush’s invocation of American values and Churchill’s reference to the British way of doing business?)

Very often, they may be attempts to ease the present by making amends for the errors of the past. Such as the Jallianwala stage may be.

Pope John Paul II is known to have apologised on scores of issues from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the church’s obscurantism over Galileo and more. White South African ruler F.W. de Klerk apologised for apartheid, Jacques Chirac said sorry for the help the Vichy government gave the Nazis in sending French Jews to death. Boris Yeltsin apologised for the mistakes of the Bolshevik Revolution on its 80th anniversary in 1997.

Many believe part of the reason for Cameron’s scurry to Amritsar was also that he wishes to woo more ethnic voters back home to the Conservative Party ranks. Phase One of that effort was aimed at the substantial, and affluent, Gujarati constituency in Great Britain.

High commissioner James Bevan was despatched to break bread with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi during the campaign for the Assembly election. Later, Bevan led a hefty delegation to the “Vibrant Gujarat” event and famously called himself a “son of Gujarat”.

This morning, Cameron resumed that bid himself in Amritsar. British Punjabi voters — Sikhs and Hindus — are said to number in excess of 12 lakh. It remains moot whether his gestures at the Jallianwala Bagh today went far enough to be fetching.


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