Facts of history have a finality about them. They cannot be undone. Thus nothing can alter the fact that on a fateful afternoon in April 1919, General Dyer, for reasons best known to him, decided to open fire on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds died and thousands were injured. That massacre is like an irremovable scar on the making of modern India and has become an integral part of the collective memory of Indians. No expression of regret or a formal apology from any visiting British dignitary can alter this fact of history. The British prime minister, David Cameron was, in this sense, right in describing the massacre as a “shameful event” and stopping short of an apology. Saying sorry would have been meaningless since Mr Cameron was in no way responsible for what happened in 1919. At that time, in spite of the extreme insensitivity of some Britons who had collected a fund for General Dyer (now called “the butcher of Amritsar” by his own biographer), there were people in Britain who had condemned the act of violence. Winston Churchill, the great paladin of the British empire, had described Dyer’s act as “monstrous”. Thus Mr Cameron’s words are not without precedent and some of those precedents involved stronger words of condemnation.
In India for obvious reasons, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre continues to be an emotional issue. The event’s emotional charge is increased by some attempts, especially by the British queen and her husband, Philip, to downplay the magnitude of what had happened in terms of the number of people who were killed. Their passing comments that the numbers were exaggerated seem to suggest an attitude that believes that if the number of people who died were fewer then the brutality involved in the massacre of innocent men and women would in some way be reduced. There is nothing to commend this kind of insensitivity. Similarly, the clamour that the head of a British government should apologize — voiced by nationalists in India and the advocates of political correctness in Great Britain — are utterly meaningless.
Violence was an integral part of British rule in India since India was acquired by Britain through a series of conquests. The resistance to British rule and the suppression of that resistance were also bloody and violent. Witness the events of 1857. This history cannot be rewritten and it would be perhaps more mature for the governments and the people of both countries to accept this history of the Indo-British encounter, warts and all. Such maturity would not make a visit to Amritsar obligatory on the part of a visiting British prime minister. It would also make irrelevant the question: why is there no formal apology? The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in his speech in the University of Oxford when he was awarded an honoris causa D.Litt, dwelt on the more enduring aspects of the Indo-British relationship than the episodes of violence, hatred and exploitation. A country without an empire and a country striving to find its place in the modern world can both travel without a heavy emotional baggage.