Why Cameron Didn’t Apologize to India
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister - Great Britian

Why Cameron Didn’t Apologize to India

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When David Cameron visited the city of Amritsar last month and paid homage at a shrine commemorating the victims of a 1919 British military massacre, the world spent more time discussing what the British prime minister didn’t do rather than what he did. Coverage of Cameron’s visit buzzed about the fact that he had not apologized, and commentators debated whether or not he should have.

But relative to official apologies, Cameron’s effort to acknowledge and learn from the past offers a better model for countries struggling to move their relations forward.

The Jallianwala massacre, in which British soldiers opened fire on 10,000 Indians engaging in a peaceful protest, was easily one of the most reprehensible moments of British colonial rule in India. Even the hard-headed imperialist, Winston Churchill, declared it “shameful” and a “monstrous” event. In its wake, the great Indian poet and writer and subsequent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, renounced the knighthood that he had received from Britain.

At his visit to the monument, Cameron, echoing his Tory predecessor, wrote in the guest book that the massacre was “deeply shameful.” He went on to add that, “We must not forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”

Many Indian commentators criticized Cameron’s visit; given the egregious killing of over a thousand unarmed civilians who were simply defying a colonial ban against peaceful protests, some felt that an explicit apology was in order. 36-year old Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather was killed in the massacre said, “We have been waiting for justice from the British and Indian government for 94 years. If they think it's shameful, why shouldn't they apologize?”

The prevalence of such views in Indian commentary draws attention to painful, lingering memories of colonial rule. Even as India has long embraced Westminster style democracy, takes pride in its vast literary output in English and is an active member of the British Commonwealth, some of its memories remain fraught and its wounds raw. Aside from the horror of Jallianwala Bagh, Indians still recall the rank callousness, if not actual complicity, of British colonial authorities that caused the deaths of several million souls during the Bengali famine of the early 1940s. Indeed recent historical scholarship has demonstrated that even minor governmental actions could have prevented substantial numbers of the deaths.

Given these tragic chapters in Britain’s history on the subcontinent, wasn’t an apology in order? Wouldn’t such a gesture have gone a long way toward healing long-held and mostly justifiable grievances? After all, in recent years countries have increasingly offered official apologies for past human rights abuses. West Germany (and later united Germany) apologized, paid reparations, and built monuments to remember its World War II atrocities, and in so doing promoted reconciliation with its neighbors. Furthermore, leaders in many countries across the world have apologized to people at home who suffered from previous government violence or discrimination. For example, Australian leader Julia Gillard has announced a special ceremony in March at which she will deliver an apology for forced adoptions – described by a Senate inquiry as “a horror of our history.”

Comments
48
dev david
April 8, 2013 at 08:38

Very very very well said!

dev david
April 8, 2013 at 08:32

If Britain can apologise to the community relating to slavery, which was 200 years before modern brits were born, why can’t britain apologise India for colonialism, partition and amritsar? Britains thinks its still a power who can choose who to apologise to, britain has always been racist to India and camerons lack of a formal apology is racist and derogatory towards the very country its needs to get on side!

Ancy
March 27, 2013 at 19:27

Great read about the British Prime Minister David Cameron's India visit. With the invitation of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, French President Francois Hollande, already visited to India. Through his India visit, they made a good discussion with concerned with the economic, industrial and commercial spheres. Definitely, Cameron's this visit India also will make a good economic ties and helps to grow a better co-operation between each nation.

dev david
March 22, 2013 at 20:10

Britain should apologise to India end off, if Britain can apologise for slavery which ended 200yrs ago , how is 94yrs reaching into history? No formal apology for colonialism, amritsar and inciting partition no trade deals from worlds biggest arms importer who should rightly buy from Europe and ignore Britain. Cameron had proved himself a first prize twit not apologising this country needs India to invest in Britain to bring jobs a formal apology is long overdue.

dev david
March 22, 2013 at 05:10

Sod the cost at home apologise to India if not then put Boris in charge he loves India and understands the Indian people ad his wife is half I.Diana! He would do it and win votes from rich Indians in uk.

dev david
March 22, 2013 at 05:06

In that case why did uk apologise for slavery? That 200 years ago!

dev david
March 22, 2013 at 05:00

Riiiiight so uk should not apologise to india, a country it needs badly to boost its evonomy because its reaching too far into history, but apologising for the slave traders great, great, great grand kids was justifiable when slavery ended 200 years ago! I’d rather apologise to the Indians this colonialism, inciting partition of India and amritsar massacre was less than 100 years ago how is this reaching too far into history than apologising for slavery? This us pure racism from Cameron who had no idea just how much money India alone can boost for uk, what a first prize camoronkey he really is!

leo prades
March 17, 2013 at 00:26

Cameron's most defining sentence was:

“I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for,” the prime minister said. “But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.”

 

I don't understand how a British PM can defend the British Empire and say there were good and bad things. It is obvious that he has a positive view on British colonialism, and perhaps he is even proud of Britain's imperial history. But he should plainly say that the empire was nothing more than the autocracy of a white elite over millions of people and the exploitation of foreign lands, which often enough ruined the economies of the conquered. That is why he should apologize, no matter what the political cost at home might be.

leo prades @my-new-life-in-asia.blogspot

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