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.”