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.”
Yet it would not be at all straightforward for Cameron to bow his head, say “sorry,” and join this growing trend. In fact, while official apologies within countries have grown more and more commonplace, official apologies between countries remain rare and highly fraught. In Britain’s case, an apology might trigger a cascade of similar demands from a host of other, former colonial possessions. Even more importantly, apologies to foreign victims have potentially high domestic audience costs. Present citizens of the United Kingdom may not feel that they need to apologize for acts, however loathsome, that took place decades and centuries ago, and do not want their elected representatives, to make such gestures. Though such views are debatable, there is no question that they are prevalent and would exact a political price for any leader offering an apology.
Moreover, while it is possible that apologies could have the desired palliative effects – as in Germany’s reconciliation with Western Europe – in most cases, the fractious domestic debates that apologies create are as likely to inflame as soothe old wounds. For example, legions of Japanese prime ministers have offered apologies to Chinese, South Korean, and other former victims, only to prompt domestic outcry that aggravates victims still further.
Thus, while headlines across the world fretted about what Cameron’s visit was missing, they should instead have focused on what it had to offer – namely, a promising model of international reconciliation. Through his visit, Cameron used the power of his office to focus the global media spotlight on a tragic atrocity in British and Indian history—acknowledging an event that is deeply meaningful to a country with which Britain values good relations.
“I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened,” Cameron said, “to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.”
As Cameron acknowledged a “deeply shameful” moment in British history, his approach still gave his countrymen something to feel good about. “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.”
In the attempt to change the conversation away from a polarizing, and generally unhelpful, apology approach, in his efforts to honestly face history and to demonstrate respect for victims, Cameron’s approach offers promise for reconciliation across the world.
Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indiana University, Bloomington. He is completing a book, Deadly Impasse: Indo-Pakistan Relations at the Dawn of a New Century for Cambridge University Press.
Jennifer Lind is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008). You can follow her on Twitter: @profLind.