On Wednesday, the British Parliament commemorated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre with a 90-minute debate. As I said in my speech, very few in the United Kingdom (UK) are aware of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and fewer know of the monumental impact the murder of 1,000 men, women and children had on that hot dusty still afternoon in Amritsar.
That afternoon in 1919, when General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to shoot, rang the bell for the end of British India. The massacre finally crystallised in the minds of the intellectual and wealthy middle classes of British India, what millions of working class people knew, that Imperial rule was ultimately neither enlightened nor benevolent, but brutalising, dehumanising and murderous. It set in motion the forces which ultimately secured India’s independence. General Dyer did not believe Indians were capable of rational thought and did not deserve free speech. It is ironic that looking back we can thank him for making independence for more than one billion people inevitable.Very few people in Britain at that time supported General Dyer, and Members of Parliament from all parties condemned his behaviour, and although ultimately the Army failed to punish General Dyer, he was quietly retired and brought back to the UK. The Prime Minister at the time expressed his sadness at what took place in that City Garden and even that apogee of imperialism, Winston Churchill, was highly critical of General Dyer’s actions on that day. There was, though, a small minority who supported him, a conservative newspaper, which later merged with the Telegraph, raised funds for him, and collected the modern equivalent of one million pounds for him.
But the British Government has never offered a formal apology for this most heinous of acts. Our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited the garden in 2013 and laid a wreath in memory of the dead and called the murders a “deeply shameful event” but stopped short of a full apology. Last year, I asked Theresa May for an apology in Parliament but again the British Prime Minister would not offer a full and formal apology. On Wednesday, May reiterated the UK government’s long-standing expression of ‘deep regret’ over the April 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, calling it a ‘shameful scar’ on British Indian history. An apology is an act of contrition and draws a line; it will not undo the hurt and pain but it does send a signal.
I don’t believe however that an apology is the be all and end all. The most important thing we can do now is to work to ensure such actions are remembered, respected and not allowed to happen again. In 2017, I tabled an Early Day Motion, a written statement in Parliament, which gained the support of nearly 50 MPs and members of all the major political parties, calling not just for an apology but also for education and commemoration. I want children across the UK to benefit from learning about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to know what their country did in the name of empire. I want them to learn not just about a thousand years of British success and innovation but also about the human cost across the world of expedition, exploration and exploitation.
It is right that children in this country learn about the British values of democracy and the rule of law, about the industrial revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. I am pleased that my children and grandchildren have grown up knowing about the role Britain played in the abolition of the slave trade and the setting up of the United Nations and writing the European Convention on Human Rights, but they also need to know the shameful parts of our history and what the British Empire meant to millions of subjects colonised around the world.
This week, the UK members of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities are meeting in halls, religious places and civic buildings to commemorate and remember the members of their families and their family friends who lost their lives on April 13, 1919. I want to thank the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Centenary Committee and the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust (Birmingham) for initiating and leading the debate in the United Kingdom. I hope that we will remember those who died and that the British government will see this centenary as the right time to offer a formal and full apology for the actions of General Dyer in 1919.
Virendra Sharma is Member of Parliament, the United Kingdom