On the afternoon of 13 April 1919, troops commanded by brigadier-general Reginald Dyer opened fire on thousands of unarmed Indian protesters massed at an enclosed garden in Amritsar in Punjab known as Jallianwala Bagh. When the shooting stopped – and it stopped only because Dyer ran out of ammunition – some 500 people, mostly Sikhs, lay dead.
Dyer lost his job but kept his life, liberty, and reputation. Bigots in Britain, energetically vilifying those who denounced him, raised thousands of pounds to lubricate his transition from the subcontinent to the English countryside. Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, was traduced in the press and in the corridors of the Commons as a disloyal ‘Jew’ for demanding tougher sanctions against Dyer. The psychopath who presided over the slaughter in India, unrepentant to the end, died in a sumptuous wallow of self-pity in 1927. Thirteen years later, an Indian revolutionary shot dead Dyer’s civilian boss, Michael O’Dwyer, at London’s Caxton Hall.
A hundred years on from the Amritsar Massacre, the clamour for a formal apology from the current British government continues to intensify. Yet Indian voices, though audible, are peripheral to this campaign. On the same day that the Guardian argued for an apology for Amritsar in its editorial pages, the Telegraph of Calcutta, India’s best English-language newspaper, enumerated the ‘several weaknesses in the argument in favour of an apology’ and called instead for a joint Indo-British ‘voyage that seeks to heal... a deep wound’.
The question of contrition is a question for the British to ask and answer. What lessons Britain chooses to learn from its history is for Britain to decide. The condition of Britain’s conscience is not India’s concern – or business.
For Indians to demand an apology from today’s Britain for what happened a century ago is more than pointless. It is a form of narcissism – the narcissism of victimhood – that supplies a convenient exit from the difficult questions we need to ask ourselves.
When I first learnt about Amritsar at school, I reacted with fury, writing in my notebook something along the lines of: 'Dyer’s body must be exhumed, flown to Delhi, and crushed by a tank on Rajpath as the president of India enjoys the spectacle with his evening drink.' Years later, returning to the subject at university in England, the anger turned to shame as I had to confront the most obvious fact of Amritsar: the orders were yelled by a British officer, but the triggers were pulled by Indians. Every one of the 1,650 rounds of ammunition spent at Jallianwala Bagh was fired by an Indian hand.
The British built an empire in India almost entirely with Indian muscle. As did the Portuguese in Goa and the French on the Coromandel coast. India is today the principal case study for Western imperialism at British universities. But for much of the past millennium, the deadliest enemies of Indians – whose literature, history, architecture radiated the idea of a formidable cultural oneness – were Indians themselves. Before the Europeans recruited them into their armies to massacre fellow Indians and suppress fellow Asians, Indians had assisted Arabs, Afghans, and Uzbeks to ravage their land. Did you want an empire in the medieval era? All you had to do was stroll into India, where the people, as V.S. Naipaul trenchantly noted, ‘were ready to build anybody a new Delhi’.
Ironically, it was the British who, reacquainting Indians with their past glory, reminded them of their great and tragically squandered history. And it is precisely because of this revival that Indians politely asked the British to go home. The Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was in some senses the most elaborate compliment ever paid to the British. Yet the republic born from the Indo-British encounter has frequently dishonoured the sacrifice of the men and women whose lives were taken in Amritsar. For most of the 1980s, Punjab was the scene of a counterinsurgency campaign – Operation Woodrose – in which thousands of Sikhs were hunted down with impunity by the agents of the Indian state. More than ten thousand people were killed, and an uncounted number passed through the torture chamber. There has been no apology from India.
‘Fratricide’, the great Indian leader and thinker Krishna Menon once wrote, ‘is part of our national heritage’. And over the past five years, Hindu supremacists have revived that sport with homicidal relish. Muslims have been butchered for their diets, ‘secularists’ have shamefully championed Hindu reactionaries barring women from entering temples, and minorities have endured the most terrifying phase in India’s republican history.
Rage is finite. Rather than distracting ourselves with petitions to today's British government, which is a friend, and asking it to apologise for a crime against our forebears which could not have happened without the active complicity of their compatriots, Indians are better off turning inwards, and asking ourselves how we got here.
will be published next month in the UK by Hurst