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.