Growing up I remember my late grandfather, a former commissioned officer in the British Indian Army, being fixated by re-runs of Richard Attenborough’s award-winning film Gandhi. One scene stood out. In the film Attenborough immortalised an event that Churchill referred to as ‘monstrous’, and David Cameron ‘a deeply shameful event in British history’ – the Jallianwala Bagh.
On 13 April 1919 15-20,000 civilians (including some peaceful protestors) in a walled garden (or bagh) in Amritsar marking the festival of Vaisakhi, were mercilessly gunned down without warning by British troops. According to official figures, 379 men, women and children were killed and over a thousand injured, with 1,650 rounds of ammunition continuously fired for ten minutes. Brigadier-general Reginald Dyer, who ordered the attack, perversely saw himself as an enforcer of martial law against a burgeoning revolutionary movement (especially in the Punjab and Bengal) which the Empire feared would lead to mutiny. But rather than repressing Indian nationalists, and regardless of Dyer’s justification, ‘I shot to save the British Raj’, Jallianwala Bagh became a seminal moment for India’s independence struggle and marked the beginning of the end of colonial rule.
For the 1.3 million Indian men (many of them Punjabi Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims) who fought for Britain in the Great War, and without whom there would have been no victory on the Western front, the massacre was an unforgivable act of betrayal.
Although the House of Lords failed to condemn ‘The Butcher of Amritsar’ at the time, successive British governments of all hues have been united in their condemnation of Dyer’s brutality. Moreover, Prime Ministers like Blair and Cameron have also expressed shame and regret – but stopped short of apologising on behalf of the country. Calls for Britain to apologise come along every so often, and have intensified in the run up to the massacre’s centenary this year.