It was a remarkable sight: the archbishop of Canterbury, clad in purple, prostrating himself before the memorial to the Amritsar massacre. And his act of public penitence, on Tuesday, has once again thrust this colonial atrocity into the public limelight, 100 years after it took place. Justin Welby’s heartfelt apology provided a stark contrast to the mealy-mouthed politics that have so far characterised the centenary commemorations. The Amritsar massacre remains one of the most notorious acts of brutality in the history of the British empire. On 13 April 1919, colonial troops under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a large unarmed gathering of Indian civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in order to quell what was incorrectly believed to be an imminent uprising. The shooting lasted 10 minutes, leaving between 500 and 600 people dead and at least three times as many wounded. The massacre permanently alienated most Indian nationalists, including Gandhi, who in 1920 for the first time called for outright independence from Britain. Months after the massacre, CF Andrews, a Christian priest and close friend of Gandhi, helped interview survivors and gather evidence for the independent inquiry into the events. As he described it, “Each act has been in very truth an act of penance, of atonement, an act of reparation for my country.”
Back in the UK, though, opinion was bitterly divided. Conservatives rallied to Dyer’s defence; Winston Churchill, who was then secretary of state for war, denounced the officer’s actions while claiming the massacre was an isolated incident. The colonial authorities in India later paid compensation to the relatives of the victims, yet the British government has never formally apologised for the massacre. Queen Elizabeth visited Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, followed by David Cameron in 2013; both of them studiously avoided apologising. And while Theresa May expressed “deep regret” about the massacre, earlier this year, she didn’t go as far as actually saying sorry.
In India, the UK’s failure to apologise remains deeply contentious. A number of public figures, including the politician and author Shashi Tharoor, have demanded more than just the usual expressions of regret. While an apology might be personally significant to the descendants of the victims, for most Indians the massacre stands in for the oppression of the British Raj at a more general level. The call for an apology is therefore not simply about the occurrences of 13 April 1919, but about British rule in India over the course of 200 years. The issue cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a former colonised nation and until the legacies of empire are at the very least acknowledged, it remains a stumbling block in the relationship between the two countries.
The British government’s refusal to seriously contemplate an apology for the events of 1919 is part of a wider problem: an unwillingness to reassess the history of the empire. While Tony Blair did say “sorry” for the UK’s role in slavery, in 2007, such declarations have been few and far between. For those of a nostalgic persuasion, the moral demands from former colonies to acknowledge the real consequences of imperialism are perceived as personal attacks. And nothing could be more damaging to the myth of British exceptionalism than having to publicly apologise for the Raj, the proverbial “jewel in the crown”. That explains why, even today, many in the UK still prefer to think of the Amritsar massacre as a singular event for which a rogue officer alone was responsible.
The archbishop of Canterbury is not a politician; he made it very clear that he was acting in a religious capacity. And while some will find his apology insufficient, it is nevertheless significant that it was unqualified. The image of the archbishop flat on the ground is so much more poignant for echoing the infamous “crawling order” in 1919, which forced Indian men to crawl at bayonet point. One only has to recall Boris Johnson reciting Kipling in Myanmar to recognise that we will never get this kind of meaningful apology from a British politician.
• Kim Wagner is professor of global and imperial history at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre