Jallianwala Bagh: UK missed a great opportunity to say ‘sorry’

On April 13 (Saturday), India marked the 100th anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre which British Prime Minister Theresa May called a shameful scar in British-Indian history.

India rightly expected a formal apology from May for the horrific killing by British troops of hundreds of unarmed people peacefully assembled in a walled garden in Amritsar in Punjab on April 13, 1919.

Being the centenary day, this was the best opportunity for Britain to make amends by apologising to India, particularly the families of the victims of massacre.

May’s words at the House of Commons fell short of the apology India’s 1.3 billion people were hoping for.

An apology cannot undo what has been done but it could have helped in removing the shameful scar May mentioned.

In the past, not only Indians, but also British historians and MPs had demanded an apology from Britain over the Jallianwala Bagh incident.

Britain did not say “sorry” for what happened this day 100 years ago. But at least it acknowledged that a shameful act was committed in the past by Punjab governor of the time Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer who ordered the mass killing.

Dominic Asquith, the British High Commissioner to India, gave the healing touch on Saturday by laying a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial, above, and expressing his country’s deep regret for the suffering caused to victims.

He said Britain has to learn the lessons of history and, like India, it will never forget what happened in Jallianwala Bagh.

The massacre was a turning point in India’s freedom struggle as it exposed the real face of British imperialism.

Some 10,000 unarmed people, many with their families, had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh on the afternoon of April 13, 1919. Among them were pilgrims to the nearby Golden Temple sacred to Sikhs.

They were listening to speeches condemning the arrest of two local leaders by the colonial rulers.

Dyer arrived with dozens of soldiers, closed the exit gates and without warning ordered the soldiers to open fire.

Dyer later justified his action, saying he wanted to punish Indians assembled at the park for their disobedience.

The late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it a monstrous act. Several decades later, the Queen and successive prime ministers never bothered to tender an apology to India for the massacre.

The words of May and Asquith on the centenary day of the massacre prove the UK has realised the grave mistake committed by Dyer and his team. It is a welcome step but Britain still missed a great opportunity to tender its apology to India. Maybe, it needs more time and humility to finally say “We are sorry.”