Many leaders and ministers from the United Kingdom (UK) have in the past few years tip-toed around giving a formal apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 — even though it has been demanded by a cross-section of British parliamentarians and Sikh activists. However, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has spoken on the matter as he concluded his India trip by paying a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar. He said that he was “ashamed and sorry for the massacre”. He further added that he could not speak on behalf of the British government since he is a religious leader and “not a politician”.
But why hasn’t the UK apologised till now? For one, admitting blame could have legal and financial consequences. While a formal apology may be seen as an embarrassment for the UK in perpetuity, it could, at least in a court of law, also imply admitting liability.
About Jallianwala Bagh Massacre
The massacre, which took place on April 13, 1919, was ordered by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer on the day of Baisakhi, a festival observed in Punjab to mark the beginning of the harvest season. On this day in 1919, a group of unarmed civilians gathered at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh were fired at by British troops on orders delivered by General Dyer. Over 400 were killed as a result. The casualties included children as well.
A history of reluctance in accepting blame
Former British prime minister David Cameron on his visit to India in February 2013 had described the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as a “deeply shameful event in British history” in the remarks he had made in the visitors’ book of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust. Cameron also invoked then secretary of state for war Winston Churchill, who in 1920 referred to the killings as “monstrous”. Even though he did not make a formal apology, Cameron’s remarks were in contrast to what Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip had said during their visit to the site in 1997. The Queen called it a “distressing episode” while the Prince questioned the credentials of the massacre saying that the incident was exaggerated. Even so, Cameron stopped short of making a formal apology when he visited the massacre site – the only British prime minister at that time, to do so in the 94 years since the incident occurred in 1919.
Then in November 2016, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had demanded an apology for the massacre to be delivered as part of the UK’s reparations to India for the colonial exploitation by the British. In 2015, Tharoor had spoken at Oxford University at length about the reparations Britain owed to her former colonies.
In December 2017, after his visit to Amritsar, London Mayor Sadiq Khan had called for an apology from Britain for the massacre after which the UK Foreign Office released a statement that “rightly condemned” the “deeply shameful act”. “I’m clear that the Government should now apologise, especially as we reach the centenary of the massacre. This is about properly acknowledging what happened here and giving the people of Amritsar and India the closure they need through a formal apology,” Khan had said in 2017. “As the former prime minister said when he visited the Jallianwala Bagh in 2013, the massacre was a deeply shameful act in British history and one that we should never forget,” the statement of the UK foreign office said. During this time, veteran UK-Indian MP Virendra Sharma, who was at that time a member of the Labour Party had revived his petition launched on the UK parliament’s website earlier that year calling for an apology.
This year, the demand for an apology was revived since the year marks the centenary of the incident. In April former prime minister Theresa May expressed “regret” but did not deliver an absolute apology. A day after May’s remarks, Pakistan’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Chaudhary Fawad Hussain endorsed the demand and said that the “British empire must apologise to the nations of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh on Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and Bengal famine,” in a tweet.
What makes the Archbishop’s apology significant?
The Archbishop of Canterbury serves as the head of the Church of England, which is a position that goes back almost 1400 years. Two archbishops preside over the Church of England, one is the archbishop of the province of Canterbury and the other is the archbishop of the province of York. The kings and queens of England are crowned by the former and he is ranked just after the princes of royal blood. He is also regarded as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion of churches and is referred to as the “primate of all England”. Justin Welby holds this position since the year 2013. The Anglican Communion is spread all over the world, with over 85 million members.