Spare a thought for the once-Great Britain. Its Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, already besieged by her government’s inability to forge legislative and popular support for a deal to exit the European Union, is now under fire for not being suitably contrite about the excesses of the Raj. Marking the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the House of Commons, May remarked that the “tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh of 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history”. Her critics, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and British legislators of Indian origin, have called for an unconditional apology for one of the most horrific examples of colonial excess. But can the UK really afford to say sorry?
The massacre at Amritsar in 1919, and the subsequent celebration in Britain of Reginald Dyer, the colonel who ordered the firing, are indeed a moral blot on England. The episode shattered any ideas of decency associated with the empire, and was the precursor to mass movements in the Subcontinent demanding freedom. But in Britain today there are many who long for the lost glory of the time when they ruled so much of the world. Its museums are filled with artefacts from the crimes of colonialism, its economic might — though waning consistently — still owes something to what Dadabhai Naoroji called the “drain of wealth”. As some would say, take away the fruits of imperialism and what do you have but under-seasoned cuisine, bitter ale and poems about flowers?
A Conservative government can ill-afford to apologise for the glory days of its country’s history. After all, reprehensible as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was, such mindless violence is the frequent adjunct to a system as repressive as the British Raj. And admitting blame can have legal and financial consequences. While apologising in Parliament works for posterity, in a court of law, it is admitting liability. And even the most moralising of Britons may not agree to the tax — the cess — they will have to pay to ensure the erstwhile colonies the reparations they deserve for putting up with the “greatness” of Great Britain.