UK apology for tragedy delivered 94 years late

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David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, expressed regret last Wednesday over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre during a visit to the area to discuss trade agreements. The bloodbath took place in the Jallianwala Bagh public gardens in Amritsar, a city in northern India. Fifty British soldiers fired on a crowd of Indian protesters. British sources reported the death toll at 379, while the Indian National Congress estimated that the number was closer to 1,000.

The date of this tragedy? 1919.

Acknowledging the crimes that the British Empire committed in India is important, but there is a difference between “expressing regret” and actually acknowledging fault. Cameron didn’t even apologize fully. This declaration was also made during a trip to India to discuss trade agreements, which makes the sincerity of his statements even more questionable. Admitting that the massacre was a travesty paints both Cameron and the United Kingdom in a better light; though that benefit was probably not Cameron’s only motive, this sudden revelation of national culpability is certainly convenient.

Cameron is not the first man in politics to dance around wrongdoing. History has no shortage of “almost” apologies, even with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre itself. Cameron “offered his regrets,” just as Queen Elizabeth labeled it “a terrible tragedy” in 1997. In fact, in 1920, Winston Churchill referred to the event as “monstrous.” He was not the prime minister at the time, and once he actually gained power, he was markedly less sympathetic to the Indian plight.

Cameron did not apologize, because if he apologizes for Jallianwala Bagh, what’s stopping him from apologizing for the Bengal famine of 1943? Why not apologize for any of the other famines in India caused by British mismanagement and neglect — or for the conflicts and bouts of imperialism they visited upon other nations, such as Afghanistan? The list of peoples wronged throughout history is a long one.

Apologies, once begun, are difficult to stop.

And even if Cameron had offered India a full and complete acknowledgement of the evils of British colonialism in the early 1900s, what true good would that have done?

There is no bravery in apologizing for something that you have no control over. Sometimes it is necessary, but acknowledging the immorality of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre does not cost Cameron much. The massacre happened about 100 years ago. The current British government had no agency in the event.

Admitting that the legacies of colonialism still deeply impact the world today would be a braver act.
The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh is not still relevant today because 1,000 people were killed by an imperial oppressor in 1919. Of course the victims of that day deserved to remembered and honored. But the massacre itself is still relevant because it was part of a greater narrative of colonialism and oppression by imperial powers. Great Britain was one of those powers, but it was not the only one.

India, as a nation, still struggles with the after-effects of colonialism. A Harvard University study by economist Lakshmi Iyer concluded that specific regions within India that were under direct British rule still have more difficulties accessing schools and health centers, and that colonialism still impacts colonized nations greatly in the postcolonial period.

Cameron’s efforts would perhaps be better spent recognizing the lingering impacts of colonialism itself instead of apologizing for a single tragedy in that narrative.