Jallianwala Bagh: How UK Continues to Whitewash its Colonial Past

Social Commentary

Jallianwala Bagh: How UK Continues to Whitewash its Colonial Past

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In April, 1914, Gurdit Singh a well-to-do Indian fisherman settled in Singapore decided to charter a Japanese ship to escort some 376 citizens of Indian origin to Canada, a country that had been refusing entry to Asians under harsh emigration laws. Almost a month after it left Hong Kong, the ship Komagata Maru, entered the Vancouver port but wasn’t allowed to dock. After days of deliberation that included physical scuffles, the ship was turned back, forced to head to the Calcutta port where it was fired upon by the Imperial Police of the British Raj resulting in the death of 20 people. More than a century later, in 2016, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau apologised for the incident, saying, “Canada’s government was without question responsible for the laws that prevented these passengers from immigrating peacefully and securely, for that, and for every regrettable consequence that followed, we, are, sorry.” Komagata Maru is a blot on the history of Canada, built on the backs of immigrants, many of them Indian. Just the way the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 is a stain on the mottled history of the admittedly heinous British Raj in India.

As the massacre completes 102 years, we will witness annual calls for apologies and reparations. In 2019 the then UK Prime Minister Theresa May publicly admitted “deep regret” at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, “The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh of 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history,” May said. She termed it a “a distressing example of our past history with India” but also went on to remind the British parliament that the “UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora make an enormous contribution to British society and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish.”

It is not hard to see why May’s half-apology for a historical blunder committed by her country seemed inadequate. It has tested the patience and politeness of everyone from leaders from the Conservative Party to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to the feisty Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh.

But barring the acknowledgement of a wrong, we need to ask what it is that such apologies accomplish in the first place.

Political apologies, as the scientist Rhoda Howard-Hassmann puts it, “really started trending in the last 15 years, to the point that some people think it’s just getting ridiculous.” Trudeau made four political apologies in 2016 itself. A number of countries involved in World War 2, including Japan and Germany have apologised. Here in India, we have had viral videos of a very eloquent Shashi Tharoor demanding reparations for the loot and abuse brought on by 300 years of colonial rule.

It offered the world a chance to guffaw at a heady mix of white privilege and white guilt.

There have been instances in the world where reparations have been made in terms of compensation as well. When Ronald Reagan apologised in 1988 to American-Japanese citizens who were interned in WW2 camps he announced a payment of 20,000 USD to each surviving victim. But while Tharoor has in his literature thrown around ecstatic figures of money that British rule cost India – not to mention the loss of life, dignity and will – even he has suggested that it is the symbolism of the act that matters, not the ballpark figure. To that effect, apologies can become just that: Symbolic, and therefore empty gestures or mere gimmicks.

When I met the British Historian David Gilmour last year, we had a brief chat about Tharoor’s proposed ideas. “I don’t think apologies will do anyone any good, especially if they are insincere. The people apologising do not understand what they are apologising for or know it either. I think there needs to be sincere acknowledgement, there needs to be an acceptance of the things colonial rule led to, bad and good,” he’d said.

Not many might agree with Gilmour, for this is as much an issue about national pride as it is about humanity, but he has a point. Most British citizens living today are not even aware of their country’s imperial past. The whitewashing of Britain’s imperial conquests and crimes continues unabated in its school curricula, resulting in a generation of people who are neither aware nor fit to contemplate the atrocities that their ancestors were responsible for. Rather than offer lifeless, insincere apologies, it would mean a lot more if the Kingdom owns up to its history of oppression and pillage.

Though Trudeau’s apology was welcomed by most in India, people elsewhere questioned the consistency with which he has apologised for various things. It offered the world a chance to guffaw at a heady mix of white privilege and white guilt. Rather than hand the Western world this narrative of philanthropic politics, India would perhaps be better served by commemorating the memory of victims of colonial rule (perhaps all of us) without stretching the sense of victimhood. That is not to say we whitewash history as well, but only attempt to write a future in which we do not feel like the casualty of a car crash that we might never mentally escape.

On that fateful day more than a 100 years ago, India’s heart, the colour of its blood changed. Freedom, in more ways than one, became inevitable. Even the maniacal General Dyer, the man responsible for ordering the shooting of unarmed Indians in Amritsar, died questioning his sanity on his deathbed. But it doesn’t help heal the wounds he inflicted. Neither will apologies. Rather than demand a token “sorry for your loss”, we should instead ask for the whitewashing of Britain’s imperial past to be stopped – it is as much a history of them, as it is of us.