At the end of his trade visit to Mumbai and Delhi, British Prime Minister David Cameron made a trip to Amritsar. The British media had raised expectations about Cameron’s likelihood of offering an apology at Jallianwala Bagh. The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh was a turning point in the history of India’s independence movement, and is perhaps the incident even the current generation of Indians are likely to invoke to establish the brutality of British colonial rule.
But the apology never came. Cameron instead expressed profound regret at the massacre. In a hand-written note in the memorial’s book of remembrance, he said: “This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as “monstrous”. We must never forget what happened here.”
Churchill was the British Secretary of War at that time, and had led the criticism of General Dyer. The use of Churchill’s outrage as a moral buffer by the British Prime Minister was ironical. While Churchill had condemned the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as “monstrous” in 1920, it contrasts with his attitude 24 years later as the war prime minister of Britain. In one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the British colonial rule in India, at least three million people died (around 1,000 Indians were killed at Jallianwala Bagh) from starvation in Bengal during the famine of 1943.
In her 2010 book Churchill’s Secret War, Madhusree Mukherjee details how Churchill was responsible for one of the worst famines in history. It started with large-scale export of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain. Then the wheat from Australia was made to bypass India and transported to British troops in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Even worse, Churchill actually turned down offers of food from Canada and the US. He also pushed a scorched earth policy in coastal Bengal, where the British feared the Japanese army would soon enter.
Churchill’s only reply to a telegram from the British colonial authorities in Delhi about the rising toll of famine deaths was to ask “why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.” Later at a War Cabinet meeting, Churchill blamed the Indians themselves for the famine, saying that they “breed like rabbits.”
The Bengal famine will probably even not get the regret from Cameron that Jallianwala Bagh got because his visit to Amritsar was about domestic British politics. He was courting the Punjabi diaspora, which form a significant electoral constituency in Britain now. But he has opened a can of worms with this regret. There are a litany of complaints and grievances about British colonial rule in India. Should Indians expect an apology for every single grudge they hold against the British rule? Where does the apologising stop?
By the same yardstick, should the Indian leaders express their gratitude every time they go to Britain for what have been described by the likes of Niall Ferguson as the “liberal” effects of British colonialism? Among other institutions, Indian Railways and the Indian Army owe their origins to the British rule. This is but an exercise in futility.
Asking Indians to forget what happened during the colonial rule sounds unfair, but holding on to those grudges against modern Britain makes little sense. Britain is no longer an empire and Cameron was in India as a supplicant to a rising power, eager to boost trade and investment. This isn’t even 1965 when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson asserted that “Britain’s frontiers are on the Himalayas”. But most importantly, India is now a young country which treats Britain as its equal. Neither is India nor are the minds of the Indians colonised.
This is also what Mahatma Gandhi desired. In an exchange that Gandhi had at Oxford in with the members of the Raleigh Club and the Indian Majlis, he was asked: “How far would you cut India off from the Empire?” Gandhi’s reply was precise: “From the Empire, entirely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.”
He added, “The British Empire is an Empire only because of India. The Emperorship must go and I should love to be an equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows. But it must be a partnership on equal terms.” That remarkable statement by the Mahatma is the basis of India’s relationship with Britain. And that is the way it should be - unaffected by any political gimmickry of an apology that never came.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review