The Politics of Apology

First published in The Pioneer, February 23, 2013

What happened that dark, deadly day in 1919 in Amritsar is now part of official Indian history: at least 1,000 people – innocent men, women and children – were killed on the orders of General Reginald Dyer. These 1,000 or so “martyrs” were among the 15,000 people gathered to protest the prohibitory orders by the British barring all public demonstrations and meetings. The British feared conspiracy and trouble following the 1917 Russian revolution and passed the 1919 Rowlatt Act muzzling Indian protests. The British provide a lower count (379 dead and 1,100 wounded), to lessen their guilt and culpability and to oppose claims made by the Indian National Congress. Dyer was forced to retire but received a hero’s welcome back home in Britain where he was feted and rewarded. Rabindranath Tagore, shaken by the brutality of the British, and the response of those who sought to reward Dyer for his actions, renounced his knighthood. This is what most Indian children learn in school, and Jallianwala Bagh has now come to symbolize British cussedness and brutality in India, and the Indian willingness to sacrifice lives in the cause of freedom.

The British, in India, approved of Dyer’s actions while both Churchill and Asquith condemned them in London. The cold-blooded Dyer, interrogated by the Hunter Commission, said he would have used machine guns if his armored vehicles could have made their way through the narrow entrance ways to the meeting place, and that he did not bother to tend to the wounded because hospitals were open and the Indians could go there if they needed help. The Hunter Commission unanimously condemned Dyer’s actions. But many in Britain led by Rudyard Kipling no less, who pitched in with 50 pounds, raised 26,000 pounds which they presented to the General on his return. And for all those who argue that women are more humane, it should be pointed out that a 13-women committee was set up in England to present the “Saviour of the Punjab with the sword of honour and a purse”. Udham Singh, 21 years later, in 1940, assassinated the former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, who had approved of Dyer’s brutal action. Gandhi and Nehru condemned the assassination but hailed Udham Singh for his courage. This part of the story is rarely told or only briefly mentioned in Indian school textbooks.

All narratives need context, and with the British Prime Minister David Cameron visiting India this week in pursuit of business deals, the narrative of what happened in Amritsar some 94 years ago got a fresh lease of life. Laying a wreath at the memorial and regretting the massacre, the Prime Minister wrote ““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. In remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest everywhere in the world”. However, he did not use the word “apology”, and those who were expecting such an apology were disappointed.

Who have the British apologized to, for what actions, and what necessitates an official, public apology? In a list of public apologies tendered by states and heads of government, compiled by the University of Pennsylvania, we see that the British apologized in 1995 to the Maoris of New Zealand for taking away their lands in 1863. In 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret for English indifference to the plight of the Irish people during the Potato Famine of the 1840s, and in 1998, Blair apologized for the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre of 19 civilians in Northern Ireland.

In her interesting book, “The Politics of Official Apologies”, Melissa Nobles argues that “the power of apologies and what distinguishes them from other types of symbolic gestures… is that they not only publicly ratify certain reinterpretations of history, but they also morally judge, assign responsibility, and introduce expectations about what acknowledgement of that history requires” (p. 2). Of the 71 official apologies she lists, 39 have been offered by Heads of State, and of those 19 relate to the actions in and during World War II, as well as in the aftermath of colonization. The Catholic Church, with its long history of misdeeds and abuses, has also apologized for a variety of those abuses.

However, when Hindu groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sought an apology from Pope John Paul II during his visit to India in 1999 for the actions of “Saint” Xavier for the Goa Inquisition (1560 to 1774) he did not bother to respond. Similarly, the expectation of an apology from the British for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre has come not from the government but from the media, and from individual leaders and groups. That David Cameron at least penned a strongly worded regret for the actions of General Dyer, which he termed “deeply shameful” is better than what Prince Philip said dismissing the Indian estimate that 1,000 people were slain in the massacre. The Prince, racist or merely provincial, is known for more such gaffes and The Mirror listed 90 of them on his 90th birthday in 2011. This is the man who asked Aboriginal leader William Brin in 2002, "Do you still throw spears at each other?" and declared at the opening of City Hall in London in 2002, the “the problem with London is the tourists. They cause the congestion. If we could just stop the tourism, we could stop the congestion”!

Finally, we should not forget another aspect of apologies: the power equation. If a country or a group has economic or military clout, we can expect a fairly elaborate and explicit apology from those who have previously caused them harm or anguish. The Chinese, officially, now not only demand apologies, but they do so scolding shrilly and loudly. Some apologies come so late that it matters little after all the irreparable harm they have caused: thus the 2008 Australian “sorry” to its Aborigines came too late, despite the moving and comprehensive nature of the apology. The American apology to its Native Americans did not even make the headlines as it was tucked away in a spending bill in 2009. Again, it was only in 2008 that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow laws. The Jim Crow laws were enacted mostly in the South of the United States between 1870 and 1965, denying civil liberties and the right to vote to Blacks, as well as legally segregating Blacks from Whites.

Seeking an apology, especially for old harms, can make one seem curmudgeonly. But, if an apology is tendered, wholeheartedly, and even late, then it can enhance the moral standing of a country or a people. The British are too fond of their colonial legacy and their once “jewel in the crown” to tender an apology to Indians anytime soon but one hopes better moral sense will prevail.

(Ramesh Rao is Professor of Communication Studies at Longwood University and Member, Executive Council, of the Hindu American Foundation. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and not those of any organization or institution he is affiliated with.)

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