Amritsar: Why, when it comes to crimes of empire, ‘sorry’ often comes with a price tag

The Prime Minister stopped short of issuing a full apology on his visit to India

Share
Related Topics

Should David Cameron have apologised for the Amritsar massacre, perpetrated by British troops on 13 April 1919?

On a visit to the place where at least 379 unarmed Indian demonstrators were killed by machine-gun fire, the prime minister called it a “deeply shameful event in British history”.

But in response to calls for a formal apology, he said: “We are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘ monstrous’ at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.”

Public figures of all kinds are increasingly fond of apologising for historical mistakes. In the 90s, both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair apologised for slavery. Blair has also apologised for the Irish potato famine. The Queen has apologised to the Maori of New Zealand for the theft of their land. The pope has apologised for the crusades. And the daughter of Sir John Betjeman has apologised to Slough for the opening couplet of her father’s poem about the town.

Such apologies are popular because they’re cheap: the events in question are so distant, or the circumstances in which they took place so different, that the issue of blame no longer arises. But in cases where the effects of the crime are still being felt, historical apologies come with a demand for atonement. This means, at the very least, a firm renunciation of past behaviour – or hard cash.

Into this second category fall Germany’s payments to Holocaust victims ( $70 billion since 1952, and counting), the $20,000 issued by the US government to each of the Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, and the billions paid out by Swiss banks for hoarding the funds of Jews during the same period (even though the "stolen " money turned out not to exist).

It’s no coincidence that all these cases originated in World War II. By signing a check for the survivors, we underwrite the fond notion that we have emerged from that catastrophe into a new age of democracy and international harmony. The German word for Holocaust reparations expresses this poignant hope: Wiedergutmachungsgeld, “money to make well again”.

The problem with apologising for Amritsar is that it would open a can of worms about Britain’s relationship to its past and the nature of colonialism. At the time of the massacre, Winston Churchill condemned it while calling it “an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation” in British imperial history. But those who take a less rosy view of colonialism point out that such incidents are an inescapable feature of any system that imposes foreign rule on an unwilling people.

An apology for the killings would require a recognition that they were not some kind of freakish anomaly in the story of the British Empire but an expression of its underlying principle: the threat of punishment, humiliation and even death for those who would not cooperate.

Perhaps when Britain has stopped believing in the myth of its faded imperial glory and come to terms with its reduced role in the world, a future prime minister will be able to offer that apology. And when India is no longer racked with conflict over the legacy of empire, it in turn will be able to accept the apology with grace. But of course, if that day ever arrives, it won’t matter anymore anyway.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links