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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need