AMRITSAR, INDIA – India on Saturday marked the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, one of the worst atrocities of British colonial rule and one for which London has yet to apologize.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, as it is known in India, saw British troops fire on thousands of unarmed people in Amritsar on April 13, 1919.
The number of casualties is unclear, with colonial-era records showing about 400 deaths, while Indian figures put the number at closer to 1,000.
In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath at the site, but her gaffe-prone husband, Prince Philip, stole headlines by reportedly saying Indian estimates for the death count were “vastly exaggerated.”
This past week, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that the massacre was “a shameful scar on British Indian history.”
“We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused,” May said — but she, too, avoided saying she was sorry.
Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, said May’s words were not enough. He said “an unequivocal official apology” is needed for the “monumental barbarity.” Singh was using Twitter, where pictures showed him greeting opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi in Amritsar on the eve of the centenary.
British High Commissioner Dominic Asquith, a descendant of Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908 to 1916, on Saturday followed suit at the Jallianwala Bagh walled garden, where bullet marks are still visible.
“You might want to re-write history, as the queen said, but you can’t,” Asquith said. “What you can do, as the queen said, is to learn the lessons of history. I believe strongly we are. There is no question that we will always remember this. We will never forget what happened here.”
In the memorial’s guest book Asquith called the events “shameful.”
In March 1919, the British colonial government passed the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or the Rowlatt Act, extending repressive measures in force during World War I (1914-18).
These included incarceration without trial, and caused widespread anger, particularly in the northern Punjab region, with Mahatma Gandhi calling for a nationwide general strike.
In Amritsar, news that prominent Indian leaders had been arrested and banished from the city sparked violent protests on April 10. Soldiers fired upon civilians, buildings were looted and burned, and angry mobs killed several foreign nationals and attacked a Christian missionary.
Brig. Gen. Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was tasked with ensuring order, and imposed measures including a ban on public gatherings.
On the afternoon of April 13, some 10,000 people gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh, an area in Amritsar surrounded by high walls with only one exit.
People were angry in particular about the arrests of two local leaders. April 13 was also Baisakhi, a harvest festival in northern India.
The crowd included men, women, children and pilgrims who were visiting the nearby Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism. Some estimates put the crowd at 20,000.
Dyer, later dubbed “The Butcher of Amritsar,” reached the spot with dozens of soldiers and sealed off the exit.
Without warning, he ordered the soldiers to fire on the unarmed crowd. Many tried to escape by scaling the walls but failed. Some jumped into a well at the site.
Reportedly the troops fired until they ran out of ammunition, letting off hundreds of rounds into the crowd before withdrawing.
The Indian Express this past week shared eyewitness accounts compiled by two historians. They included Mani Ram, whose 13-year-old son Madan Mohan used to play in the square with his friends.
“On the 13th April, 1919 he went there as usual and met his tragic end, having been shot in the head which fractured his skull, he bled and died instantaneously,” he told the newspaper.
“I, with eight or nine others, had to search for about half an hour till I could pick up his corpse as it was mixed up with hundreds of dead bodies lying in heaps there.”
Dyer said later that the firing was “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.”
The event marked a nadir in Britain’s occupation of India, and served to boost Indian nationalism and harden support for independence.
Reaction in Britain varied, with Dyer receiving support in the House of Lords and not least from Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have called him “the man who saved India.”
Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, called the massacre “monstrous,” and Prime Minister Asquith called it “one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history.”
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything …pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square,” said Churchill.
Dyer was removed from command into enforced retirement. He died in 1927.
Demands by several past Indian leaders and politicians for Britain to apologize for the massacre have fallen on deaf ears.
In 2013 David Cameron became the first serving British prime minister to visit Jallianwala Bagh. He described the episode as “deeply shameful” but stopped short of a public apology.
“We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world,” Cameron wrote in the visitors’ book.
He later defended his decision not to say sorry, explaining that the massacre happened 40 years before he was born and saying: “I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for.”