A sorry apology: David Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh

David Cameron might be the first sitting British prime minister to feel 'shame' about Jallianwalah Bagh. But his condolence message is really more about making a sales pitch for the basic goodness of Britain despite that 1919 blot.

Sandip Roy February 20, 2013 14:30:26 IST
A sorry apology: David Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh

David Cameron thinks what happened at Jallianwala Bagh was a “deeply shameful event in British history.”

In my condolence book, that’s as close to a ringing apology as you can expect from a sitting British Prime Minister for the massacre of 1919.

Certainly Cameron sounds a lot more diplomatic than Prince Philip who claimed that he’d heard the death toll had been exaggerated. And he even sounds a little more contrite than Queen Elizabeth who called it a “difficult episode” but then briskly moved on saying “history cannot be rewritten".

Cameron, by contrast, came perilously close to an actual apology. Andrew Buncombe, Asia correspondent for The Independent tweeted out a photograph of what Cameron actually wrote in the condolence book.

"This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as 'monstrous'.

A sorry apology David Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh

Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh. AP.

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."

It almost sounds like an apology until you realize there is many a slip between mea culpa and stiff upper lip.

Most Indians remember that massacre through its depiction on screen by another Britisher – Richard Attenborough in Gandhi. While Attenborough didn’t flinch from depicting the horror of the massacre, he also gave his British audiences some face-saving cover. General Dyer’s toughest questions come from another British official.

“General, how does a child shot with a 303 Lee-Enfield ‘apply’ for help?” the government advocate cuttingly asks the unrepentant Dyer.

Cameron, in effect, did an Attenborough. He shielded his country from the shame of Jallianwalah Bagh  with a little help from another Britisher. This time, that old warhorse, Winston Churchill rode to his country’s rescue almost half a century after his own death. By bringing up Churchill, then the Secretary of War, and the most pugnacious British prime minister ever, Cameron was actually saying, don’t judge us by Jallianwalah Bagh. Right-thinking Britishers were just as horrified.

It is true that General Dyer was asked to step down and he did face an inquiry. But Cameron, while happy to single out his fellow Tory Winston Churchill who incidentally also vehemently opposed India's independence, didn’t condemn or even mention the huge support Dyer enjoyed among other British who thought of him as Rudyard Kipling did as “the man who saved India.” They raised 26,000 pounds sterling for his benefit. A women’s committee presented him a sword of honour as the “Saviour of the Punjab.” Brigadier-General Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab called Dyer’s use of force  “justified.”

Bringing up any of that would have disturbed the convenient narrative that makes Dyer the rotten apple and neatly sidesteps the far more unpalatable truth. As  Gandhi said after Jallianwalah Bagh “ We think it is time that you recognised that you are masters in someone else’s home. Despite the best intentions of the best of you, you must, in the nature of things, humiliate us to control us. General Dyer is but an extreme example of the principle.”

In his second presidential campaign Obama had to defend himself against charges that he went on “an apology tour” of the Middle East. That was not true as CNN pointed out. Obama never did actually apologize for anything. But he did say in a 2009 speech in Strasbourg, that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”  Obama, at least, was taking a certain amount of national responsibility. Cameron, on the other hand, is effectively saying “Dyer bad. Britain good.”

Though he underlines that we must never forget what happened here, he also presents the United Kingdom as the kind of country that “stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.” Even here he adroitly shifts the language from Britain which carries all the baggage of empire to United Kingdom, a far more neutral entity that can stay at arms length from the more inconvenient burdens of history.

Jallianwalah Bagh  actually exposed the brutal face of colonialism at its most naked. David Cameron with his “apology” has clothed it once again with a sense of basic British decency.

Cameron didn’t have to come to Amritsar. India is not holding its breath for a British apology nor does it hold Cameron personally accountable for 94-year-old atrocities. Cameron has come to India to do sell the new Britain and its arms. His comment in the condolence book at Amritsar was part of that exercise – cleverly making a pitch for Britain the Good even as he was apparently expressing his condolences for those who were its historic victims.

At the same time, pictures of Cameron with his head covered at the Golden Temple and his head bowed at Jallianwala Bagh cannot but go down well with ethnic audiences back at home. Buncombe writes in The Independent that “Mr. Cameron is known to be keen to attract more potential voters for the Conservatives from Britain’s ethnic minorities, of whom 300,000 to 700,000 are British Sikhs.”

Cameron might think of his act as a statesman-like win-win but if one reads between the lines of the British prime minister's message in the condolence book, one realises it was all a slick sleight-of-hand - a sales pitch dressed as a condolence message.

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