The British government has dashed hopes it could finally apologise for the Amritsar massacre that killed hundreds of unarmed people in India’s Punjab 100 years ago.
Minister for the Asia and Pacific Mark Field said there was “an ongoing consideration” of the issue but told a set piece debate in parliament that he was not able “to make the apology that I know that many would wish to come”.
“I have on these matters sort of slightly orthodox view I guess in this regard. I feel a little reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past,” Mr Field added. He did, however, warned of debasing the “currency of apologies” if gestures were too frequent.
The minister was speaking days before the centenary of the April 13 1919 massacre. As many as 20,000 locals had gathered in Amritsar on the day 100 years ago to protest against the arrest of two dissidents from the province.
Official figures at the same said at least 379 people were shot dead when the British Indian Army opened fire under the orders of their commander Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer who was later savaged by some MPs but allowed to resign without further punishment. Some argue the death-toll extends well over a thousand and it’s widely believed he spent the rest of his life tortured by what happened.
Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab at the time said Dyer’s decision making was “correct”. The former would later be assassinated in in 1940 not far from the UK parliament by Udham Singh who was present at the Amritsar massacre.
In parliament on Tuesday some MPs argued there should not just be a full-on apology by the government but also a memorial and much greater education on the slaughter in UK schools.
It was described as a “defining” memory of colonial rule that set-in motion the path to independence, according to MP Virendra Sharma who was born in the Punjab. The trauma from the brutality “crystallised” the views held by many middle-class Indians that “imperial rule was neither enlightened nor benevolent but brutalising, dehumanising and murdering”.
“It is clear to me that there needs to be a formal apology from the UK government which accepts and acknowledges its part in the massacre,” said Sikh MP Preet Patel.
While a number of senior officials through the years have expressed their dismay over the slaughter during Britain’s colonial rule of India, all have stopped short of formally apologising. It remains a hugely controversial issue in India but little mentioned in UK politics.
Former prime minister Winston Churchill described the attack as “monstrous”.
David Cameron became the first prime minister to visit the Amritsar massacre site in 2013 where he described it as "a deeply shameful event in British history". He was, however, slammed for stopping short of fully taking responsibility.
"I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for. I think the right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened,” he said at the time.
Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Phillip caused outrage in 1997 where he questioned claims, often made by Indian nationalists, that there were more than 2,000 casualties.