David Cameron in India: Should U.K. Apologize for Its Imperial Past?

At the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, David Cameron called the 1919 massacre "a deeply shameful event," but didn’t extend a formal apology on behalf of his government

  • Share
  • Read Later
STEFAN ROUSSEAU / PA Photos / Landov

Prime Minister David Cameron is shown around the Golden Temple at Amritsar in Punjab, India, during the last day of a three-day visit to the country, on Feb. 20, 2013

On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron became the first serving British Premier to pay a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in the northern Indian city of Amritsar. The site marks the 1919 massacre of scores of unarmed Indian protesters by British colonial troops — imperial officials at the time put the body count at 379; subsequent Indian investigations claim more than 1,000 died. The incident is firmly embedded in India’s 20th century historical memory and inflames nationalist passions. It reached the rest of the world’s imagination when immortalized in a scene in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning 1982 film, Gandhi.

After laying a wreath at the memorial for those slain, Cameron commented in a handwritten note at the site, describing the slaughter 94 years ago as a “deeply shameful event.” But, as all the media have noticed in both India and the U.K., he didn’t extend a formal apology on behalf of his government. Aware of the full weight of scrutiny on his visit, Cameron offered this defense to reporters in Amritsar:

In my view we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.

(PHOTOS: David Cameron’s Charmed U.S. Tour)

Fair enough. Cameron was in India (he had earlier stops in Mumbai and New Delhi), after all, on a trade mission, focused on a rosy future of Indo-British cooperation. Why bother with the sulfur stench of the past?

Yet in India and other countries once ruled by the British, there are of course lingering resentments and historical grievances. For all the railroads and courthouses built, the British were always in India for pragmatic (read: rapacious) reasons. “India was bled white,” wrote Cambridge historian Piers Brendon, author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. The British Raj “rested on a mountain of skulls,” said the well-known India-based British writer William Dalrymple in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph. “And people need to know that.”

As a moral buffer, Cameron cites the contemporary outrage of Churchill, then the British Secretary of State for War, upon hearing reports of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Churchill and a whole rank of latter-day defenders of the empire maintained an earnest belief in the otherwise “liberal” effects of British dominion. But the man lionized in the West as that bulldog of liberty and democracy brimmed with racist contempt toward Indians and their aspirations for freedom. He also perhaps criminally neglected their plight. In 1943, as many as 3 million people in Bengal died in a famine instigated by British imperial policy during World War II and deliberately ignored by Churchill.

(MORE: Justice for the Mau Mau: Court Case in the U.K. Sheds Light on Grim Colonial Past)

But while the past must always be remembered — and, at times, interrogated — does it need, as Cameron says, to be apologized for? It’s difficult enough for countries these days to retrieve treasures plundered by the 19th century’s empires; symbolic state apologies are even rarer. Think of the decades of silence and shame that yawned between Australia’s apology to the aborigines or the U.S.’s apology to those harmed by the Chinese Exclusion Act and the cruelties for which they atoned. This past December, French President François Hollande stood before Algeria’s Parliament and spoke of the “brutal” and “unjust” effects of French colonial rule, but stopped short of an actual official apology. “I recognize the suffering the colonial system has inflicted,” uttered Hollande. That’s probably the most people from the decolonized world can expect from a European head of state.

The obvious argument here is that once the apologizing begins, when does it stop? If Cameron had tendered a formal apology to India for Jallianwala Bagh, shouldn’t his government have also considered the inept British blundering that led to the hideous communal slaughters of Partition in 1947? (The current crises in the Middle East could also be laid at the feet of British cartographers.) Shouldn’t London also then turn to the deeper past and the grotesque rapine and pillage the East India Company inflicted upon whole swathes of India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? And shouldn’t postcolonial governments then adopt a similar pose and consider accounting for the mistreatment of marginalized minorities or the misdeeds of their revolutionary wars? As some of the lingering geopolitical disputes in Asia prove, history can become both the most tedious and thorny of battlegrounds.

But history is also rich with irony. Cameron was in India less as an imperial of old and more as a supplicant to a rising power, eager to boost trade. He faces stiff competition from the likes of Hollande — France recently beat the U.K. to win a lucrative fighter-jet contract with New Delhi. And then there was that moment of pleasing cultural contact: Cameron’s other stop in Amritsar was at the city’s famous Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs. He knotted his head in a blue turban and spent an hour among its altars. The visit was a gesture not simply to Sikhs in India, but the large diaspora in the U.K. “What [Punjabi Sikhs] contribute to our country is outstanding,” said Cameron. The past may be a foreign country, as the saying goes, but the future should be about finding a better home there.

VIDEO: Not Exactly Ruling Britannia: David Cameron Fails British History Test on David Letterman’s Show

59 comments
ayush.das
ayush.das

Nobody frm India even asked for an apology. In fact when we heard abt it we said there's no need for it. Just having the intention was good enough. It was such a nice gesture frm Cameroon out of his own thoughtfulness. Would have gone a long long way in helping India UK ties. But looks like u Brits r too arrogant to apologise & totally ruined the goodwill generated.

For the past 1800+ years India's contribution to the world GDP has always been between 18-25% (pretty much like US & Europe now). After the British rule, it came down to 2%.

If our steady growth of 8% frm the last 2 decades is any proof, we'll take back our position as a world leader soon. We have been rich for 1800 yrs (i.e most part of human history), and poor for only the past 200.

We are not arrogant & aggressive, and do not harbour any ambitious intentions of being a superpower. Have a rich history, culture & heritage to be proud of. It is the only country in the world tht has never invaded a country in the last 10000 yrs of its history.

And abt ur comments on rapes in India. It's hilarious really cause we hv one of the lowest rate of rapes anywhere in the world. Even if u increased it by 10X, it'd still be lower than wht u hv in the UK. We as Indians stood up against the crime, and are proud of it. Don't care if u judge us, as long as talking abt rapes in the news all the time, goes towards making our society better.

But (reading the comments), you westerners just don't get us (only talking abt those who are arrogant, cause a lot of you have been v v nice to us too :-). Stop being so defensive & arrogant all the time or you'll get the same back from us.

TheRightway
TheRightway

David Cameron could try apologising to the British before resigning. But as he won't he may as well apologise to the Poles for not actually liberating them in WW2, to the Scots for the highland clearances, to the people of Guam for banishing them, to the muslims for Britain being a Christian country, to Gordon Brown for taking his job, etc, etc,,,

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

One thing I've observed is that the world is progressing towards civilization but still we are unable to shed some of the narrow walls.  When we watch a movie from America or Britain we feel the same feelings of love, grief, anger and what not.  We can easily empathize with them.  I think that's because we understand the language.  People of Western countries can't empathize with Indians so much because they don't understand our language, and so they can't relate with us.  We don't see any difference between a mother in a British Novel or a Lover in an American Movie compared to our own lives.

Innocent people are killed remains a fact. While watching a British Movie, I sometimes wonder how cud these people with so many feelings be so cruel to Indians when they were ruling us.

Then again I feel may be it's not the civilians who do this.  May be it's done by some people in power.  And yes, people in power are same across the world.  They don't have any nationality or religion or colour or caste or creed/  They just flaunt their power.  They can't part with that power and so they want to rule others. That's what the Britsh Imperialists of those days did.

That's what perhaps some of the American troops did with the Prisoners in Iraq and Vietnam, in those video clips what we saw all over the world.  It's flaunting the power.

And being a Civilian and an Artist, if Mr.James Cameron wants to acknowledge it, it's a nice thing.  Nobody needs to create such a big fuss about that.

agoshme
agoshme

I agree with the fact that aplogizing once starts will not find the end. Its because everyone has inflicted one or other kind of damage to other in the past. What British Colonialists did was wrong but expecting a remorse from present generation is absurd. I also believe that similar way Congress should also own what happened during the Emergency and Sikh Massacre. Atrocities are made, condoned by people in power and people not in power. Why should only British be measured on the benchmark?

svnagappa
svnagappa

He might brush off and say this happened 40 years before I was born. So have Jews forgotten what Nazis did? Have Irish and welsh forgotten what the British did? Have the Australian aboriginals forgotten what the British did? Have Timorese forgotten what Indonesian did. The answer is NO. Cameron is even lucky that the Indians are generous enough to allow him in the shrine. To quote churchill is even more insulting. He needs to read history first before opening his mouth. It is high time the British apologized and retuned all the money they owe India as what they did is impacting on India even today. 

HenryRheault
HenryRheault

Um; ok. Where's Spain apologizing for all the s*** they did? 
Genocide, slave labor, rape of indigenous people and basically everything Hitler did. 
But it's ok; i mean, like the Nazis or the Imperial Japanese; they were removed from power and their people turned away from supporting the party... oh wait, no; Spain got off the hook Scot-free with less than 5000 men dead from the war, and their current monarch is the same monarchical government and the same line that was in power during the Inquisition... yeah, there's that. 

What MartinMurphy said about the Irish. Yes. 
Where is the rest of the world's apologies? I don't see them. Yours was not that bad of a bloodshed; your people as far as I know were not in nazi-germany style internment work camps and brutally beaten to death in silver mines. Please be quiet now, it just makes me laugh that this is even a story in time.

I rest my case. 

MartinMurphy
MartinMurphy

If India, Kenya, etc. expect an apology from Britain, then they will have to take a number and get on line behind the Irish.

rumination" – focusing (on) feelings of distress and their possible causes and consequences without actually engaging in problem-solving to alleviate them; contributes to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. 

Get over it and move on. 

Wlodge
Wlodge

India needs to focus on what's happening inside its society today not look for an apology for something that happened so many years ago. Start that process and both sides will never stop apologising.  

GarySteele
GarySteele

I'm sure many of the previous Indian states have plenty to apologize for. How about letting bygones be bygones and moving forward? India is making great socioeconomic strides forward and should continue to do so, not live in the past and demand an apology from the power that, for all we know, made it possible for the rise of India occurring today.

ScottWan
ScottWan

Indian sisters aged six to 11 raped, murdered and thrown down well:

Three sisters aged between six and eleven were raped, murdered and their bodies dumped in a well by an attacker In India who lured them with food, police have said.he girls, whose mother is a poor, widowed domestic servant, were last seen outside a cheap roadside café selling rice and dahl, and may have decided to follow their killer because they were hungry.An autopsy later confirmed the girls, aged six, nine and eleven, had all been sexually assaulted.


olegtarkovsky
olegtarkovsky

When Whites move to non-White countries en masse ‘anti-racists’ call it colonialism.

When non-Whites move to White countries en masse ‘anti-racists’ call it

progress/diversity/multiculturalism/etc.

‘Anti-racists’ demand immigration and assimilation in ALL & ONLY White countries.

These ‘anti-racists’ are in fact demanding White genocide.
But of course we all know that, and we all know anti-racist is a codeword for anti-White.

Biarah
Biarah

A day after he expressed ‘shame’ over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday said that the Kohinoor, a 105-carat diamond that India had been forced to hand over to its colonisers, will not be returned.

TerrySimon
TerrySimon

No need to apologize, because the Japanese government never apologized to Asian countries for all the killings, but should the British?

ShirleyMalik
ShirleyMalik

what rubbish is this? mud mud ke na dekh.... move forward... 

AL369
AL369

Why not. If we are expected Germans, Turks and the rest to apologize for its past.

SopheapAng
SopheapAng

The prime kwok zucking chum in England could only see the dollar sign in his eyes.  He was there trying to sell some weapons only.

frankwall1965
frankwall1965

Sometimes, these events are still very raw and the act of apologising gives the people a sense of closure. Imagine if the Germans had never apologised for what they did in the second world war. An apology would probably have the very best effects on Cameron's trade mission. The British need to acknowledge and start taking responsibility for their colonial past. But apologising just isn't in their nature. The Queen did not apologise for British atrocities in Ireland during her recent historic visit. It's no surprise that Cameron did not apologise in this case.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Mr Cameron is PM in name only .

Humane
Humane

I dont understand the point in not apologizing. Agree that its not the time because the purpose of visit is to improve trade relations and its best to avoid such demeaning confrontations from media. But someday or the other ou gotta do that rite? Why are the nazi group members were punished untill 1990's? Why dont we forget the past and let them go free? People take different stands according to the impact of situations. No matter how big or small, wrong is wrong. It's pathetic to see where the world is going. Developed countries calling for peaceful world with increasing nuclear and military weapons. Developing countries like China & India doing the same things that the developed countries did during 19th and 20th century. There is no end to this. No matter how much ever you try to improve the relations, the past will continue to haunt the relationships.

VintMacCabe
VintMacCabe

Actually, what I meant to type was: working plumbing, although sanitation -- and healthcare and food -- are also problems for a LARGE portion of the Indian population.  Yet their government, like the U.S. government, sees fit to throw more and more money into defense (what's the point of being a world nuclear power if people are still using the streets and the rivers as their toilets?)! 

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@ayush.das And if I may add, ... we've been poor for the past 200 years, only thanks to British Rule.  It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that British became rich by looting the whole world and the sizeable amount of that looted wealth was from India.

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@agoshme It's not the present generation of British.  In fact most of the atrocities were done by the military personnel posted here, not the civilian British.  But the Govt can take the responsibility.  It can be civilized and officially make a statement.  Nothing is wrong about it.

scintellata
scintellata

@HenryRheault Lets Indians commit something similar to Anglos and defend their stand using examples of Imperial Japan and Spanish Inquisition !! Racist troll..

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@MartinMurphy U really think so?

Because everybody might feel the sane way. The atrocities were more on them than on anybody else.  How do U know?  How do U judge?

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@Wlodge I think Mr.James Cameron is not an Indian?  And I don't see why India should ever apologize to British.  Because it was British forces who were cruel and atrocious and were in power.  It's not vice-versa.

scintellata
scintellata

@GarySteele "I'm sure many of the previous Indian states have plenty to apologize for". That is as unrelated to British colonialism as , lets say Dinosaurs extinction by Asteroids. I cannot believe even present day Brits are racist to the boot.

futuristic
futuristic

@GarySteele You are "sure"? Right. Let Indians handle their own issues and inter and intra-Indian apologies themselves. Thank you. The issue here is if the British Govt. and the people owe them one.

scintellata
scintellata

@ScottWan Still British rape statistics are far higher than India. Consider visiting wikipedia instead of BNP mouthpiece   

scintellata
scintellata

@ScottWan Racist troll. How about the British who kept own step daughters as sex slave !!

BebeWu
BebeWu

@ScottWan 

The mother of those 3 young girls didn't get a simple apology from the corrupt police officer that ignored her pleas for 2 days. 

Great Britain has evolved from its imperialist past, but will India ever become a civilized society?

ArindamPaul
ArindamPaul

@olegtarkovsky Why did the Whites go to India and try to colonize in the name of trade ? They killed Aboroginals in Australia, Native Americans in America, made slaves in Africa and then, colonized the sub-continent. Indians of all countries have a right to stay in all the White countries (especially U.K. and also U.S. as actually the Whites were trying to discover India for "trade" when they went to U.S.) .So, basically they should keep their mouths shut, read some history and stay repentant.  

JamesCa
JamesCa

@olegtarkovsky You wouldn't have multiculturalism in the first place, if Whites and Jews didn't start the slave trade and engage in colonialism and imperialism around the world. The world was already segregated before you 'guys' decided to change all that, and force countries like China and Japan to open up to the rest of the world and invade countries like Australia and the U.S.--when they didn't want to. Who's to blame for that?

naveenreddyin
naveenreddyin

@TerrySimon They were not in India...so I dont fu£$"£king care....THEY OWE APOLOGY TO INDIA IF THEY CANT RETURN THE MONEY WHICH THEY ROBBED.

scintellata
scintellata

@TerrySimon How about following German example. Dont worry, India is fast gaining the strength to hammer the sense of apology into your head.

scintellata
scintellata

@ShirleyMalik Brits never get tired of revisiting Battles of Waterloo or Trafalgar. Get rid of Brown inferiority. 

Belisarius86
Belisarius86

@frankwall1965 

Official apologies can give those wronged another avenue to try and extract reparations. What head of state wants to do that?

ayush.das
ayush.das

@VintMacCabe who told you we spend a large % of our budget on defence? Check nationmaster & compare the % with the rest of the world. Not sure but it is just abt 2% or so.

RameshIndian
RameshIndian

@VintMacCabe That, my friend, is because being nuclear power is not a choice - it's a necessity. Take a look at the neighbors we got north-east and north-west and you'll understand.

agoshme
agoshme

@NandaKishoreN @agoshme I dont think there is a need to get into an argument who was responsible and who should apologise. My point is whether past mistake acceptance is required from the oppressors and how would it be a palliative for the oppressed. Additionally, there are many within Indian society who have unleashed atrocities (read Kashmir, North-east, Tribals in areas of MP, Chattisgarh, AP and many more). Instead of balking at the gestures made by representatives of countries who ruled India in the past, it's better for us to remember what happened, why that happened and why is it still happening.

Wlodge
Wlodge

@NandaKishoreN @Wlodge I think you need to re-read what I said. Are you suggesting India was a place of justice, fairness and human rights prior to the British occupation. Me thinks not. While the British did not always act appropriately nor did many of the ruling powers in India. I think we need some balance. Just get on with life. An aplogy won't chage a think. 

naveenreddyin
naveenreddyin

@BebeWu @ScottWan racist gang...get you things up from here....dont talk in very civilized way..when your history is full of gory deeds huh...

olegtarkovsky
olegtarkovsky

As a side note; today's flooding of White Nations with non whites has nothing to do with slavery or colonialism. Open your eyes.

olegtarkovsky
olegtarkovsky

@JamesCa @olegtarkovsky  

 Whites did not start the slave trade. Especially not in the case of African/Atlantic slave trade They were relative newcomers and ended it after a short period of unjust use of slave labor. Unfortunately Slavery in Africa has not ended. Shame really. But what can one expect from them...? As for Jews... Well.. They have been involved in the slave trade for a long time.

VintMacCabe
VintMacCabe

@ayush.das   I think you missed the forest for the trees, ayush.das: I was saying that a nation which VALUES WEAPONS -- and Nuclear Weapons ARE EXPENSIVE, ARE WORTH A LOT OF MONEY -- over clean sanitation, food for its poor, etc., is a nation that will NEVER truly prosper.  It doesn't matter if the nation is India, Pakistan, China or the USA. 

VintMacCabe
VintMacCabe

@RameshIndian @VintMacCabe  Don't get me wrong: I completely understand the _thinking_(or necessity, as you -- and a lot of others in the world put it) behind "mutually assured destruction" and Nuclear Arms.  What I DON'T understand is why the people of India either don't seem to care enough, or don't demand enough, to demand that everyone be availed of _at least_ 20th century-style plumbing and sanitation, and so forth.  Nuclear arms, as well as jets and so forth, take a LOT of money.  The USA is only _just_ figuring out that a nation can't keep spending FAR TOO MUCH on defense, largely out of unjustified fear, while ignoring the health and education of its citizens and the quality of its infrastructure, etc., if it wants to continue being a World Power.  But the USA has always been a sort of "Land of Plenty", so we could (before now) afford to be slow in learning our lesson. Shouldn't India, which has been used and abused by nations like Great Britain, have learned that lesson a long time ago?  Or do the "Haves" simply disassociate themselves so completely from the "Have Nots" that they don't realize that attitude makes India look (in the eyes of most of the world) like a poor man with an expensive car parked in front of his tumble-down shack of a home?  (I'm truly NOT trying to be insulting -- just making observations and asking questions).   

Belisarius86
Belisarius86

@RameshIndian @VintMacCabe  Exactly. It isn't going to help the poor and destitute of India if their neighbors can extract geopolitical concessions because they have nuclear weapons and India does not.

scintellata
scintellata

@olegtarkovsky which Non white nations have flooded your shores, the way you did in Australia !! Racist is embedded in Aglo Saxon gene.

RameshIndian
RameshIndian

@VintMacCabe "do the "Haves" simply disassociate themselves so completely from the "Have Nots" that they don't realize that attitude makes India look (in the eyes of most of the world) like a poor man with an expensive car parked in front of his tumble-down shack of a home?  (I'm truly NOT trying to be insulting -- just making observations and asking questions). " 

You are absolutely right - no offence taken. The Haves  completely disassociate themselves is a fact in India - a shameful fact that. One example is Mukesh Ambani(the world's fifth wealthiest person at that time) has built a 2 billion dollor worth 27-story skyscraper "home" for a family of four - very very close to Asia's largest slum. Everybody in the government is corrupt to the core, private sector concerns are just leeching the natural resources and hard-earned taxpayer money by bribing, no proper sanitation, no education, unemployment, lessening of moral values, large crime rate..etc.etc.etc. The plight of the nation is miserable indeed. 

But that doesn't mean spending money on defence is worthless. one lesson we have learnt from British rule is that despite we live a poor and miserable life in a corrupt country, we should have the right to live independent. Things can only improve because we are now a country with the largest population of youth 15 - 30 years age. We rather prefer spending a lot on defence which deters the ambition of China and threat of Pakistan while improving our socio-economy slowly, than being in a position where we have to obey whatever China imposes on us.