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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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