Jallianwala Bagh massacre: Britain refuses to apologise as Archbishop of Canterbury says 'sorry'

 | Updated: Sep 11, 2019, 10:10 PM IST

We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business, war secretary Winston Churchill had told the Army Council in 1919.

Jallianwala Bagh massacre

In an unprecedented gesture, the head of Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said "sorry" in his personal capacity and "in the name of Christ" for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which took place in 1919 at Amritsar in Punjab.

"I can't speak for the British Government as I am not an official of the British Government. But I can speak in the name of Christ," Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said at the scene of the mass killing at Amritsar.

British General Dyer's troops had opened fire on thousands of unarmed men, women, and children in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, killing 379 people according to colonial-era records. However, according to Indians present at the scene several hundred were killed.

"I feel a deep sense of grief, humility and profound shame having visited the site of the horrific  Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar today," Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a Twitter post.

"I am so ashamed and sorry for the impact of the crime committed. I am a religious leader, not a politician. As a religious leader, I mourn the tragedy we see here," he added.

"A sense of profound shame at what happened in this place. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied."


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India has demanded an apology from Britain for the heinous crime committed 100 years by British officials but the UK government including the Queen have always stopped short of an apology; instead, they have focussed on usually saying "sorry".

Britain's most famous prime minister Winston Churchill who was then the secretary of war since World War-I was in its last stages called it "an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation."

"It is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population," Churchill told the Army Council.

Churchill ordered General Dyer to retire, an act which was accepted by the British Cabinet. However, in his speech Churchill made no reference to an apology, or anything close it while informing the committee that "the crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away."

"Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other."

"Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion," Churchill informed.


File Photo of Winston Churchill.

"It stopped only when it was on the point of exhaustion, enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on its return journey. If more troops had been available the casualties would have been greater in proportion," Churchill said.

"Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber today, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away," Churchill said.

"I feel myself in the strongest sympathy, but I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time on our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business," he added.


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General Dyer who came to be known as the "butcher of Amritsar" was retired from service by the British crown in what became a blot on the Empire.

Several leaders at the time, including Jawaharlal Nehru and several British officials condemned the British General's actions.

However, many felt Dyer was let off lightly without a criminal trial. Dyer was sent back to England where he died in 1927 after suffering a series of strokes.

(Photograph:Zee News Network)

File Photo of Dominic Asquith

Britain since that day in April, 1919 has refrained from apologizing. Mostly terms like "outrage", "regret" and "sorry" have been used by British leaders for the past 100 years.

Former British prime minister David Cameron was the latest example after he said the massacre was a  “deeply shameful event in British history”. Cameron had visited the Jallianwala Bagh site and paid floral tributes at the martyrs’ memorial but in the visitor's book his statement fell short of an apology.

Cameron was later quoted saying that "it will not be the right thing to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for”.


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Just like Cameron, ex-PM Theresa May speaking at the Vaisakhi reception at Downing Street in London in May stopped short of an apology, referring to the massacre as a "shameful scar" on British Indian history.

"We deeply regret what happened and the pain inflicted on so many people," the ex-prime minister told the Indian gathering.

"No one who has heard the accounts of what happened that day can fail to be deeply moved. No one can truly imagine what the visitors to those gardens went through that day one hundred years ago," May added.

"It was - as the former prime minister H H Asquith described it at the time - 'one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history," she said.

(Photograph:Zee News Network)

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visited the Jallianwala Bagh in 1997 along with her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and laid a wreath of flowers at the memorial and observed silence at the  Flame of Liberty while paying tributes to those who were killed by British troops.

The Queen did not issue an apology much to the disappointment of Indian officials.

The visit became controversial after Prince Philip reportedly said that death count of 2,000 was "a bit exaggerated" angering officials who were present at the site.


Candlelight march in Jallianwala Bagh memorial to mark 100th anniversary of the massacre.

People participate in a candlelight vigil to pay homage outside Jallianwala Bagh memorial to mark 100th anniversary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, Punjab.