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  • Indian visitors look at the bullet ridden wall at the historical site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on April 12, 2011. (Getty)
“It is not appropriate for me today to make the apology that I know many would wish to come. I can assure the House that this is a work in progress," UK Foreign Office Minister Mark Field told the House of Commons.
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10 Apr 2019 - 12:29 PM  UPDATED 10 Apr 2019 - 12:47 PM

One hundred years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the British government has once again sidestepped India’s call for an official apology, saying the matter is “works in progress” among its ministers.

During a debate on ‘Jallianwala Bagh massacre’ called by Conservative MP Bob Blackman in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the UK Foreign Office Minister Mark Field made it clear at the outset that he could not make an official apology on the behest of the government.

“It is not appropriate for me today to make the apology that I know many would wish to come. I can assure the house that this is a work in progress. It is an active debate taking place among ministers and among senior officials and our high commissioner in New Delhi,” the minister said.

He added that his “orthodox” views made him reluctant to tender an apology for events that had happened many years ago. He also flagged potential “financial implications” as one of the reasons the government had to consider if it were to apologise for the “shameful episode” in history.

Offering appeasement towards the end of his remarks, MP Field informed the House that a representative from the British High Commission would visit the memorial site on April 13 and lay a wreath. He said that the government would also publically acknowledge the centenary in Britain.

Meanwhile, Bob Blackman who had secured the debate reiterated that centenary was the right time for the government to issue a proper apology.

Echoing his words, Senior Indian-origin MP Virendra Sharma who has been campaigning for the cause said the apology must come from Prime Minister Theresa May while also raising the demand for the construction of a physical memorial in the memory of those who lost their lives.

What happened in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?

On 13 April 1919, the British Indian Army led by Colonel Reginald Dyer (later General Dyer) ordered his troops to fire at an unarmed crowd of Indians gathered for a peaceful protest at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in the northern state of Punjab.

The troops blocked the entrance and exit points, from where the firing took place continuously for 10 minutes. 

Many of those gathered jumped into a well, in order to escape the firing and over 100 bodies were recovered from the well alone.  Although the death toll figure is highly disputed, historical records claim that 379 were killed with over 1,100 injured.

The episode earned General Dyer the epithet “Butcher of Amritsar”. Condemning the attack, Winston Churchill at the time said in parliament that “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

Timeline of UK’s expression of ‘regret’:

Over the years, many British leaders have raised the issue and have even visited the site of the tragedy, but each time has fallen short of offering an official apology.

Earlier this year, the British government had expressed that it has been “reflecting” on the long-standing demand for an apology, during an Upper House debate, on February 19th.

At the time, Annabel Goldie, who holds the post of government whip and Baroness-in-waiting in the House of Lords had confirmed plans to mark the centenary of the tragedy “in the most appropriate and respectful way.”

She clarified that the reason that no subsequent government has tendered an apology is that the “governments have considered that history cannot be rewritten and it is important that we do not get trapped by the past.

In February 2013, the then Prime Minister of UK, David Cameron had expressed regret at the incident, during his visit to the Jallianwala Bagh.                                                     

                

In the memorial visitor’s book, he wrote: “This was a deeply shameful act in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as ‘monstrous.’ We must never forget what happened here and we must ensure that the UK stands up for the right of peaceful protests.”

And a similar sentiment was expressed by Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the memorial in 1997. She said, “History cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”

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