SINS OF THE EMPIRE

SINS OF THE EMPIRE

 

David M. Anderson is a professor of African History at the British University of Warwick. The International Herald Tribune June 14, 2013 carries a significant article by this professor, titled “Atoning for the sins of empire.”

 

The opening paragraph contains the substance of the article. It says: “The British do not torture. At least, that is what we in Britain have always liked to think. But not anymore. In a historic decision last week, the British Government agreed to compensate 5228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950’s. Each claimant will receive around £ 2,670 (about $ 4000).”

 Davidson comments: “The money is paltry. But the principle it establishes, and the history it rewrites, is profound.”

   One of the principal colonies of the British Empire used to be India. And the sins committed here were myriads. One of the most horrendous of the crimes committed by the then Government was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The massacre took place at Amritsar on Baisakhi Day, Sunday 13 April, 1919. The shooting was ordered by Brigadier-General E.H. Dyer. Dyer was convinced that a major insurrection was about to take place.

 On learning that a crowd of 15000 to 20000 people had assembled at the Jallianwala Bagh ground, Dyer went there with 50 Gurkha riflemen. From a raised bank at the ground, these riflemen were asked to fire at the men, women and children assembled. Firing went on continuously until the ammunition with the riflemen was exhausted. Dyer himself revealed that 1650 rounds were fired. Official British sources gave a figure of 379 identified dead, with another approximately 1000 wounded. The casualty number estimated by the Indian National Congress was more than 1500, with approximately 1000 dead.

 

After General Dyer reported to his superiors that he had been “confronted by a revolutionary army”, the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer wrote in a telegram sent to Dyer. “Your action is correct and the Lieutenant Governor approves.”  O’Dwyer requested that martial law should be imposed upon Amritsar and other areas, and this was granted by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford.

 

On 13 March 1940, at Caxton Hall in London, Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist from Sunam who had witnessed the events in Amritsar and was himself wounded at Amritsar, shot and killed Michael O’Dwyer, the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, who had not only approved Dyer’s action, but was believed to be the main planner.  Dyer himself had died in 1927.

 The action by Udham Singh was hailed in India by nationalist newspapers like Amrita Bazar Patrika. The common people and revolutionaries glorified his action. Much of the press worldwide recalled on this occasion the story of Jallianwala Bagh, and accused Michael O’Dwyer as having been responsible for the massacre. Udham Singh was termed a “fighter for freedom” and his action was referred to even in The Times of London as “an expression of the pent-up fury of the down-trodden Indian People”.

 Udham Singh was hanged for the murder of Governor O’Dwyer on 31 July 1940. At that time, many, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, described the action of Udham Singh as senseless but courageous. In 1952, however, Nehru (by then Prime Minister) honoured Udham Singh with the following statement (as quoted by Daily Pratap):

 

“I salute Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

 

David Cameron, presently Prime Minister of Britain visited India in February 2013, and during his three days in the country visited Amritsar. Here, he went not only to the Golden Temple but became the first British Prime Minister to go to the massacre site of Jallianwala Bagh grounds.

 

On the ground now is a martyrs’ memorial where David Cameron placed a wreath, recalled that in 1920 Winston Churchill, who was then War Secretary, had described the massacre as ‘monstrous’. The P.M. himself remarked that this massacre was “a deeply shameful event in British history”.

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