If those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, those who misunderstand and misuse it make the world a more confused and perilous place. The demand of an apology from the UK over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which is based on a misunderstanding of history, is frivolous at best and fraught with misuse at worst.
The misunderstanding emanates from viewing history as a normative discipline whereas it is a positive science. There can be, indeed there are, different ways of understanding and interpreting facts of the past, but it cannot be more than that. The problem arises when we treat history as a morality play, when we try to right the past wrongs. But these wrongs are a zillion and are impossible to be righted, for history is replete with tyranny, oppression, massacres, genocides, slavery — a veritable litany of atrocities and woes.
But the Punjab Assembly is focused on only one. It recently unanimously passed a resolution, demanding an apology from Britain for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. “The tragic massacre… remains one of the most horrific memories of British colonial rule in India. This shameful military action against locals peacefully protesting… has since received worldwide condemnation,” the resolution said.
If the whole wide world already condemns it, what’s the need for an apology? The answer, as per the resolution, is that “its proper acknowledgement could only be by way of a formal apology by the British government to the people of India as we observe the centenary of this great tragedy.” What is it that makes everybody in India, from the scholarly Shashi Tharoor to the saffron cowboy, wallow in sanctimony?
What Brig-Gen. Reginald Dyer did at Amritsar on April 13, 1919 was egregious and unpardonable, but the same can be said about the perpetrators of the massacres of the British in Kanpur, Delhi, etc., during the revolt in 1857. The victims in all these incidents included non-combatants, women, and children. If we demand that the British should say sorry to us for Dyer’s misdeed did in 1919, on the same moral principle, what stops them from making a similar demand from us, for what the rebel sepoys did in the summer of 1857 not only in Kanpur, but also in Delhi and elsewhere?
By the way, why don’t we seek an apology from Iran for the general massacre that Nadir Shah ordered in Delhi in 1739? Or from Afghanistan whose Ahmad Shah Abdali ordered the mass slaughter and enslavement of women after the Third Battle of Panipat (1761)?
The politics of apology also derives sustenance from another erroneous concept: intergenerational transference of guilt. No man in any civilised country in the world today can be punished for the crimes his grandfather committed. Similarly, no country should be asked to atone the sins it committed a century ago.
Quite apart from the untenability of the apology business, there is the issue of its dangerous repercussions in India. In a country where identity politics and unctuousness are the defining features of public life, the dangers can scarcely be overemphasised. As it is, a lot of people capitalise on the public sentiments related to communities, languages, regions, etc; states fight each other over rivers, often ignoring Supreme Court rulings. If the apology madness catches up — most likely if the UK says sorry to us — the consequences will be deplorable.
We should not forget that all nations, communities, etc., have committed crimes in the past. So, we should not be surprised at the birth and growth of some Shiv Sena-type outfit in Odisha, demanding an apology from Bihar, as the great Mauryan King, Ashok, from that state had slaughtered 1 lakh people and displaced one and a half lakh people thousands of years ago. The culpability is mentioned in his own edicts, so there is no doubt of culpability.
There may be demands from Hindu bodies for an apology from the Muslims. That several Muslim rulers carried out massacres of Hindus, imposed the discriminatory jizya tax, and generally oppressed them is well-documented, even in the books and accounts of Muslim scholars. So, why shouldn’t Muslims apologise to Hindus for the past atrocities?
Similarly, the suppression and cruelty that the Shudras suffered at the hands of the so-called high castes is also well-documented. Thus, there is no reason that upper caste Hindus should not apologise to Dalits.
Then there are tribal people, who were exploited by practically everybody else. Therefore, the Indian Parliament should pass a resolution seeking their forgiveness.
This is just a brief list; if the apology mania begins, it will grow by the day; real and imaginary wrongs of various communities and interest groups will proliferate. This will not just further vitiate public discourse but also cast its shadow on the political arena. An orgy of apology demands and self-pity indulgence will follow.
“The Foreign Secretary [Jeremy Hunt] is currently… reflecting on the situation…,’’ government whip Annabel Goldie said in a debate in the UK Parliament’s upper house.
If Hunt decides in favour of an apology, a Pandora’s Box will burst open in India.