Monday, February 25, 2013

The politics of not having to apologise

The politics of not having to apologise
MJ Akbar 
The Times of India

If an apology could change the past, it might mean something. If it could rescue the future, even more so. But no apology arrives until the mind has already changed, making it a historical tautology. It took a British PM 93 years and 11 months to admit that the Jallianwala massacre was “deeply shameful”. The “sorry” word still did not slide through British constipation, but who cares? 

The slight delay in David Cameron’s pseudoapology was logical. The British remain convinced that the Raj was a good thing for the natives. Britain’s best-known , as distinct from its best, historians get lucrative media space and happy television assignments to add decibels to collective self-congratulation. Their narrative glosses over some inconvenient facts. The British empire was launched in 1765 with the zamindari of Bengal. Almost immediately , a man-made famine killed one-third of Bengal’s population, estimated at a staggering 10 million, because of the East India Company’s insatiable greed for land revenue. British rule ended in an equally devastating Bengal famine; this time, some three million died.
The average rate of growth in the last five decades of the Raj was just 1 per cent, and the rural economy lay devastated, but who dare argue with the march of bagpipes at heaven’s command through textbooks? Even our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh thanked the British for their rule. 

The majority British view was that Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer saved the Empire in 1919 when he ordered his Indian and Gorkha troops to open indiscriminate fire on peaceful protestors gathered at Jallianwala on Baisakhi day, April 13. With 1,650 rounds, they killed 530 and left over a thousand seriously wounded. That was efficiency. Barely a bullet was wasted. Dyer had not imposed martial law, nor given warning. He shot to kill and justified this decision before the subsequent Hunter Committee by claiming that he had scotched a serious Punjab rebellion with this show of force. 

The governor of Punjab in 1919, Michael O’Dwyer , thought Dyer went overboard when he ordered Punjabis to crawl, but supported the carnage at Jallianwala. Public opinion in England was vigorously supportive of Dyer. The Morning Post opened a subscription to reward Dyer, ‘Defender of the Empire’ ; its editor, Sir Edward Carson, was the first to send a donation, followed by O’Dwyer. The grateful British gifted a purse of £30,000 to Dyer. 

Dyer and O’Dwyer (who was shot dead in London in March 1940 by Udham Singh) could not comprehend that their only significant achievement , in historical terms, was to put India on a radical orbit that ended with freedom in 1947. Rabindranath Tagore returned Western honours; Gandhi switched from a recruiting agent for the British army to the Swaraj struggle; Motilal Nehru abandoned European furniture at Anand Bhavan and Savile Row suits to wear homespun. 

The 20th century was born at Jallianwala Bagh. In a curious way, India should thank the butchers of Jallianwala for ripping apart the last mask of British colonization. 
But colonization was an achievement, not a regret , in the age of empires. There is no particular reason for Cameron’s contrition. But there are many reasons why Indians should apologise. 

When will Indians and Gorkhas apologise for killing fellow Indians at Jallianwala? They continued to squeeze the trigger on unarmed, helpless civilians amid screams and shock until ammunition ran out. When will brown bureau crats of the Indian Civil Service, who found clever explanations for colonial exploitation apologise ? British rule was never a solely British enterprise. It could not have survived a day without an obedient Indian comprador class, most purchased by nothing more glamorous than a salary. When will the zamindars and nawabs, who squeezed a famished peasantry to death and feasted in garden-palaces on the rewards, apologise? 

The British used a million Mir Jafars, who queued up to serve, during their 150 years of true power. They had come a long way to rule, not to turn the other cheek. A transfer of wealth to the “mother country” was standard procedure in the era of European colonization, and not uniquely British. It must also be stressed that British rule, for all its faults, was much more humane than that of France in Algeria, Belgium in Congo or the Dutch in Indonesia. 

India’s problem with history is a consistent unwillingness to do some serious research in a mirror. The British did not establish their rule, step by careful step, merely because they were strong; they succeeded because Indians had become weak. How about a collective Indian apology on behalf of our recent forefathers? 

Cameron could do both Britain and India a favour by clarifying that his “deep shame” was only a political nod to his domestic Punjabi voters ahead of a difficult election in 2015. That would make sense. Britain and India could then forget about any silly apology, and continue treating each other like very good tourist destinations.

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