Lord Loomba, leading a debate in the House of Lords, on Tuesday 19th February, asked the Government what plans they have to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre that took place in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on 13th April, 1919.
Opening the debate, Lord Loomba, described poignantly how he has visited the Jallianwala Bagh many times, and: "seen for myself the bullet holes in the walls and the well from which 150 bodies were extracted. Around the park, many stories are written on placards and stones, and it is impossible to come away from the place without tears rolling down your face. It is a shocking event to recall, even after 100 years".
Lord Loomba was supported by many peers, including Lord Desai, Lord Bilimoria, Baroness Verma, Lord Suri, Baroness Northover, Lord Alton, Earl of Sandwich, Lord Morgan, Lord Collins of Highbury and Lord Mawson speaking in the debate, who wholeheartedly agreed that now was the time for an official apology, quoted Winston Churchill's description of the incident, saying: “That 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. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1725.]
Describing how the people, including children, had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to protest about the arrest of some of their leaders earlier in the week and that martial law was in force at the time, Lord Loomba outlined General Dyer's actions. This included blocking all the exits and ordering his troops to open fire without any prior warning to the crowd gathered that they should disperse and continuing to fire until all their ammunition was spent. Continuing, Lord Loomba noted what the then Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, said in the House of Commons, regarding General Dyer's actions: “Once you are entitled to have regard neither to the intentions nor to the conduct of a particular gathering, and to shoot and to go on shooting, with all the horrors that were here involved, in order to teach somebody else a lesson, you are embarking on terrorism, to which there is no end”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1707.]
"Those innocent, unarmed civilians who died immediately," Lord Loomba stressed, "and those left to suffer a horrendous and prolonged death, were let down by the very people who should have been protecting them, not opening fire, killing and injuring mindlessly". "At the time," he noted, "many Indians had given of their lives “for King and country” by fighting in the First World War and had subsequently been promised greater autonomy and freedom from the oppression of British rule". But these promises were not being fulfilled and the population was "becoming increasingly frustrated". "People were beginning to despair of a rule that appeared to be becoming tyrannical and oppressive and were fearful of the future," Lord Loomba stated.
"Six years ago," Lord Loomba declared, "David Cameron became the first serving British Prime Minister to pay his respects by visiting Jallianwala Bagh, where he described the massacre as,
“a deeply shameful event in British history”, "But", said Lord Loomba, "he stopped short of issuing a formal apology, and sidestepped the issue by saying that there had been condemnation at the time from the British Government". Commending Cameron's visit, Lord Loomba said: "it was not an adequate response to all the suffering and pain that was inflicted on innocent civilians, unarmed and with no escape, who had every right to gather peacefully".
Noting how times have changed and many from the subcontinent now live in the UK, and it is now a multicultural society, Lord Loomba quoting Winston Churchill's accusation that General Dyer had resorted to the doctrine of "frightfulness" stated poignantly: "It is not difficult to see that this massacre encapsulated what the protests were about: tyranny and oppression; General Dyer confirmed the people’s worst fears".
"The Jallianwala Bagh incident," he said, "broke the trust between the people and their rulers and that trust was never restored". "What followed was Gandhi’s non-violent lawbreaking movement, which eventually lead to the end of the Empire".
Lord Loomba concluded by saying that things are different today. People from the subcontinent have made their homes here in the UK and it is multicultural society. It would be appropriate in my view for a formal apology to be issued by the government. Lord Desai and I have already written to the Prime minister urging that an apology be made to bring about the closure of this very unfortunate episode. It would be appreciated by millions of South Asians living in the UK, as well as by the people in India.
Minister, Rt. Hon. Baroness Goldie, who thanked Lord Loomba for tabling the debate and all those who participated in the debate, agreed that it was a deeply shameful episode in British History. We should never forget what took place 100 years ago. She concluded by saying that the chair of the Foreign Affairs committee feels that this year may constitute an appropriate moment for her Majesty’s Government to formally apologise. The foreign secretary is currently reflecting on the situation. I can say that the views expressed in this debate are certainly noted and will be conveyed back to the department.