LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday expressed deep regret for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, calling it “a shameful scar on British Indian history”.
But like her predecessors, she fell short of issuing an apology despite growing calls for one from cross-party MPs and British Sikhs.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, May said: “The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history. As Her Majesty the Queen said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, ‘It is a distressing example of our past history with India. We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.’”
On Tuesday during a debate on the Amritsar massacre in Westminster Hall, junior foreign minister Mark Field too had expressed “deep regret” at what occurred but also failed to apologise. Field instead had chosen to focus on the “strong bonds” that India and the UK are building for the future. He even spoke about visas, claiming the UK issues more skilled work visas to India than any other country and then reciting by what percentage the number of visas given to Indians in 2018 had gone up.
In her statement, May said: “I am pleased that today the UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora makes an enormous contribution to British society, and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish.”
The lack of an apology left British Indian MPs and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn disappointed. “I think that the people, in memory of those who lost their lives and the brutality of what happened, deserve a full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place on that occasion,” Corbyn said.
Mandhali-born Virendra Sharma, a Punjabi-origin British Labour MP who represents Southall, said: “This is not the full and frank apology that the communities need. The wounds of the massacre still haunt millions and should be laid to rest.”
Britain’s first female Sikh MP, Preet Gill, also Labour, who has family roots in Jalandhar, said: “This was a timely opportunity on the anniversary for Theresa May to apologise to Sikhs and to India and I think they will all be disappointed. … I had thought she would. Jeremy Corbyn is going to put out a letter before 13 April pressing the government to apologise. He has said that was Labour in government they would make a full and equivocal apology.”
The Vadodara-born life peer Lord Desai, who is on the Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee, said: “I never expected a full-scale apology. I asked for it but I never expected it.” He said the reason he and other UK Sikhs were calling for an apology from the “original perpetrator” of the massacre was to get “closure on a section of history”. But he said the British government was clearly worried that an apology would open the floodgates. “The compensation would be enormous,” he said. “Once you apologise for this, there are so many other massacres to apologise for in other countries.”
He pointed out that the UK-India relationship has changed. “India is a much stronger partner now and, especially after Brexit, India is going to matter to the UK. The UK should be much more apologetic about this because the UK will need India. India is about to overtake Britain as the fifth-largest economy,” he said.