I recently attended the event: ‘The Amritsar Massacre Revisited’ held at the National Army Museum on Saturday 13th April. This launched two new books: Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and Making of a Massacre by Kim Wagner and Eyewitness at Massacre: A Visual History of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre by Amandeep Singh and Parmjit Singh. However it was primarily focused on Sathnam Sanghera’s documentary ‘The Massacre That Shook the Empire’ which aired on Channel 4.
The Amritsar Massacre refers to the Jallianwala Bagh shootings that took place 100 years ago, under the colonial rule of the British Raj. On the centenary of this catastrophic event, journalists, writers and historians alike have gathered to examine the massacre through the lens of Indian nationalism and colonial mentality.
The discussion surrounding the British Empire has seen a steady increase in the forefront of national news, documentaries and political debate in recent years.
In April, Jeremy Corbyn addressed the topic of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in Parliament, stating that India deserves a formal apology for the atrocities committed in 1919. Yet this had already been raised back in December 2017, when Sadiq Khan visited India. BBC’s Anita Rani has triggered further consideration surrounding its moral impact in fascinating documentaries, exploring the real life narratives of those affected by the British Raj including her own ancestral history in ‘Who Do You Think You Are.’ Rani’s involvement in the campaign to teach the Partition in British schools, which launched in Westminster in July 2018, highlights why we need such commentators to educate a broader audience and reflect on Britain’s role within the Empire and understand how it is relevant in today’s society. This collective discussion nevertheless is falling on deaf ears. Theresa May’s response to Jeremy Corbyn in parliament was diverted instead with: ‘we deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.’ This is far from the ‘full, clear and equivocal apology,’ Jeremy Corbyn had called for.
As a young British Asian, my interests in the British Raj have always been rife with curiosity, exploration and my own independent research. At 18 I undertook an EPQ essay during my A Levels, exploring the effect of repressive laws enforced by the British on India’s Independence Movement in 1935. I have visited Jallianwala Bagh twice and my choice of modules studying English Literature at University was always knee deep in colonial and post-colonial narrative. Attending university, I observed many people’s lack of knowledge of the 1947 Partition of India and the British Raj. This was not due to ignorance but general unawareness because it simply has not been incorporated into our educational system.
After watching ‘The Massacre that Shook the Empire’ this unfamiliarity with the British Raj, extends to British born Asians, including the presenter himself. In the documentary, Sanghera explores how India was put under martial law, and any gatherings of four or more people were forbidden. General Dyer directed that the gathering of people who met in Amritsar be shot at, with an estimate of between 500 and 1000 people dead. The lack of documentation and depriving schools of a significant period of colonial history, has created a narrow understanding of the Empire in India and this important event. In this sense, Sanghera and the historian Kim Wagner are reclaiming a history and heritage, that seems too easily glossed over. They also believe there should be a formal apology because of the deep impact this left on many people’s lives and those still alive today. This is the first step in addressing colonial power and its symbolic violence. This does not destabilise national pride, it is merely expanding awareness and understanding.
Unfortunately, you cannot escape the proud descendants of colonial brutality within the programme, whom share a somewhat uncomfortable and weird solidarity in their denial of imperialism.
Sanghera met with General Dyer’s great granddaughter Caroline Dyer and the grandchildren of the assistant commissioner in Amritsar in 1919, Ronald Beckett. Their opinions are laced with a disconcerted view, handed down through the family, that undermines historical and factual information by suggesting the peaceful protestors were ‘rioters.’ General Dyer was a ‘good man with many Indian friends’ , suggests this characteristic outweighs the violence instigated as a result of such a callous and cold command. The point to be made here is the empire was comprised of both positives and negatives. Defending the harmful parts of our history, just creates a chain of generations whom reject certain aspects to uphold the sovereignty of the Empire. If we can learn about the abolition of slavery and how Britain helped India in creating its railway system, why can’t we too understand the fundamental reasons, which eventually lead to Britain’s downfall in India? Interrogating a crucial part of our history, does not teach us to be ashamed of our country. It is a method of understanding and critiquing the events of our past.
Jeremy Corbyn also proposed that British schools integrate the realities of British imperialism and colonialism in their curriculum, and correctly identified that: ‘Black history is British history’. Anita Rani shares the same sentiment and wrote following the campaign that: ‘This is not just South Asian history; this is global history but crucially this is British history.’ The impact of the British Raj reverberated throughout India’s history: the breakdown of unity between religions, the systematically institutionalised racism and exploitation of millions of people. Here in Britain we are defined by our past and the events of 1919 and 1947 carried social and political implications in the years to follow.
Covering colonialism and its effects is not a means to scrutinise. By dissecting it, this gives the people in the UK a sense of how we are living today. The emergence of independent states led to social changes, new trade agreements and the need for a labour workforce in Britain, culminating to the eventual invitation of commonwealth citizens. This policy is what lead to the surge of Indians, Africans and West Indians arriving to the UK in the 1960s. Creating a knowledge and awareness goes beyond the notion that we are ridiculing the British Empire: it gives us an understanding of multi- culturalism, of immigrant policy and the movement of people in Britain today.
By implementing this into the curriculum, we can educate, inform and build an understanding.
Withholding from our own history, puts ourselves as a nation at a disadvantage, whereby ignorance of cultures and their place in society becomes commonplace. This would have helped the horrendously drunk woman standing in McDonald’s at 3am on a cold November night, who informed my Indian friend that ‘we’re not in Africa or India,’ (in other words go home). There are plenty of people of all ages, races and cultures who have experienced discrimination and action must take place to help diminish this prejudice.
A petition to introduce the Indian Military History and colonialism to primary and secondary education is currently underway: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/233938 and highlights one way changes in the curriculum can occur. More of these need to be created and supported so it can be raised in parliament to ensure it is enforced effectively. Talks such as the Amritsar Massacre event, are a brilliant way of discussing and raising awareness to get people talking. It does not just have to be journalists and historians generating these talks; much of this rich history comes from families living in the UK, whose many grandparents have first-hand-experience moving here and during the British Raj.
We must collate these narratives from the past, as they will help build upon our society in the future. The Empire shaped much of today’s national identity and should not be overlooked.