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Welby apologises for ‘great wickedness’ of 1919 Amritsar massacre

10 September 2019


Archbishop Welby prostrate at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial

Archbishop Welby prostrate at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial

THE Archbishop of Canterbury prostrated himself in Amritsar at the memorial to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and apologised “in the name of Christ” on Tuesday.

The centenary of the massacre fell on 13 April. Hundreds of unarmed people — Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs — were killed when they gathered peacefully in Jallianwalla Bagh square, Amritsar, in the Punjab, then part of British India. British troops fired 1650 rounds of ammunition, under the orders of General Reginald Dyer, an Anglican.

The British Government has in recent years expressed “deep regret” for the Amritsar massacre, but declined to make an apology as such.

On Tuesday, the Archbishop published photos of his visit to the site which showed him lying prostrate before the memorial and also kneeling in prayer.

It was a place that commemorated “a great wickedness”, he said. “The souls of those who were killed or wounded, of the bereaved, cry out to us from these stones and warn us about power and the misuse of power.

“I cannot speak for the British Government . . . But I can speak in the name of Christ and say this is a place of both sin and redemption, because you have remembered what they have done and their names will live, their memory will live before God. And I am so ashamed and sorry for the impact of this crime committed here.”

On Facebook, he wrote: “Coming here arouses a sense of profound shame at what happened in this place. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied. . .

“When there is something on the scale and horror of this massacre, and done so many years ago, words can be cheaply banded around, as if a simple apology would ever be enough.

“Learning of what happened, I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures. Jesus Christ calls us to turn away from sin and to turn to him as Lord. . .

“We have a great responsibility to not just lament this horrific massacre, but most importantly to learn from it in a way that changes our actions.

“A true repentance involves me listening and learning to the voices of Indians, celebrating their cultures, and determining to work for the common good in ways that enable the flourishing of all people.

“The past must be learned from, so nothing like this ever happens again.”

PAArchbishop Welby and his wife, Caroline, visit Christ Church Cathedral, Ram Bagh, on Tuesday

British dignitaries visiting the site of the massacre have previously declined to apologise.

In 1997, the Queen described it as “a distressing example” of “some difficult episodes in our past” and said: “But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”

In April, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, described the massacre as “a shameful scar on British Indian history . . . We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused.”

In a debate in the House of Commons in March, Bob Blackman, MP for Harrow East (Conservative), led calls on the Government to make a formal apology.

Preet Kaur Gill, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston (Labour) and the first female Sikh MP, said: “It is not enough to condemn the incident and express shame. The UK Government must show respect to the worldwide Sikh community and have the courage to make a full apology.”

The apology should mark “the start of learning,” she said. “To teach our children about the massacre in history lessons in our schools and to learn about the context of the British empire, which through imperialism and colonialism had exploited and subjugated people around the world.”

Responding to the debate, the then Foreign Minister Mark Field said that he was “a little reluctant to make apologies for things that have happened in the past. Obviously, any Government Department has concerns about making any apology, given that there may well be financial implications to doing so. I also worry a little bit that we debase the currency of apologies if we make them in relation to many, many events.” But the Government’s response was “a work in progress”.

On Tuesday, Ms Gill said that she had been “very moved” by the Archbishop’s words. “The Archbishop’s message, that an apology alone is not enough to reckon with the deep scars riven by Britain’s colonial past, is welcome. This acknowledgement of the need for contrition is especially powerful in the context of the UK government’s refusal to formally apologise for Colonel Dyer’s actions last year.”

She was “very grateful for his leadership, in asking that we learn from one another and find commonality between faiths in an era of division”.

 Virendra Sharma, MP for Ealing Southall (Labour), said that it was “heartening” to see the Archbishop “uttering such words of humility and humanity. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre represented the turning point in India. From then on, the Empire was seen only as harsh, brutal and repressive.”

He called for “an official government apology which sets the tone for a UK that understands our responsibilities stemming from empire and colonialism”, and a memorial in London, “not just to the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but to all the victims of colonialism, and one that teaches future generations about the horrors of empire”.

The Anglican Chaplain of Oxford Brookes University, the Revd Shemil Mathew, described the Archbishop’s words as “extremely moving for me as an Indian who carries the colonial guilt quite rightfully as a descendant and beneficiary of the colonial missionary endeavour, and as an Anglican priest”.

Jallianwala Bagh was “one of those places where the argument that the white man was engaged in a civilising mission to the rest of the world is muted by the burden of proof of a colonial attitude of conquest and seeing the conquered as less than human”.

He continued: “It is time as a country to acknowledge the wrongs in the past, so that we are not rooting our today in a mythical glorious past of the empire, but in a realistic understanding of history, acknowledging our mistakes, seeking forgiveness, and working toward the expansion of the Kingdom of God.”

A government inquiry that reported in 1920 found that a notice to disperse had not been issued to the crowd at all, and that General Dyer had exceeded his authority. The General was permitted to resign with no further penalty, and never expressed regret for his action. But it was condemned by politicians of the day.

In 1920, Winston Churchill described the massacre as “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.

The Secretary of State for India 1917-22, Edwin Montagu, commented: “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.”

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