The Jallianwala massacre – when British troops killed hundreds of unarmed Indians | News | DW | 13.04.2019
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The Jallianwala massacre – when British troops killed hundreds of unarmed Indians

Britain has yet to apologize for the 1919 massacre, in which the colonial troops opened fire on hundreds of unarmed civilians in Amritsar, India. PM Narendra Modi called it a "horrific" tragedy via Twitter.

Dominic Asquith, the British High Commissioner to India, joined scores of Indian politicians and public figures on Saturday to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Amritsar massacre.

On April 13, 1919, hundreds of unarmed men, women and children were gunned down by British troops at Jallianwala Bagh, a walled garden in Amritsar, following unrest in the northern Indian city. The British government, which ruled India at the time, put the death toll at 379, while Indian freedom fighters said nearly 1,000 people were killed.

India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

"The events of Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago today reflect a shameful act in [British-Indian] history," Asquith noted in a visitors' book at the memorial.

No apology from Britain

Many in India demand a British apology for the Jallianwala Bagh (Jallianwala garden) massacre. In a speech in Parliament on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the incident was a "shameful scar" in British-Indian history.

Read more: India's aspirations 70 years ago and now

In a visit to India in 2013, then-British PM David Cameron described the event as "deeply shameful" but stopped short of an apology.

In 1997, Queen Elizabeth II laid a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh site, but it was her husband Prince Philip who stole the headlines by reportedly saying that Indian estimates for the massacre death count were "vastly exaggerated."

"The massacre was the most barbaric act by British colonialists against a rising mass movement for independence and civil rights. Defiant speeches were made against British rulers prior to the incident. Then-acting military commander for Amritsar, Colonel Reginald Dyer, wanted to crush the rebellion, hence he ordered the killing of innocent protesters," Farooq Tariq, a trade union activist in Pakistan's Lahore city, told DW.

Indian condemnation

In a tweet on Saturday, Indian PM Narendra Modi dubbed the tragedy "horrific," saying that the memory of those who died in the massacre "inspires us to work even harder to build an India they would be proud of."

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi called the incident "a day of infamy that stunned the entire world and changed the course of the Indian freedom struggle."

"The massacre holds a special place in the collective memory of the Indians. There is a clear understanding that innocent and unarmed people were cornered and killed by the British in Amritsar," Moinuddin Ahmad, an editor at news portal India Times, told DW.

But Ahmad is of the view that the massacre is more of a populist issue for Indian authorities. "They know that pressing for an apology will earn them popularity among the public. But there hasn't been any serious effort made in this regard. Indian authorities have largely paid lip service to the apology issue," he added.

Read more: Stolen Buddha statue spotted in UK, returned to India

'Colonial legacy'

Many rights activists in India and Pakistan say that their countries' armed forces continued the "colonial legacy" of oppression against protesters and insurgents after the British left the Indian subcontinent, splitting it into two nations: India and Pakistan.

Read more: Opinion: The anniversary of hatred

Ishtiaq Ahmed, a renowned historian and a former professor at Stockholm University, told DW that there is ample proof that Indian and Pakistani authorities still use excessive force against their own people.

Ahmed described the Jallianwala incident as "morally indefensible" and a "disproportionate use of power" by the colonizers. He, however, regretted that unlike India, Pakistan did not officially commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

Pakistani civil society, however, held several protest rallies and commemorative meetings to mark the anniversary.

"We are protesting today not just to seek an apology from the British but also to educate our youth about the history of the working people of Indian subcontinent who sacrificed their lives for freedom and to expose the real face of British imperialism," said activist Farooq Tariq.

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