[David Hanson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for two reasons, Mr Hanson. First, I have not served under your chairmanship before and secondly, as I will allude to later on, you and I have shared some of the memories of this terrible event.
It is worth remembering what happened 100 years ago—in fact, it began 100 years ago today. Amritsar is a holy city that is immensely crammed, as it was 100 years ago. It is a place where people live on top of one another. Thousands had gathered at the Bagh in the days before 13 April 1919. British Army officers greatly feared an uprising in or around May, which is when the Army changed its positions for the summer months in India.
On 10 April, a protest took place at the home of the deputy commissioner of Amritsar, calling for the release of two independence movement leaders. The protests spilled over, protestors were shot and some were killed. Bear in mind that this is three days before the massacre itself. That sparked rioting, during which British banks and people were targeted and British lives were lost. On 11 April, a British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was attacked and left for dead when cycling home. She was saved by local Indian men who recognised her from the school.
Between 11 and 13 April, civil disobedience and protest rang out across the Punjab. By 13 April, the Army had implemented martial law, and the measures included the prohibition of mass assembly. Any gathering of more than four people could be dispersed by the military. On 13 April, 100 years ago, approximately 15,000 people were gathered in the square. It was a common meeting place for people of all religions. They were not just people of the Sikh faith; there were Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, present to celebrate and coincide with the Sikh new year festival of Baisakhi. They were gathered in the square. The crowd was peaceful and unarmed. The location, date and time had been set the day before so citizens could register discontent with the political situation, but on a peaceful basis.
On the morning of the massacre, General Dyer had paraded his troops, flexing his power and authority. With martial law on its side, the Army knew it could break up any large groups. However, the scale of the gathering exceeded the Army’s expectation and it was outnumbered by an astonishing margin. The square where the gathering took place is approximately 200 yards by 200 yards. It is surrounded by high walls and has a deep pit in the space. Those present were hemmed in with no shelter and no means of escape.
On the day, the reports say that the massacre took place with 50 Sikhs and Gurkhas under General Dyer’s command. They shot 33 rounds each-a total of 1,650 rounds. The official estimate was that 379 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured. The reality was that the crowd was so dense that one bullet would kill three, four or even five people as it passed through them. The death toll is therefore believed to be far higher, with more than 1,000 people killed and many thousands injured.
I am sure colleagues will want to relay stories about the massacre. I will talk also about my personal experience, having been to the site. We have to remember this was 100 years ago, when there was no 24/7 news coverage and no mobile phones to take pictures of what had happened and the atrocity that had occurred. It took the British Government until October 1919 to open an inquiry under the direction of the then Home Secretary, Edwin Montagu, led by Lord William Hunter. The inquiry became known as the Hunter Commission, after the Government of India had originally called it the disorders inquiry—talk about an inapt name. The inquiry called witnesses from across the region, which spanned what is now Pakistan, as well as India. At the time, and importantly, those questioned were not put under oath when giving their evidence. In November, after the key eye witness accounts had been taken, General Dyer himself was called to give evidence. For reasons unknown to us—or to anyone—he refused legal counsel or advocacy and represented himself. Almost immediately, he made trouble for himself. Reports of the inquiry suggest that:
“Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’”
That is a particular view.
The report published by the commission found, in summary, that notice to disperse was not issued to the crowd at all, which should have been done by the Army, under its normal terms of engagement, and that Dyer had exceeded his authority—note that he was, temporarily, a brigadier, was really not qualified and had had his own uniform made in his own guise. It also deemed that the time for which the shooting went on, for 1,650 rounds, was an error, although I think that “an absolute atrocity” would be an accurate perspective. The inquiry found no evidence that supported the Army’s theory that a conspiracy was in motion to overthrow British rule in the Punjab.
There have been various different visits to the region since. Her Majesty the Queen visited in 1961, 1983 and 1997. Up until 1997 she made no comment, but in that visit she said in her speech:
“It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past—Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. 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.”
I think that if Her Majesty the Queen had made that speech later, she would have used different words.
Asquith, leader of the Liberals and a former Prime Minister, said it was
“one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”,
and I agree with him. Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for Air at the time, said:
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed upon the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for 8 or 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.”—[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1729.]
If they had had more ammunition, they would probably have carried on shooting.
General Dyer commented—though I cannot give the date—that,
“I did not know the city very well. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more especially throughout the Punjab…I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed.”
That he shot people in such a fashion condemns him out of his own mouth.
He then apparently commented to women at the consulate that evening:
“I’m for the high jump but I saved you women and children.”
No one was under threat. It was a peaceful religious gathering, and we should hang our heads in shame at what was done in the name of Britain.
General Dyer went on to receive a hero’s funeral. He gave the order to shoot, and in my judgment, having read about this topic, he was unfit to hold the position he held. He showed no remorse at any stage for the deaths he had caused, or the damage he had done to the Indian people and to India-UK relations. He remarked to his underlings at the height of the firing:
“Do you think they’ve had enough? No, we’ll give them four rounds more.”
That was outrageous. In spite of that, General Dyer was vigorously defended by—I say this with shame—the Conservative party, as well as most of the military establishment. He evaded any penalties post inquiry, as his military superiors advised that they could find no fault with his actions, his orders, or his conduct otherwise. However, during debate in the Commons, Asquith made his appropriate comments.
At the time of the massacre, O’Dwyer was the lieutenant general of Punjab, and it was understood that General Dyer was his man in the military. Dyer did his bidding and followed his orders closely. A theory has been repeatedly floated that O’Dwyer approved the order to open fire, and was the chief architect of the plan. O’Dwyer, like many of his ilk, was paranoid about a plot to overthrow British rule in the region. The regional British rulers were convinced that the increasingly popular independence movement would involve violence against Brits on a large scale, and would lead to humiliation for the empire—note that the commission found that suspicion without merit and completely untrue.
In March 1940, O’Dwyer was shot by Udham Singh outside a Westminster venue. Singh had been at Amritsar that fateful day, and the story goes that he himself had been shot and wounded. That led to a life of activism that resulted in him fatally shooting the man who, alongside Dyer, many in the Raj held responsible for the massacre. Udham Singh was hanged for taking his revenge.
You and I visited the site of the massacre in August 2016, Mr Hanson, and prior to seeing it at first hand, I expressed ignorance about what had happened there. Nothing can prepare people for seeing the site and imagining what it must have been like for the 15,000 people trapped within that arena—literally in a shooting gallery—by the soldiers who were present. The atmosphere must have been incredible; it must have been horrendous for the people who suffered that massacre. Remember, not only were they shot: some threw themselves down the well to try to escape the bullets, and many were crushed to death while trying to get down that well and out of the troops’ firing line.
Mr Hanson, we saw at first hand the museum that is being created on the site of the massacre, and the fact that India will never forget. We owe it to the victims and their families to never forget what happened in our name. I hope that there will be an apology from the British Government, not just an acceptance of a terrible crime. When the Minister replies, I look forward to him not explaining away what happened, but apologising for our involvement and for what was done in our name. That would be a start; it would clear the air. Equally, I hope that Ministers will go to commemorative events in India: one is to be held later this month, but I particularly hope that Ministers will attend in July, when I understand the museum will be formally opened.
Those who follow these things will know that I have asked for an apology before. I signed two early-day motions—413 in October 2017 and 1868 in November 2018—and last night I tabled another one, 2281, calling on the British Government to apologise and to attend the commemorative events. I encourage colleagues from across the House to sign that early-day motion to demonstrate our cross-party support.
I certainly support the hon. Gentleman in asking the British Government to apologise, because what he has described —we have all read about it in the history books—is horrendous. Although he mentioned that 1,000 people could have been killed, the Indian Government say the figure is much higher, so the figure is disputed, although I do not contradict what he has said. I certainly support him, and many people in my constituency feel very strongly about it. Also, the area was known as the Indian subcontinent then and people from Bangladesh and Pakistan could equally identify with the massacre. Does he agree with me that they too should be involved in any apology?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right to say that the number of deaths is disputed. The Indian Government estimate more than 1,000 and the official report at the time stated 379. Because of the absolute disaster on the day, the figures are disputed and we do not have further records. People had gathered from across the Indian subcontinent for the Baisakhi. They came from what we now know as Pakistan and Bangladesh and from India itself, so other countries were involved, as well as citizens and families of other countries. Clearly, they should be remembered, and other Governments will no doubt have a view.
I simply want to add my endorsement. I have a significant Sikh population in my constituency—more than 3,000 people—and I was delighted to attend a Baisakhi event at the weekend to parade with them. The topic often comes up when I visit the gurdwara, so I want to endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend and I wish him well in his pursuit of the apology.
Should it not be reinforced to the Minister and the Foreign Office that the 100th anniversary is the most pertinent time to make an apology? With Baisakhi festivals taking place all over the country in the next couple of weeks, it would be good if the Minister were able to give good news to those gatherings today.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The centenary of such an event is the right time to apologise and own up to what happened, as opposed to simply acknowledging the dreadful event and atrocity that took place. The British Government at the time accepted responsibility, but did not issue an apology, and one should be issued, particularly at this time. Although a mixture of people of different faiths were massacred, it was predominantly people of the Sikh religion who suffered.
I classify myself as a firm friend of India. I am a devout patriot of this country, but it makes me sad and ashamed that the massacre was perpetrated in our name. It is time to own up to it and make an apology and time to make suitable reparations for the damage it caused not only to people present and their families, but to the relationship between India and the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this important debate and I declare my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar on 13 April 1919, it is clear that there needs to be a formal apology from the United Kingdom Government that accepts and acknowledges their part in the massacre. We heard from the hon. Gentleman about the events that transpired. I will not go into much further detail. Instead, I will focus on what should happen now and how we can seek to ensure that such a tragedy helps us to better understand our history and shape our future.
The outrage and the shocking nature of the attack, even 100 years ago, can be seen in comments and condemnation of the massacre, including from former Prime Minister Asquith, who called it
“one of the worst outrages in the whole of our history”.
Churchill called it
“an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”
Under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer, the British Indian Army fired rifles into a crowd of people, who were predominantly Sikhs but also Hindus and Muslims, gathered in Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Vaisakhi. When the firing finally ended, the public place had turned into a garden of the dead. Even children, some as young as three, were not spared.
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 for the deeply shameful massacre of innocent, unarmed civilians in Amritsar 100 years ago.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work she does as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for British Sikhs. I join her and others in calling for an outright apology. It is frankly shocking that we have not had that, after a number of calls for it in Parliament. Does she agree that we need a further apology for the findings of the Hunter commission, which concluded that General Dyer committed a “grave error”? It was not a grave error; it was a massacre of innocent men, women and children, and we need an apology.
Order. I say gently to hon. Members that interventions must be short. A significant number of Members wish to contribute to the debate, so there are only four to five minutes each. The longer Members speak in interventions, the shorter that time will be.
My hon. Friend raises a good point about the Hunter commission, which I am sure the Minister heard.
Regrettably, the massacre came within months of the end of the great war, in which tens of thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs from Punjab had sacrificed their lives for our freedom in Europe. The formal apology should include the victims of the massacre, their families and descendants, the people of Punjab and, given the location, timing and identity of the massacre, the worldwide Sikh community. That is the least that the UK Government can do on the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre. Will they take this opportunity finally to do the right thing?
That is not enough. The apology should mark the start of learning of teaching our children about the massacre in history lessons in our schools and learning about the context of the British empire, which through imperialism and colonialism had exploited and subjugated people around the world. According to polling in 2017, 44% of people were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, and YouGov polling in 2014 showed that nearly half believed that countries were better off for having been colonised. The Amritsar massacre was not the only brutal act carried out, and we need to teach our children about it, the shared history that it creates and the backdrop of what the Commonwealth is and means. In that, children will learn where they came from and why they are where they are today.
I will not take any more interventions as I am conscious of time; my apologies.
By othering or writing certain people out of British history—casting them simply as pawns or as a means to an end rather than individuals with their own histories—can we really be surprised that hate crime continues to exist or that racism continues to fester? The question therefore remains whether an apology without a genuine understanding of the past can ever provide the closure that so many Sikhs need.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill). Her speech touched many chords that echo with us all.
I was going to speak about the history of the massacre, but that has been very well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and I was going to speak about some of the cries for justice, but that has been very well covered by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, so I will cover what I think the massacre says to us today.
It is important to remember that this massacre, this crime—because that is what it was—does not just speak to the past. It speaks to the future; it speaks to us as people in this House, in this country, in this world, because it reminds us that the responsibilities that we hold today have consequences going forward for generations. It reminds us of the significance of the decisions that we take today—whether, like the House of Lords 100 years ago, to celebrate a man so guilty of an extraordinary crime or, like the House of Commons then, to condemn him. Those decisions will echo on the children and grandchildren of those people. It reminds us also that the divisions that we once saw—British soldiers on one side and Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus on the other—are not as stark today as they once were.
For me, that is the message of hope in this. In all great tragedies—this is undoubtedly one of the greatest—there is a message of hope, and the message of hope here is that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston and I, whose peoples have been victims of different massacres in different parts of the world over the last century, are sitting here as equals, representing communities that are equal, in a country that really does understand what it is to come together, to bring together communities of many distinctions, many differences, many creeds and colours.
That is why I think the moment for honesty is here. I thought the hon. Lady spoke beautifully when she said this. The moment for honesty is here, because an apology is not the undoing of an act that ended 100 years ago with the deaths of almost 1,000 people. An apology cannot bring them back to life; it cannot right that wrong. But what it can do is turn a page and say to a generation of Indians today and to a generation of British people today: “Neither of us are those people any more. Neither of us were there on that terrible day in Jallianwala Bagh. But we both recognise that the shared history that binds us, the shared history that brought us together at that point in time a century ago, unites us today.” An apology would allow us to move forward, to look to the future and to build the future that the people of the UK, the people of India and people around the world really want to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this timely and important debate.
The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh stands out as one of the most appalling and significant episodes in colonial history, not only because of the brutality of what happened there, but because of the context and its huge and long-lasting effect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, the context is that it was just after the first world war, when Indian soldiers had made huge sacrifices in fighting side by side with British soldiers. Many of those Indian soldiers came from the Punjab, which has a long and proud military history. However, when they went home, they were not treated as heroes, but found themselves subject to harsh colonial laws such as the Rowlatt Acts, which were passed in March 1919 and deprived people of their liberty—they sanctioned indefinite detention and incarceration without trial. All of that is the backdrop to the protests that were happening in the Punjab at the time.
The hon. Member for Harrow East read out the horrific details, and I will not dwell on them, because we now know them: a peaceful crowd of thousands; the attempt to bring in an armoured car that was foiled only by the narrowness of the alleyway on the approach to the Bagh; the lack of any warning or any attempt to disperse the crowd by peaceful means; 50 soldiers, armed with Lee-Enfield rifles; 10 minutes of firing; 1,650 rounds fired; people vainly jumping into the well to try to escape the bullets. Official estimates were that 379 people were killed and three times that many injured, but other estimates suggest many, many more of both.
The rounds fired were indiscriminate—Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were all among the dead. We know of Churchill’s verdict that it was a “monstrous event”. Those horrific details ensure that it is remembered 100 years later. Many see Jallianwala Bagh as the moment when the movement for Indian independence became unstoppable—the moment when many people in India gave up any hope for colonial rule—and perhaps even as the beginning of the end of the empire itself. The episode was not only outstanding in its brutality; it achieved the very opposite of the intention of General Dyer.
Let us turn to the question of an apology. When Prime Minister David Cameron visited the site in 2013, he described this as a
“deeply shameful event in British history”,
but stopped short of an apology. Now, as we approach the 100th anniversary, there are growing calls for an apology, as we have heard in this debate. I add my voice to those calls. I am currently co-ordinating a cross-party letter calling for an apology, which has been signed by the hon. Member for Harrow East, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and many of my hon. Friends.
Some people ask why we should apologise for one atrocity, when there have been many more in history. “Why should we judge the past by the standards of today?” The crucial point is that this massacre was not judged by the standards of today; it was widely condemned at the time by Churchill, Asquith and Josiah Wedgwood. In response to what happened, the first Asian Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, returned his knighthood in disgust. The exceptional horror was there for all to see in 1919 and 1920, and not just today. In any case, what kind of argument says that, as we cannot do everything, we should do nothing? This demands far more than a cycle of whataboutery in an attempt to change the subject. It was a particularly heinous and appalling act, and had enormous historical as well as human significance. A lack of an apology has continued to be a thorn in the side of the relationship between the UK and India, even though great progress has been made—today we are friendly and cordial diplomatic powers with good relations.
The Jallianwala Bagh atrocity still lives on in memory. As we approach the 100th anniversary this weekend, the time is right for an official apology. It should not take 100 years to say sorry for such a terrible crime, but saying sorry 100 years on is better than not saying sorry at all. I hope that the Minister will heed the calls made in this debate—on a cross-party basis—for an apology. If he cannot personally issue the apology today, I hope the Prime Minister makes one soon on behalf of the Government and the country, 100 years on from this terrible crime.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this afternoon’s debate. He set out the background very well. It is clear from the Hansard transcripts of the time that there was uncertainty about the events as they happened, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. As the truth emerged, some of the things that people had said at the time did not reflect what had actually happened on the ground.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a particularly awful event to read about, because it was a methodical and disturbing mass murder of innocent people who were peacefully protesting in a public square. Many of them had come on their way back from worship at the Golden Temple, and there were also children there. The exits were blocked and unarmed people were shot at over and over, as we heard, until the ammunition was all but exhausted.
The incident changed the course of history, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, it certainly was not an isolated crime by the British empire. The massacre came in the context of the repressive Rowlatt Act 1919, which permitted political cases in India to be tried without juries and included internment of suspects without trial. That in turn led to protests and an escalation of violence, to martial law and the forbidding of gatherings. The massacre was followed by other events, such as public floggings and forcing people to crawl in the streets just to humiliate them. Mahatma Gandhi said that he had no doubt that
“the shooting was ‘frightful’, the loss of innocent life deplorable. But the slow torture, degradation and emasculation that followed was much worse, more calculated, malicious and soul-killing, and the actors who performed the deeds deserve greater condemnation than General Dyer for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The latter merely destroyed a few bodies but the others tried to kill the soul of a nation.”
India is a country that has contributed greatly to the world in culture and faith, despite enduring such horrific events in its formation. The Indian diaspora, of all faiths and none, who I have known in my constituency show compassion and kindness to others. The Scottish Sikhs who I marched alongside in Saturday’s Vaisakhi celebrations have made a huge impact on their community, providing free meals, running soup kitchens and providing education services for people both at home and abroad. They stand up for human rights abuses and show solidarity for persecuted people around the world. They have invested time, energy and money in Scotland—they are Scottish. They are building in Glasgow two purpose-built and beautiful gurdwaras. We owe it to them to ensure that their legacy is acknowledged and this is not just swept under the carpet.
Of course, it was not just Sikhs who were killed that day; there were Hindus and Muslims, as we have heard, and a peaceful gathering of a cross-section of India’s peoples, who were indiscriminately murdered. A poster featured in a book about the atrocity by London historians Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh reads:
“Those who sacrificed their lives for their country, live forever. Brutality crossed all limits at Jallianwala Bagh, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—everyone cried in grief.”
The Minister knows, as we all do, that there is no justification for what happened. Even 100 years on, that flame of injustice still burns brightly in people’s minds.
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
At this particular time in history, with the UK leaving the EU, amid the radicalisation of right-wing extremists and the pompous rhetoric about the rebuilding of the British empire, we need a meaningful acknowledgement of the horrific legacy that that empire left behind. It must be for schools everywhere to learn of that legacy, not just for gurdwaras to teach it when people choose to come and visit. Everybody should learn in school of how the peoples of the empire were treated.
I find myself in full agreement with everything that has been said today, and I echo the calls for a formal apology. It has been said that if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot allow those mistakes to ever be repeated, so we need a clear and unequivocal apology from the Government on behalf of us all.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As elected Members of this Parliament, if we allow notions of empire to go unchecked and unchallenged, we fail to acknowledge the pain of that past—the pain for countries all around the world, but particularly in this case for the people of India. It is beyond time for Her Majesty’s Government to apologise and take responsibility for one of the worst crimes of colonialism. An apology for those events is a very good place to start.
Opportunities for apologies or acknowledgements of the events at Jallianwala Bagh have been missed in recent times. As hon. Members have said, David Cameron visited the site and described the incident as “deeply shameful”, but did not use that ample opportunity to make a formal apology. A visit from Her Majesty and Prince Philip in the 1990s managed to create even more ill-feeling, when Prince Philip said that the Indian Government’s figure for the death toll at the site was over-exaggerated. William and Kate chose not to visit the site on their official tour of India. Those are all opportunities missed, adding to that sense of pain.
It is well beyond time to stop side-stepping the issue and to show some humility and regret for the horrors of the past. I ask the Minister to go back to the Foreign Secretary and encourage him to take the steps that successive Governments have not been brave enough to take.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson.
One hundred years ago, the lives of 1,000 men and women were ended and the destiny of millions was changed. I thank my dear friend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his work and congratulate him on securing the debate. It has been an opportunity for him and everyone here to discuss and commemorate a historically distant, yet important and emotive subject, and I thank him for his emotional contribution to the debate.
The murders at Jallianwala Bagh are almost unknown in Britain outside the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, but to this day they shape the relationship between those countries and the UK. For millions of people across my home state of Punjab, the event is their defining cultural memory of British rule. The massacre finally crystallised in the minds of the intellectual and wealthy middle classes of British India what millions of working-class people already knew: ultimately, imperial rule was neither enlightened nor benevolent, but rather it was brutalising, dehumanising, and murderous. It set in motion the forces that ultimately secured independence.
At the time, the actions of General Dyer were roundly decried by many Members of the House, and the Labour party unanimously passed motions at a national conference, denouncing the killings. As the hon. Member for Harrow East said, there was no majority for support for Dyer in this country, yet a Conservative newspaper, which later merged with The Daily Telegraph, raised funds for General Dyer and collected for him the modern equivalent of £1 million—perhaps that was the origin of the hostile environment.
What was not forthcoming was a formal apology from the Government for what had happened, for the lives taken away, or for the injuries to thousands more. I hope that there is agreement today—including among those Members who have been unable to contribute to this debate—that although a formal apology would not undo the hurt and pain, it would send a signal. I do not believe, however, that an apology would be the be-all and end-all of the matter. I wrote to the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, demanding an apology, and in 2007 I tabled an early-day motion that was supported by Members from all major political parties and called not just for an apology but for education and commemoration. Last March I asked the Prime Minister whether she would lend her weight to the campaign for remembrance of that brutal day, and I thank the Minister for the communication between us on that subject.
I want children across the country to benefit from learning about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and to learn not just about 1,000 years of British success and innovation, but also about the human cost across the world of expedition, exploration and exploitation. This is not just an act of flagellation; it will help British people to understand better our own place in the world, and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It means that we will know our own history, and how we are seen by people in other cultures and countries. We should also take steps to remember those who were killed, not just through those actions, but by actions that were repeated around the world and perpetrated on communities large and small. Acts of barbarity and cruelty pepper the history of the British empire. Such acts must be remembered, and a monument in central London—the heart and capital of the empire—would be a fitting tribute.
The speeches made today have been emotive. Such emotion runs through the communities of all the countries of British India, and even today the views of millions of people about the United Kingdom are derived from that. Members of the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian communities are meeting this week, in halls, religious places and civic buildings, to commemorate and remember those family members and their friends who lost their lives on 13 April 1919.
I thank the Jallianwala Bagh centenary commemoration committee and the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust in Birmingham for leading the campaign in this country and supporting us all. I hope that this place will do them and those who were affected 100 years ago the honour of respecting their loss, and that the Prime Minister will officially apologise for what happened and take action to ensure that we do not fall into old behaviours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I, like so many others, take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate and for expressing so eloquently the horror of that day; what it must have been like; and how he appreciated that horror for the first time. That is something that we should all take away from the debate.
I will move on to why, 100 years on, I feel that it is almost inconceivable that we are still discussing whether we should apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In this place, we so often pride ourselves on calling for action by others—other countries and Governments—to end injustice. In the last week, we have railed against injustice in Brunei; we have talked at length about injustice all over the world; and we have pondered the 25th anniversary of the horrors of Rwanda. Yet here we are, 100 years later, with this crime and horror on our national conscience, debating whether to apologise.
For me, there is no question; there is no other action but to apologise. It is important that we do so for many reasons. The horror of the massacre, the injustice of it and the mistakes that were made at the time must be acknowledged or we will—as hon. Friends have said—be condemned to repeat them. It is time that we expressed the respect that we feel for our Sikh communities throughout the country, in my Edinburgh West constituency and beyond, and for what their community has suffered at the hands of the British empire. It is important that our constituents feel that respect and know that we do not just acknowledge the massacre, but apologise for what was done 100 years ago.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) said, it is also important that we do not just apologise and walk away, but that we see that as a beginning to highlighting that moment and using it to educate our own children about a past that was not as perfect as is often portrayed in our schools. It was not as wonderful to be part of the British empire as we often claim. We must acknowledge that, although we should not be trapped in the past as some say, we need to recognise the crimes that were committed and the people who were affected. Although we can never change that, we can at least go some way to alleviating the pain that is felt, simply by saying two words that sometimes seem so difficult: “We’re sorry.”
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing the debate. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response and I thank him for his tireless efforts on behalf of our great country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This morning, I signed the latest early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Harrow East, as well as his previous early-day motions, and I will be on the record tomorrow morning as having supported him the whole way through.
Yesterday, there was a story in the provincial press about the massacre and, unfortunately, about the role played by some with Irish ancestry who were in the Army at the time. I am very privileged to represent Strangford and Northern Ireland. Other hon. Members have referred to communities coming together. In Northern Ireland, our two traditions have two different histories, but if we dwell too much on the history that divides us rather than the reasons for being together, we would find ourselves unable to move forward. I am very pleased that we have managed to do that.
I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. Those of us who have visited Jallianwala Bagh have seen the well where people scrambled for their lives, and the bullet holes still in the walls, and realise that just around the corner from that place, where some of the worst that humanity can do happened, is some of the best that humanity can do, at the Golden Temple. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as Rabindranath Tagore said, that was the end of the British legitimacy in India? The end of the raj was April 1919. I should like, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) suggested, a physical memorial, but should schools not teach about it far more? Jallianwala Bagh was not just a crime against humanity. It was the end of British India.
I agree. As has been said, it was clearly the turning point for the empire. As others have mentioned, on Sunday 13 April 1919 the British military opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, leaving somewhere between 379 and 1,000 people dead, and perhaps as many as 1,500 wounded. That terrible tragedy represents an extremely dark chapter in British history, which stands in stark opposition to the modern-day British values that we hold so dear, and particularly the respect for human rights that I have spoken about often in the House and in Westminster Hall. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief, and on the Pakistani minorities. I have a deep interest in the issue.
What started as a celebration turned into a scene of carnage—a graveyard and the murder of innocents. On that fateful day in the Punjab, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and religion or belief, to name but a few, were violated in one of the most violent ways imaginable. Peaceful protestors, Sikh celebrants of the major religious festival of Baisakhi, and indeed many Muslims, were cut down that day for exercising their human rights as they should. We are rightly proud of the stance that the United Kingdom has taken in support of human rights across the world, including work to advance freedom of religion or belief. If the British Government are to continue to stand up for those rights, as I believe they will, and to be taken seriously, we must call out violations wherever they happen and whoever carried them out, even if that means looking at our past and perhaps recognising our errors.
It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge mistakes—even one as egregious as the one we are discussing. In fact, it is much easier to live in denial or to blame mistakes on something or someone else. What is difficult and truly requires courage is to stand up in front of the world and say that the UK is fully committed to human rights and that we therefore fully accept we should act, in relation to the violation of the rights of those killed in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago.
Failure to issue a formal apology is harmful to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because the value of recognising a mistake and owning up to it is not a matter of self-flagellation or wallowing in the error—it is to ensure that such mistakes are never made again and to create room for stronger relations built on the basis of shared humanity. If we bury our heads in the sand and refuse to take responsibility we will be refusing fully to learn the lessons of the past and develop stronger bonds, and putting an asterisk beside any statement about the UK’s commitment to human rights. However, if we face up to our past, accept our role and teach our children, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, not only about our glories but about our mistakes, we will create a stronger, more compassionate nation and a stronger, more compassionate world.
A true test of the morality of the action is to ask what we would want if the situation were reversed. I dare say that if the shoe were on the other foot, everyone in this Chamber and indeed everyone in this great country would demand that the Indian Government take responsibility. I believe that commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and apologising for our role in it gives us an enormous, powerful opportunity to announce to the world that that terrible event does not represent modern British values, and that Britain will stand up for the rights of anyone, anywhere, be they Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or of any other religion, belief, nationality or race. I sincerely hope that the Government will seize the opportunity with both hands and I look to the Minister for that much needed apology.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this timely debate. As we approach the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre I also thank my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), for organising a letter to the Government asking them to issue an apology. That letter and today’s debate demonstrate the strength of cross-party concern and support for such an apology.
The horrific events of 13 April 100 years ago in Amritsar, when thousands of innocent people were killed or injured on the orders of a British officer and at the hands of British soldiers, are a source of deep pain among the British Indian community, particularly the Sikh community. I know the strength of feeling among my own constituents in Wolverhampton about the atrocity.
On that April afternoon in 1919, people came to the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, the Sikh holy city—home of the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs—for a peaceful gathering during Baisakhi, the most significant Sikh religious festival. The crowd was unarmed. They were in an enclosed space, a walled garden, with only a few entrances. Thousands of people were crammed into a space that Churchill later described as
“considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square”.—[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1729.]
Therefore, when the firing began they were trapped; there was nowhere for them to escape to. Many of those present were women and children.
The gathering presented no threat to British troops. It was a peaceful gathering. As many hon. Members have mentioned, no warnings were issued, and there was no order for people to disperse. Instead, the British commander had the exits blocked and ordered his soldiers to fire into the crowd. As the hon. Member for Harrow East so eloquently described, the firing did not stop until the soldiers ran out of ammunition, and the bullet holes in the walls are visible to this day.
The official inquiry concluded that 379 people were killed that day, with many more injured, but many sources dispute those figures and claim that the death toll was much, much higher. It is important to remember that that massacre came after hundreds of thousands of Indians had fought alongside British troops in the first world war. At the time of the massacre, Winston Churchill, the then Secretary of State for War, described the atrocity as a “monstrous event” that was
“without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.” —[Official Report, 8 July 1920; Vol. 131, c. 1725.]
I welcome the fact that David Cameron, when he was Prime Minister, visited the site in 2013 to pay his respects. He called the massacre a “deeply shameful event”, but stopped short of making an apology. Now is the time for the Government to go much further. The Mayor of London also visited the site in 2017 and asked the Government to make an apology. The journalist Sathnam Sanghera who comes from Wolverhampton—he grew up in Park Village in my constituency—has recorded a documentary about the Amritsar massacre that will air this Saturday on Channel 4. In a recent article, he put his finger on it when he wrote:
“As a country, it’s about time we invested some emotional energy into facing up to what happened in Britain’s name.”
I hope that the Government will recognise the strength of cross-party support in today’s debate and in the letter organised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. I hope that the Government, if they cannot do so today, will see fit to issue a formal apology, perhaps later in the week of the actual centenary. As my right hon. Friend said, it should not take 100 years to say sorry, but it would certainly be better late than never.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for introducing this poignant debate, nearly 100 years to the day since the tragic events of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
In 1919, during one of the first debates in the House of Commons discussing the massacre, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood commented:
“This damns us for all time.”—[Official Report, 22 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 1232.]
He was correct. With 379 people officially recorded as dead—although, as we have heard today, local sources say that more than 1,000 people were killed—the British Army in India committed an indefensible atrocity in Amritsar. It had a profound effect on the Indian independence movement, and has had a lasting impact on the psyche of the people of the Punjab, and across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Yet despite the enormity of this deplorable incident, too few of us in the UK are aware of what happened at the Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago. Not enough of us are willing to engage with our unedifying past and the legacy of the British empire. Astonishingly, no British Government have issued a formal apology for what unfolded. When David Cameron visited the memorial in 2013, why did he stop short of apologising? It is imperative that we take this opportunity to reflect today on the devastating nature of the massacre and acknowledge unequivocally that this was one of the many shameful episodes in British history and a symptom of the colonial mindset that had been developed. Crucially, the Minister must set out the Government’s plans to issue a formal apology for what happened in Amritsar. No ifs, no buts, no whataboutery or rhetorical gymnastics—Britain must say sorry.
I have been to Jallianwala Bagh several times. It is an enclosed garden with high walls, accessible only through five narrow passages. I first visited in the early 1990s and last in 2012. Every time I have been there, I have been struck by what a tranquil, peaceful place it is—a place to remove oneself from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Amritsar, or to relax following a visit to the Golden Temple.
Let us picture the scene: it is 13 April 1919. It is a hot day, with temperatures in the mid-30s. The city is busy with pilgrims visiting to celebrate the Vaisakhi festival and farmers, traders and merchants attending an annual horse and cattle fair. Thousands of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims have gathered in the garden. What happened next is almost unspeakable. With a relatively small group of soldiers, Colonel Dyer arrived at the Bagh late in the afternoon. The entrance to the garden was blocked by some of his men. He had also brought armoured cars with machine guns. The only reason those guns were not used was that they could not get through the passageways.
On Colonel Dyer’s orders, 1,650 rounds were fired over a 10-minute period. The soldiers only stopped because the ammunition had run out. There was no warning, the crowd was not told to disperse and shots were not fired in the air but directly at the crowds. When the bullets ran out and the shooting stopped, Dyer and his soldiers left the scene. No aid was given to the wounded.
Dyer is reported to have said:
“I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing, but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself…I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed…It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect…not only on those who were present, but more especially throughout the Punjab.”
That should send a shiver down all of our spines.
This was not an accident. This was not a reaction to imminent danger. This was not an officer making a poor judgment in the midst of chaos. This was cold and calculated. This was purposeful slaughter. This was meant to send a message to the Indian population to remain obedient to the colonial master or face the consequences.
When reading Shashi Tharoor’s book, “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”, which was published last year, the following words particularly struck me:
“The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was no act of insane frenzy but a conscious, deliberate imposition of colonial will.”
Even Winston Churchill, a man hardly renowned for his concern for the welfare of those under colonial rule, as Indian people later experienced when millions died during the Bengal famine, condemned the massacre as “a monstrous event”.
If we were able to acknowledge back then the wrong that had been committed, there is no reason why Britain should not take this opportunity on the 100th anniversary of the massacre to finally apologise. Many continue to show support for Dyer. One of them was Rudyard Kipling, who believed that Dyer
“did his duty as he saw it”
and hailed him as
“the man who saved India.”
That is illustrative of many people’s views of the empire and its subjects at the time. They considered others lesser beings than themselves. Whatever one had to do to keep the population in check was what was necessary. In their eyes, Britain was always on the right side of history.
By refusing to apologise and engage in debate that is critical of the British empire or historical figures who played their part in it, and by embellishing the past or looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, we perpetuate that colonial mindset. While the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was shocking, the brutality exhibited that day was sadly not unique in India or, indeed, across the empire. That brutality continued.
In 1920, during the debate on Government policy on Ireland, one MP commented:
“We may have an Amritsar there.”—[Official Report, 9 August 1920; Vol. 133, c. 138.]
Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s will now receive pay-outs totalling £20 million. In Iraq, our American allies tortured and abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, while today we are complicit in the sale of arms to others who commit atrocities in Yemen.
We cannot pick and choose our history. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was an atrocity that must be recognised and apologised for. Concluding his speech in 1919, Colonel Wedgewood said:
“By this incident you have divided for all time races, races that might otherwise have loved one another...It has destroyed our reputation throughout the world. You know what will happen. All the blackguards in America when they lynch, will say, ‘Oh, you did the same in India.’ When butcheries take place in Russia, whether it be by White or Red Guard, they will say ‘We never did anything like what you did in India;’ and when we tell the Turks, ‘You massacred the Armenians,’ they will say, ‘Yes, we wish we had the chance of getting 5,000 of them together, and then of shooting straight—[Official Report, 22 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 1232.].’”
Again, he was correct that the past comes with a price. The Jallianwala Bagh is now a memorial garden, and its walls are scarred by the bullets fired by Dyer’s men.
Minister, let me put this on record, as someone who carries a British passport when I travel. On each and every visit I have had to India over many years, I carry a personal sense of shame in the knowledge that the places I visit, such as Amritsar, have a history that Britain has yet to come to terms with and apologise for. I offer my sincerest apologies here today as a beginning, and I urge the Government, on this anniversary, to set in motion from this debate a formal apology on behalf of all British citizens, who live with the legacy of what happened in India 100 years ago, and to consider all our other colonial legacies that we choose to forget.
The UK cannot lecture others until it faces up to, accepts and remedies the baggage of its colonial past and acknowledges the role it has played in conflict throughout the world. If the UK is to be serious as a major global player now and in the future, our foreign policy must reflect a moral and ethical standing that takes action on atrocities both past and present, whomever they may have been committed by. On this atrocity we must formally apologise.
It is a privilege to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hanson. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for ensuring that the debate came to the Chamber. I thank him for the detailed historical perspective he gave of the events that took place and for his words on behalf of us all about the huge grief felt at the lives that were lost. He described that in much detail and with sincerity.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for the calm and collected way in which she presented this issue. She is of Sikh heritage and is the first Sikh woman in Parliament. She has campaigned on this issue for a long time, and particularly in this Parliament. She is right that this is an important issue for the generations who came after those who were brutally murdered in that arena, with no way to escape and no exit but to drop themselves into a well. That was absolutely horrendous, and those who went in first were killed, if not by bullets, then by the people who fell on top of them. It was a difficult position for people of that origin.
My friend—I keep calling him that, because that is what he is—the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) has served in the military and understands full well the onerous conditions placed on military personnel in the battle arena. He has written about that in “The Fog of Law”, and understands those issues deeply. It is important that he is part of the debate to ask for that apology. It is important to bringing back the professionalism and integrity of our armed forces that, when such mistakes have been made, we must now look forward and try to accept them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) said, the apology is important, because it allows people closure and to move forward. That is essentially the issue here.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made an impassioned case and wanted to know how to move forward, as did the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law). The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has been a champion of religious rights and human rights across the whole of the world for as long as I have known him, and I have been here since 2001. He is always a strong advocate of those who cannot represent themselves. I thank him for his contribution. I also thank my mentor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who has been taking up the case for the 30 years that he has been in Parliament. I thank him for the way in which he has supported the Sikh community. He has supported every single event and moved forward the issue of representation in the Sikh community. He has worked strongly in that community and I thank him for the great work that he does.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) has done a huge amount of work on the matter, and his letter is a considered and respectable way of trying to deal with the issue. It is time for the Government to deal with it. That is important, because it gives closure and allows people to move forward in their relationship with the United Kingdom. I say that as someone whose maternal great-grandfather was in the British Indian Army. My right hon. Friend done tremendous work for his Sikh community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), has for hers; she spoke eloquently today.
Every speaker today has spoken about the need for the apology, which is important. The Minister needs to be able to see that. The apology, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East has said, is long overdue. The anniversary is the right time to apologise, so that we can move forward. Also, there is another instance that we should look at while looking at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre: the massacre at the Amritsar Golden Temple in 1984. I link them because of the involvement of a security services officer who was there. On this occasion we are trying to address some of the wrongs committed by our Government, and it is important to look at that instance as well. Advice was given to the Indian Government’s military in relation to that.
I have a huge Sikh community in my constituency and across the whole of Birmingham, and I have heard about those two episodes from Sikhs in other parts of the country where I regularly go to events and meet people. The numbers at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were far greater, but the massacre at the Amritsar temple was hugely devastating to people. It is important for the Minister to address both issues. An apology now is absolutely necessary to allow the generations who continually look at the issue to move forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, mentioned the Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust, which is based in my constituency and has worked for a long time on these issues. A lot of organisations do, but let us get them to move forward. I want them to look at the work that they need to do in this country and move forward the heritage of the Sikh community. Rather than looking at what has happened, I want them to look forward to the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate speech. I am from Punjab originally and I know the psyche of the Indian community in general. This is the right time for the Prime Minister to publicly apologise. I mean no disrespect to the Minister. He is passionate and he has expressed in his communications how he sees the issue, but I am sure he will agree that the Prime Minister should apologise.
My hon. Friend is right: the Prime Minister has to apologise. That is where the apology should come from, although I know that the Minister is a studious man who works hard and understands the issues. He continues to do that, and I thank him for it.
Finally, I reiterate my thanks for the great work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East has done in relation to this letter. We need to get a conclusion; we need an apology. That apology has to be made so that we in the Sikh community, both in the United Kingdom and in Punjab, and the Muslim community and the Hindu community that were involved in the Jallianwala Bagh can have some sort of closure.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate, for his long-standing work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and for his tremendous commitment to south Asia. This has been a compelling debate, and in my reply I will go into some detail. As I think hon. Members recognise, it would not be appropriate for me to make the apology today that many wish for, and I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) recognised that in their contributions. However, I will say a little bit about the path that we are on.
It is fair to say at the outset that I have slightly orthodox views on these matters; I feel 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. However, if the House will bear with me, I have found almost all of today’s contributions extremely compelling. They were made in the right tone—one not of anger but of regret—and with a keen eye on the future. That is my view on this matter, and I assure the House that it is a work in progress. An active debate is taking place among Ministers and senior officials, not least our excellent high commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Dominic Asquith—who is of course related to Herbert Asquith, quotes from whom have come up in today’s debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East has rightly said, later this week we will mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I recognise the enduring, very deep feelings and emotions that this incident continues to raise, not just in the House but across the world. I thank my hon. Friend for setting out the full context of the events of Sunday 13 April 1919. Brigadier-General Dyer had received news that a 15,000-strong peaceful crowd had gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh—the walled public garden in Amritsar, in the heart of the Punjab. Brigadier-General Dyer entered that walled garden that afternoon with 50 rifle-armed and 40 other British Indian Army soldiers. Without warning, he ordered those soldiers to fire into the large, unarmed crowd that was gathered there, killing hundreds of protestors from the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim faiths in the space of just 10 minutes.
Let me be clear: this was a tragedy, and a shameful episode in British history. The British Government of the day rightly condemned the incident, and there was strong criticism on the Floor of the House from some unexpected quarters. Members have referred to the former Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, and as others have pointed out, Winston Churchill—then Secretary of State for War—described it as a “monstrous event”. One century later, we as the successors of that Government recognise that people here and in India continue to feel very deeply about this issue.
There is increasingly strong recognition that a formal acknowledgement of deep regret is important to help frame the modern bilateral relationship that increasingly thrives in a wide range of globally significant areas of mutual interest in which Indian and UK values align. I have been taken by the contributions that Members have made, including what the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) rightly said. I hope that we do not preach in the world, but I think we stand up for what we regard as the rules-based international order. We stand shoulder to shoulder with India in so many of those areas that, when we state these things, we perhaps do not entirely recognise the sense of hypocrisy arising from our colonial past. It is important that we make those acknowledgements.
We are committed to ensuring that what took place in Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 100 years ago should not be forgotten. That is why I welcome the tabling of this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. It is right that we continue to pay our respects to the victims, and we shall strive to learn from and appreciate the passions that arise from these events.
We also recognise how important it is that, during the course of this year, we mark this sombre anniversary in the most appropriate way. In India, I have asked representatives from our High Commission in New Delhi to visit the site to lay a wreath on behalf of the British Government, and there will be further acknowledgement of those terrible events in the months ahead. I also reassure all hon. Members that the Government will publicly acknowledge the centenary closer to home in the United Kingdom, looking back with the deepest regret on what occurred, but also looking forward to the strong bonds that both our countries are building for the future. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I look a little bit at some of those bonds, which are worth putting into context.
May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that there have been many compelling speeches, and I will touch on them towards the end of my comments? He should recognise that it is not an issue of reconsidering; there is an ongoing sense of consideration that is happening in that regard. It is worth pointing out that we must always remember that issues such as this frame our history, and we expect them to do so. I believe that we have, and we must continue to do so, but it is also right that, in focusing on the future, we work to build and sustain a flourishing partnership that benefits all our citizens. It is evident that that ambition for the future was shared in the discussions that took place between Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister May at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London last April.
Today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) rightly recognised in his compelling contribution, we have a thriving and respectful partnership of equals. It is important to recognise that. That is why I think my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made New Delhi her very first port of call after her appointment, and why she was so pleased to welcome Prime Minister Modi to London last year. It is also why I have been to India no fewer than three times in the past 18 months, visiting Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, as well as, of course, visiting New Delhi on each occasion.
As a result, I have experienced our dynamic relationship first hand, in many different ways. We share a proud parliamentary tradition, a global outlook and a commitment to maintaining the rules-based international system, which is coming under threat from unexpected quarters, but remains the bedrock of global security and prosperity. I can testify to the fact that our relationship is characterised by close collaboration and mutual respect, and is focused on enhancing the prosperity and security of our people. That is why India and the UK signed our first framework agreement on cyber co-operation, which will help to write global rules on cyber.
We have launched our ambitious technology partnership, marrying Indian and British skills and ingenuity to drive forward the fourth industrial revolution. We also, of course, welcome many talented Indian workers to this country; indeed, we issue more skilled work visas to India than to all other countries combined. The numbers of Indians coming to visit and work and study in the UK are all on the rise, with a 35% increase in student visas, a 6% increase in work visas and a 10% increase in visit visas in the year 2018.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to finish, because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East will want to say a few words right at the end.
The Indian diaspora is the UK’s largest, at over 1.5 million, contributing not only to UK prosperity but to our national culture. All that activity is underpinned by what Prime Minister Modi has rightly described as a “living bridge” between us in the form of personal, professional, cultural and institutional ties, which have shaped each other’s countries and give our relationship a unique depth and created a panoply of people-to-people links.
It is right that we mark the centenary of the tragic events in Amritsar in the most appropriate way and that we never forget what happened. It was a shameful episode in our history and one that we deeply regret to this day. In the intervening years, we have learned lessons. Everything that we do today is in order to try to prevent such tragedies occurring again elsewhere in the world. Importantly, our modern relationship with India is focused on the future—on pooling our strengths, sharing our skills and knowledge, and enhancing the prosperity and security of our people. We are working together to deal with some of the greatest challenges of our age, such as climate change and infectious disease.
However, I recognise that this relationship is framed in part by the past. Although it would not be appropriate for me to apologise in the context of this debate, I have found many of the speeches very compelling. I will take up with the Foreign Secretary and No. 10 Downing Street a sense that we need to do more than set out very deep regrets, as I have done today. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill), my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), have all made a strong and compelling case that we need to do more.
I am very aware of that with my own work on the future relationship. At the back of one’s mind, there is always a sense—not just when one looks at the figures on trade and investment, although that is an aspect of it—that something is holding us back from fulfilling the full potential and a flourishing relationship. In all honesty, I would take a more orthodox and different view of our colonial past, but I accept that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre grates particularly strongly in the relationship between India and the UK.
In a funny way, Pakistan and Bangladesh feel that they come from the yoke of a different country, and therefore there is perhaps a stronger day-to-day relationship with those two countries than there is with India. These issues are an important way of trying to draw a line under the past. Therefore, this is work in progress and I cannot make any promises. I feel that we perhaps need to go further. As I say, I came to this issue when it was discussed some months ago. Obviously, I discussed it when I was out in New Delhi, but with a more orthodox view. I have now been persuaded—not just by this debate—to take a different approach.
So I believe that the best way to honour the memory of the people who suffered and died in Jallianwala Bagh 100 years ago is for us all to do our best to build a new partnership between the UK and India that will work for both our countries, and to recognise that such a partnership can be an important force for good in the world at large.
I thank my right hon. Friend for answering this debate, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions. There have been three key messages. The first is that children should be taught about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in our schools, because people should know what happened in our name.
The second message is that, in taking forward our relationship and friendship with India, saying sorry—apologising for this massacre—is the right thing to do. I hope that the Government, who I am very proud to support, will take that action. Finally, if this massacre were to happen today, the people responsible would be indicted for war crimes and held to account for what they did; they would not have been buried with full military honours. We should recognise that fact, say sorry and ensure that the memories of what happened will be preserved. We should own up to what was done in our name.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.