Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre.
My Lords, speakers in this debate are limited to four minutes so time is very tight. As ever, if we overrun, we take time from the Minister, so I ask all noble Lords to stick to the allocated time and I thank your Lordships in advance.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for agreeing to our request for this debate. It is a privilege to be able to put this Question to your Lordships, surrounded by so many noble Lords who have pledged their support to encourage the Government to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Amritsar massacre. I hope that the Government will finally realise that now is the time to make amends and offer a formal apology for the atrocities; I will come to that later in my speech. I declare my interest as a member of the Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee.
Much has been written about what happened on 13 April 1919 in the Jallianwala Bagh. Jallianwala is a place and “bagh” is the Punjabi word for “park”. I myself come from the area of Amritsar and, even though I was not around at that time, I heard many stories passed down the generations, especially through my grandmother. I have also visited the park many times and seen for myself the bullet holes in the walls and the well from which 150 bodies were extracted. Around the park, many stories are written on placards and stones, and it is impossible to come away from the place without tears rolling down your face. It is a shocking event to recall, even after 100 years. As Winston Churchill said during a debate in the other place:
“That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1725.]
People, including children, had gathered at the Jallianwala Bagh to protest about the arrest of some of their leaders earlier in the week. Martial law was in force at the time. Brigadier General Dyer took the view that the gathering was not only illegal but an expression of defiance against the authorities. Ordering his soldiers to the spot, he blocked all the exits. The people were trapped like rats, and fired upon without warning or any order to disperse. The firing continued on the crowd until the soldiers ran out of ammunition. It is not clear how many people, including children, died that day. But many who were injured and died later were not counted—they had been afraid of going to hospital in case they would be arrested for having defied the martial law.
As Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, said in the other place:
“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”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1707.]
Those innocent, unarmed civilians who died immediately, and those left to suffer a horrendous and prolonged death, were let down by the very people who should have been protecting them, not opening fire, killing and injuring mindlessly. At the time, many Indians had given of their lives “for King and country” by fighting in the First World War, and had subsequently been promised greater autonomy and freedom from the oppression of British rule. Two years later, however, there was still no sign of this happening and the population was becoming increasingly frustrated. People were beginning to despair of a rule that appeared to be becoming tyrannical and oppressive and were fearful of the future.
Six years ago, David Cameron became the first serving British Prime Minister to pay his respects by visiting Jallianwala Bagh, where he described the massacre as,
“a deeply shameful event in British history”,
but he stopped short of issuing a formal apology, and sidestepped the issue by saying that there had been condemnation at the time from the British Government. While I commend his visit, it was not an adequate response to all the suffering and pain that was inflicted on innocent civilians, unarmed and with no escape, who had every right to gather peacefully.
Winston Churchill, again speaking in the other place, accused General Dyer of resorting to the doctrine of “frightfulness”, saying:
“What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1728.]
It is not difficult to see that this massacre encapsulated what the protests were about: tyranny and oppression; General Dyer confirmed the people’s worst fears. The Jallianwala Bagh incident broke the trust between the people and their rulers and that trust was never restored. What followed was Gandhi’s non-violent lawbreaking movement, which eventually lead to the end of the Empire.
Today, things are different. People from the subcontinent have made their homes here in the United Kingdom, and it is a multiracial society. It would be appropriate in my view for a formal apology to be issued by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and I have written to the Prime Minister urging that an apology be made to bring about the closure of this very unfortunate episode. It would be appreciated by the millions of south Asians living in the UK, as well as by the people of India.
My Lords, for such a critical period in India’s history, this short debate cannot give true justice to the thousands of lives that were lost, injured and impacted on, on that tragic day, 13 April 1919, at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, India. On the instructions of Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, General Dyer ordered troops to fire on men, women and children who had come together to enjoy and share one of the most auspicious days in the Sikh calendar, Vaisakhi.
I was born in Amritsar. In fact, my mother went into labour with me at the Shri Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara, the Golden Temple, where she went for her daily prayers with my grandmother. I feel incredibly blessed to have started my life in the most revered religious place of the Sikh faith. I have visited Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple many times, often when I needed to take difficult decisions or when I was looking to start a new venture. I go there for clarity in my decision-making process and to reflect on the impact my decisions will have on others.
Why is this relevant to the debate today? This massacre did not just affect the Sikh community; it was a turning point in the minds of those who were leading the free India movement. That most horrific day in history remains in the memories of Indians all over the world even today. This act of complete disregard—opening fire on innocent people who had no escape routes or an opportunity to voice their protests—is truly a black cloud in British history. As such, when world history is taught, it is and must be relevant to have these events recorded and taught in history lessons for a number of purposes, among them teaching the importance of identifying the consequences of decisions that were wrong.
I am extremely grateful for the work and support of Lady Kishwar Desai in getting the Partition Museum built and opened in Amritsar, enabling people to have an understanding of India’s past from an Indian perspective. Even today, when I visit the Jallianwala Bagh, there is an eerie atmosphere—a feeling of sadness lingers in the air. How do we right this terrible wrong? I was pleased when the former Prime Minister David Cameron visited and paid his respects at the memorial. I was also pleased to see Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh go there to pay their respects.
One hundred years on, we are commemorating in the very place that exonerated General Dyer of any wrongdoing and which in fact praised him for his actions, so I thank my noble friend Lord Loomba for putting this debate before the House today. David Cameron rightly condemned the actions of General Dyer for that day’s outrage. This debate, like all discussions, provides us with opportunities to demonstrate how important checks and balances and proper scrutiny of political decisions are, and what terrible outcomes occur if we as politicians fail to hold ourselves and those who serve us to account.
I have often said to friends and colleagues that we share a history but our reflections are through very different lenses. Our heroes should be part of our history books, too, to give children a sense of where they are today, the journey to get here and, more importantly, where they come from. My family served in the British Army under the Raj and in the Indian Army after gaining independence. Service to our country is ingrained in the Indian community, which continues to remain the most law-abiding community wherever it has settled in the world. I ask the Minister to reflect very carefully on today’s contributions.
My Lords, in the brief time I have, I want to concentrate on what the House of Lords did during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the discussions afterwards. It is a particularly sad episode in the history of your Lordships’ House. While the House of Commons condemned Dyer’s behaviour and cashiered him—Edwin Montagu, who was Secretary of State for India, made a very powerful speech and the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, has already quoted what Winston Churchill said that night about General Dyer’s behaviour—the House of Lords debated a Motion saying:
“That this House deplores the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer, and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of order in face of rebellion”.—[Official Report, 19/7/1920; col. 222.]
It was introduced by Viscount Finlay. There were 10 speakers and, at the end, the Motion was passed.
At some stage, the House of Lords ought to reflect on its own behaviour. I do not have time to go through what was said in any detail, but Viscount Finlay’s objections were mainly that Dyer was misjudged, that he really was facing an armed rebellion and therefore that he had every right to do what he did. He also said that the Hunter Commission, which was appointed to investigate this, had three Indian members, and that that was not the right thing to do because they were partisan, and the partisan commission ruled against Dyer. As it happened, both the majority report and the minority report of the Hunter Commission condemned Dyer—but let us leave that aside.
The view was taken that somehow injustice had been done to a brave officer who was putting down a rebellion. The nightmare of the 1857 rebellion haunted some of the officers in Punjab at that time and they overreacted. Punjab was under martial law and it was not only Jallianwala Bagh which was a problem. Throughout April and after, there was martial law in Punjab. Lahore suffered as much as the rest of Punjab and Gujranwala, a small town which is now in Pakistan, was bombed from the air to control what the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, thought was happening. It was a very unusual moment in which Punjab was held almost captive.
I think we ought to reflect on this, when we get the chance. The debate from 19 July 1920, which is in Hansard, should be read by Members of your Lordships’ House and, at another stage, we should ask ourselves whether we should not apologise to the world for what this House did. That at least we can do ourselves—we do not need the permission of the Government.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Loomba is a recognised advocate of the rights of women, especially widows, and he has a formidable reputation as a philanthropist, both in the UK and in his home state of Punjab. Once a Liberal, he crossed to the Cross-Benches, saying that he wished to,
“concentrate on issues such as human rights”,
so it is natural that he should be concerned about this event, alongside many others.
Horrific as the massacre was, my first instinct was that this was too long ago and we cannot continue to regret events so far in the past. In the last 100 years, there have been many other incidents that should never have occurred. For India and Pakistan, partition will be the most prominent of all and well within living memory. Then of course I remembered the extended families—the grandchildren and great-grandchildren—who still live in and around Amritsar with the memory and the scars of that terrible day. Of course, there were genuine fears which led to the attack and it is easier to judge with hindsight. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, the 1920 vote in favour of General Dyer was disgraceful and should never have happened. We cannot wipe it from the record, but we can try to put it straight today. We all respect the decision of the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Loomba, to create education programmes that will ensure that this event is not forgotten. I am glad to say that my 14 year-old grandson told me today that he is already aware of it.
Uniquely brutal and misguided as the general was, the event must also be seen in the context of the decline of British imperialism and a gradual change in British attitudes. It was a turning point that helped Gandhi to reframe the remarkable doctrine of non-violence and satyagraha. It soon led to the salt march of 1930, the twists and turns in Whitehall and the inevitable political path up to partition and independence in 1947. But there is a paradox. Even at the time of the massacre, there were strong intellectual and cultural ties between the two countries. I lived in India in the 1960s and visited the Ramakrishna Mission on the Hooghly, where relations of mine were influenced by Swami Vivekananda even before 1900. I also became aware of the common ground that existed in the 1920s between Tagore in Bengal and many English families, including the Elmhirsts of Dartington. Last year saw the centenary of Sister Nivedita, who was born Margaret Noble and is still a legend in Bengal. These facts are to be set alongside the terrible event we are discussing.
In these few minutes, we should also be concerned about India today and the importance of human rights now. There has been another appalling massacre in Kashmir. To my mind, the ethnic divide in India is the most critical humanitarian issue in the coming election. With few exceptions, Indian Muslims are emphatically not terrorists. To my personal knowledge, they are upholders of dignity, integrity and many human virtues. Mr Modi does not have a good reputation among the Muslim minority and he has encouraged discrimination and worse in Maharashtra and in great cities such as Ahmedabad, where there are substantial Muslim populations. Talk of the resurgence of Congress under new leadership may be premature, but the Prime Minister, instead of flag-waving at Pakistan, needs to be more sensitive to the needs of his own Muslim minorities.
In conclusion, of course children must be taught history, but we must always remember its relevance to today and the future.
My Lords, we must put this appalling atrocity in context. It led from the First World War, in which more than 1 million Indians served and 74,000 made the ultimate sacrifice, in the expectation that after the war they would be rewarded with some measure of self-government. The punitive Rowlatt Act went back on this totally. Of course, there were protests in Punjab in March and April 1919. Then we had the actions of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, with the backing of the lieutenant-governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer.
The people who gathered peacefully—up to 15,000 people from the outskirts on Baisakhi day on 13 April—were Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, and included women and children. They assembled in the walled garden, which the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, spoke about. I thank him for initiating the debate. It was a popular spot. Many of them probably had no idea that they were doing something supposedly illegal. When Brigadier-General Dyer came there, he ordered the firing without any warning. They did not fire in the air; they just fired at these women, children and non-violent individuals. They fired 1,650 rounds, officially killing 379 people, but it was probably nearer 1,000, with more than 1,000 wounded. They virtually ran out of ammunition. This is why it is called the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
The worst thing is that Dyer never showed any remorse or regret. In fact, he said that he had personally directed the fire towards the exits. He called the victims “the targets”, which were very “good”. He forbade his soldiers from giving any aid to the wounded. He forbade the families from coming to attend these people for 24 hours. This is barbarism at its worst. Then he was rewarded in Britain with £26,000 from a public campaign and presented with a jewelled sword of honour. The poor families and the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were given 500 rupees each. It is no wonder that my friend, the Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, who wrote the book Inglorious Empire, has said:
“The massacre made Indians out of millions of people who had not thought consciously of their political identity before that grim Sunday”.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate, returned his knighthood. This all spurred on Mahatma Gandhi to go even further in his struggle for India’s independence.
It is not too late for the British Government to apologise. I was with David Cameron in India on that visit in 2013. I was hopeful that he would apologise, but he did not. He said that it was a “deeply shameful event”, but he did not apologise. It is not too late. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did just that in 2016, when he apologised for Canada’s actions in the atrocities a century earlier, when the Indian immigrants on the “Komagata Maru” were denied permission to land in Vancouver, thereby sending many of them to their deaths. Why can Britain not do this?
Does the Minister agree that children need to learn in schools about what happened in these atrocities? Even Winston Churchill said that this was an episode “without precedent”. Herbert Asquith said:
“There has never been such an incident in … history”.
AJP Taylor said it was,
“the decisive moment when Indians were alienated from British rule”.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in 2017 called on the British Government to make a full apology when he visited Amritsar. What happened? The British Government rejected that call for an apology for the massacre. Why can the Government not apologise? Gordon Brown apologised for the child migrant programme. In 2010, David Cameron, who did not apologise in Amritsar, gave a formal apology in the Commons on the day the Bloody Sunday report was published. He acknowledged that all those who died were unarmed when they were killed by British soldiers and that a British soldier had fired the first shot at civilians. He said that, although it was not a premeditated action, there was,
“no point in trying to soften, or equivocate … what happened should never, ever have happened”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/10; cols. 740.]
He apologised on behalf of the British Government by saying he was “deeply sorry”. Why can the British Government not apologise?
I spoke to my 82 year-old mother and told her that I was going to speak in this debate. I visited Jallianwala Bagh with my mother. She said, “Son, it was nothing short of murder”.
My Lords, I am glad that we have the time to debate this important issue. I thank my noble colleagues for securing the required time.
This is a very sad story, and one for which the key facts deserve to be retold. On Sunday 13 April 1919, a large group of mainly Sikhs, but also Hindus and Muslims, had gathered in the courtyard of the Jallianwala Bagh. It was the day of Baisakhi, a Sikh festival, and a large gathering had formed. However, many were not celebrating. Many were merely civilians, living their lives, engaging in commerce and providing for their families. The atmosphere, above all, was peaceful.
That was until Reginald Dyer, now widely known as the butcher of Amritsar, arrived. He sought to disperse the crowd, not by peaceful but by wholly unjustified and entirely disproportionate means, firing over their heads and shooting into the crowds fleeing through the narrow exit passageways, the largest of which he blocked off with armoured vehicles. He later stated that he only stopped his soldiers firing due to a lack of ammunition. Some 1,600 innocents were murdered, with up to 1,000 more injured. I believe that this shameful event was the trigger for what became the independence movement.
The reaction back home was immediate and scarcely less shameful. It ought to be a black mark on the reputation of this place that in July the following year we voted to condone the massacre and the man who led it. Following the censure of Mr Dyer in the other place, this House passed a Motion that,
“this House deplores the conduct of the case of General Dyer as unjust to that officer, and as establishing a precedent dangerous to the preservation of order in face of rebellion”.
In a particularly ill-informed speech, Viscount Finlay went on to say that Dyer,
“took every step to avert bloodshed in the way of warning the population and endeavouring to secure that the law should be obeyed without recourse to arms”.—[Official Report, 19/7/1920; col. 227.]
He said those words despite claiming to have read the Hunter commission, the minority and majority report of which both recognised that no notice was given of the opening of fire, and that lethal force was used as the first resort, not as the last. I confess that going over that debate again has made me extremely sad at the disregard for human life shown in this place at that time.
There are those who say that the past is a foreign country which ought to be left and disturbed as little as possible. There are those, including the previous Administration, who have refused to offer up a full apology, although good steps have been taken, most notably by the Queen and the previous Prime Minister, to address the immense hurt and suffering caused at that time. But more needs to be done. It is the mark of a solemn and grown-up country to apologise for past crimes. Justin Trudeau was content to apologise for the shameful record of his country in turning away Jewish refugees in 1939. Tony Blair was content to apologise in 2007 for the UK’s record of slavery. I ask the Minister directly: what good reason is there, in this auspicious centenary year, to withhold a full and frank apology for the massacre?
To close, I will quote from the Queen’s 1997 speech from the site of the massacre:
“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”.
Those are wise words. To build on our burgeoning partnership with India, let us learn from the sadness, apologise, move on, and get on with building gladness.
My noble friend Lord Loomba’s eloquent speech and the erudite account by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in The Rediscovery of India, of what occurred on 13 April 1919 at Amritsar, Jallianwala Bagh, remind us that brave Indian soldiers returning from World War I trenches wanted change. They then encountered two entirely different men: Mahatma Gandhi, with his commitment to peaceful change, and General Reginald Dyer, whom, as we have been reminded, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons had resorted to,
“frightfulness… the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre… with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1728.]
A group of people had peacefully gathered to hold a prohibited public meeting. The response was wholly disproportionate and excessive. Although the House of Commons excoriated Dyer by denouncing his actions as an act of “brutality” that had “stunned this entire nation”, your Lordships’ House offered Dyer accolades. Perhaps today we can atone and help to heal that shocking moment of our history.
While we mark the Amritsar massacre, we must not neglect the other frightful tragedies currently unfolding in many parts of the world, in countries such as Burma and Sudan, which, like the Punjab, I have visited. On 12 February 2019—72 years since 12 February 1947, when ethnic and religious minorities in Burma, including the persecuted Rohingya Muslims and Kachin Christians, were promised autonomy within a federal Burma—over a thousand Karennis peacefully protested against the erection of a statue to General Aung San, the founder of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army. The United Nations reported:
“Police fired rubber bullets and used batons and water cannons injuring up to 15 protesters in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State and home to the Karenni ethnic minority”.
In January, the United Nations reported on the use of excessive force in Sudan against protesters in the biggest popular uprising since 1956. Only last week I met with Sudanese opposition leaders who described the use of live ammunition by security forces against protestors, egregious human rights violations, including at least 57 killings, and the torture, rape and imprisonment of women and children. Hundreds have been arrested and, according to the United Nations, they include journalists, civil society representatives and opposition leaders. The UN says that the security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition inside the premises of the Omdurman hospital, and attacks also took place at the Bahri teaching hospital and Haj Al-Safi hospital. Doctors have been prohibited from treating the wounded.
The picture elsewhere also suggests that we have failed to learn the lessons of Jallianwala Bagh. Take Nicaragua, where the EU Council says that recent protests were,
“brutally repressed by security forces and pro-government armed groups, leading to clashes, several hundreds dead and injured and the arrest of hundreds of citizens”.
That graphic account, recently given to me by a Nicaraguan, has been sent to the Foreign Secretary.
Peaceful protests and public gatherings are both enshrined in Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The best memorial to the victims of Jallianwala Bagh would be for Britain to fearlessly speak out for people who cannot do it for themselves, vociferously insisting on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Do this, and it can help to redeem the callous and violent use of power such as 100 years ago at Amritsar, which Churchill described as,
“an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1725.]
My Lords, in the catalogue of crimes which featured in the defence of empire, from the suppression of the so-called Indian mutiny onwards, the Amritsar massacre is just about the worst. The conscience of the world was horrified by the events that other noble Lords have described so well.
Britain in 1919 was a hard, nationalist country; very prominent were the die-hards, the so-called “hard-faced men” of whom Keynes wrote. This was seen in Ireland, in relation to immigrants, and in the anti-Semitism which imposed itself on the Secretary of State for India, the Jewish Edwin Montagu. As it happens, the policy towards the empire and towards India was not so hostile during this period; on the contrary, with the Montagu-Chelmsford report the Government began a process of greater devolution and of bringing the Indians into government. But Amritsar, the pile of corpses in the bagh, changed all that.
The disaster, I believe, was to leave key decisions to the officers on the spot, who often had very limited understanding of the political factors and couched them in right-wing imperialist views. This was particularly true of Dyer. He was asked after the event by the Hunter commission if he had any regrets. He said “no”. He was asked whether he would have proceeded into the bagh himself, and he said “yes”—and just to make sure, he would carry a machine-gun with him. His troops were stationed in an area of the road where people would accumulate, and therefore as many as possible were shot. It was followed by other shameful events: public crawling across the area of the march, and disturbances and public floggings in areas where violence had occurred.
The Government acted in a more positive fashion. Lloyd George dismissed Dyer from his post, though not from the Army. Winston Churchill made a powerful defence of government policy in Parliament. In the House of Commons, there was much backing for General Dyer, particularly interestingly from the Irish Ulster Unionists who equated the treatment of Indian nationalists with the resistance to Sinn Fein in Ireland and the policy of the Black and Tans. The effect was to antagonise all the religious bodies and create a new generation of nationalists: Nehru, the Muslim Jinnah and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, whose campaign of civil disobedience took on a powerful new course.
What should be done now? As the House has heard, there has never been an official state policy or statement of regret. When the Queen visited India a few years ago, the speech she was given was quite inadequate for the purpose and the Duke of Edinburgh’s off-the-cuff remarks made matters, if anything, somewhat worse. At a time when Britain is becoming more isolated in the world, it is so important to reinforce our ties with India. These events are still resented there. We should have an official statement, if not of regret then at least documenting the facts in plain language, thereby restoring the principles and values for which the British Commonwealth has always stood.
My Lords, on 2 March 1985 I was responsible for arranging the celebrations for the reopening of Kingsley Hall, in the heart of the East End of London. It was the building where Mahatma Gandhi stayed for the 10-week Round Table Conference on India in 1931. I learned about those 10 weeks in 1984 from an East End grandmother, Lylie Valentine, who met the great man. Lylie told me the real story of the man and what happened on that rooftop at Kingsley Hall all those years ago. It was a human tale of a practical, imaginative human being, an empathetic man who took on the British Empire and won.
In Amritsar, British and Gurkha troops massacred at least 379 unarmed demonstrators meeting in the city’s park. Gandhi had actively supported the British in the hope of winning partial autonomy for India. After the Amritsar massacre he was convinced that India should accept nothing less than full independence. To achieve this end he began harnessing his instinct, experience and all his many talents to organise his first campaign of mass civil disobedience against the British. His life’s work had begun.
In his film, Richard Attenborough rather brilliantly captured this tipping point in the man and the moment. In 1985 Richard turned up at Kingsley Hall in his green Rolls-Royce with his wife Sheila Sim. Together, on that March evening, we reopened the Hall to a packed street and cheering East End crowds, with fireworks and lasers firing into the night sky. Richard, like Gandhi, had not only a sense of occasion but also a moral compass, in which passion and a practical business sense that gets things done, came together, most importantly, with imagination and empathy for others. They had a willingness to imagine the world as others both see and experience it. Amritsar was a critical change moment for the Mahatma; a turning point.
Gandhi, like Mandela, dug into the detail and joined the dots in such moments. These figures were deeply immersed in the machinery and life of their communities. Their antennae were tuned, their minds and bodies engaged at a deep level. Gandhi was a disrupter. He understood that the key to the future lay beyond simple reason and argument. It was not an intellectual game; it required a costly and instinctive leap of faith. Those physical deaths in Amritsar were the trigger and Richard captured the moment.
I have been reminded, during the countless repetitive and confrontational debates in your Lordships’ House about Brexit, of the words of the late Denis Healey during the 1986 Libyan crisis: “We have listened to another manic monologue that sheds as much light as an electric drill”. The apparently fundamentalist positions that have been taken remind me, sadly, of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, who ordered the shooting at Amritsar and was so confident he was doing the right thing. As we have heard, even the House of Lords supported him at the time.
We should commemorate the events at Amritsar, not only because of their significance for India but because there is a clue in them. Reason alone, and intellectual games across this Chamber, may not get us where we need to be. We are not facing a black-and-white choice. The clues to the future may not be in the positions we are choosing to dig into, but actually deep down in the machinery of government, both here, in Europe and in the lived experiences and consciousness of the peoples of Europe. These imaginative men would be digging into the front end, searching for common ground.
There is much in this internet age that we share with the whole of Europe as we try to reimagine our world and that of our children, but the clues are not in this Chamber. The real debate that matters is, I fear, somewhere else. Let us commemorate Amritsar, not just as a significant date for the peoples of India, but as a world event grasped by an imaginative, instinctual man who took salt from the sea and used it to change India at every level, top, middle and bottom. He joined the dots. He saw, as a doer, what talkers failed to see, so blinded were they by what they thought they knew.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for speaking in the gap—a failure on my part in not adding my name to the list in time.
In 1919, Josiah Wedgwood said in the Commons that,
“you can imagine the feelings of these Indians for generations over this terrible business … You will have a shrine erected there and every year there will be processions of Indians visiting the tombs of the martyrs and Englishmen will go there and stand bareheaded before it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/12/1919; cols. 1231-32.]
Successive British Governments of all colours have been united in their condemnation of the massacre. Churchill called the incident “monstrous”, Blair said that it represented the “worst aspects of colonialism”, and Cameron referred to it as,
“a deeply shameful event in British history”.
Visiting the memorial on 6 December 2017, Sadiq Khan said that as we reach the centenary of the massacre, the United Kingdom needed to properly acknowledge what happened by,
“giving the people of Amritsar and India the closure they need through a formal apology”.
I hope the Minister will conclude tonight by making that commitment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for securing this very important debate. I pay tribute to the work that he and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, are doing on this matter. There have been some very passionate and personal contributions today. I was especially struck by that of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma.
We are looking at this centenary just after the one for the First World War. More than a million Indians fought for Britain in that war, 60,000 of whom were killed. I was glad that their contribution was marked, for example, at the request of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in the Parliament and Bundestag choir concert, during which the immensely moving Naidu poem, “The Gift of India”, was read.
Suffrage for women was granted immediately after the First World War, largely in recognition of their role. In India, pressure for independence mounted, but as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has pointed out, the reaction was not engagement or gratitude but the opposite. During the war, the British Government of India had passed repressive emergency powers. At its end, the expectation was that these would be eased and India would be given more autonomy. As the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has pointed out with detailed historical perspective, the Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1918 recommended limited local self-government. Instead, however, further repressive measures were passed. Widespread anger resulted, as we have heard, and Brigadier General Dyer banned all public meetings, which, he stated, would be dispersed by force if necessary.
Despite this, thousands gathered in the walled enclosure near Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Dyer marched 90 Gurkha and Indian soldiers into the enclosure and, without warning, as we have heard, they opened fire for about 10 or 15 minutes on the panicking crowd trapped there. It was reported that 379 people were killed and about 1,200 wounded, although other estimates suggest much higher casualties. Dyer also issued humiliating instructions that all Indians going along the street where a woman missionary had been attacked were to crawl on their hands and knees.
The news of the massacre provoked fierce disapproval at the time, as we have heard. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others have said, Churchill condemned this as,
“a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1725.]
The Hunter Committee was appointed to report. Its conclusions were damning. Dyer was strongly censured and forced to resign. Opinion at the time was divided between those who agreed with the Hunter Committee and those who thought Dyer had acted effectively, including those in this House, as others have said. Rather tongue-in-cheek, I might just point out that at the time all would have been hereditary Peers and all would have been male—so we have had a little bit of reform in the Lords.
This massacre marked a turning point in India’s modern history, as we have heard, and was the prelude to Gandhi’s full commitment to the cause of Indian nationalism and independence. In our own time, when David Cameron visited the site, as we have heard, he described the events there as “shameful”. Others, such as the writer William Dalrymple, have emphasised that the most important lesson should be that British colonial history must never be sanitised—a point that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also emphasised. He and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed to current tragedies, which must also be our focus.
It is right that in this centenary year the history of this massacre is being laid out, and that we learn the lessons from it. Nothing is more corrosive than feelings of injustice unaddressed. Surely, on the centenary of the massacre at Amritsar, which even an inquiry at the time found unacceptable, we should be able to issue a formal apology to help address that sense of injustice unaddressed.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, for tabling this timely debate, and recognise and thank him for his long-standing commitment to humanitarian causes in India. I am also grateful to all noble Lords for their helpful contributions.
The massacre of Jallianwala Bagh was an appalling tragedy for the Sikh community of Amritsar, and a deeply shameful episode in British history. The British Government of the day rightly condemned the incident. A number of your Lordships—the noble Lords, Lord Loomba and Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—have referred to the remarks made at the time, particularly by Churchill. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for directing me to his book The Rediscovery of India and the passage on Amritsar, which I found very interesting. I was struck by something else that Churchill said, which some of your Lordships referred to:
“Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopœia”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1728.]
He also said this was not,
“the British way of doing business”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/7/1920; col. 1730.]
Churchill was right then, and these sentiments endure and are right now.
One hundred years later we, the current Government, recognise that people here and in India, in the Sikh community and elsewhere, continue to feel deeply about the issue. That is why what took place on 13 April 1919 should never be forgotten, and why it is right that we remember and pay our respects to those who lost their lives. My noble friend Lady Verma described movingly the significance of Jallianwala Bagh to her, her birth in Amritsar, the continuing influence that that holy place holds for her and the peace it gives her. We recognise how important it is that we mark this tragic, sombre anniversary in the most appropriate way. This debate has been helpful in bringing suggestions forward.
History cannot be undone, but we can learn from the past and take steps to avoid repeating the same mistakes. My noble friends Lady Verma and Lord Suri commented on that, as did the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. Indeed, that is what the UK is doing, in a number of different ways, in our work to address the root causes of conflict and the drivers of instability around the world. We support work to tackle corruption, promote good governance, improve access to security and justice, and promote inclusive economic development.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said very poignantly that the best memorial to the victims of Jallianwala Bagh would be for Britain to fearlessly speak out for people who cannot do it themselves, vociferously insisting on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. I totally agree and I add that the UK’s substantial development budget is a key component. More than 50% of the DfID budget is spent in fragile and conflict-affected states and our cross-government work on tackling insecurity and instability is supported by the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which is supporting and delivering programmes in more than 70 countries. We also have early warning mechanisms in place to identify countries at risk of instability. We invest billions of pounds in development aid to tackle poverty and to generate opportunity. We use our diplomatic network and our influence in multilateral organisations to help de-escalate tensions and resolve disputes wherever possible.
All this work fosters environments in which atrocities such as Jallianwala Bagh are less likely to take place. I have noted the number of noble Lords who have raised the matter of an apology from the Government. This was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Loomba, Lord Desai, Lord Bilimoria, Lord Morgan and Lord Collins, my noble friend Lord Suri and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I know how passionately that issue is felt. The Government at the time, as we know, roundly condemned the atrocity, but it is the case that no subsequent Government have apologised. I understand that the reason is that Governments have considered that history cannot be rewritten and it is important that we do not get trapped by the past. We must also look forward to the future and do all we can to prevent atrocities happening. Having said that, during oral evidence from the Foreign Secretary to the Foreign Affairs Committee on 31 October 2018, the chair of that committee argued that this year may constitute an appropriate moment for Her Majesty’s Government to formally apologise. The Foreign Secretary responded by saying:
“That is a very profound thought; let me reflect on that, but I can understand why that could be a potentially very significant gesture”.
The Foreign Secretary is currently doing that—reflecting on the situation—and I can say that the views expressed in this debate are certainly noted and will be conveyed back to the department.
Will the Minister confirm that she will say that we must make an apology on the centenary of this atrocity? I gave examples in my speech of British Prime Ministers—David Cameron and Gordon Brown—who have apologised for things in the past, so we really must this time.
I hope I have made the current position clear to noble Lords and I hope they will understand that I am unable to go any further. Learning lessons from the past is vital. It is also important that the UK and India continue to look ahead to our shared future. Happily and positively, today our relationship is one of equals. We share a proud parliamentary tradition, a global outlook and a commitment to maintain the rules-based international system. The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, gave an interesting local illustration of that relationship.
Will my noble friend give way?
I am sorry, I am unable to take any further interventions: I have already lost time and I really want to deal with the contributions, if my noble friend will forgive me.
The noble Lord, Lord Mawson, gave a very interesting illustration from his own experience in the East End. It illustrates that our relationship is built on collaboration and partnership and is focused firmly on enhancing the security and prosperity of all our people. That relationship is thriving: we are each among the top four investors in the other’s economy and Indian companies have created 110,000 jobs in the UK. We have launched an ambitious technology partnership and the UK issues more skilled work visas to India than to all other countries combined. More broadly, 89% of Indian visa applications are accepted. That is what Prime Minister Modi appositely describes as a “living bridge” between us. Our personal, professional, cultural and institutional ties have shaped each other’s countries and give our relationship a unique depth.
This has been an important and helpful debate. I have listened with interest to the thoughtful and informed contributions from your Lordships. I am sorry that I do not have more time to address some of the specific points raised, but I shall read Hansard and endeavour to respond to your Lordships by letter if I have omitted to address points made.
To conclude, the Government wish to mark the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh in the most appropriate and respectful way. In deciding our approach, we shall certainly give full consideration to the points made by your Lordships today.