HE was a martyr to the cause of Indian freedom. And his nephew may have succeeded where the Indian government has failed—in winning an apology from the British for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. And not just from the British, but from the Queen of England. The demand for an apology by Jagmohan Singh—whose mother Bibi Amar Kaur was sister to the famous freedom fighter Bhagat Singh—is being taken seriously by Buckingham Palace.
According to a spokesman for the Palace, a number of options are being considered in response to Jagmohan Singh who is at Punjab Agricultural University. An apology will not be the personal decision of the Queen. "On all matters like this, the Queen will act on the advice of the ministers," says the spokesman. A reconnaissance group has visited Amritsar among other places. British High Commissioner David Gore Booth, one of those who visited Jallianwala Bagh,wrote in the visitor's book: "I feel privileged and touched to have this opportunity to visit Jallianwala Bagh and pay my respect at what is a beautiful monument that reminds us of one of the sadnesses of history."
Nobody expects the Palace to announce that it will issue an apology, or to declare publicly that it will not apologise. But given the tightly restrained comments that Buckingham Palace has to offer on anything, a comment that a number of options are being considered is firm indication that the British government is planning to express regret in some form over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In one way or another, in Amritsar or outside, a formal British apology is on the cards. What is less certain is what will be said, and whether the Queen will say it.
While there were strong indications that the Queen would visit the massacre site at Amritsar, the British High Commission said Her Majesty's itinerary was yet to be finalised and that no firm decision had been taken. If the Queen does visit Amri-tsar, an apology might be quite an event. The new Labour government would make a diplomatic point under cover of royal grace as the apology would sit well with its claims of an ethical foreign policy. It would win goodwill in Punjab and among Sikhs in Britain. And would set an 'ethical' standard for what the British consider right in Punjab and elsewhere.
"The sense of remorse or atonement is implicit if she (the Queen) visits the site. But the government is not going to raise the matter in a discussion. It did happen so many years ago," says an Indian diplomat.
What will an apology mean 78 years after the massacre? Opinions differ. Says Sir Alan Campbell-Johnson, who was press secretary to Lord Mountbatten: "It was a catastrophe which brought the whole case for independence forward and gave enormous momentum to Gandhi's campaign. But it would be arrogant of me to say now whether the British government should apologise or not."Trevor Royal, author of The Last days of the Raj, was more forthright: "I should have preferred that the British government had apologised at that time. And that General Dyer have been punished more severely. Symbolic gestures of regret that come so much later don't mean much. It is far more important for the British and Indian governments to have a closer understanding now. Had the British acted more strenuously to punish Dyer and offer compensation to the families, it would have greatly improved relations with the Congress party."
What difference will a 'sorry' make, asks Virinder Arora, the London-based daughter of Kultar Singh, Bhagat Singh's younger brother. The Labour government should pledge not to interfere in the internal affairs of India. That, she feels, will mean more than a few symbolic words. Time has weakened the family connections. Bibi Amar Kaur died in 1984. Kultar Singh was only 12 when Bhagat Singh was hanged. But in the 50th year of India's independence, the family has a voice, and the British have listened. However, the Brits haven't forgotten the art of double-edged diplomacy—an apology would come with an unspoken catch. Should the Indian government apologise for
Operation Bluestar? British Sikhs do not distinguish between firing on a peaceful gathering and the liberation of a shrine in terrorist control. As they see it, the Indian Army killed more Sikhs in 1984 than the British did at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 (379 dead, 2,000 wounded). The apology would be the stuff of good atmospherics and Labour can put up Her Majesty to do the graceful bit.
But why just Jallianwala Bagh? Many more Indians who opposed the British were killed in 1857. And what of theft? Will some Nehru nephew ask for the Kohinoor, please. What of 200 years of trespass? Wasn't col-onising a crime? Who ever said the Queen can undo the past. Or would want to.