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The Rediff Special/Archana Masih and Syed Firdaus Ashraf

'Let Jallianwala Bagh be a symbol'

April 13, 1919; Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar: General Dyer and his troops open fire on some 25,000 Indians gathered for a peaceful public meeting on Baisakhi day.

Three hundred and seventy nine people dead. Three times more wounded.

April 21, 1926; London, England: Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is born to the Duke of York, later King George VI. Twenty six years later, she ascends the throne of England as Queen Elizabeth II.

March 13, 1940; Caxton Hall, London: Udham Singh shoots Michael O' Dwyer to death. O' Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, had clamped martial law and handed the city to General Dyer.

Seventyeight years after the massacre and for the first time in Independent India's history, Jallianwala Bagh is taking stock of its accounts. The memorial, a short distance from the glorious Golden Temple, is contemplating whether the queen of England will bring with her an act of atonement when she visits Amritsar in October.

A redressal for those innocent killings that remains an ugly face of British colonialism.

Though the demand for an apology, first raised by Professor Jagmohan Singh, Bhagat Singh's nephew and supported by Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has waned, the queen's visit is already mired in controversy.

Badal now maintains an uncharacteristic silence on the issue after his initial outburst. Gursharan Singh Tohra, president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, who first supported the demand, changed his mind later and is making arrangements for her welcome.

To avoid any embarrassing situation and sensing trouble, Prime Minister I K Gujral in an interview to The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, this week revealed that the Indian government had suggested to its British counterpart that it would be better if the queen excluded Amritsar from her itinerary. On Thursday, the prime minister changed his stand and said the queen could now visit any part of India that she liked.

"I am not against her visit, but the queen should apologise," says Kuldip Nayar, former high commissioner to the United Kingdom and wellknown columnist. "After all the celebrations of fifty years of Independence, it is good that some realism has been induced. Let Jallianwala Bagh be a symbol. This will also bring goodwill to the queen," he continues vehemently.

However, Khushwant Singh, one of India's most popular writers and Sikh historian, does not delve so far in history. Citing a recent political blunder, he says, "Who are we to demand an apology? Have we bothered to do so for the Babri Masjid?" Singh agrees with the stance taken by Gujral on the queen's visit. "When you have an honoured guest, you cannot have their noses rubbed in the mud by such unpleasant incident," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Delhi.

Convinced that the issue is being blown out of proportion, Singh specified that this is due to the vested interests of a few people. Discussing incidents in Germany and Japan where heads of states had tendered apologies for crimes during World War II, Singh feels, "If they hadn't made a demand, maybe she would have apologised."

Many believe that, however painful to the Indian psyche, the Jallianwala Bagh incident was a process of history and it is incorrect to transform it into a controversy. "It has a far more deeper connotation, and that is what do we do with our past. This way we shall be soon demanding the atonement of Muslim invaders from present day Muslims," reasons Dr K N Panikkar, the well known historian who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Dr Panikkar points that Jallianwala Bagh should be understood as an important event in our freedom struggle, from which India can learn some lessons. "It shows the horrors of violence and the Indian courage of self sacrifice," says the historian.

In placing the carnage in the present context, writer, designer and social activist Patwant Singh holds the view that there is no point creating objections to the visit of a titular head of state. Referring to the fact that there are nearly half a million Sikhs in England, he said, "At least the government should consider that a large number of Sikhs live in England and are a part of the queen's domain. If she comes to Amritsar, it will be good for them as the queen will know something about their origins and religion."

He, however, disapproves of the prime minister's stance. "He has shown India in poor reflection. Moreover, she is our guest and why should she apologise? She was not responsible for the Jallianwala killings," he continues.

A view supported by freedom fighter and Gandhian Usha Mehta. A follower of Mahatma Gandhi's credo of non violence and forgiveness, she believes that instead of advising the queen to keep away from the city, Gujral should ensure her safety. "We joined the Commonwealth of nations, this itself reflects that there was no enmity between the British and us after 1947. We will get nothing out of raising this issue," said the Gandhian.

Meanwhile, the otherwise acerbic Maharashtra Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar, known to take very rigid stands on such right wing cultural nationalism issues, feels this kind of accountability is uncalled for.

"After Independence, the world has changed so much that the England of those days cannot be compared to today's England. Imperialism was at its peak, the rulers did things that would be condemned if it were to happen today. But times have changed and we should not go back in history," says Navalkar.

He, nonetheless, says that if the queen apologises on her own it will be taken as a fine gesture. "But forcing an apology in the 50th year of Independence makes no sense," adds the Shiv Sena leader.

As of now, the Indian high commissioner in London says the queen's itinerary has not yet been finalised. According to the schedule announced earlier, Queen Elizabeth was to arrive in New Delhi on October 12, visit Amritsar three days later and move on to Madras and Cochin.

There has been no further communique from Buckingham Palace or the British foreign office about the trip. If Queen Elizabeth makes the journey to Amritsar, she will be the first British monarch to visit the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine.

And if she does make it to that site once drenched by the blood of 378 innocents and apologises for their deaths, Queen Elizabeth II will reign on in the hearts of many Indians.

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