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The Rediff Special/Kanchan Gupta

'Why just Jallianwala, if the queen apologises it should be for all crimes perpetrated under the Union Jack'

The controversy over the proposed visit to Amritsar by Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch of what was once Great Britain but is now 'little' England, could have been discounted as nothing more than a storm in a tea cup. But senior politicians jumped in with their two-penny opinions on whether or not the hassled former mother-in-law of the former wife of the aging and balding heir apparent to the British throne should look grimmer than she usually does and say 'sorry' for the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.

Indeed, the entire episode could have been treated as a welcome distraction from Sitaram Kesri trying to exercise paternal rights over Mamata Banerjee, and Inder Kumar Gujral exhorting the people to launch a satyagraha against corruption. But the prime minister raised the will-she-won't-she controversy to the level of an international diplomatic spat by telling the The Observer that "We have suggested as a government to the British that it would be much better if she doesn't visit Amritsar, particularly when such issues have been raised."

The prime minister's objection is a bit mystifying: Was his intention to save Queen Elizabeth II any embarrassment that may have been caused by a black flag demonstration? The British foreign office has responded by suggesting that the royal visit may be called off in view of the controversy.

Those who have been demanding that the queen must apologise for the Baisakhi Day massacre 78 years ago -- on April 13, 1919, when 1,600 rounds were fired on unarmed men, women and children gathered in Jallianwala Bagh (a walled enclosure with only one exit) at Amritsar, may have a point. But this point needs to be demolished if only to keep alive memories of those tragic centuries of captivity when India's soul was sought to be first slaughtered by the invader's sword and then crushed under the boots of foot-soldiers on the payroll of 'John Company,' and even later by an elaborate colonial government run by the India Office in London.

An apology that comes from the heart carries with it a sense of sincerity. But an apology that is sought for and offered reluctantly is an insult to the memory of those to whom the perpetrators of the crime are supposedly saying 'sorry' without, of course, meaning to say it. If Queen Elizabeth II had offered an apology on her own, perhaps it could have been considered whether or not to accept it. But here again, the point needs to be made that a crime committed in continuity cannot be atoned for by saying 'sorry' for any one incident.

Starting from the days of the East India Company, the conversion of India into a part of the British Empire was one enormous crime. This was no mere imperial enterprise; it was a ruthless suppression of a land and its people, a cruel story of smash-and-grab, a shameless loot of wealth and resources that forced millions into penury and broke the very backbone of the Indian economy. Saying 'sorry' for the death of 379 people (as per the official records of that time) at Jallianwala Bagh, truly tragic as incident may have been, cannot atone for the million sins of the 'British Raj'.

If Queen Elizabeth II, on behalf of the entire British nation, must say 'sorry,' it should be for all the crimes that were perpetrated in the name of holding aloft the Union Jack. The brutal suppression of the revolt of 1857 (the British, regardless of Indian sentiments, continue to describe it as a 'mutiny') is one of these crimes. Yet another one is the British made famine in Bengal that left thousands dead.

Tony Blair, it must be remembered, has found it politically correct to say 'sorry' to the Irish people for Great Britain's inefficient handling of the potato famine 150 years ago. 'Native' lives, it would appear from Britain's silence on the Bengal famine, are still at a discount in distant London. Neither can we ignore the horror stories that surfaced after the Union Jack was pulled down from Cellular Jail. Nor should we forget the British ruler's urge to play the hangman's role. Or the manner in which Indian culture was made subservient to Britain's policy towards a subject race, a policy aimed at obliterating all that was held sacred by Indians. And what about the crime committed on the eve of India's Independence, the crime of partitioning Bharat into India and Pakistan, of endorsing Mohammed Ali Jinnah's pernicious and untenable two nation theory?

If Queen Elizabeth II is willing to say 'sorry' for all this and much more, then, perhaps, we as a nation can consider saying, 'Thank you.' But if she does say 'sorry' (which seems unlikely) for the firing at Jallianwala Bagh, then it can at best be described as a halfhearted attempt to wipe out the blood that stains the history of British imperial rule.

What is worse is that we should be demanding an apology for only one incident, thus allowing the others, which equally recall the horror of British rule, to fade away from the collective conscience of the nation.

There is, if truth be told, no need for Queen Elizabeth II to visit Jallianwala Bagh. Not only is it an unlikely substitute for the Taj Mahal, her very presence over there will constitute a sacrilege to the memory of those men, women and children who were butchered in cold blood on that April day 78 years ago. The walls of Jallianwala Bagh, pockmarked by bullet holes, bear mute testimony to unbridled British cruelty and inhumanity at its worst. Let the sanctity of the place not be disturbed by unwanted intrusion into the privacy of a grief that only a nation that has suffered humiliation at foreign hands can feel.

If those organising her proposed visit want an alternative site as a substitute for Jallianwala Bagh, a place that is not on the usual tourist's itinerary, and should be visited during the 50th year of India's independence, it exists in Uttar Pradesh, a short distance from Ayodhya. On the highway from Basti to Faizabad, there is a small kasba called Chhawni. There is a pucca British connection with this dusty hamlet, a connection that is reflected in its name which is derived from the British Army garrison that once existed there.

Few people have hard of Chhawni and no history book mentions it, but the fact remains that Chhawni, in many ways, is as significant a landmark in India's struggle for Independence as, say Jallianwala Bagh. Folklore has it that 2,000 Indian sepoys posted at the British garrison there were executed for revolting against their British masters. A gnawed peepul tree stands witness to the brutal suppression of the 'mutiny' of 1857: As many as 150 sepoys were hanged from its branches and their corpses left dangling for days like macabre Christmas tree decorations for vultures to feast upon.

Marble plaques bearing the names of these freedom fighters lost in the maze of doctored history and a simple monument recall their sacrifice. These sepoys, spurred by the desire to free India's suppressed nationhood from alien bondage, had sought to dismantle the structure of Company Bahadur's colonial rule.

Perhaps Queen Elizabeth II could begin 'little' England's atonement of the sins of Great Britain by paying homage to these sepoys at this dusty kasba. By the time it is Jallianwala Bagh's turn, India would be celebrating the first centenary of freedom from British rule.

Will Queen Elizabeth say sorry for Jallianwala Bagh?
'Let Jallianwala Bagh be a symbol'
Remorseful British accounts in the Jallianwala Bagh visitors book
'The queen's visit eventually is just an empty gesture'

The Making of the Hybrid Raj, 1700-1857

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