Britain's colonial history in school curriculum is the apology UK owes to India

Rupanjana Dutta Tuesday 09th April 2019 19:55 EDT

British Indian author Saurav Dutt has released a historical novel to re-examine the brutal massacre that eventually brought about the end of the British empire. The book ‘Garden of Bullets: Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh’ coincides with the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 2019. This is a historical novel collated through research from the Partition Museum (set up by The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust), Amritsar, India and from interviews of descendants whose ancestors lived through the era of the original massacre.

The book explores important issues of social political and cultural debate providing historical context and looking at narratives around Empire and the Raj, focusing on the Jallianwala massacre itself and exploring the impact and legacies of the massacre referencing India's freedom struggle. Revisiting the event, its causes and aftermath, the nuanced book explores what we remember, how we remember it, and what we have forgotten, in India and the UK. The book raises awareness of the peaceful protest and direct action, martial law, the divergent British and Indian inquiry findings, and the ongoing social, political, and cultural response. It explores the causes for the unrest in the Punjab before, during and after the events which took place on 13 April 1919 when British troops opened fire on peaceful Indian protestors. 

Connection with Jallianwala Bagh

Protestors had gathered to challenge British rule before they were set upon by Colonel Reginald Dyer and his troops. Confined within an enclosed area of wasteland called Jallianwala Bagh in the Indian city of Amritsar, hundreds of Indians were killed and thousands injured. This was a defining moment in the fight for Indian independence, inspired by the Satyagraha movement (non-violent conflict) led by Mahatma Gandhi and the eventual demise of the British Empire in South Asia.

A Bengali by birth, with roots in Kolkata in India, Dutt is has written extensively for several prominent journals that cover issues of sociology, media and political economy, but he is an unusual candidate to be speaking on the topic, having no personal link with Amritsar or the butchered community 100 years ago.

Speaking to Asian Voice about his connection with Jallianwala Bagh, Dutt said, “West Bengal and the Punjab share one thing, which is intolerance of colonialism and imperial rule and they fought it pre-independence with the same ambition, fortitude and heart, often in different ways and methods. Growing up in Kolkata and the UK, I was always aware of this horrible and tragic event but was concerned at how it was often framed, as a one off, a solitary event of barbarity. In fact it perfectly encapsulated the racism, bigotry, unethical nature and unjust soul of the colonial enterprise. As a Hindu Bengali, it was a sense of pride to know that Tagore returned his knighthood in disgust at what had happened and this always resonated with me as well.”

Dutt, who has publicly campaigned for a formal apology from the British government, is using the book to take a lead on addressing the need for a Global South perspective on the use of violence by British forces against peaceful protestors and its legacy. He told the newsweekly, "This dark era marked the turning point of British imperialism in the Indian subcontinent. It was the defining moment when the veil was lifted across the Global South, when the Indian populace and the world realised that this colonial project was not benign, not a force for good nor one that believed in justice and fair play; instead it revealed their rapacious, racist and ruthless spirit in its unholy glory. It was an event of ghastly barbarity and bloodletting, punctuated by the unethical and unjust response that followed in its wake. Never again would India take the British empire at its word and instead the massacre gave its revolutionary movements and fight for self-determination a momentum and direction that it had been hitherto lacking; it took the blood of hundreds of innocent men, women and children to make that happen.

He added, “It's a deliberate and concerted effort to turn attention away from the undesirable and unsavoury. When they do talk about they describe it as a one-off, the isolated actions of a man not in his right mind (they say the same about Udham Singh, when they refer to him at all!) but given the diverse society we live in, the number of South Asians in society, and the desire to forge stronger ties with India post-Brexit, it is worthwhile to offer a nuanced and mature perspective around the massacre as well as other dark episodes of history such as the Bengal Famine. They have come to a realisation about this over the Mau Mau uprising in Africa, so why not the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre? In my opinion, it is THE reason the drive towards independence came about the way it did. Prior to the massacre, Gandhi and the Indian Congress fought mainly for dominion status and political self-determination, a half way house towards freedom.”

Colonial history in British school curriculum 

However concluding his interview with a demand for a public apology, Dutt told us that, if Brexit did not dominate the political conversation this year, the apology may have already come and certainly so if Labour government was at the helm. However a great fan of the realistic and mature approach, he believes a befitting apology would have been to include colonialism in the UK school history curriculum.

Dutt is touring the book and doing a reading at the House of Lords on the centenary, where it will be formally launched. He is also speaking at the Centre of Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, University of Birmingham and University of Oxford. He is hoping to launch the book at the Kolkata Book Fair in Kolkata, early next year.

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