Britain's colonial past should bring a measure of shame, sadness and humility but not pride

Wednesday 10th April 2019 07:51 EDT

The UK government on Tuesday assured MPs seeking an apology for the Jallainwala Bagh massacre on April 13, 1919, saying the issue is a ‘work in progress’ among ministers, officials and the British high commission in New Delhi, even slightly suggesting it may happen later in the year. The former Prime Minister David Cameron, during his visit to Amritsar, India, in 2013, had marked the massacre as a 'deeply shameful event' but had not officially apologised for the colonial power's wrong doings.

On Tuesday 9 April 2019, as we went to press during the much awaited debate in Westminster Hall, Foreign Office Minister Mark Field continued with the policy of expressing a ‘deep regret’, but added that there is an ‘ongoing sense of consideration’ in the government on the issue.

A century ago, on 13 April 1919, hundreds of Indians attending a public meeting were shot dead by British troops in the northern Indian city of Amritsar in Punjab. The crowd that had more than 20,000 people were not armed rebels. They were local residents and villagers, mostly men of Hindu, Sikh or Muslim faith, from surrounding area, who had come to listen to political speeches or spend peaceful hours in the gardens, as they celebrated Vaisakhi on the day, which marked the anniversary of the creation of the Khalsa or Sikh community. (See page 14-15 to read our special on Punjabis celebrating Vaisakhi and P16-17 to read our Jallianwala Bagh Centenary special).

But Brigadier General RH Dyer had rushed to Amritsar a few days earlier to suppress what he believed to be a major uprising. Nobody exactly knows what happened later on that day and what exactly triggered and led to the mass killing. The Empire insists Gen Dyer only opened fire as a final resort when the crowd ignored his warning to disperse. However the general himself was quite clear that he gave no such warning.Whatever happened, it led to the death of many innocent people- men, women, children- something Britain needs to own up to, given they ruled India at that point.

It is perhaps a lot to ask for an official apology from a British government in the throes of Brexit. During the colonial era, many lives have been taken in the name of defending the colonies by the British. The coordinated famines in Bengal that killed 3 million people, the persecution of Mau Mau in Kenya, mass killings in the concentration camps during Boer War- are some of its notable atrocities in 20th century.

Britain saw its colonial role as shouldering the “white man's burden” to spread civilisation to the dark and savage parts of the world. Something they perhaps believed they were entitled to. Today's Britain is 'supposedly' much different to the colonial era, with many Indian-origin MPs and Peers in the UK Parliament, but in reality, Britain voluntarily remains blind-eyed to their own mistakes and the emphasis that that modern Britain stands unblemished by its colonial atrocity actually reveals their historical amnesia.

As Kehinde Andrews rightly says in The Guardian, while Britain's history should bring a measure of shame, sadness and humility, it instead and unbelievably manages to actually evoke feelings of pride in Britain- something that desperately needs to change for the country's own good.

Mother of all elections

The Lok Sabha election in India which begins on April 11 looks like an increasingly close contest between BJP and Congress. Politicians of all stripes are already in campaign mode for what will be the world's largest exercise in democracy - a mammoth undertaking that will take place over several weeks to ensure the voices of hundreds of millions of Indians across the country are heard. All Indians aged 18 and above can participate in the election. In the last general election, in 2014, more than 830 million Indians were eligible - and more than 550 million voted. Now over 900 million voters are eligible to vote.

The main opposition party is the Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India's most influential political dynasty. But numerous other regional parties also wield significant influence across the country, with some for and others against Narendra Modi - all of which can help define the outcome. In the 2014 contest, there were a total of 464 political parties and more than 8,000 candidates courting voters across the nation.

In India's Westminster-style model, parties field candidates for seats in the Lok Sabha. There are 543 seats at stake. An additional two seats are filled by nominees from the Anglo Indian community. Framed to protect the rights of Anglo Indians when British colonial rule ended, the rule gives the President the power to nominate two members of the community if he/she feels they aren't adequately represented in the legislature. Whichever party wins the majority of seats gets to choose the prime minister. For the BJP, the candidate is Narendra Modi, who became Prime Minister in 2014 when his party won 282 Lok Sabha seats in what was the biggest majority secured by a single party in 30 years. With its allies, the coalition notched up an impressive 336 seats. If no one party wins a majority, a coalition of different parties can come together to form the next government.

To ensure the integrity of the process, and allow for election and security resources to be moved around the country, polling unfolds in seven phases covering different regions. A total of one million polling stations will be set up across India. Polling ends on May 19, with votes counted by May 23. Voting is spread across India's 29 states and seven union territories. Some areas carry more weight than others because of the number of Lok Sabha constituencies in each state or union territory, something that's based on how populous they are. The bigger the state, the more seats it has.

And the biggest battleground is the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It's India's most populous state, with about 200 million inhabitants that accounts for 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, making it critical to the formation of any Indian government. Other key regions to watch will be western state of Maharashtra, which accounts for 48 Lok Sabha seats; West Bengal in the east with 42 seats; Bihar in the north, which accounts for 40; and in the south, Tamil Nadu, which has 39 seats.

The political parties are wooing the electorate with many inducements. The ruling BJP has focused on national security, an ambitious expansion of income support to all farmers, pension for marginal farmers and traders, one million accident insurance for traders under GST and a promise of lower taxes and £1,000 billion investment in infrastructure. BJP also called for revocation of Article 35A along with a promise to scrap Article 370 and giving a free hand to security forces to respond to terrorism. It also called for all efforts within the constitutional framework to facilitate a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. The Congress promises to scrap the sedition law, dilute AFSPA and withdraw the citizenship amendment bill, besides offering populist pledges on jobs, income support for the poor, healthcare and education. It also comes out with a promise to transfer Rs 72,000 annually to 20% of the poorest families, with promises on job creation and doing away with permissions for new business, apart from tax and wage laws, a “kisan budget” and right to housing. It also promises anti-hate law to check mob lynching.

Rahul’s search for a safe second seat shows nervousness

Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest a second seat from Wayanad in Kerala shows that he is not confident of winning from his traditional seat in Amethi. Congress leaders claim this is Rahul’s outreach to south India, where he has done better than Prime Minister Narendra Modi in opinion polls. But the optics in north India and this signalling to the south are not quite in sync. In 2014, Rahul had faced a stiff contest in Amethi. Smriti Irani, who lost to Rahul, has kept up the pressure with repeated visits to the constituency. To confound the picture for Rahul, Congress had lost all four seats in Amethi in the 2017 UP assembly polls.

Comparisons with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s contest from Vadodara and Varanasi in 2014 are misplaced. Modi was eyeing the rich symbolism of storming to power from Hinduism’s most important and holiest city. In contrast, Rahul has chosen a seat of little significance, comfortably won by Congress in successive elections, and therefore a safe bet. Given Rahul’s aggression against BJP in recent years and his raised political profile, the defensiveness is a little out of character. But Rahul could be following in the footsteps of Indira and Sonia Gandhi, who contested from two seats in 1980 and 1999 respectively, spooked by Congress’s tenuous hold over the Hindi heartland.

Modi has remarked that Rahul has run away to a seat where the “majority” is in a minority. Congress claims that Wayanad is near the trijunction of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and that Rahul can simultaneously wield influence in these states. However, Wayanad is also a remote district tucked away in the Western Ghats with little influence, even on Kerala’s politics. In 2009, Congress-led UDF had won 16 of Kerala’s 20 seats and will eye a repeat sweep in 2019 with Rahul in the fray. Rahul’s candidature has, unsurprisingly, irked the ruling CPM-led LDF which was counting on Kerala to make up for losses in Bengal and Tripura. The weeks of uncertainty that preceded the announcement also revealed Rahul’s penchant for Hamletian indecision. Rahul’s claim of playing “on the front foot” in UP is belied by his own actions

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