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Front foot defence


British PM David Cameron made no apologies in India for an old Raj crime. But does he really need to?

Memory, unlike mercy or that other odd collateral, forgiveness, is a strange beast, a coalition of circumstance and emotion. So when it collides with factual reality, memory can often take on a life of its own, deflating or catharsising him that gives and him that takes. 

Something like that happened with David Cameron, British prime minister, when he went to Jallianwala Bagh earlier this week and described the wanton killing of innocent women and children on Baisakhi, April 13, 1919 as a "deeply shameful event in British history. " For those who were expecting nothing, it was something of a pleasant surprise;remember Queen Elizabeth II had refused to say sorry when she visited India in 1997, instead calling it a "distressing example of our past. " 

But for those who wanted more, Cameron's refusal to apologise was seen as an affront to the anger that remains buried in the subcontinent's collective memory. Jallianwala Bagh has come to epitomise the humiliation of a once-proud people, with its attendant memories of Indians being forced to crawl down an Amritsar street and of being imprisoned for sedition without trial. 

But the question remains, if Cameron had come this far, expressing regret for the incident, why not satisfy the audience by simply saying, We Are Sorry? No one, after all, was asking him to apologise for the ills of empire or for the cunning of its many stellar statesman who so insidiously bred suspicion and division between Hindus and Muslims - more fool, we, for falling for this divide-andrule ploy - that, ultimately, culminated in the division of the sub-continent. No one was asking him to apologise for the great Bengal famine that began in 1943 because his predecessor and that greatest of Englishmen, Winston Churchill, had decided that boats carrying supplies needed to be first diverted to troops fighting in the second world war;or even later for Partition, in 1947, which killed a million people and displaced another ten million. 

If truth be told, Cameron didn't come to India to say sorry for an incident that happened nearly 100 years ago. He came, with a 100-strong delegation of businesspeople, to bag commercial contracts, to push the Manmohan Singh government to open India for British business and to persuade greater investment in UK so as to create more jobs for the British. The bottomline? It's the money, silly. Jallianwala Bagh was only a sideshow. 

So much better to look at the present, then, instead of contemplating the leakages of history. For example, when two British citizens were killed in the Gujarat riots of 2002, did the British government make amends? Did it apologise to the families of those British citizens, telling them it was unable to pursue justice with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi? Or did Cameron ask his high commissioner in Delhi to lift the ban on Modi because the pursuit of human rights interfered with the pursuit of good, old commercial interests? 

But why should the burden of apology only be placed on David Cameron? Narendra Modi has made it clear that he would rather apologise to the Europeans if it is the price to pay for rejoining the world, than to his own people in Gujarat. He is now being forced to build the first school in Juhapura, the Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, after the Gujarat high court directed the city's municipal corporation to do so last week. 

Clearly, genuine contrition is about closure while a political apology is a manifestation of power. When Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani spoke about the need to understand Jinnah, that too in Pakistan, he was slammed by the RSS, his own party as well as the general public, which saw his comments as insincere opportunism. Why had Advani, for example, never apologised for his role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the consequent riots in which at least 3000 people died ? 

Manmohan Singh's regret for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots - even though the comments were made in 2005 - were largely seen as an attempt at moving on. Like former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee reminder to Modi of his "rajdharma" after the Gujarat riots, the gentlest of reprimands that his party chief minister wasn't treating all his citizens equally, which was seen - and accepted - by Indians as an indirect apology. The Queen's comments in 1997 on refusing to apologise for Jallianwala Bagh had sparked off a huge debate in India, with then prime minister I K Gujral said to have called Britain a "third-rate power. " 

But whatever the state of India and UK's current socio-economic development, humour is a certain measure of confidence levels. Asked if the British government would now return the Kohinoor diamond to India as a sign of burying the hatchet, Cameron responded, with a touch of irritation, "No, I'm not in favour of returnism. " 

Perhaps India should keep that question in reserve for whoever's coming next from London. 

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist 

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