THE Archbishop of Canterbury has prostrated himself in India, saying he “feels a deep sense of shame” about the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Amritsar.
The Most Rev Justin Welby personally apologised for the 1919 massacre of hundreds of people by troops under British command 100 years ago.
Saying that he was speaking as a spiritual, and not a political leader, he thew himself onto the ground in front of a memorial to those shot in one of the bloodiest episodes in colonial India.
The mass slaughter occurred at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on April 13, 1919, when the British Indian Army opened fire at a crowd demonstrating for independence, killing more than 300 and injuring 1,200.
Posting pictures on social media of himself prostrate in the Jallianwala Bagh walled garden in Amritsar, he said: “I feel a deep sense of grief, humility and profound shame having visited the site of the horrific massacre.
“Here, a great number of Sikhs – as well as Hindus, Muslims and Christians – were shot dead by British troops in 1919.”
The archbishop added: “I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that has too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures.”
Winston Churchill said in 1920 that the massacre was an “extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”
The Most Rev Justin Welby told those gathered at the memorial in northwest India: “I am so ashamed and sorry for the impact of this crime committed here. As a religious leader, I mourn the tragedy I see here.
“I have no status to apologise on behalf of the UK, its government or its history.
“But I am personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity.
“It is one of a number of deep stains on British history.
“The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied.”
In 2013 David Cameron became the first serving prime minister to visit the site of the 1919 massacre, bowing his head in honour of the hundreds of people killed.
NO FORMAL APOLOGY
Writing in a book of condolence, Cameron said the episode was “deeply shameful” and should never be forgotten.
But he stopped short of apologising, saying that this would not be appropriate as the killings were condemned at the time by the UK authorities.
Earlier this year former prime minister Theresa May called the killings a “shameful scar” in British-Indian history, but also stopped short of formally apologising.
Mr Welby said that the past must be learned from so that nothing like the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre ever happens again.
He added: “When there is something on the scale and horror of this massacre, and done so many years ago, words can be cheaply banded around, as if a simple apology would ever be enough.
“Therefore, we have a great responsibility to not just lament this horrific massacre, but most importantly to learn from it in a way that changes our actions.”
What happened in the colonial Indian massacre at Amritsar?
On April 13, 1919, British troops gunned down peaceful protestors in the Indian city of Amritsar.
About 15,000 to 20,000 people were celebrating a Sikh festival, Baisakhi, at the time.
A group of soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd without warning in the northern Indian city after a period of unrest, killing hundreds in cold blood.
The killings, known in India as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, were described by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian independence movement, as having shaken the foundations of the British Empire.
The demonstrators, confined in the enclosed area, had gathered to challenge British rule, before they were set upon by Colonel Reginald Dyer and his troops.
Dyer stated in a Report to the General Officer Commanding that “I hear that between 200 and 300 of the crowd were killed.”
He claimed that 1,650 rounds were fired, a number apparently derived by counting empty cartridge cases picked up by the troops.
Dyer – the man who gave the order to fire – explained his decision by saying he felt it was necessary to “teach a moral lesson to the Punjab”.
The British report into the Amritsar massacre at the time said 379 people had been killed and 1,200 wounded.
But a separate inquiry commissioned by the Indian pro-independence movement said around 1,000 people had been killed in the city in Punjab.
The massacre was a defining moment in the fight for Indian independence and led to the eventual demise of the British Empire in South Asia.
According to the National Archives, the first news of the slaughter – and incidences of subsequent rioting in India – reached London a few days later.
But, a War Cabinet report referred only vaguely to “trouble” in Amritsar, and that this so-called “trouble” was allegedly caused by Indian “mobs” rather than British soldiers.
The Hunter Commission report on the incident, published the following year by the Government of India, criticised both Dyer, and the Government of the Punjab for failing to compile an accurate casualty count in the wake of the atrocity.
Some in Britain hailed him “as the man who saved India”, but others condemned him.
India became independent in 1947.
Many historians consider the massacre a turning point that undermined British rule of India.
It was, they say, one of the moments that caused Gandhi and the pro-independence Indian National Congress movement to lose trust in the British, inspiring them to embark on a path of civil disobedience.