The British government has failed to use the opportunity of a parliamentary debate on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to apologise for the atrocity, with a foreign office minister referring to potential “financial implications” as one of the issues to be considered.

However, Mark Field, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, said he recognised the “strong and compelling case,” for Britain going beyond the deep regret already expressed by the UK relating to the events of April 13, 1919 when hundreds were killed and more than 1,200 injured after British troops led by Reginald Dyer opened fire on a peaceful gathering. Field told MPs at the Westminster Hall debate called by fellow Conservative MP Bob Blackman that his “orthodox” views made him reluctant to apologise for things that had happened in the past, adding that it debased the currency of apologies if “we make them many many events.” He also referenced potential financial implications.

‘Active debate’

However, in an indication that things could shift somewhat in the future he said that the issue of how to respond to the centenary was an ‘active debate among ministers” and that it was “work in progress.”

His comments fell short of the formal apology sought by the MPs who attended the event. Blackman told MPs that “India will never forget. We owe it to the victims and their families to never forget what happened in our name…I hope we see an apology from the British government…It makes me sad and ashamed that this was done in our name…it is time we own up to it and that we made an apology and suitable reparation.”

“I am disappointed,” said Virendra Sharma, the MP for Ealing Southall who spoke at the debate and last year initiated a push for a memorial in the UK to mark the atrocity. He described the government’s approach to the question of what to do as “confused.”

The debate which saw MPs from across the political parties join in the call for an apology, also led to wider questions about Britain’s approach to the massacre and the darker moments of colonial history. Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston said that the apology should mark the start of a wider effort to raise awareness and questioned if an apology without a “genuine understanding of the past” could provide closure.

Nationwide learning

This required a nationwide effort to promote learning in schools around the massacre and other events, including what British imperialism and colonialism had subjected people across the world too. This would help children learn where they came from and understand how and where the country is today. This would help tackle far wider societal issues such as rising hate crime and racism. “By othering or writing people out of history can we really be surprised that hate crime continues to exist or racism continues to fester?”

During the debate some MPs suggested that the apology could help move bilateral relations forward, while one questioned how Britain could project itself as a proponent of international human rights — condemning other countries such as most recently Brunei — when it had failed to acknowledge its own culpability and apologise for atrocities in its own past.

“It is not over yet,” said Sharma, pointing to a letter signed by MPs that will be sent to the Prime Minister this week, demanding a formal apology.