Not quite an apology
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But Cameron's remarks are as close as India will get to one
On February 20, Britain Prime Minister David Cameron visited the site of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Cameron referred it as a "shameful event." Since then, there has been discussion of whether this was an apology, and if it should have been one.
A good political apology has several characteristics: it acknowledges the facts of the event, expresses sorrow and remorse, takes responsibility for the harm done, and promises non-repetition. Cameron acknowledged the massacre and expressed sorrow by using the word "shameful". He did not, however, take responsibility for the harm done, implying that the UK government of the time had done so, condemning the massacre in 1920 and dismissing General Dyer. Nor did he promise non-repetition, which is unnecessary. In a full political apology, though, Cameron would have used words such as "sorry" or "I apologise." And the British government would have negotiated the words of the apology with the Indian government ahead of time.
A good political apology also contains symbolic, ceremonial and ritual elements that show sincerity. Cameron's words and actions seemed sincere. He was the first sitting British PM to visit the site of the massacre, a symbolic event in itself. As a mark of respect, he adopted partial Sikh dress for the occasion, appearing in a turban and shawl. He laid a wreath on the memorial and observed a minute of silence — both Western symbols of mourning. Some reports said he got down on his knees. To kneel is a powerful act in Western culture, as shown when German Chancellor Willy Brandt went down on his knees at the Warsaw ghetto in 1970, where Polish Jews had been held by the Nazis before being transported to extermination camps.
No doubt Cameron chose his words carefully before he arrived at Amritsar. Someone must have found the 1920 quote from Winston Churchill, describing the massacre as monstrous. And because there are still living descendants of the victims at Amritsar, Cameron and his government might have been afraid they would ask for compensation if he actually offered an apology. Recently, a group representing the Kenyan "Mau Mau" nationalist victims of the British in the 1950s were granted the right to pursue their claims for reparations in British courts. This might be why Cameron said he saw no point in reaching back in time to apologise for distant events that had occurred, in the case of Amritsar, long before he was born. His message was probably carefully calibrated to avoid legal liability.
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