2019 marks the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh – the Amritsar Massacre which Churchill condemned as “an extraordinary event, a monstrous event… which stands in singular and sinister isolation.” We must learn the lessons of history.

Feb 19, 2019 | Uncategorized

2019 marks the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh – the Amritsar Massacre which Churchill condemned as “the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre …with the intention of terrorizing not merely the rest of the crowd but the whole district or country.”

We must learn the lessons of history.

Megnat (Lord) Desai, in his erudite account of what happened, details the the consequences of the Amritsar Massacre  in his book “The Rediscovery of India.”

He reminds us that at the culmination of World War One, brave soldiers from the Sub-Continent returned from the European trenches, radicalized and ready to insist on change.

Onto that stage walked two entirely different men.  

Here was Mahatma Gandhi with his commitment to peaceful change, and General Reginald Dyer whom Winston Churchill said had resorted to a doctrine of “frightfulness” In the Commons he described “frightfulness” as “the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre …with the intention of terrorizing not merely the rest of the crowd but the whole district or country.”

The loss of hundreds of lives and the injuries of countless others in the Punjab – a territory I visited in November –  was an act of brutality that stunned this nation.  Although the House of Commons denounced Dyer. The House of Lords initially offered Dyer accolades.

The 13th of April will mark 100 years since the Jallianwala Bagh – the Amritsar Massacre – but as time passes that tragedy must not be forgotten.

One hundred years later, perhaps today we can atone and help to heal that shocking moment of history.

Recall that a group of people had gathered to hold a peaceful public meeting – a public meeting that was prohibited by British law. The response to this disobedience was wholly disproportionate and excessive. Nothing can ever justify such an excessive use of force that day.

This remains true in our own times.  So often we fall into the definition of insanity often credited to Albert Einstein that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Yet, while we are marking the Amritsar Massacre other insane contemporary tragedies are unfolding in many parts of the world. And those responsible for them should not expect different results from those that flowed from Jallianwala Bagh.

Take, for instance, what happened on 12 February 2019 in Burma when over a thousand Karenni protesters gathered to hold a peaceful protest the erection of the statue to General Aung San, the founder of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Army, and failed to honour the promise of autonomy for ethnic minorities in a federal Burma.

The response to the peaceful protest was excessive and violent. The UN reported: ‘Police fired rubber bullets and used batons and water cannons injuring up to 15 protesters in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State and home to the Karenni ethnic minority.’ Furthermore, since the beginning of February, police have arrested at least 55 people who protested the erection of new statute.

The date of that peaceful protest is not irrelevant. 12 February 2019 marks 72 years since the 12 February 1947 when the pact was made with many of the country’s ethnic minorities promising a federal Burma- a great promise still waiting to be fulfilled as the position of ethnic and religious minorities in Burma – including the Rohingya and Kachin – continues to deteriorate and their rights neglected and trampled on.


Elsewhere, a few weeks earlier, in January 2019, the UN reported on the use of excessive force in Sudan against protesters – on a greater scale than the insurrections of 1964 and 1985 and which have been going on countrywide for weeks in the biggest popular uprising since 1956.

Only last week I met with Opposition leaders from Sudan.

They described the use of live ammunition by security forces against protesters; egregious human rights violations, including at least 57 killings, torture, rape; and imprisonment of women and children

Hundreds have been arrested and, according to the UN, they include journalists, civil society representatives and opposition leaders. Others such as Channel 4s, Yousrall Baghir, have been severely harassed.

The UN says that the security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition inside the premises of the Omdurman Hospital where some of the protesters sought refuge. It is reported that attacks also took place at the Bahri Teaching Hospital and Haj Al-Safi Hospital. Doctors have been prohibited from treating the wounded.

These events in Burma and Sudan – both countries I have visited – are just two examples from the last two months.

But the picture elsewhere in the world also suggests that we have a long way to go before we learn the lessons of Jallianwala Bagh.

In 2018, in Nicaragua, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against its repressive regime. The Council of the European Union noted that these protests were, ‘brutally repressed by security forces and pro-government armed groups leading to clashes, several hundreds dead and injured and the arrest of hundreds of citizens, with widespread irregularities and arbitrariness in detention and judicial procedures.’ The victims of this excessive use of force include young students; and as I learnt from a Nicaraguan I met last week this dire situation in Nicaragua continues and I have sent a full report to the Foreign Secretary.

Peaceful protests or public gatherings are protected under the right to freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly, both enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 19 and 21.

Regardless of whether a State has ratified the ICCPR, people’s rights are also protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Articles 19 and 20. UDHR constitutes a part of the customary international law and hence is binding upon all States.

Perhaps the best memorial to the victims of Jallianwala Bagh would be for the international community to finally find ways of insisting that these rights are adequately recognized and enforced.

the British government must use all diplomatic means to deliver such a message.

The Amritsar massacre will never be erased from our history books.

But when Britain puts itself in the vanguard by fearlessly speaking out for the people who cannot do it for themselves; by protecting communities in need; by vociferously insisting on the protection of human rights, and specifically, the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; it can help to redeem the callous and violent use of power which one hundred years ago at Amritsar Churchill described as “ an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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