India Has Love-Hate Tie to Britain
Oct. 14, 1997
AMRITSAR, India (AP) _ Once a year, Mahesh Behl prays at the Amritsar park where his grandfather and some 300 other Indians were gunned down by British colonial troops 78 years ago. He says Queen Elizabeth II should apologize when she visits the park today.
Even as golden streamers were being strung over Amritsar's main street in a shimmering curtain of welcome for the queen, Behl's demand for a royal apology mirrored the ambivalence that runs through India'a relationship with Britain, its former ruler.
Among those eager to welcome the British monarch in this northern border town were senior Sikh priests, who will guide her through their Golden Temple after she visits the massacre site a few blocks away.
Sikh leader Manjit Singh Calcutta seemed particularly pleased the royal visit had brought a stream of foreign reporters to the Golden Temple, target of a 1984 Indian army raid to drive out Sikh separatists militants. Separatist violence has since been stamped out.
``Now the world will see that the Golden Temple is not a den of terrorists. It is a place of calm and meditation,'' Calcutta said.
The fact that a large number of Sikhs reside in England may have inspired the royal visit to Amritsar, seat of a religion whose 15th century founder set out to meld Hindu and Muslim beliefs.
While Sikhs were pleased to host the queen, Behl, a 51-year-old businessman, must reckon with a darker legacy of British colonial rule, which ended 50 years ago.
Behl's lounge is dominated by a framed, yellowing portrait of his grandfather, with handwriting in red ink along the bottom identifying lawyer Hari Ram Behl as a ``martyr'' who died at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919.
``We heard the story from our grandmother, who used to tell how her husband went knowing something could happen at Jallianwala Bagh, but not knowing it would be this kind of brutality,'' said Behl.
There had been unrest throughout India in the weeks prior to the bloodshed, including protests linked to Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolence campaign.
Brig.-Gen. Reginald Dyer, fearing an uprising, banned all public meetings in Amritsar. He said later he wanted to set an example when he ordered troops to fire on the unarmed, peaceful Indians who defied his orders and crowded into a walled park to celebrate a Hindu spring festival. Official records put the toll at 379; legend puts it much higher _ a placard the queen will see says 1,200 were killed.
Gandhi biographer B.R. Nanda called Jallianwala Bagh ``a turning point in Indo-British relations almost as important as the mutiny'' _ referring to the 1857 uprising of Indian soldiers in the colonial army that convinced British politicians to take direct control of an empire they'd allowed tea and textile merchants to run for the previous century.
Apologies from any government are rare, and British officials cautioned Indians not to expect one for the bloodletting at Jallianwala Bagh. British High Commissioner David Gore-Booth said Indians will have to be satisfied with the queen's ``very special gesture'' of laying a wreath in the park.
In a speech in New Delhi on Monday, the queen called the Amritsar massacre a ``distressing example'' of the difficult episodes in India and Britain's shared history, adding ``history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise.''
That resentment bred by that history may have been at work Monday, when Indian papers gleefully headlined a report _ later officially denied _ that the Indian prime minister had called Britain a ``third-rate power.''