Queen’s visit to Amritsar
Reprinted from: IndiaStar: A Literary-Art Magazine,The Editor’s E-mail, Update by IndiaStar reader. Also appeared in The Hindu, Gujarat Samachar / Asian Voice, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, India Abroad, Chandigarh Tribune
13 Oct 1997
I was horrified as an Englishman and a human being when I learned on the Internet that Queen Elizabeth is planning to visit Amritsar, the site of the infamous massacre by British troops of 379 unarmed civilians and the wounding of 1200 others in 1919, without uttering even one word of apology.
Mr. Gore-Booth, Britain’s envoy in New Delhi, is quoted by Associated Press as saying: “The queen is not going to apologise, but she is going to lay a wreath. Those of you who recognise the subtle distinction will see it as a very special gesture.” (October 7th, 1997) These cold, patronising, unclear words show that while the British Empire is mercifully dead, the attitude that led to it is very much alive. I have learned from the great American educator and poet Eli Siegel, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, that the greatest enemy of man, the cause of all cruelty and of war, is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”
My own desire to feel superior, to have contempt, is the reason why while I attended Oxford University I shamefully agreed with the accepted view in England of the British Empire, that we had brought needed civilisation to lesser peoples, and were in fact doing them a kindness. The truth is the British Empire was based on contempt, on the ugly, wrong, completely unscientific idea that other people, looking different, speaking different languages, did not exist to be known, as having meaning, hopes and fears as real as any Englishman, but were inferior beings who existed instead to be used for Britain’s own power, glory, and wealth; and this centuries-old government policy caused horrors, including in Amritsar. I think it was barbaric, and I am grateful to be learning now as a history teacher at Norman Thomas High School in New York City about the rich history and culture of the people of India, and to know that my purpose is to see meaning and use them to have more respect for the world.
I want to apologise, as a representative Englishman, to the people of Amritsar for what my country did to them.
For the way of seeing that led to the British Empire to end, “for there to be good will between people and between nations” this kind, urgent question by Eli Siegel needs to be asked and honestly answered: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Thinking about this question, British representatives could never go to India, let alone Amritsar, without beginning their visit with a sincere expression of regret.
New York City