Virendra Sharma MP speaks to Vaahan exclusively on the Amritsar Massacre.
“I want to ensure that future generations of British, not just Indian, schoolchildren know the history of colonialism.”
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar Massacre. This centenary marks a fundamental change in the relationship between India and Britain. In this century since 1919, India has risen from colony to regional power and more. A billion people now live in India, in the world’s largest democracy, a force for modernism in the world. Our diaspora spreads around the world, in the UK we are fundamental to society, integrated and successful. While in 1919 the wealth of India flowed to London and the United Kingdom, it now flows into the pockets of Indians, though sometimes too few. George V, The Emperor of India ruled over an Empire on which the sun never set, but now the Prime Minister of India travels the world, greeted as an equal never a subject.
On the 13th April 1919, over 1000 peaceful Indian protestors in the Jallianwala Bagh (City Park) of Amritsar were shot dead. Thousands more were injured and it is remembered throughout India as one of the most barbaric events of colonisation in Indian history. Ordered by senior British military officer, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, the massacre took place on the Vaisakhi festival, tens of thousands from surrounding villages flock to Amritsar and the Golden Temple for the celebrations and the city was full. The city park was uneven, walled in on all sides and only had one exit, making any chance of escape on the day almost impossible. Following a nasty attack on a British woman, Amritsar had been placed under martial law and put under the direct control of General Dyer. He had banned all meetings and gatherings in the city; but this ban was not known to be in place by the vast majority of those in attendance at the Jallianwala Bagh.
After prayers in the morning and as the heat of the midday sun dissipated, thousands congregated in the Jallianwala Bagh. Without expectation or warning General Dyer led a detachment of soldiers into the gardens, soldiers from across India and of all religions. In an act he calculated to “punish the Indians for disobedience” he ordered the troops to open fire on the crowd. The death toll is still disputed to this day. The British Authorities officially reported 379 deaths, but The Indian Congress review suggested fatalities exceeded 1000. There are believed to have been around 15-20,000 extra people in Amritsar that day for the festival. His actions that day caused a huge debate in the UK, and even prompted Sir Winston Churchill to condemn the massacre as an “outrage”. The UK Labour Party was so disgusted at the actions that day that they brought forward a motion condemning the behaviour. General Dyer was later court-martialled, found guilty of ‘mistaken notion of duty’ and relieved of his command. Still to this day, the Amritsar Massacre is seen as an important catalyst for independence. There followed a strong wave of nationalist feelings across the country, Mohandas Gandhi would now begin to push for India’s full independence, support in India for British rule fell massively and it began a period of non-violent mass civil disobedience.
While General Dyer died in 1927 and never saw India gain its independence, his crimes and the memories of them did not die with him. The thousands of men, women and children that lost a loved one in 1919 did not get them back, and the weight of that great crime has lessened only slightly over the last century. Nothing can bring the dead back, no one can make it right and an apology will not excuse the wrong that was done late on a warm April afternoon. The only step we can take is to remember the dead, remember those who protested peacefully to end oppression and to remember what they stood for. I am proud to be both British and Indian, to have been born in Punjab, and to live and have raised my family in Southall, West London. I am unashamedly a world citizen, but that doesn’t mean forgetting my heritage and the events that shaped the world we live in.
I want to make sure that the Amritsar Massacre is never forgotten. I want to ensure that future generations of British, not just Indian, schoolchildren know the history of colonialism. I believe that lessons about the Amritsar Massacre and the effect of such actions should be a fundamental part of the curriculum. There is a lot to be learnt by studying our past and it can help us with the future. We can learn to not repeat the mistakes of our forebears and to not value human life too lightly. While the massacre continues to be little known in the UK, recipient of little more than a few off-screen mentions in TV dramas, it still haunts Indian memories of empire. It drives modern interpretations of British behaviour and is unforgettable for many. Having the Amritsar Massacre taught in schools is not all we need though. We need a memorial, a permanent reminder to the memory of those lost, to act as a focal point and to act as a record.
I want to ask every one of you to be part of this work. To help me spread the message, a positive one of remembrance and tolerance. The peaceful protestors in Amritsar were standing against oppression, for plurality and openness for freedom and for freedom of religion. They were coming together as Sikhs and Hindus and as Muslims and as Christians, not as part of one group or another, but as people and as Indians. That is how I hope we can come together for this campaign. I hope you will join the campaign on my website, www.virendrasharma.com.
Virendra Sharma was first elected as MP in the Ealing Southall by-election on 19 July 2007. Since 2007 he has been elected three more times, each with significantly increased majorities. Most recently, in 2017, he was re-elected with a majority of over 22,000.
Virendra Sharma was born in Mandalhi in Punjab, India and came to Hanwell from India in 1968 and started out as a bus conductor on the 207 route before studying at the London School of Economics on a Trade Union Scholarship and eventually working as a day services manager for people with learning disabilities in Hillingdon. He served as a councillor in Ealing for 25 years including a term as Mayor.
When first elected as an MP, Virendra served as a member of the International Development Select Committee, which after a five year hiatus he returned to in 2015. He was a member of the Health Select Committee from 2010 – 2015, along with membership of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Since 2015, Virendra Sharma has returned to the Council of Europe where he is a member of Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and Chairs the Sub-Committee on Human Rights.
Virendra currently chairs the Indo-British All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), leads the APPG for Gurkha Welfare, and is Co-Chair of the APPG on Nepal, the Tuberculosis Group, the Hepatitis Group and is Vice-Chair of the APPG for British Hindus. He has previously chaired the APPG for Tamils and is still actively involved as the Vice Chair.