On 13 April falls the 100th anniversary of the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh. For the uninitiated, this is a garden in the Indian city of Amritsar. The garden is pretty close to the city’s famed Golden Temple, the holiest site in Sikhism.
On the day in question, British troops led by one Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer opened fire on the crowds in the garden. At least 379 people were killed. That number is the British estimate. The Indian estimates for the death toll are much higher.
It is depressingly easy to think of other incidents of British troops firing into harmless crowds. Think of Northern Ireland’s Bloody Sunday of 30 January 1972 with its 14 dead, or the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 where five people were killed.
Those incidents are separated by a total of 202 years and you should not mistake my meaning. I ascribe no special malice or talent for massacres to the British. Indeed, I lived in England for quite a few years and retain special fondness for the people of the United Kingdom.
It would be more accurate to repeat a piece of wisdom imparted to me by an old Spanish woman, who shocked me with her praise for Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1936 to 1975. Every country, she told me, has bad things in its history. There are no exceptions to this rule.
She was blinkered in her praise for Franco but her remark was absolutely on the money. We all want to think good things about our own country’s past but there were always bad things that happened alongside the good. Every country that has ever been has produced bad men and psychopaths.
Anyway, given the sweep of history you might think it strange that the three incidents I’ve listed are remembered so clearly. India has suffered worse massacres than Amritsar; the United States has seen three school massacres in the past decade alone with higher body counts than Boston; and Northern Ireland’s Troubles saw multiple massacres that killed more people than Bloody Sunday.
In other words, on a statistical basis alone it makes no sense to remember these particular events.
But none of them were about sense or statistics. Each was about unarmed people getting killed, and each had an outsize impact on events that followed. That’s why they’re so important.
Legal proceedings over events associated with the Troubles will probably continue for many years to come. Likewise, I believe that every American child learns about the Boston massacre.
And so it is that every Indian child will probably learn about the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. This 13 April, being the 100th anniversary it will be remembered to an extra degree. And for the impact it had on everything that came after, that’s how it should be.