What David Cameron did not apologise for

Indian famine victims in 1943 The Bengal Famine is one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the Raj

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By making a statement of regret over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, David Cameron has opened up a can of other questions and grievances over Britain's colonial past.

What about the British museum returning all the treasures looted from India during the Raj? What about sending back the Kohinoor diamond still embedded in Queen Elizabeth's crown?

And many commenting on this blog say it shouldn't stop at India - what about the many casualties of Britain's wars in Afghanistan?

But if Britain is in the mood to say sorry in India, there is one episode which stands out more than the Jallianwala Bagh massacre - the 1943 Bengal famine, when over 3 million people may have died, four years before the end of British rule.

If it gets any attention in the UK, it's seen as one more tragic consequence of World War II, with British India at the time focused on the war against Japan.

But British actions and opposition towards Gandhi's Quit India movement are now seen to have played a key role in the disaster.

While Winston Churchill condemned the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as "monstrous", he took a very different attitude to Indian suffering 24 years later as prime minister.

His only reply to a telegram reporting how many Bengalis were perishing was to ask "why Gandhi hadn't died yet."

Mr Cameron should have apologised for the famine says Madhusree Mukherjee, who has written a widely praised history of the Bengali famine.

And why not? Tony Blair expressed regret for the Irish potato famine and for Britain's role in the slave trade.

British officials say the motivation for going to Jallianwala Bagh was not to apologise for the Raj.

"He wanted to express his condolences for that particular incident because he was visiting Amritsar," said a Downing Street spokesperson.

Madhusree Mukherjee says the prime minister may have wanted to avoid going further because "any admission of wrongdoing could facilitate a legal claim for reparations".

The chief reason Mr Cameron went to Amritsar was because of the large numbers of voters of Punjabi origin back in the UK. So he had to say something about Jallianwala Bagh, officials say.

Many dismiss the practice of political apologies for past events as meaningless. Mr Blair, critics say, could easily say sorry for the Irish famine, but was never going to apologise for the Iraq war.

But David Cameron has set a precedent now in India, with his desire for "a special relationship". If he plans a trip to Calcutta while he's still prime minister, he won't be able to avoid the Bengal famine.

Andrew North Article written by Andrew North Andrew North South Asia correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    looks like Cong and ML intransigence 2 me

    The existence of three conflicting desires became apparent
    during the final set of negotiations. Congress, led by
    Nehru, wanted a strong central government; the Muslim
    League wanted more power for the provinces; the last
    Viceroy, wanted a stable state with which Britain could
    maintain close ties."
    ATLAS of the British Empire

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    I saw one child who obviously had cerebral TB, her family showed me the chest X ray they had spent their money on which had TB all over it, and you know what the doctor they saw had prescribed? Trimethoprim (used to treat urinary tract infections) and paracetamol. I can only guess this was because he had correctly surmised that this was all the family could afford.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    276-- luckily india by strong incorruptible leadership like gandhi,nehru,sardar patel,shashtriji etc survived.and instead of fragmenting sardar patel succeeded in unifying most of india except kashmir because of nehru which till date is an issue.while pakistan failed as british thought (for india )bcz of absence of leadership. and its society got radicalised slowly which is now a big problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    271 continues----british were in no hurry to loot the country which they did for 300 years but were very eager to abandon it as quickly as possible.they did the bloodiest partition of world history in hurry knowing its consequences fully.they were sure india will collapse if they leave early and will turn into small fragments.with enemity between communities which will continue for generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    @jay 266 last year I went round rural Rajasthan for several months and although I didn't see any factories I saw huge numbers of children who were malnourished, and even greater numbers who were dying of preventable diseases (especially but not exclusively TB) because of lack of access to healthcare, and most distressingly, some who had been deliberately treated incorrectly by their local doctors.


Comments 5 of 279



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