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

Related Stories

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

Why are India's air force planes falling out of the sky?

All air forces have accidents, but accounts of Indian warplanes crashing on training flights have become almost routine news, writes Andrew North.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    British rulers are guilty for 1857 the hangings of mutineers&freedom fighters ,Bengal Famine and more than 10 famines where lakhs o of people starved and died, Jallianwala Bagh massacre, creating separate electorates,allowing Muslim League to kill hindus in 1946calcutta riots and the PARTITION leading to a million people dead& the 15 million people migration on religious basis dividing India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    @266 thank u 4 writing in civil tone, unlike deviant @ 268
    according to bbc, most indian poverty is rural. is this wrong?
    4 me, factory means a job, a wage and advancement but
    without unions to fight 4 the workers there is poverty there too

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Overall though - and I speak as a person of Indian origin - and despite my comment about the Bengal famine below, British rule had many positive aspects. Many Indians, including my mother, still speak fondly of the good law and order situation in British times. The British were respected for their overall sense of fairness. Also, I think the British saved us from radical Islamist rule.

  • Comment number 271.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    The British government is to blame for the Bengal famine. There is good evidence for this. The BBC should explore the history of the Bengal famine and Britain's contribution to the deaths. It is a story that requires to be brought to public attention as it requires public debate and examination within the UK. It is one of the ghosts from Britain's past which will never otherwise be laid to rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    " brits need to learn more their inhuman treatment of indigenous ppl (indians here).."

    u treat ur indigenous ppl as badly as anyone, metiz

  • Comment number 268.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    For a more literary description (of India's human and natural wealth, how industrialization during British era ruined it) one can read the excellent Bengali novel "Aranyak" by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.
    It was translated in English "Of the Forest'.

    I think, this book is more appealing and excellent literature than many books that got Noble Prize. Particularly to know contemporary real India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Cont. #260. Such (Brit) industries increased pain, poverty & slum for general Indians.

    Even now one can go to any remote, poorest of poor village in India without any factory or industry. I can guarantee u will not find a single malnourished kid running in a dusty road with running nose, filthy slum with flies, diseases.
    Just open a factory (India/Brit style)- everything will change fast.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    "I guess this is how Germans feel when British people go on about the war"

    I find your analogy wrong and offensive. British actions in India were overall benign. Nazi ruthlessness in WW2 was pure evil. There's no comparison. And no wonder so many Indians volunteered to fight with Britain against the Axis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    @ 256 DavidinUSA- But how, when this westernized elite of corrupt babus has such a stranglehold on power in India? They rule India more firmly & unfairly than the British ever did.
    I'm searching too.

    My best reply would be- 1)organize similer minded people 2) talk straight with facts 3) fight corruption http://jaychatterjee.blogspot.com/2011/06/our-fight-against-corruption-and-anna.html

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    1. There would not be Kasmir problem if Nehru did not go to UN and made it international one.. Sardar Vallabhai would have kicked out Pakistan.
    2. British did make India poor by stealing her resources and destroying her way of life otherwise how you can explain that under 200+ years of British occupation of a country with world's second richest economy became poorest in the world when they left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    As I said many times before. India was far richer with abt 25-33% of global trade before Brits invaded. Poor Britain needed those "beneficial' industries more than rich Indians.
    Yes, u can distort history, brainwash young students to convince them how great Brit empire was in India, Egypt & other colonies, but facts will remain the same, despite of India being a 3rd world, poor country now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    We know that empire was wrong. We can't change that it happened. We want to move on.

    I guess this is how Germans feel when British people go on about the war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    @ 258 Jaipur Vegetables.
    Well, Should the decisions what to cultivate, what industry to develop, how to use its resources not lies with the people of the country?

    If UK were a big country with enough land to cultivate tea, rubber then it would not have come to India.
    Such industries increased pain, poverty & slum for general Indians. Few Brit cronies benefited though- as always.


Page 1 of 14



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.