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 22.

    @ 21 OP. Every country has its issues. I'm sure UK too has its fair share. But that does not allow civilized societies to interfere, that too in a negative way.

    India ha/had so many problems. But how does that allow Brits to invade, do crimes with impunity there! I can site so many problems with UK now or in early 1910s-40s, does that justify Germany to attack it?
    One must live within its means.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #31 chiptheduck

    The Bengal famine happened within living memory. There are many people still living who saw the tragedy unfold.

    What makes the famine a bit more tragic than most is that there were 2 million Indian volunteers fighting for England at the same time.

    But as an Indian, I personally don't want the money or the apology, just that we not forget some important and hard-learned lessons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The problem David has is where does he start...the Bengal famine, the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, the thousands - maybe millions of Indians transported to the West Indies, South Africa, Fiji, etc. for labor, the billions of dollars of assets of India in the possession of the Queen, the murders by hangings and torture of Indian freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh............and the list goes on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    T Blair rightly apologised for the Irish potatoe famine as it was the fault of the gov that it happened. potatoes failed in 1845/46 and the gov of the time exported irish wheat and barley paid as rent to british landlords and imported american corn to feed the starving irish. In 1847 a new goverment came in and said it was god's will that these people should die. 1 million dead and 2 million left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    About 65 years have passed since Britain left India. In 3000 years of history, colonial Britain has been the only country which has 'ruled' India. Memories are still fresh in the minds of many Indians about what it brought with itself. Humiliation, famines, the list could go on. The LEAST Britain could do is return our national artifacts and apologize.


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